“Discos And Dragons” (season 1, episode 18; originally aired 7/8/2000)
In which everybody tries on a new life for a size, and the series comes to an end
(Available on Netflix.)
It was always Lindsay’s story. It might have seemed at various times like the other characters, particularly Sam, were sharing the stage with her, and the show did a good job of spreading storylines around to all of the principles, even giving Harold and Jean a few moments in the spotlight. But this was always Lindsay’s story. It was the story of a girl who found the answers she’d built her life around previously wanting and then listened to a different side of her personality for a while. And when even that didn’t work, when she was still the smartest kid in school, even without seeming to try, she went out of her way to blow her life up even more. If this show were from Harold and Jean’s point-of-view, or even Mr. Rosso’s, we might say she was acting out. But because this show is about Lindsay, it never feels that way. She knows the gravity of what she’s doing, but she needs to follow that muse to the ends of the Earth, even if that means her parents may never trust her again.
“Discos And Dragons” wasn’t meant to be the series finale of Freaks & Geeks, but it works almost perfectly as one. For a show that was always about the eternal adolescent quest to find out which version of yourself is the “true” one, this is an episode that watches as several of the characters try new things out, whether by force or by choice. It’s got Daniel hanging out with the Geeks, making them question if this has somehow made them cool guys or has turned Daniel into a Geek. It’s got Nick chasing the confusing mélange of his emotions out onto the disco floor. And it’s got that great gut-punch of an ending, when the show reminds viewers just which character is at the center of this story and just how far she’s willing to go to define herself. I’ve seen this finale described as a “cliffhanger,” but I just don’t see it, other than on the level of we don’t know exactly what happened after Lindsay got back from her summer with the Dead. But we know the broad strokes, don’t we? Her parents had to learn to trust her again, and she was changed and marked by the experience—in ways both good and bad. That’s not just the story of this show; it’s the story of growing up.
What makes the ending of the episode work so beautifully is how far Paul Feig’s script shuffles Lindsay’s dilemma to the back of the deck. For a good two-thirds of the episode, the academic summit in Ann Arbor is just some stupid thing Lindsay is going to have to do, something she keeps whining about that everybody else—even Kim—thinks could be a pretty good deal. (Kim may not spark to the academic side of things, but she certainly doesn’t want to spend the summer in Chippewa.) The idea of spending a summer with the Dead, as initially presented, seems like the sort of thing Lindsay would never do, even at her most rebellious. That’s what makes it so perfect as a choice for her to make. She’s at that age where she needs to step outside of herself and try to be somebody else entirely, then figure out if that’s who she actually is. And if nothing else, a summer spent driving around in a van, following America’s greatest jam band, is going to give her a better picture of both who she is and who her best friend is.
Though “Discos & Dragons” is one of the best unintentional series finales ever, I would say it’s mostly for that moment. On a purely selfish level, I wish we’d gotten to see more of some of the show’s side characters, like Millie, for instance, and I’m not sure I buy every step of the Nick storyline. (It’s particularly strange that the show didn’t bother building any real foreshadowing to his relationship with Sarah or his disco dancing in the previous episodes, especially when it was diligent enough to build in the Deadheads a few episodes ago.) But the Lindsay and Daniel stories are so note perfect—and so emblematic of everything that was amazing about this show, even when it was stumbling—that the episode works beautifully. By the time Lindsay’s driving away in that van, anyone who loves this show will be left amazed at how perfectly it ends the series’ story while still making you want to spend another 18 episodes hanging out in this world.
In many ways, the Daniel storyline is the perfect encapsulation of what made this show work so well. I suggested a couple of weeks ago that this is a series that, on some fundamental level, is about connection. It’s why I’ve never bought it as a pure cringe comedy, even if it has some hard-to-watch, horribly embarrassing scenes. After every moment of horror, there’s a beam of light, two characters you’d never expect to find common ground doing just that and then some. This storyline is that in a nutshell. After ditching a math class where he’s unprepared for a test and missing the guy he’d normally cheat off of, Daniel attempts to pull the fire alarm but is caught by Mr. Rosso, who promptly assigns him to hang out in the A.V. room (hey!). Naturally, that’s the place where the Geeks have started to spend their time, being told by the teacher that their high school careers might suck, but they’ll have whole lives after high school to look forward to, while the jocks won’t. Needless to say, Daniel’s presence is unlikely here—though not quite unwelcome.
What’s genius about Freaks & Geeks is that it realizes that no matter what the A.V. Room teacher says, it’s not strictly accurate. We’ve met, say, Todd enough times to know that he’ll probably do okay after high school, if not head up a Fortune 500 company, and the sorts of reductive stories that the Geeks tell themselves about the popular kids are just as pernicious as the popular kids calling them names and making fun of them. To write a person off as a stereotype—even if it’s not a particularly harmful stereotype, like that of the meathead jock—is to diminish all that they’re capable of, and the second Daniel enters the world of the Geeks, the series is throwing this idea into sharp relief. Daniel may not be the typical Dungeons & Dragons player, but Harris, the consummate dungeon master, sees something in him that might spark to the game. Soon enough, Daniel’s sitting at the table with the Geeks, rolling up a dwarf named Carlos and setting off to rescue a princess.
Truth be told, the D&D scenes weigh more heavily in the imagination than they actually appear in the show. For the most part, the scenes of the Geeks playing the game are handled via montage, and we cut from Daniel’s skepticism about having to play a dwarf to him rescuing the princess with only a few spare scenes aside. And yet the cut—from Nick watching Eugene, the disco magician, performing in horror and disbelief to Daniel rescuing the princess—is so perfect that it conveys almost everything that happened in that game all by itself. Daniel, though skeptical, found himself won over quickly enough, and the Geeks were pleased to find he was as good at the game as he was. To look at Daniel and write him off because of who he hangs out with or because he’s been held back or because he can’t pass a math test without cheating is to limit who he is as a human being. And, like Lindsay’s story, that’s not just the point of the storyline; it’s the point of the show.
The Nick storyline isn’t as fully thought out. It mostly seems like an excuse to watch Jason Segel dance angrily, which, hey, I’m not going to complain about. Segel’s dancing is at once wonderfully moving and incredibly hilarious. He’s the kind of guy who commits so fully to a bit like this that you can see where both he and Sarah think he’s so awesome, but he’s also a little terrifying. It’s oddly confrontational dancing, which is exactly what you’d expect out of Nick. I like the idea of what the show is doing here—once again, we’re looking at someone trying on a new persona and exploring what they like and don’t like about it—and Segel and Lizzy Caplan make a surprisingly plausible rebound relationship that turns into something more. My main problem with this is that it sort of comes out of nowhere on a show with fairly careful world-building, and even though the show sells it at least somewhat, I keep feeling like I’ve been tossed into the middle of a retcon.
Yet there’s also something else going on here and in the Daniel storyline and in Sam’s storyline from “The Little Things”: These people will probably not be friends forever. Sure, they’ll catch up when everybody’s in town for a holiday or a high school reunion or something, but their lives will take different paths, and they’ll inevitably end up looking back on their high school friends as people they once knew that drifted away from them. In storylines like these, we can already see the fissures opening up, before the kids themselves can. Nick, in all his dorky earnestness, will probably drift from Ken’s cynicism in time, just as Sam is a better shot to end up a couple of rungs up the popularity ladder than Neal or Bill (though both of those gents should do just fine with time). And Daniel, always looking for a better fit than the life he’s built for himself out of bruised cool, might never find that place and could end up alienating the people he becomes friends with along the way.
Though the friendships you make in high school are often some of the most intense of your life and never really go away in the memory, they’re almost entirely relationships borne of circumstance. Just because you and a bunch of other kids go to the same educational institution doesn’t mean you have anything in common other than a piece of geography you just happened to all grow up in. Geography can determine a great many things about how you view the world or approach it, but it can’t determine who you are at your core self. High schools—especially public ones—are notable for throwing together a bunch of kids who have nothing in common but that geography and forcing them to learn together. And the awkward pains and embarrassments of adolescence can be just enough to transcend class or race or gender or whatever else is thrown at those kids. But it’s ultimately just an illusion. The world doesn’t really work that way, and people split off to their eventual destinies.
That is why this is Lindsay Weir’s story, and that is why this finale is so satisfying. To leave Lindsay in that van, pulling away from us and the camera is to leave her hovering on the brink of possibility, of becoming some blend of her old self and this new one she will discover over the summer. Yeah, if we’d gotten a second season, we would have gotten to see the inevitable fallout of her decision, and I’m sure the show would have handled it at once gracefully and with deep emotion. But leaving those scenes to our imaginations also, inadvertently, gives us a beautiful sense of release. We are poised before the disappointment in Harold and Jean when they find out what their daughter did over her summer vacation, before the halting way that Lindsay might try to explain her actions to them, slowly realizing there’s no way to put words to emotions that she can barely qualify to herself. We don’t have to see Sam staring at his sister as if he doesn’t know her, or Kim struggling to understand why her best friend’s parents have closed her off from her. We miss Nick and Sarah growing closer and inevitably growing apart and Carlos the Dwarf losing interest in saving princesses and looking for some new guise to cloak his loneliness in.
Instead, we leave Lindsay standing on that bus, looking at her family and Sam’s friends, realizing that everything is about to change. And then we leave her in the moment of that change, so that she’s forever hanging above the abyss. In some world, the show ran on, and she grew up, and that came with all of the sorrows and disappointments growing up always accompanies. In our world, though, she gets to ride into the distance, about to start a grand adventure that will ruin her life in some aspects and make it so much better in others. We grew up, but Lindsay Weir never will. She’s always just ahead of us, driving into undiscovered country.
- Though I think this is a perfect ending for Freaks & Geeks, I really do think that if Judd Apatow and Paul Feig could get the whole cast together for a reunion movie, I would donate to a Kickstarter for that (and I have a firm policy against donating to TV reunion movie projects that I’ll bend for only this, apparently). The key, to me, is that everybody—and I mean everyone in the extended cast—comes back and that the story takes place in real time from where it left off, meaning we would pick up with these characters in 1995. I’d love to see that, and I think it would leave enough distance between the original, perfect ending and itself that if it sucked, it wouldn’t matter.
- I love that Rosso inadvertently kicks off Lindsay’s newfound Dead fandom by inviting her to listen to American Beauty when she needs something to calm down to. And someone spinning around and acting loopy to a Grateful Dead album could seem stupid, but Linda Cardellini sells the pure release that album brings Lindsay.
- Though I would have liked a bit more foreshadowing to at least Nick’s relationship with Sarah (whom I keep wanting to call Casey because Party Down is the greatest show ever made—and this is only a mild exaggeration), I think keeping the audience in the dark might have been worth it for the fun shock of the cold open.
- Man, the 1968 Romeo & Juliet. Was there ever a better movie for teachers who just wanted to slack off the last week of classes to show? Ours made sure to stand by the TV during the scene where you can briefly see nudity to cover it with a piece of paper.
- This episode really does capture that aimless feel of the last week of school, when finals are all around but all you can think about is how you just want summer to come already.
- Before we get to one last embarrassing story corner, I’d like to thank all of you for taking this journey with me over the past few months. The readership was small (increasingly a sad reality for TV Club Classic), but you guys were consistent, and your comments stories regularly put mine to shame. I was worried I would run out of things to say about this show, but you guys kept challenging my viewpoints and bringing up great things I missed, which is all a writer can ask for from his readers. Up next: I’m going to take next week off, but I’ll return November 6 as we take a look at the first season of Mad Men, the only one TV Club hasn’t covered, as we prepare for the first half of its final season (sigh) to start in spring 2014. Thanks again, and I hope to see you there!
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the program and share embarrassing stories from our own adolescences. This week: Just share the most embarrassing story you have, even if it’s a rerun.) Okay, I am cheating. This is my second most embarrassing story. My wife has forbidden me from telling the most embarrassing one, because she’s convinced that no one would ever look at me—or her—without feeling intense pity and shame ever again, even though it happened long before I met her. (While I don’t think it’s that bad, it is the sort of thing that would make for an excellent Neal storyline on this show. So if I ever get a TV show, maybe you can speculate as to what it was when that show runs.)
But I am nothing if not a fount of shame, so here is my second most embarrassing story: I was not exactly a dating machine in high school. I had plenty of girls who were friends, but because I’d been with the same girls in my class since kindergarten, there was something vaguely incestuous about getting involved with them (plus one of them was a very, very tangentially related VanDerWerff, which was still weird). But somewhere in the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I finally had enough freedom with my car to drive to other towns and I discovered a vague confidence that some girls found at least somewhat attractive. Yet in the back of my head, I still wanted to date a really hot girl, because I was a teenage guy, and teenage guys are shallow.
Well, when I went to an economics seminar early in my senior year (I know, I know), I finally got my chance. All of the students attending were split up to sit at various tables, and I ended up sitting near this impossibly out-of-my-league girl whom I, nonetheless, managed to make laugh fairly consistently. (If you doubt her attractiveness, as she was attending an economics seminar, just know that all of my friends, male and female, concurred that she was very pretty and very out of my league.) She lived far enough away that I knew I couldn’t make a serious play for her or anything, but there was a dance that evening, and I figured that if I played my cards right, she would be just amused enough by me to maybe make out with me for a bit. But I had to do everything just right. And that meant I needed better clothes.
Embarking with a friend to a nearby Goodwill, I found myself a giant, silk purple shirt that was at least two sizes too big for me. Nevertheless, I pulled it on over a white T-shirt and looked just ridiculous enough to hit the vibe I wanted. Thus armed, I went back to the dance and proceeded to make a fool of myself, singing karaoke, making the girl laugh, and finally encasing her in said giant purple shirt, which she wore quite happily. As the dance wore toward its final hour, I asked her if she wanted to go for a walk, and she said she just needed to head to her room to take some aspirin for a building headache, and then, yes, we could go for a walk. She said this all in a tone that immediately conveyed that the walk would end in just the way I had hoped it would. I was in.
I spent the next few minutes giddy at the possibility, dancing and having fun with my friends. After about 15 minutes, she returned to the dance floor, looking around for me, smiling when she spotted me. At which point I scuttled the whole deal by being absolutely asinine.
See, in that moment, my brain had one thought. It was not, “YOU ARE GOING TO MAKE OUT WITH A HOT GIRL!” or even, “Dude, that girl is funny and cute and maybe you should try to turn her into your forever love,” which was what usually got me in trouble. No, what my brain thought was, “Hey, you can roll up your tongue. Did you know that not everybody can do that?” Somehow proud of this fact, I proceeded to roll up my tongue, hold my hand to the sky with the international symbol for devil horns, make a face, and dart my rolled-up tongue in and out of my mouth as rapidly as I possibly could.
Now, since then, I’ve seen a lot of people lose interest in a potential paramour fairly quickly. But I’ve still never seen it happen quite that quickly. Her eyes flickered from interest to disgust in a fraction of a millisecond. I tried to make my way across the crowded dance floor to her, but she immediately took off, in my shirt, and I lost her. When I later found her, I asked her about that walk, and she made some half-assed excuse about her friends needing her to look after them because they’d had their hearts broken. Just as quickly as I had been in, I was out. And I was crestfallen, because I was in the mood for making out.
Later, I found myself wandering the hotel when I came across a girl we’ll call Lindsay in an empty stairwell. I knew Lindsay from a variety of music camps and stuff, and we’d always been friendly enough acquaintances, but she was never anyone I’d been interested in or anything. She was the type of girl who would figure everything out in college but was kind of a sweetly dorky wallflower in high school. I wanted someone to brag about to my fellow teenage boy asshole friends; she was someone who was interesting to talk to. So I settled in next to her, and we talked for a half-hour about this and that, people we knew and things that had happened at the seminar. Finally, she said, “You seem frustrated,” and I admitted I was. “Why?” she asked. “I wanted to make out with somebody tonight,” I finally managed. And then, in a moment that struck me as impossibly sexy at the time, she smiled wanly and said, “Will I do?” And because I’m an asshole, I said, “I guess,” and then we made out for what seemed like hours but was probably a few minutes, before an overworked chaperone found us and made us go to our rooms.
And here’s the thing: I married a girl much more like her and much less like the one I’d set my sights on. And outside of my wife, she’s the best kisser I’ve ever met. The thing about those teenage disappointments is that they’re so often accompanied by new and unexpected lessons you find when you stop looking for what you think you want and start realizing what you really need.
Next week: I’m off next week, but join me on Nov. 6 as we begin a march through the first season of Mad Men with the show’s pilot, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”