“The Big Quiet” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 09/25/1994)
It’s hard to know what to say about an episode that’s all about, well, not knowing what to say. On its surface, “The Big Quiet” is an episode about the death of Little Pete’s lizard and best friend, Gary, as well as Big Pete’s complete inability to carry on a conversation with his dad. On a deeper level, though, it’s an episode about awkwardness and maybe—as someone with XX chromosomes, I suppose I can’t be 100 percent sure—it’s about what it’s like to change from a boy into a man.
I don’t want to blow this episode out as some grand feat of modern fiction, but it’s pretty darn deep. Little Pete, shattered by the tragic death of Gary, the Lizard King, is determined to keep his memory alive, not just in his life but in the lives of everyone in Wellsville, if not the world. With the help of Girl Scout of death Monica, Pete pushes people to enjoy Gary-Max, a multimedia extravaganza about the reptile. He goes forward with Hands Across Wellsville in Gary’s honor, though only five people show up. He even sets up an eternal flame in the Wrigley’s front yard, only to have it inevitably snuffed by Don’s automatic sprinklers.
Little Pete wants people to get him. He wants to be sad and he wants everyone else to care just as much as he does, but that’s just not how death works most of the time—especially lizard death. In trying to make Gary’s life a cause célèbre, he’s just channeling his path through the stages of grief toward others. He’s, what, nine? Eleven? Kids that age—let alone adults at any age—don’t have the vocabulary to really say how they feel when someone dies. It’s all a little silly in “The Big Quiet” because it’s about a tiny lizard, but how is Gary any less important in Pete’s life than someone’s great aunt they never talked to? They were best friends. They rode bikes and played Krebtego. Pete told Gary things he’d never told anyone else, admitting a totally mundane fear of circus clowns while they were camped out in the back yard. I’m sure people wanted to tell Pete they were sorry, but when someone dies, no one really knows what to say, other than that, “I’m sorry.” After a while, it loses its efficacy or meaning, because to you, to Pete, no one’s sorry enough.
Even Pete’s own family isn’t sorry enough, attempting to replace Gary with another little pal from the Lizard Ranch two hours away. This action puts Big Pete’s own crippling fear into play, as he finds himself completely unable to carry on a conversation with his dad. Whereas they were once chat buddies, as Pete’s gotten older, it’s like he’s too worried to open up to Don, too worried that what he’s saying sounds embarrassing, and maybe too worried that if he lets Don into his life, he’ll be a total weirdo in the eyes of the other kids. Even Ellen had to go through intensive action figure dad training to be able to talk to Phil Hickle. He gets over it eventually, with the help of a traffic jam, total panic, and a WART radio moment of silence, but still, the relationship of Don and Big Pete will never really be the same as it was when he was little.
That’s kind of the rub with growing up, though. You can’t go emotionally home again. This is especially true for boys, who have to presumably learn to quit nuzzling their moms and start communicating emotions with a series of grunts, if at all. Little Pete, especially, is in the midst of turning from a sensitive little guy into a hopefully at least a little sensitive teenager. Big Pete’s crossed that bridge, and now, like in so many other situations in his life, can’t quite figure out how to act or react.
Earlier this year I wrote a big feature about Clarissa Explains It All, about how it’s this big important show for smart girls, and girls in general, seeing as how it was one of the first to really assume that kids
- would watch a show with a female protagonist and
- were able to make sense of semi-complex topics and emotions beyond a myriad of various fart sounds and parental pratfalls.
I know this not just because I’ve read the research but because, as a girl that hit that show right at my formative years, I lived that crap. I wore Clarissa-like outfits because she dressed so cool. I dreamt of having weird wallpaper and a boy who would climb in through my window just to hang out. I knew the pain of having a little brother who seemingly existed just to push my buttons.
Now, writing this column and spending far, far more time than 99.999999 percent of the population thinking about Pete And Pete, I want to know if that’s how boys felt about this show. My colleague Erik Adams wrote a similar piece to my Clarissa story about Boy Meets World, a show I found to be fairly inane and relatively inconsequential, but which The A.V. Club’s male readers liked almost as much as a sexy headline about Alison Brie. That was their show growing up, they wrote in the article’s comments. Cory Matthews was them. They were Cory Matthews. After “The Big Quiet,” I’m wondering if anyone was one of the Petes. I sure hope so.
- Things Gary had: lizard-sized sleeping bag, lizard-sized shower massager, lizard-sized foosball table, lizard-sized banana bike seat (“Hold on tight, Gary. I only know one speed: fast.”), lizard-sized turquoise coffin, lizard-sized chalk outline of his dead lizard body.
- “Buckle up, Gary. It’s not just the law; it feels good.”
- I like that Pete’s dad conversation topics include grilling and fruit BBQ marinades, cheese fondue, Bob Dylan, a joke about a duck and a peacock, and “what do you know about compound interest?”
- It would be insane of me not to mention that members of the Pete And Pete cast and crew reunited recently at L.A.’s Cinefamily. There was a big chatty panel, and there’s video of the whole thing. It’s well worth watching for anyone who’s made it this far into this review, to say the least.