“X=Why?” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired Oct. 23, 1994)
As it turns out, Ellen Hickle isn’t such a golden child after all. Sure, to date she’s been in band, tried hard on tests, made action figures of her dad, and been pretty darn cool, but in “X=Why?,” Ellen finally rebels against authority. Granted, she still does it with her shirt tucked in and hair perfectly coiffed—all while still within the confines of the normal school day—but rebellion is rebellion all the same.
Not unlike almost every kid ever, Ellen hates math. More specifically, Ellen hates algebra word problems. She—rightfully so—doesn’t see when she’ll ever have to know how long it takes Farmer John to collect X eggs or how fast two different trains have to be going to arrive at the same destination simultaneously. It surely doesn’t help that her teacher, Miss Fingerwood, comes up with the looniest, most rambling problems—though as a viewer, that’s much appreciated.
One day, Ellen snaps, asking the one question no teacher ever wants to hear: “Why?” Why do kids need to know Latin? Why do we all need to know in-depth information about mitosis and pottery? No one even speaks Latin anymore. Why, Ellen wants to know, do she and the rest of her classmates have to know how to solve a word problem? Has Miss Fingerwood ever used a word problem to solve a real problem in her own life?
The teacher, as it turns out, once figured out the temperature of mud by walking in some high boots and doing something with suction but, as Ellen asks, why didn’t she just use a thermometer? Why, when polar ice caps are melting, rainforests are being cut down, and life is made up of precious few fleeting seconds? Why bother doing anything that doesn’t really matter?
That’s a subjective question, obviously, as learning mitosis when you’re young could certainly come in handy to a future biologist, and classics buffs could probably use Latin, but Ellen has a point—and one that can be expanded to even cover our sad, adult lives, dear readers. Why are we spending hours a day reading about Courtney Stodden’s latest trampy outfit or some inflammatory thing Rick Santorum said when it just makes us mad? It’s nice to be informed, and it’s nice to have a basic idea of how to solve a word problem, but at what point does random information tip into the “who cares?” realm? (Actually, don’t answer that question. The A.V. Club’s readership might take a real hit.)
Ellen’s learning revolt takes the school by storm, throwing the teachers lounge into turmoil and leading to the systematic destruction of substitute teacher after substitute teacher, from Mr. Zank (played by Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano) to a Ms. Richter, who gets so befuddled she cleans the chalk off the board with her face. She even trumps the ominous Mr. Shrek, who reportedly has not only a license to teach but a license to kill.
Meanwhile, Miss Fingerwood’s struggling to find her niche. She gets fired from her gig as a bingo caller because she spends too much time talking about the numbers (“39. It’s curvy, yet so form-fitting. Functional, yet so alive. So full of grace, dignity. Oh, 39.”) Pete and Ellen go to see her at her new job as a movie-theater ticket taker, but she’s clearly a shell of her former self.
After Ellen bests the last, most potent sub—her dad—she starts to realize that there’s a human cost to revolution. After finding out Miss Fingerwood’s about to sail off into oblivion forever, she takes back all her questioning and uses a word problem to figure out where the math teacher is leaving from and when. She also makes up with her dad, who doesn’t mind her rebellion, saying that Ellen was just “exercising [her] power of expression,” which is a “very valuable trait to employers… and dads.”
Ultimately, the whole gang makes up and Miss Fingerwood is back on the job. She’s taking a new approach to her word problems, though, skewing them toward real life problem solving about carbon emissions and global warming. It’s a nice ending, if not a profound one.
“X=Why?” is actually a really nice, pleasant episode. Written and directed by Katherine Dieckmann, it’s an episode that both impresses the importance of asking questions on viewers while still saying, “Hey, kids. Sometimes you just have to do stuff you don’t like.” It’s not a very fun lesson, but it’s one everyone has to learn all the same.
- I love, love, love Janeane Garofalo, but she’s not a very good actress when she has to do anything beyond wry commentary.
- Shrek’s song “X is the number of pigs in the barn” will now be stuck in my head for approximately one month.
- Little Pete insult of the week: “We know where you live, jigglebutts.”
- Potential jobs on Phil Hickle’s career wheel include psychic friend, barber of Seville, gear head, tractor-pull driver, fire person, CIA cryptographer, snake charmer, mold researcher, caboose repair, forklift racer, Zamboni driver, wildlife wrangler, and music theoretician.
- Miss Fingerwood loves math so much she named her cat “The square root of seven,” and when she saw the number two for the first time as an infant, she thought it was her mother.
- Doesn’t everyone want an “Y?” hat? With all the Pete And Pete bootleg merch out there, you’d think someone would have made one by now. Or have they?
- Steve Buscemi is great in this episode, as is Toby Huss in a wig as the sadistic home economics teacher. I almost didn’t recognize him until he did some intense Artie-style hand motions.