At some point during last week’s sadly rote episode, The Carrie Diaries reached the point in its gestation where its commitment to extreme low-stakes storytelling was almost beginning to feel like a dare, a challenge the writers imposed upon themselves just to see if they could make an effective drama where barely anything actually happens. That commitment continues only semi-successfully in “Caught,” where the biggest story is about Carrie’s struggle to choose between two boys at a dance, but the most successful things happen around the edges of that story. But the episode itself is just a tease to the last scene, and to what appears to be a wholesale series shift into potentially higher-stakes ground in the future.
Telling low-stakes stories about teenagers isn’t an inherent issue, as most things that are devastating to a teen’s world seem like literal child’s play once someone is a few years removed from the events. What’s been perplexing to me as the series has progressed is how Carrie’s life could be so easily mined for more drama—dead mother, problem sister, awkward father, secret New York life—and yet the show always seems to go for the story with the least amount of impact. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in Carrie’s relationship with George, the too-good-to-be-true older boy. His initial introduction was intriguing, but between the show’s stodgy attempts to show George’s world to Carrie and his constant, dopey smile of a personality, George quickly wore out his welcome as an interesting foil for Carrie.
But Carrie can feel this, too. All it took was Sebastian’s vulnerability at Thanksgiving to make her realize she wasn’t as over him as she thought—and make her determined to prove to herself George was the one she truly wanted. The whole thing leads to a very awkward school dance where Sebastian stares at Carrie while she’s with George, Carrie calls him on it, he is frustratingly obtuse about his intentions, and then the whole thing blows up in both Carrie and Donna’s faces.
This is where we need to discuss what is starting to feel like the show’s Sebastian problem. Austin Butler was born to play this part, but the actual character of Sebastian is no further developed than when we first learned about his indifferent family and his indiscretion with his old teacher. Why does Sebastian even date Donna, considering all we know about her? Why does he stare at Carrie during the dance, even though he’s dating Donna? Why does Sebastian do anything, and what motivates his character? Having an aloof love interest is a great idea in theory—and it works in a shorter medium, like a film—but eventually, Sebastian needs to grow. Otherwise, why should the audience get invested in his character? Right now, the show is relying heavily on Austin Butler’s charm and his face, and although it’s a good face, it isn’t enough to define a character. And television needs characters.
The only thing that really worked about Carrie’s dilemma for me this week had nothing to do with the dilemma at all, but with what happened with George in the limo. When Carrie steadfastly tells George she isn’t going to have sex with him because her virginity is important to her, it’s a great moment for the character and for female teenage characters as a whole, who don’t often get this sort of representation in teen dramas. That Carrie stood up for herself, didn’t let George weasel his way into her “taking care of him” instead, and did it all without coming across as sanctimonious (or being forced to use religion as a reasoning for her choice) was refreshing, and things like this are the reason Carrie as a character works.
Even lower stakes than Carrie’s boy drama, however, was Mouse’s low test grade and her eventual realization that her relationship with Seth was negatively affecting her schoolwork. Yes, it was an entire story about turning in an extra credit assignment, followed by two teenagers having the most mature breakup of all time. Mouse is an extremely likeable character and has had some great scenes throughout the series to date, but boring sagas like this are not the way to add to her characterization. It felt like nothing but an attempt to give the episode some comic relief but mostly failing. Mouse deserves better than this!
If Mouse was the comic relief, Tom and Dorrit were the heart, and the heart on this show always seems to work. What started out as a sort of typical Dorrit story turned into something much greater, as Dorrit’s connection to the Nutcracker quite beautifully illustrated just why she has been acting out since her mother died: Her mother was her only real family connection, and she feels lost now that all she has is her father. As she so heartbreakingly puts it, “Carrie has you. I had Mom. Now I have no one.” Everything about Dorrit’s character has always screamed “lost girl needs attention,” but to hear the extent of her loneliness, and for Tom to have to let that parental failing sink in, resonates in a way the stories of the Bradshaws’ loss always do. This little undercurrent of sadness is what holds the show together for me, even when everything else seems to go off the rails, and it’s represented strongly here.
The biggest event of the episode, however, and the biggest potential change for the series going forward is what happens when Carrie’s purse spread in Interview magazine is finally published. Larissa—after a bit of an absence from the show—comes roaring back on the scene, cooing over Carrie’s editorial eye and offering her an internship at the magazine. Carrie, whose one main character trait since the beginning of the show was always the ability to make the more responsible choice (or at least see the error of her ways when making a less responsible one) decides to throw caution to the wind, ditch the law firm internship her father worked so hard for her to get, and take the opportunity at Interview. As much as Larissa has the tendency to bug, this feels like a natural choice for the character, a natural choice for the show, and almost like something that should have happened at the end of the pilot instead of the end of episode seven.
At least it leaves questions that need answering. How will Carrie get out of her law firm internship without breaking her father's heart? How will she manage to juggle the lie about her age when dealing with Larissa on a more regular basis? I’m not sure this is the change the show needed—doubling up on the undercover aspect of the show doesn’t necessarily appeal—but it’s at least a change and a sign of the show’s willingness to do something a bit more risky. After several episodes where nothing seemed risky at all, this at least feels like a fresh start.
- Thanks to Sonia for her excellent Second Opinion last week. As someone who has very few fond memories of Sex And The City (even though I was a devoted fan of it at times), it was nice to hear a perspective on this show from someone who loved the original.
- The only thing I really enjoyed about last week’s episode was the Sebastian plot, which was surprisingly touching and made me feel the connection between him and Carrie in a way I hadn’t for a while. That connection was used for very nefarious character purposes this week, unfortunately.
- The conversation Carrie, Maggie, and Mouse have about Bitchy Barbara’s overnight dalliance with her boyfriend was great because of the way it cemented all of the girls’ outlooks on their future: Maggie is worried she’ll only be successful if she marries well, and Mouse is disgusted she would put a man in front of her career.
- Did Maggie and the cop really have sex in the back seat of his car parked right in front of the school? That’s just not smart. At least Maggie told Carrie, who encouraged her to tell Walt, which will hopefully mitigate any of Donna’s silly blackmail threats.
- Carrie: “If I’m still dating and talking about guys in my 30s, someone needs to smother me with a pillow.”
- Maggie: “What? Are you crazy? You are this close to meeting Ralph Macchio.”