“‘Are you okay?’ It was a complicated question.”
Jenna Hamilton started her sophomore year with her arm in a medically useless but symbolically powerful cast. It was what garnered her attention from her peers, a symbol of what most believed to be a failed suicide attempt. It was the albatross literally around her neck, and when Matty McKibben mouths the above question to her upon first seeing her predicament, it’s about the cast, the most overt signal that something could be wrong with Jenna.
It was a scene that stood out when revisiting Awkward.’s pilot, as it reminded me that from the beginning Jenna never had just one problem. While she’s battling the stigma of her so-called suicide attempt, she’s also battling Matty’s rejection following her deflowering, and the letter that some believe had caused the suicide attempt to begin with. And while much of the pilot focuses on things that are outside of Jenna’s control (her accident, her cast, the letter), its primary interest is in pushing Jenna to regain that control. At the episode’s conclusion, when she changes her blog from “Invisible Girl” to “That Girl,” she says of the moniker: “I won’t let it define me. I will define it.”
Going into “Who I Want To Be,” I imagined writing a different preamble to this review. This season has been dominated by Jenna’s transformation into a different kind of “That Girl,” making choices that alienated her friends and created an intense personality change. My questions for the finale were focused on how that transformation would come full circle, and how recent episodes of Jenna rediscovering herself would pay off.
My questions changed as I watched the finale. While “Who I Want To Be” does not skip over the events of the third season, and provides a meaningful consequence to Jenna’s actions, it is most interested in returning to a question posed in the title of the first season’s penultimate episode, and a question at the heart of the series: “Who is Jenna Hamilton?” Although that question has been central to the tension among viewers regarding Jenna’s more recent choices, it has been central since the series’ pilot, when audiences were introduced to the character at a time of great personal turmoil and confusion. At the time, Jenna suggested she wouldn’t let her new life define her, but the remainder of the series has been a constant struggle for Jenna to define her own life relative to the events surrounding her. This season, that manifested in Jenna torpedoing her relationship with Matty and allowing the aftermath to destroy every other relationship in her life, but we can trace that back to Jenna walking the halls in the cast and confronting Matty’s complicated question.
This season, Awkward. has struggled at times between the balance of complicating and complicated. While in retrospect the artifice of Collin was intentional, it nonetheless serves a complicating element within the narrative—a roadblock for Jenna to confront rather than a complex characterization in its own right. Collin’s arrival eventually brought to the surface complicated truths about Matty and Jenna’s relationship that would lead to their breakup, but the season spent a bit too much time complicating without leaving space to explore those truths.
However, “Who I Want To Be” is all about truth. While centered on the artifice of prom and the romantic entanglements the show introduced in its pilot, those elements never feel like complications. Rather, they feel like basic truths of high school existence, pieces of Jenna’s past that risk defining her if she does not define herself. She is a different person in a similar situation, except that instead of one summer’s worth of baggage, Jenna is carrying three seasons worth. Although each storyline in the episode tracks with where the characters have been thus far this season, their weight feels derived less from the immediate events of the previous episode and more their broader characterization over the course of the series. Rather than approaching this finale as a thrilling conclusion to ongoing story arcs, creator Lauren Iungerich has imagined this finale as a final statement for each character.
I said at the beginning of this half season that I would avoid engaging with Iungerich’s departure in these reviews, but it’s somewhat difficult in a finale that feels so much like a series finale. Mr. Hart’s final assignment for his creative writing class does some of this work by returning to Jenna’s self-identity (which has always been wrapped up in the series’ premise given its conceit of using Jenna’s blog as voiceover), and that theme continues into the reveal that it was Mr. Hart who literally wrote the book on Jenna’s situation. That his unraveling was the direct product of his creative pursuits allows the episode to reframe Jenna’s unraveling in a similar light, igniting her sense of self-reflection and separating it from being wholly defined by her relationship with Matty. The episode isn’t titled “Who I Want To Be With,” after all, returning to the pilot’s goal of balancing Jenna’s sense of self with her romantic pursuits (something that became a bit muddled at times as the love triangle took over, but has never been entirely absent).
However, there are two scenes that make this connection even more explicit. It perhaps doesn’t entirely make sense that “the letter” would pop up in the way it does here (it was just lying around?), but giving Jenna and Lacey a chance to confront their history is integral to framing this as more than a story about Jenna’s romantic relationships. The mother/daughter dynamic has been at the heart of this show since the end of the first season, when the letter was revealed to be something different than we expected: what could have been a product of high school cattiness was instead revealed to be the act of a misguided mother. Although the immediate consequences of that discovery were resolved by the end of the second season, it never lost its weight, and its evocation in the finale never felt like a complication. Instead, it reminded us how complicated their lives have been, and brought back a piece of their past that hasn’t lost its relevance.
Jenna’s question during that scene struck me: “Did I become this person?” Did she? In retrospect, many of Jenna’s decisions this season reflected the person Lacey wanted her to become, ditching her friends and abandoning the person she was. At the end of the pilot, Jenna crosses off the letter’s first suggestion to stop being a pussy, but that’s probably the letter’s only decent piece of advice. The scene did a lot to reframe Jenna’s decisions this season within the context of her larger journey, a sort of stealth alt-universe reimagining comparable to the actual alt-universe reimagining in the fanfiction episode toward the end of the second season. At the same time, however, it was also a heartfelt moment for mother and daughter, a scene that provides a catalyst for action focused on clarity over complication.
“Who I Want To Be” is not a question. It’s a statement, a statement that Jenna makes through voiceover in the episode’s conclusion. Jenna finds herself in a difficult scenario, the full weight of her decisions this season resulting in her being at the prom alone while Matty is there with another girl. She finds herself dancing with Matty, a scene that could angle us toward the reconciliation that Jenna has desired and would satisfy the redemption arc being constructed. However, as they talk Jenna isn’t asking questions: She’s making statements, acknowledging that they were simply in two different places. Whereas she thought that the door for a relationship remained open, he had considered it closed; this does not mean it will be closed forever, but that Matty had never even considered it—just look at this reaction when Jake tells him Jenna had wanted to go to the prom with him—reveals a truth about his own self, a truth Jenna chooses to respect. It’s also a truth that allows Jenna to find her own truth, a truth that she describes in perhaps the most direct terms imaginable: in her essay for Mr. Hart, Jenna describes all of the people in her life who she admires, and concludes: “I guess I just want to be someone who encompasses all those things so I can finally be that girl who doesn’t need a boy to be happy, because I’ll know how to dance all on my own.”
It could best be described as a mic drop, one that comes at the end of an episode that feels in every way like a series finale. When writing about it, it was tough not to think of these scenes as definitive endings, despite the fact that these characters will live on for at least another 20 episodes. Tamara and Jake’s relationship will continue, but their respective struggles for control and authority in their relationship reflected their characters well (and gave us one last glimpse of Jake’s awful dance movies). Freed from the Asian Mafia storyline, Ming gets a chance to stand up for her own identity, resisting the allure of the prom deflowering and asserting her virginity with an ultimately supportive Fred Wu. Sadie gets to say “I love you” and mean it, while even Lissa gets to show the world that her love with J.C. is more than spiritual. In that final montage, I have to imagine even those who didn’t know Iungerich would be leaving the show following this season might get the sense that something was coming to an end.
However, as with any show about high school, every ending is a beginning. While others creators have salted the ground upon leaving their own shows—I’m looking at you, Amy Sherman-Palladino—Iungerich simply makes a statement. It’s a statement that asserts the series’ feminism, resisting redemption through romance and instead foregrounding Jenna’s sense of identity removed from that context. I can imagine some ‘shippers will be angry that Matty ends the night dancing with Bailey, but this isn’t the end for any of these characters. Matty and Jenna could just as easily come back together in time, each of them having gone on personal journeys that make them better able to confront their complicated past. “Who I Want To Be” is about confronting, rather than resolving, those complications, a statement of purpose that speaks eloquently and purposefully to the series’ larger goals and themes. It sets up a world where these characters will continue to grow and change, even if the audience isn’t there to see it happen.
It can’t be ignored that this isn’t really the end of Awkward.: Next season, new stories will be told. What “Who I Want To Be” does is render those a post-script, a sequel of sorts that imagines one version of the future based on the events in this finale. The episode becomes the breaking off point for the series’ narrative: Some may like what follows more, others might like it less, and some might not watch it all, believing that Iungerich told her story and that thus brought her series to its logical conclusion.
Regardless, “Who I Want To Be” is an accomplished hour of television, juggling a range of emotions and challenges and characters with a sense of weight and purpose. The episode allows every character to act from a genuine place: Matty cares about Bailey, Bailey cares about Jenna, and Jenna cares about both of them—their conflict derived not from cruelty or malice but rather from humanity and its inherent complication. Although that sort of genuine, natural conflict did not always feel like the driving force behind Awkward.’s third season, “Who I Want To Be” reclaims the series’ truths, and puts a period on the ambitious, memorable, and “awkward” sentence that was Lauren Iungerich’s time with the series she created.
Episode Grade: A
Season Grade: B+
- After I finished writing this review, I spoke with creator Lauren Iungerich about her choice to leave the series, her engagement with fans (including in the comment section here at The A.V. Club), as well as a postmortem on the choices she made in the finale. You can find Part One of that interview here, and Part Two—with spoilers for the finale, which I’m presuming you’ve seen—here.
- In terms of coming full circle from the pilot, you will also note that Passion Pit’s “Moth’s Wings” closes both the first and last episode of Iungerich’s tenure with the series.
- Kyle remained one of my favorite weirdo elements of the series throughout, but I think the pan to reveal Kyle still standing in the hallway months after first being banished there by Mr. Hart was really, really funny.
- Hazards (?) of Episodic Criticism: I had Googled Unraveled to figure out what they might be alluding to, and had discovered the book didn’t actually exist, which led me to store it away as a possible plot point later on.
- The episode is full of strong performances, but I feel Nikki DeLoach in Lacey’s scene confronting the letter was the most effective. Of the characters, she was the one who best represented the weight of self-reflection, which impressive given how broad some of Lacey’s other character work can be.
- Sadie may be in love, and she may have her moments of decency in this and other recent episodes, but I still appreciated that she maintains an antagonistic relationship toward Jenna. It’s a nice balancing of character, growing without necessarily losing the dynamics that make the character work.
- Although the finale would appear to set Bailey up to be a presence on the series moving forward, contract realities mean that McKaley Miller won’t return, as she booked a series regular gig on the Kelsey Grammer/Martin Lawrence FX series. That’s too bad given how naturally Bailey fit into this world.
- As the season winds to a close, I wanted to thank everyone who has been commenting. Lauren’s presence in the comments during this last half-season has been an interesting experience, and I’ve been very glad to see it hasn’t dulled critical conversation. As much as I appreciate Lauren’s insights, I worried that it would keep those who had issues with the season away, but the dialogue has remained constructive and incisive. Our plans for the future remain undetermined, but I would expect the site will at least drop in to see what Awkward.’s future might look like when season four starts next year.