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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Awkward.: “What Comes First: Sex Or Love?”

Illustration for article titled Awkward.: “What Comes First: Sex Or Love?”

The A.V. Club’s Summer Roundtable gang recently covered “I Think We Should Have Sex,” an episode of Friday Night Lights where two teenagers come to the conclusion that they should take the next step in their relationship. The hour becomes an honest, funny, and emotional journey through the meaningfulness of this decision, a decision that many shows have turned into a pivotal moment for characters and relationships in their larger narrative arcs.

While a show like Friday Night Lights built to the subject of sex, Awkward. opened with it—we meet Jenna Hamilton just moments before she’s on the floor in a closet with Matty McKibbon, and throughout the first season Jenna was depicted as a character with a healthy, normal sex drive. In other words, in terms of Awkward.’s larger narrative, the answer to “What Comes First: Sex Or Love?” is decidedly sex.

Of course, the larger narrative arc of the series most directly corresponds to Jenna’s relationship with Matty, as opposed to her relationship with Jake, meaning the question continues to have relevance given the concerns driving the second season. And while episodes like "I Think We Should Have Sex" told the story of two characters confronting their first times together, here Jenna's confronting her second sexual partner while Jake considers losing his virginity. While we’d like to imagine that the question of “love” is a one-time deal, life is rarely that simple, and so Jenna needs to confront the issues she faced last season all over again. Does she feel the same way about Jake that she felt about Matty? And is it even fair to compare the two, as if love feels the same with every person you’re in love with? And what role does sex play in that conversation? They’re weighty questions, questions that a teenager like Jenna isn’t going to be able to solve by writing a speculative blog post.

“What Comes First: Sex Or Love?” looks to the series’ larger collection of women in order to offer Jenna guidance. The episode opens with Jenna turning to Ming and Tamara, who are quick to diagnose Jenna’s enthusiastic but non-reciprocal response—“Awesome”—to Jake’s “I love you”  in last week's episode as the equivalent of peeing in his face. To them, love is a feeling that can’t be codified, something you know without knowing how to describe it. For Ming, it’s a feeling that came when Fred—who we met last week, but was absent here—poured her a beer that was mostly foam, which she chose to take as a sign he instinctively knew she was a lightweight. Now, without trying to sound too cynical, it’s also possible he’s just a terrible pour; however, that doesn’t change the way it made Ming feel, nor does it take away how it altered her conception of their—hours old—relationship. If there is a single takeaway from this episode, it is that love is powerful, to the point that Tamara can’t get out from under Ricky’s spell even as he courts another woman.

However, while Ming and Tamara can only talk about what it feels like to them, another group of women can speak with a bit more authority on the subject. A newly-engaged—and newly returned—“Aunt Ally” teams up with Lacey, Valerie, and a bottle of red to offer some sage wisdom based on their collective and varied experience, and they have a bit more experience to draw from. Ally is in love with—and engaged to—a bank account more than a man, Lacey risks losing the man she loves, and Valerie has often demonstrated her willingness to provide advice on any subject regardless of her qualifications (which are left fairly vague here). There’s a certain drunken charm to their discussion, but there’s also a lucid honesty: Jenna leaves the conversation embarrassed, certainly, but she also sees enough cogent thought in Ally’s remarks to ask her point blank about how it is you can love someone after you’ve already loved someone else. How can a second love feel like a first love?

Alongside Jenna, Sadie—who by the powers of television coincidence is the niece of Ally’s husband-to-be—has a different problem, one I wish the show as a whole could have confronted more successfully. I know it’s a function of time, but we so rarely get to drop into Sadie in a vulnerable state that it’s tough to see her as a direct parallel with Jenna even if this scene compares their struggles to respond to someone’s affection for them. While I think more could have been done to draw this to the surface, we can surmise that Sadie’s struggle to accept Ricky’s affection as genuine has to do with her struggles with her own self-worth revealed last season in “Queen Bee-atches,” and I thought Molly Tarlov did a nice job of hinting at that even if her overall presence in the narrative has left this particular character arc fairly thin (pun unintended, although I know there have been conversations about how Tarlov’s weight loss plays into Sadie’s identity this season). At the same time, though, I really appreciated the way Sadie’s vitriol increased as her emotions became more entangled; it nicely captures the way it functions as a defense mechanism, and led to some strong one-liners without entirely undercutting the growth being suggested.


Most of our time remains with Jenna, though, who at the end of the episode decides that she really does love Jake. Without wanting to disagree too strongly with a fictional teenager, I’m still doubtful. I understand that Jake’s an earnest and caring individual, and I can certainly see how Jenna would love the idea of Jake, but no amount of throw pillows can convince me she feels the way about Jake that he feels about her.

While I don’t know how far creator Lauren Iungerich—who wrote the episode—was intending for this metaphor to go, the air freshener seems like a particularly apt tool for understanding what happens in those final scenes. Jenna’s feelings about Jake are complex, and I don’t simply mean in terms of the love triangle. In fact, one of the best qualities of this episode is that is allows Jenna to move beyond the love triangle—acknowledging that she and Matty are now friends who can joke around about their past—without moving beyond her confusion. The fact that she loved Matty is different from the idea that she loves Matty, and it’s the former that seems to be causing her the most problems. However, does she resolve the baggage from her past in that final moment with Jake as she chooses to save their first time for a location other than his mother’s minivan? Or does she simply use the romantic equivalent of a can of air freshener to mask its presence?


“What Comes First: Sex Or Love?” doesn’t provide a clear answer, although I think we’re supposed to see Jenna’s response as genuine if not necessarily definitive. And isn’t that the teenage way to approach the question of love? The eponymous question isn’t always a matter of life and death, instead manifesting as a matter of temptation or instinct in moments like Sadie’s makeout session with Ricky on Valentine’s Day. But how do you differentiate between brief flings and the start of something more serious? And how do you handle yourself in situations where you don’t know which narrative you’re a part of? Do you use sex to shut yourself off to those situations like Sadie (at least before the older women help her contextualize Ricky’s courtship in a more romantic context), or do you just bite the bullet and spent two—or twenty—minutes allowing sex to potentially clarify the question at hand?

It’s a symbiotic relationship more than a binary, and it made for a compellingly messy thematic episode of television. As a show that normalized the sexual nature of its protagonist in its first episode, Awkward. has returned to the subject with a deft understanding of how exceedingly complex something so physically simple can be. While the parallel between Jenna and Sadie was somewhat handicapped by the uneven development thus far in the show’s run, this episode does a lot to normalize the subject of sex without stripping the act itself of meaning, a difficult task that puts the show in a good position to explore these relationships moving into the back half of the season.


Stray observations:

  • The P.A. system announcement of Jenna’s seductive intentions returns to the public embarrassment angle of early episodes, but I like that it’s a red herring: it might force the issue into the public, allowing other characters like Valerie to learn about it, but ultimately Jenna has the confidence to internalize the issue and deal with it in private.
  • While the female perspective was certainly privileged here, I liked the brief moment where Jake jokes about love with Matty as though he doesn’t know how it feels. It offers a great parallel: whereas Matty believes his relative sexual experience allows him to impart his wisdom on the virgin Jake, Jake simultaneously believes that his capacity for real emotion separates him from the playboy Matty. The look Matty shares with Jenna as she walks into the room following that moment says a lot about Jake’s misconception, and certainly keeps the idea of the love triangle alive for the future.
  • I appreciated the conversation between Jenna and Lacey toward the end of the episode—it was brief but honest, touching on the tension between them while acknowledging that they continue to have a real relationship. In addition, and without outright spoiling anything, that conversation holds a kernel for Lacey’s arc for the remainder of the season based on my limited knowledge of future episodes.
  • I was fairly critical of Ally during her first appearance, but I found the character more grounded this time around, with her aggressive personality channeled into—vain—pride in addition to viciousness; looking forward to seeing where her wedding arc goes from here.
  • Tamara didn’t exactly get to pick up a storyline, but she did pick up a nickname from her public urination incident: Peter Pants (although she prefers Tinkle Bell).
  • Jenna spinning one of her uncontrollable facial responses to ridiculous things other characters say, in this case Aly: “It was a supportive eyeroll, because you don’t have to get a job!” “I KNOW!”
  • Where do we stand on the genuineness of Ricky’s affection for Sadie? I’m having trouble taking “I traded in my tenor sax for my tender Saxton” seriously. I may just hate love.
  • I’ve seen some criticism of Sadie’s blanket cruelty recently, but I like seeing her turned against new characters, so her interaction with her new “Aunt-to-be” Aly was welcome: “My uncle likes ‘em young…well, youngish.”
  • I’m just going to leave this Valerie line here without further context, because it got the biggest laugh of the season for me: “At least ‘Do me big boy’ has alternate connotations, like spreading mustard on a foot long.”