At first glance, it’s a peculiar decision to follow up an episode where Zoya became unrecognizable to Obie with an episode in which... Zoya becomes unrecognizable to Obie. However, while the former did so with a nice little failed attempt at a Pygmalion—an always enjoyable staple of the genre—the latter version of this particular story beat actually does work better. At least, it works better on rewatch, as that’s the only way to actually grasp Zoya’s behavior in full context from moment one of this episode.
Because even with the early knowledge that Zoya’s birthday is unfortunately also her and Julien’s mother’s unhappy death day, Zoya’s bad attitude in “Fire Walk With Z” doesn’t 100% track at first. She complains to her father about how “bad stuff” always happens on her birthday because the episode immediately wants us to know that her vibes are fucked. (What did Minka Kelly—co-star of the Leighton Meester classic, The Roommate—ever do to Zoya to get the “who?” treatment from her?) It also comes across as a real pity party at first. And that pity party then leads to an intense, tunnel vision version of Zoya. But it all falls into place once you have the full Buffalo story and Julien’s anti-bullying speech, as a supplement.
Courtney Perdue and Baindu Saidu’s script for “Fire Walk With Z” makes a deliberate choice to have this be the episode where sweet, innocent Zoya is dropping f-bombs left and right, initially giving the audience a reason to question the idea of just how “sweet” and “innocent” she really is. Ultimately, it turns out her behavior is the result of trying to not let history repeat itself, determined to fight the titular fire with fire against a bully in the form of Julien. This isn’t some Queen B power struggle, this is self-preservation. This is Zoya attempting to nip things in the bud before they get as bad as they did a year ago, with her starting a fire in a classroom as a result of a bullying-induced panic attack. This is an episode that begs to be rewatched because it is very easy to get frustrated over Zoya’s actions, without having the full context. That she enlists the help of Georgina Sparks’ son, Milo (Azhy Robertson)—a 10-year-old eighth-grader, evil genius, and exactly what you’d expect Georgina Sparks’ son to be up like—to do these things also plays into the idea that she’s not that innocent.
But when Zoya tells Obie she’s not acting, she’s reacting, it really is coming from that place, even though the full picture isn’t all that clear at the moment.
I know I’m a broken record, but the logical leaps one has to take to figure out why Zoya and Julien buy into attempts to have them feud are still quite tall. At least here, Zoya’s behavior makes sense—both with full context and even without it, to an extent. (Julien’s sudden desire to run Zoya out of town? Not so much. But she is, admittedly, a bully.) Initially, one wonders why Zoya would believe Luna’s tale about telling Julien her housing secret, instead of just coming to the conclusion Luna leaked it. But once you realize Zoya is coming from a place of having confided in someone who actually was her friend and used it to bully her, it makes a lot more sense why she would think this is history repeating.
While we can latch onto the fact that Zoya keeps giving up information that can be used against her, she’s not the only one—nor is it just the kids on this show doing it. In this very episode, Rafa gives Max the perfect ammunition and opening when he briefly opens up about his own comparative daddy issues. Yes, Max is going through some things right now, but it’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that he clearly lied to Rafa about Roy blaming him for ruining the family. First of all, we don’t see the confrontation, despite knowing how good a scene like that would be coming from John Benjamin Hickey. Second of all, Max doesn’t allow Rafa the time to fully process the information, to possibly contact Roy (or Gideon) and ask about it. And third of all, Max has yet to reach rock bottom and has no qualms about ruining Rafa’s career. But then again, Rafa apparently doesn’t either.
Though I accept them as another staple of the genre, I can count on one hand the number of student-teacher affair storylines I have ever genuinely enjoyed, even when I was a teen. The first one was Ben and Miss Young (Jon Foster and Marguerite Moreau) in ABC’s Life As We Know It. I definitely shipped them, because even looking back now, their chemistry was electric. The show struggled with that fact, as while it tried to show the intense arrested development Miss Young had to have to engage in a relationship like that, it still gave them a very romantic send-off scene. The second came from The CW’s 90210, with the second/third season arc between Naomi and Mr. Cannon (AnnaLynne McCord and Hal Ozsan). That story, in particular, was not one of an actual affair but of a sexual assault, with Cannon weaponizing his position as the “cool teacher.” It’s also one of the reasons why I still praise 90210’s third season as the series’ best. At this point, a subversion of these stories is far more interesting than actually going through with them again. As the examples of the ones I liked have even shown, the male student-female teacher dynamic has predominantly been written as “fantasy” fodder (from something as ridiculous as Step By Step to the more serious Dawson’s Creek), while the female student-male teacher dynamic is typically that of victimization (like the Leighton Meester/Adam Scott episode of Veronica Mars, “Mars Vs. Mars.” FX’s A Teacher was a recent exception—and the third version of this story I’ve enjoyed—showing the male student as a victim to the female teacher’s predator, but that was also the entire point of the story.
Sure, making this story one of two gay men allows typically marginalized characters to also now be part of the trope—on the “fantasy” side of things—but the way that Gossip Girl attempts to make this story sexy when the entire concept is anything but is something I brought up early in these reviews. It’s the Teen Wolf approach, wanting to have its cake and eat it too, as it portrays these grown-up actors as kids… but highly sexualized and fuckable kids. Not just to other teens but to the teachers too. As this episode confirms Rafa 100% knows that Keller and company are Gossip Girl, I am curious to see how the inevitable confrontation between the two parties goes. But that’s also another issue with this story: It’s more interesting to think about the fallout than the actual “relationship.” Unless we have another Pretty Little Liars on our hands and Max and Rafa are actually soulmates who will end up together, that is.
But let’s not lose sight of the true antagonists of this week’s story. No, not Gossip Girl—in fact, for the second episode in a row, they’re very supplemental to the main conflict—but Monet and Luna. These past two episodes have really helped to make Luna more than the tall mean one, and this episode better explains why they’re so hellbent on getting rid of Zoya. It’s not so much that they think Zoya is coming for Julien’s crown—though they keep telling Julien that and Gossip Girl keeps pushing that narrative—as it’s that they’ve put in so much work into getting Julien to where she is as an influencer that they can’t have any distractions. Julien’s on a pedestal, and as her team, so are they. Obie wasn’t a distraction, because he allowed himself to be an accessory. But Zoya is a distraction because Julien wants to have a real relationship with her sister. (In the pilot, Julien attempted to bring Zoya into her manufactured world, but that clearly didn’t work and created the initial fracture.) Julien now wants to be real, in general. And being real is the antithesis of the influencer lifestyle.
And that is another issue with the Zoya/Julien rivalry: The stakes that Monet and Luna are dealing with are not high school-level or even actually high school-related, but the rivalry they continue to fuel is. You know how teen dramas tend to have their characters do college for about a year before pivoting to them having adult lives and careers at very young ages? Monet and Luna are the only teen characters on this show that are already in the mindset of where these characters would typically be in that pivot. They’re cutthroat businesswomen who are dealing with Julien and Zoya’s unfortunate teenage emotions. That’s part of what’s made them compelling antagonists so far and also part of what has made it clear that Julien and Zoya should be “versus” them—instead of each other—since the pilot. “Fire Walk With Z” makes for the perfect point to draw the battle lines in that way, but arguably, so have the rest of the episodes so far.
Then you have the Gossip Girl crew, who are at their best when they are fully unrepentant in their chaotic decision-making—not so much when the audience is apparently supposed to care about Kate Keller’s aspirations as a writer. While Dan Humprhey’s sociopathic actions as Gossip Girl drew a straight line to those same tendencies as a published author, he had the “defense” of starting this all as a teenager. That same defense can’t be made for a failed, grown-up writer whose driving force in becoming Gossip Girl was that the original eventually became a successful writer. (Again, he was a teenager who then became a successful writer. Not an adult bullying teenagers. Until later seasons.) Yet “Fire Walk With Z” decides that the audience is now supposed to feel for Keller, to care about her future in terms other than wanting everything to blow up in her and her team’s faces.
I’ve praised Gossip Girl for allowing these teachers to go full-tilt in their decision to do something so inappropriate—to be such obvious villains with no real self-awareness. From making a kid who’s done nothing wrong their biggest target—despite what their mission statement for creating Gossip Girl supposedly was—to even getting one of their own fired to save themselves, Keller and company regularly reveal themselves as worse than the rich kids who they’re supposedly attempting to scare straight. So I have no idea why this episode attempts to make the audience care that Jordan and Wendy have temporarily blocked Keller from the Gossip Girl account so she can work on a short story submission. I understand using the plot as a way to show that Keller is addicted to being Gossip Girl and that Wendy (clearly a wildcard) and Jordan could eventually be the ones that end up really blowing things up… but not the part where anyone is supposed to care about Keller’s writing career. Because she is still very much a villain. As is Jordan. As is Wendy. So when Zoya confides in Keller in this episode, even though Keller is out of the loop this week, that doesn’t make her a more sympathetic character; it’s just another reminder of how untrustworthy Zoya’s favorite teacher is.
This is a packed episode—but not quite overstuffed, which was “She’s Having A Maybe’s” problem—which also deals with Audrey and Aki trying to figure out Aki’s sexuality. This plot is perhaps the most original Gossip Girl (and 2007) of the bunch—even focusing more on Audrey’s feelings about Aki’s sexuality than it does his—right down to the farce of having Audrey accidentally bring an obviously gay guy as her date to the event-of-the-week (to make Aki jealous, of course). But the point of the story is that Audrey ultimately realizes she’s been thinking solely of herself when this is something that’s not about her at all. While Evan Mock’s screentime in this episode is comparatively minimal to what he’s had in previous episodes, his scenes with Emily Alyn Lind are also the most comfortable he’s seemed onscreen so far—which is right on time for a story like this.
Like last week’s episode, the thing that truly keeps this all afloat is the sense of forward momentum that Jennifer Lynch’s directing style brings. It’s especially apparent in the main school hallway scene, as it moves from plot beat to plot beat, but it’s also necessary and present in a setting like the girls’ joint party. The only time this episode really finds itself lacking in that department is during both the Gossip Girl scenes—which lack their typical chaotic feel, considering the plot—and Julien’s bullying speech at the anti-joint birthday party/death day party/fundraiser/concert. But the latter is much more intentional, as it’s the moment where everything becomes still and real.
However, that moment also feels more like the resolution to a teen movie (Mean Girls) than it does the natural progression of things in this episode. Particularly as it happens so immediately after everyone sees the Buffalo video, the episode provides no time for things to breathe in between those two moments. There’s no buffer. The choice itself technically makes sense, but the execution just feels off, especially as it’s an eloquent speech after Julien had been anything but eloquent leading up to it. (As Zoya’s plan led to Julien being drugged.) One could argue that it’s a matter of the events of the full video sobering Julien up, but the performance is perhaps too polished, considering how the character’s behavior was just moments before. However, considering Zoya’s point in this episode—as rage-filled as it was—about people somehow not getting (or staying) mad at Julien when she does something bad, this falls right into place in that regard.
As is the way of a Marcia to a Jan—or even a Serena to a Blair.
- And so ends weekly Gossip Girl coverage. Unfortunately, people aren’t even hate-clicking on these reviews to run to the comments and call me names for writing so much about it. Their loss. I may do pop-ins and write-ups about big moments, but...
- The Nate Archibald of the Week: Luna, for the moment during Julien’s anti-bullying speech where she so very clearly believes Julien is giving a pro-bullying speech.
- I don’t know if the episode aired this way, but in the screener, as Obie was scheduling food trucks, the number he texted was (212) 562-4141. That’s the real number for New York’s Bellevue Hospital, the inspiration for NBC’s New Amsterdam.
- Kate Keller is the type of teacher who allows her students to call her by her first name. That makes me angrier than the whole Gossip Girl thing.
- The fact that no one challenges Keller when she brings it up makes me need to know: Is Hannah Horvath a real person in the world of this show? Is Girls part of the Gossip Girl Cinematic Universe?
- But why does Georgina Sparks have a screenshot of Blair Waldorf in her home?
- “Fire Walk With Z” is the first episode that doesn’t really interrogate Obie’s entire deal, which means I could be projecting on this one: His frustration with Zoya here comes across like he’s one second away from telling her she needs to stop acting the way she is because she’s “not like most girls.”
- While he certainly comes across as human in his scenes with Davis in this episode, Nick still remains a parental robot. He tries to get Zoya to celebrate her birthday on the day, despite knowing the reason she doesn’t—that he probably should’ve sent her to therapy for—and it also being the one-year anniversary of the Buffalo incident. And knowing the full context, now he just seems cruel for the way he’s treated his daughter for being bullied then and now.
- Julien’s initial fame as a kid came from her YouTube channel where she interviewed musicians. Obviously, musicians she only had access to because of her father... but also musicians who were on the original Gossip Girl. Mark Ronson, Lady Gaga, and Robyn are the ones we see in this episode.
- Audrey (re: Julien’s cancelation): “It gets worse: Jameela Jamil just defended you.”
- Even though this episode focuses on Zoya’s 15th birthday, that doesn’t mean the Sixteen Candles table moment between her and Julien at the end of the episode isn’t still cute.