For three seasons, Mythic Quest has indulged in something very few sitcoms do: origin stories. By nature, an origin that recontextualizes how we see characters can ultimately undo the episodic nature of the show. Sitcoms need to welcome new viewers every week, so if characters change too much or become too complicated, it can alienate first-time viewers. On the other hand, Mythic Quest is more than happy to see its characters level up.
In its first-season surprise flashback, “A Dark Quiet Death,” Mythic Quest dramatizes the origins of the “MQ” office, a mundane workspace that evolves into an institution for collaboration and creation, where caretakers shuffle in and out. Season two unpacks C.W. Longbottom’s eureka moment when he discovers the perfect medium for his unwieldy imagination: video games. The result imbues even the most cantankerous characters or bland spaces with new meaning, coloring all that came before.
However many contexts these episodes provide, all roads lead to Poppy and Ian. With “Sarian,” we finally get the origins of our two leads. Bouncing between adolescent Ian (played by Judah Prehn) in 1987 and Poppy (Isla Rose Hall) in 2001, the episode deepens season-wide themes of validation and support. When parenting isn’t enough, these two had to rely on themselves.
Opening on teacher conference between Ian’s mother, Sarah (Lindsey Kraft), and Principal Taggart (Star Trek’s Robert Picardo), Ian, we learn, got into another fight at school and did not complete another assignment for his science class. Instead of presenting a report on the assigned planet Saturn, Ian offers a detailed explanation of his imaginary planet “Tartarus.” He doesn’t understand why his imaginary planet won’t fulfill the assignment, but his mother is happy to indulge him. Right after telling the principal that Ian will “get what’s coming to him,” she hands her son a candy bar and validates his belief that the student he fought “is a dick.”
Present-day Ian drips with confidence, protected from lines in the sterile “Hera” office. Here, his life is a mess. His single mother suffers from mood swings that see her as supportive one moment and catatonic the next. Ian finds solace in his imagination, and it’s far more vivid than expected, filled with passions and ideas. But he’d rather read sci-fi erotica and build universes than write a report on Saturn. Sarah sees clarity when Ian talks about his creations. When she compares his scribbled handwriting to the vivid drawings lining his walls, she opts to reinforce the side of Ian that is firing on all cylinders.
Supporting a child’s gifts can be a bit of a crapshoot. Every parent hopes their child will find passions and interests of their own. Poppy, for example, has supportive parents, a father (Dionysio Basco) who nurtures her love for video games and a mother (Hayley Magnus) who wants to see her daughter create something that she understands. Young Poppy has a piano recital coming up that her mother encourages her to practice for. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy IX just came out. Poppy’s mom doesn’t see video games as a healthy habit, preferring the extroverted socializing of Poppy’s sister. She wants Poppy to get out of the house and make friends because Poppy’s antisocial tendencies aren’t getting any easier. Poppy even hid that she knew Tagalog from her mother for several months.
We see a split between parents, one that wants to encourage play, and another who just wants their kid to be “normal.” Poppy’s dad gives her a few minutes of Final Fantasy in exchange for some serious piano practice but quickly gives in to Poppy’s pleas for more screen time. He does find a way to motivate her training by turning the recital into “boss level.” If Poppy beats the recital boss, he will buy her something, and the only thing she wants is the internet, where she can indulge in her video games to her heart’s content.
Ian’s mother does something similar. Sarah slams Ian’s books and whisks him to a hobby shop to stimulate his creativity. She sprays paint, throws glitter, and unlocks Ian’s imagination, helping him visualize the world in his mind. From this vantage, it’s easy to see why Ian is so invested in the metaverse. The program that we saw Ian make his sales pitch in a few weeks ago resembles the 3D world that his mother conjures in the store. He could “see it,” as they frequently say on the show. Through the metaverse, he thinks he can make it. But after a day of pancakes and pipe cleaners, he awakes on the floor next to a syrup-crusted plate. The house is silent, and the stove is on, charring the flapjack remnants on the burner. Ian finds his mother in bed, gazing into the abyss, unable to take him to school. It’s another one of her “bed days.”
When Ian arrives late, he goes to the principal’s office for a late pass. Ian eyes the candy dish on his desk, signaling to Principal Taggart that he’s hungry for breakfast. The principal opens the jar and offers Ian a treat. “Am I in trouble?” Ian asks. “Not at all,” Principal Taggart responds, choking back concern. Ricardo strikes a gentle tone, comforting the boy while sensing the danger at Ian’s house. It’s an act of compassion that he calls Ian’s father, whom neither Ian nor Ian’s mother trusts. But Ian’s paternal grandfather knows this is for the best. Ian’s mother cannot care for her son in this state.
Poppy’s parents also suffer from the push-pull of parenting, when to be supportive and when to be stern. Still, Poppy comes from a much more stable household, growing up in a nice house on a nice block where kids freely ride their bikes without worry. Poppy’s dad’s tactic of using the recital to reward does the trick, and Poppy learns her piece, choosing the most expeditious way to her goal. Her mother beams with pride as she stands and applauds her daughter’s accomplishment, mirroring the “Playpen” presentation that caused Poppy to “see it.” She wants to cash in on the reward, but she doesn’t want internet, she wants a bike.
A bike is even more valuable because it affords Poppy independence. She rides her bike to the library, where she can use the internet while her parents assume she’s out playing. It’s in the library that she stumbles on “Sarian,” the game Ian built based on planets he included in his science project. The game totally blows Poppy’s mind. Ian, we learn, is the reason she got into coding. Suddenly, their relationship starts to make more sense. Unlike C.W., who struggled his whole life to collaborate or take constructive criticism, Poppy and Ian offer each other something the other lacks. Ian lacks structure, and Poppy lacks imagination. Together, they make a pretty good team.
While we leave Poppy at a moment of triumph and Ian at one of trauma, their roads met in 2009 at MIT, where Poppy studies and Ian teaches. We can assume that Poppy fulfilled her mother’s every wish by ending up in a Massachusetts Ivy League school. By this point, though, Ian’s had ups and downs, both professionally and creatively. Ian needs an editor, someone to tell him his code is shit, and Poppy needs someone to teach her what a joke is, to loosen up, and let some creativity in. Together, they start a two-player mythic quest that unlocks their potential and the potential of their players. Who knows how many young Poppys they’ve inspired?
- “Sarian” wasn’t the funniest Mythic Quest as these flashbacks tend to be more dramatic by nature. But the final scene was filled with great lines. My favorite is probably the way McElhenney says, “You’re fun.”
- I love that we got some payoff for Poppy’s sugar fiending this season. “That’s enough syrup, Poppy.”
- Poppy being obsessed with winning over exploration is a very sly bit of characterization. Her desire to get her eyes on a walk-thru says a lot about her gaming habits.
- Such a great pair of scenes from Robert Picardo. Wonderful casting throughout this episode.
- Speaking of which, all of Ian’s worst habits come from his dad.
- “I named it ‘Sarian’ because it’s our planet,” Ian tells his mother. A portmanteau of Sarah and Ian, his first game is a tribute to the world he lost but also his willingness to collaborate. However, Ian cannot fulfill both parents’ wishes and is sent to live with his father, with whom we know shockingly little (though we can assume has a complex relationship with Ian and Ian’s mother), but must not be supportive of the whole imagination thing (“His name is ‘Ian.’”).