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New Girl thrives in new situations by drawing on its past

Hannah Simone, Max Greenfield, Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Lamorne Morris
Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
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“Ruth’s gonna do what Ruth’s gonna do.”

Last week, I described Cece and Schmidt’s daughter as more of an adorable plot device than a full-fledged character, and as charming as Danielle and Rhiannon Rockoff’s performances as Ruth have been, I would have been perfectly happy for her to continue as a li’l cutie pie running around the periphery. But “Lilypads” fleshes out Ruth’s character with familiar New Girl silliness. All her little quirks—her confidence, her imagination, her passion for watching local news bloopers (“They’re blowing their one shot!”)—can be traced back to the influence of Cece, Schmidt, or one of their family of friends. But the intensity and glee with which she expresses them are more than the product of influences; they add up to a rounded, fun character.


“Lilypads” is successful in rounding out Ruth’s personality because its story structure depends not on the newly arrived 3-year-old, but on established traits of longstanding characters. (J.J. Philbin, who wrote this episode, has only been credited with only eight previous New Girl scripts and one story, but she’s been a producer since the pilot.) Schmidt and Jess’ clash over motivational styles makes perfect sense for both of them. Pouncing on the opportunity to get Ruth into “the most prestigious pre-school in all of Jerry Brown’s California,” Schmidt rails at Jess, “If she gets into Lilypads, she gets into Willows. If she gets into Willows, she gets into Harvard. If she gets into Harvard, it’s a bullet train to the Oval Office. Don’t you want Ruth to be president?”

Of course Jess wants Ruth to be whatever Ruth wants to be, but “without going to some pressure cooker that turns her into a robot.” Sparring over motivational techniques, the two alternate between Schmidt’s intense, reward-driven drilling style and Jess’ “hippie-dippie mishegas,” where instead of learning to cut a circle from construction paper, Ruth learned how to twirl and “be a circle.” Under Jess’ instruction, Schmidt’s color drill—red, yellow, orange, green—come out as red, yellow, orange, Denise, because Jess has taught Ruth that colors can be whatever Ruth wants them to be.

Danielle/Rhiannon Rockoff, Zooey Deschanel , Max Greenfield
Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX

Ruth’s ferocious little echo (“Green is whatever I want it to be!”) is a both a snapshot of a child’s imagination and a hint at the mayhem she’ll unleash. In the museum-like calm of Lilypads (with the vaguely sinister one-way-mirror observation room confirming Jess’ distaste for the controlling, expensive grip of a private pre-school), Ruth first dazzles Miss Carly (Jama Williamson) with her perfect circle and her free-spirited imagination, then instigates a revolt among the potential students. Spurred in part by the newly tapped rage of the son of Benjamin, Schmidt’s archenemy, the child riot is over the top, but no more than a game of True American or a New Girl weekend away gone wrong. And in a show where Schmidt has “supervillain/wax figure/former best friend” nemesis and Jess is a close-lipped star witness for the state, can a pre-school revolution really be criticized for being too dramatic?

Jess and Schmidt’s A-story draws its tension from their wildly differing styles, but “Lilypads”’s B-story depends on Nick and Winston being fundamentally alike, and on their shared history. Again, “Lilypads” wisely explores a well-established dynamic, and again it remedies a shortcoming of the previous two episodes of the season by giving Winston something to do besides hovering around other characters. In his own words, “Anyway, I have a real problem, one that I didn’t bring on myself.”

Nick has brought his most immediate problem on himself. Needing to churn out pages on his new manuscript, he’s arranged for a stranger to punch him in the face if he doesn’t meet his planned word count. Winston (who made detective during the time jump!) needs to gather himself to give clear and cogent testimony on the witness stand.

Detective. Winston Bishop’s testimony, as transcribed by the court reporter:

“I’m Winston Bottoms. Winston I-was-wearing-bottoms. Damn it! I’m sorry to curse. I don’t mean, that’s, uh, I know my name. Let’s just get that, let the record show that. [to court reporter, with typing gestures] Can you do your thing? And, um, I’m Detective Bottoms.” “Are you okay, sir?” “Ha! I’m f—um, yes, sir, I’m sorry, I’m, my lower half has got the sweats. I’d like to put in a request for a wet wipe, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if anyone has a wet wipe, I will gladly receive said wet wipe and clean off my lower half.”


And an excerpt from Nick Miller’s new memoir: “Nick Miller grew up in Chicago. He came from a family. He hated Winston. Winston was really annoying. In a lot of ways, Winston is still annoying, but…”

Both Winston and Nick are spiraling hard. Turning to each other for help, at first they instead draw each other deeper into panic. Even for New Girl, Winston is often a broad character, but Lamorne Morris communicates anxiety with quiet clarity as Winston braces himself to be mock-cross-examined by his oldest friend. And he’s right to be tense, because this experience will rapidly escalate into him yelling, “I was NOT MASTURBATING!” at the top of his lungs in his favorite bar.


Predictably, and suitably for an episode that draws so effectively on the characters’ history together (Winston’s crisis even harks back to Nick’s past as a law student, and a surprisingly astute one), instead of coming directly at their problems, Nick instead distracts Winston with an old squabble that’s been quietly creating (heh) friction between them for years: “The night of January 12th, 2001,” when Nick arrived unannounced at Winston’s dorm to find him sitting, pants off and one-socked, in front of his computer.

Nick’s old indictment isn’t the solution to Winston’s predicament. It’s the solution to Nick’s. He only walked in on Winston (who, it is finally established, was not pleasuring himself, but only intending to pleasure himself) after hitchhiking for eight days because he was desperate to avoid studying for his own midterms. Winston tells Nick what people have been telling Nick for seven seasons now: “You procrastinate when something is important to you because deep down, you don’t think you’re good enough to get it done.”

Nick returns the favor as Winston prepares to take the stand. Jubilant from writing 20 pages, and from the punch in the face that roused him to action, Nick reminds Winston that he, too, is good enough to get it done. He’s not the 10-year-old who rollerbladed into Lake Michigan; he’s not the college student whose friend caught him with his pants down. He’s a grown man, a husband, a father-to-be. He’s detective who knows this case better than anyone. And he can do anything, even admit his part in an old embarrassment.

Winston’s observation to Nick is nothing new on New Girl. But, as Ruth demonstrates, a strong character is going to be who that character is going to be. In season seven, there’s something more important to Nick than law school, more important than The Pepperwood Chronicles, at stake. In season seven, Nick has already planned the perfect proposal, and already called it off. He needs to learn to leap off that lilypad and trust that the water is fine. But New Girl’s gonna do what New Girl’s gonna do.

Stray observations

  • Nick on the tone of his new memoir: “You know it’s going to be raw, you know it’s going to be personal. Also, it doesn’t exist.”
  • Drill is an acronym: D, do it. R, re-do it. I, imitate what you just did. L, learn to keep doing it. L, live the rest of your life doing it.”
  • Voicing the writer’s version of enthusiasm, Nick says, “Check it out, twenty pages! And they’re all good! Some of them are good! Five pages are good! I really like the title!”

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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.