The Carrie Diaries spent much of its first season marking out Carrie Bradshaw’s double life, a high schooler in Castlebury and a budding journalist in Manhattan. After a brief period of Carrie living this life in secret, the show revealed the truth to all involved, making it much easier for the show to justify its love affair with New York City. The show remained grounded in its high school setting, but it wanted—even needed—the city as its aspirational counterpoint, the beacon of the Manhattan that will eventually become the setting for a different show about Carrie Bradshaw and her friends.
In season one, Carrie’s magical portal to Manhattan worked as a symbol of how all teenagers struggle between the life they lead and the life they’re preparing to lead; in season two, however, this Manhattan portal became more of a burden. Whereas the first season saw productive tension in Carrie being caught between two worlds, this season just accepted that Carrie existed in both, a choice that made certain stories work and left others floundering. As Carrie began to exist almost exclusively in Manhattan, the stories back in Castlebury felt like a product of another show entirely: it wasn’t always a bad show, but the show’s heart was in city stories like the introduction of Samantha Jones, and not in the romantic travails of Mouse and Maggie. “Run To You,” the second-season finale, is overly explicit in its thematic interest in the difference between running to something and running away from something, but the season as a whole is a lesson in the difficulty of running back-and-forth so many times that few stories feel grounded and resonant.
The one exception all season has been Walt’s gradual coming out, a story that survives because it’s meant to feel untethered. Walt feels equally out of place in Manhattan as he does in Castlebury, floating between the two because he doesn’t know whether to take the safety of his suburban idyll or the uncertain future that embracing his sexuality in the city would involve. Walt is the one character—narratively speaking—that can move between the city and the suburbs with ease, and it was encouraging to see the series let his story unfold at the right pace. Although I had concerns early on they were sugarcoating the experience Bennett would face coming out at that time and in that environment, the show committed to exploring the AIDS crisis (albeit mostly off-screen), and let Walt struggle all season before his father showed his true colors and embraced his son for who he is. Walt was always running, but it was out of self-preservation and self-discovery, and so to see him finally able to stop running and be himself is easily the series’ most successful character arc over its two seasons.
“Run To You” can’t rely on Walt to bring the season to a close, though, with his resolution having come the week before. Instead it relies on Carrie Bradshaw and her dueling love affairs with Sebastian Kidd and New York City, with Carrie losing her job and forced to choose between running to follow Sebastian’s dreams of a skateboarding empire in Malibu or to stay in the city and fight for the life she wants to lead. Carrie’s entire world has been turned upside down, and her choice is between throwing it all away to start over somewhere else or doing what she can to fix her life in the same way that Sebastian is fixing his by going to California. Inflected by her fractured relationship with her father, the story resists the typical conflict between love and career and instead makes it a story about Carrie knowing herself.
Although at times on-the-nose with the thematic work—Larissa’s wedding vows being the worst culprit—the finale nicely finds a center for Carrie’s story, which has at times struggled to stay grounded. The ups and downs of Sebastian and Weaver didn’t really click through the season, but the versions of the two characters that appear in the finale—a determined and honest Sebastian, a regretful and supportive Weaver—show how finales can work to reframe what was once chaos as a collection of life experiences. This show is literally constructing a history given its status as a prequel, and “Run To You” was at its best when it felt like it was reframing what was at times a messy season for Carrie into fuel that will empower her moving forward. AnnaSophia Robb remains a great piece of casting, and there is life in this Carrie Bradshaw that could sustain this series moving forward, something that the finale did a lot of work to preserve.
How much life is left in the reason of the season is less certain. I generally like the collection of supporting characters built around Carrie, and find many of their storylines amiable and charming in their way. Dorrit finally got a love interest who wasn’t a total putz, Donna really came into her own as a character, and Mouse’s relationship with West was at times a nice counterpoint to the “New York” romances happening elsewhere in the series, a reminder that this is—or was—on some level still a show about high school. However, as “Run To You” worked to give characters like Mouse and Maggie resolution to ongoing storylines, I felt nothing: I don’t care if Maggie’s whirlwind romance with military man Pete results in an engagement, or if Mouse has one last night of passion with West as they argue over splitting a set of encyclopedias. It’s not that these are awful storylines or awful characters, but rather that they feel like a distraction from the stories that seem to matter significantly more.
The show’s problems with the newly introduced Samantha Jones were caught somewhere in between. On the one hand, unlike Mouse and Maggie, Samantha fit perfectly into Carrie’s New York life, and Lindsey Gort was a real find that brought a lot of life to the character and the show. However, as much as the thematic work tried to tie her into the grand scheme of things, and as much as she’s be a major part of a theoretical third season, her Sex and the City-esque storylines—like her relationship with “open marriage” Elliot—felt too incongruous with the show around her. While her form of distraction may have more consistently fit the thematic space the show felt most comfortable in, the character felt like it was pulling the show too far in the other direction too quickly.
Harlan tells Tom—after marrying Larissa in the episode’s big setpiece—that he should forgive Carrie for being off-track: “So she’s a little lost—that’s a part of growing up.” The same could be said for a television show, and the truth is The Carrie Diaries got a little lost this season. It got lost in the space between Castlebury and Manhattan, and in ways that one expects from a first season but hopes are resolved by a second. That they weren’t resolved makes sense, frustrating as it was at times, as the show was sort of trapped with these stories: there was still a Senior year of high school to show us, and so the idea of Carrie living in the city on her own, trying to make it as a freelance writer with Samantha at her side, needed to be developed before it could become a reality.
“Run To You” works because it’s allowed to commit to where the show wanted to be all season, and the season struggled at times because it was—understandably—impatient to get there. The byproduct of an effort to turn a high school drama into a show about love and sexuality, The Carrie Diaries’ second season never lived up to its potential, but its finale makes the same case Harlan makes to Tom: However lost the show might have been at times, it showed growth where it needed to in order to gain at least a tentative vote of confidence moving forward.
The likelihood of the same vote of confidence coming from The CW remains to be seen: the show’s ratings have been low, and the same unquantifiable “online viewing” that earned the show a somewhat surprising second season would need to remain strong—and grow even stronger—for the series to earn a third. It would be a shame if it didn’t, not necessarily because season two was so spectacular but because it would be nice to see the show free from its shackles. What characters would return? What characters would be absent for the next chapter of Carrie’s life? The same uncertainty that terrifies Carrie excites me as a viewer, and will be either won or lost when The CW makes its final decisions in May.
Episode Grade: B+
Season Grade: B-
- I don’t know if Sebastian is leaving the show or not, but if the show gets a third season and he comes back without Ollie—the puppy he took with him to California—that’s just unacceptable.
- It’s really not Katie Findlay’s fault that I find Maggie so inconsequential, but boy do I find Maggie inconsequential. It was one thing when she was being used as a window into class or abortion—it’s another when she’s in a boring relationship with a boring dude. Findlay’s charm can’t sustain that.
- I had some initial issues with how irrational Tom was being about Carrie’s situation—she couldn’t have predicted Larissa getting fired, and she immediately looked into how to get into NYU, so why be frustrated with her?—but framing it around his expectations of her being like him worked to make it more about his flaws than Carrie’s. Tom was at times the season’s biggest distraction—particularly in romantic relationships—but I loved his storyline with Walt and this worked nicely as a father-daughter story.
- As always when we stop covering a show week-to-week, it’s likely that some of you have thoughts on the season as a whole if you’ve been keeping up. Favorite episodes? Thoughts on earlier storylines? Have at ‘er.