“Safety Canary” (season one, episode nine, unaired)
“I'm trying to save him. By avoiding him. So I can be with him. But I can't go near him or I'll destroy him, so if I can just manage to stay away from him maybe we can be together. Please don't repeat that back to me.” — Jaye Tyler, “Safety Canary”
While Wonderfalls revolves chiefly around the potential insanity and angst of its main character, it’s worth taking a step back occasionally to realize that Jaye’s only one damaged and potentially crazy person in a group of damaged and potentially crazy people. So many of Jaye’s friends and family are involved in personal and professional struggles that make them as interesting as her: Her brother’s a religious scholar who’s also a determined atheist, her sister’s a workaholic attorney and fiercely closeted lesbian, and her love interest is a man who found his new career after three days of drunken heartbreak. Jaye’s the one who’s hearing voices, but she’s clearly not the only one with a story to tell, and it’s a bit disappointing that the show hasn’t yet given them enough exposure in comparison.
I say “yet” because there’s still a few episodes to go, and “Safety Canary” is the first episode to give me hope that the rest of the cast will be fleshed out in the weeks to come. It’s an installment that creates a problem requiring a team effort to solve, one that introduces and reintroduces relationships and complications in said relationships, and offers a lot of promise for the third act of the series. And more reassuringly, it also makes an effort to patch over several of the issues I’ve had in the last couple of weeks.
“Safety Canary” addresses the first of my concerns right away—the show’s apparent scaling back on serialization—as the episode begins with Jaye and Eric on the first date they agreed to at the end of “Lovesick Ass.” It leaps right off of the good spirits from last episode as the two are clearly giddy in the first stages of their relationship, talking quietly about having compatible saliva as they kiss in the middle of an aviary. Jaye opted for the zoo for the date as she rationalized live animals don’t talk, but her foresight is sabotaged when a life-size canary sign urges her to take a picture against aviary regulations. One of the best evolutions of the Jaye/muse relationship is how she’s gone from horrified to merely annoyed at their instructions, and once again the workmanlike approach we saw in “Muffin Buffalo” takes over as she grabs a tourist’s camera and snaps a photo without batting an eye. (At least until a pair of macaws attack her Hitchcock-style. Jaye’s PSA for the day: signs are often there for a reason.)
Jaye gets away from the encounter with only a few scratches, but the zookeeper Penelope (Kellie Waymire) gets the worse end of the deal as she’s demoted to the elephant cage for failing to keep order, and later fired when Jaye fails to make amends. Things get even more complicated when the Lovesick Ass doll and the fish at the Barrel tell her to “Help the lovebirds,” an instruction that she takes to mean help Penelope’s beloved rare Hyacinth Macaws Humphrey and Lauren mate. Once again the show moves into caper territory, as Jaye and Penelope break into the zoo—with an unwitting Eric dragged along under the pretense of finishing their date—and liberate the macaws from their cage. It’s another well-shot thematic sequence, aided by rapid drums and commando-like dodging through the exhibits.
Unable to bring the birds to any of their usual locations, Jaye opts to take them to her parents’ house as they’re out traveling, and it’s here the episode distinguishes itself. Wonderfalls has a terrific cast that so often feels as if it’s not being used enough, with more exposure given to Jaye and the guest stars of the week than Mahandra, Eric or the other Tylers get. (To compare it to Bryan Fuller’s subsequent work, one of the major reasons Pushing Daisies succeeded was because it had a terrific cast and kept that cast tied together in its ongoing story arcs.) Here, every member of the major cast gets tangled up in Jaye’s birdnapping scheme—Aaron’s still at the house, Mahandra’s called in with bird food, Sharon’s dragged in under false pretenses. There’s a notable uptick in the chemistry as they’re all in one place and allowed to play off each other, and it makes you wish the show reached this point sooner.
That being said, this is still Jaye’s story, so the bulk of the attention remains devoted to her relationship with Eric. And it’s a relationship that seems good on the surface, but that everyone who knows Jaye well can see is heading for trouble. Last week I was annoyed with “Lovesick Ass” in that it made Jaye seem like a crazy person for not explaining any reasons why she was avoiding a relationship with Eric, leaving the muses almost entirely out of things. “Safety Canary” succeeds in that regard because it takes the time to contextualize Jaye’s reactions, which it does by having Sharon and Mahandra pointing out that her track record of relationships is littered with heartbroken lovers and Eric’s still-healing heart can’t take it. Already rattled by being accused of being a “snowy owl” predator by the embittered Penelope, Jaye’s now terrified that she’ll hurt him, a fear that takes the form of a wonderful fantasy sequence where his heart literally pops out of his chest and lands in her hands. (Twice, no less.)
There’s been plenty of evidence to date of Jaye either not caring or trying hard not to care, but this is the first time that we’ve seen her in self-sabotage mode. First she tries dropping a bunch of hints that Eric may get hurt if he stays with her; when that doesn’t work she tries to delay the macaws’ mating and inadvertently sets them loose in the wild; and then when their search efforts end in kissing she goes for the jugular and says she can’t be with him. It’s a painful moment both because of the genuine emotions Caroline Dhavernas and Tyron Leitso give to the scene, and also because this is an instance where Jaye’s got no muses to credit for this move and no one to blame but herself. Eric calls her decision “a load of crap” and he’s right to do so, given the hoops both have jumped through at this point.
And it would certainly make Jaye feel even worse if she knew Sharon was having as much relationship angst as she was. (Granted, that would be less out of empathy and more out of horror that she’s anything like her sister, but feelings would be there regardless.) Since the last time we saw Sharon and Beth together all the way back in “Pink Flamingos” that relationship has continued at a steady pace, even though no major resolution of the former’s issues has taken place off-screen. Sharon still can’t get over the fact that Beth’s last relationship was with a man, and once she runs into the ex-husband Thomas—a welcome return for Gabriel Hogan, once again breaking into tears at a moment’s notice—it’s all she needs to go on a peanut butter-related tirade and demand more from Beth. Like Jaye, she’s barely comfortable with her own feelings, and her argument quickly slides into irrational as she storms out the door shouting: “Thank you for allowing me be a rest stop on your road to heterosexual bliss!”
This is possibly the most tightly wound Sharon’s been to date, and if Wonderfalls has taught us anything about Katie Finneran it’s that she plays that role well. When dragged into Jaye’s mess by a phone call where Jaye makes her think that human children are missing (“I shouldn’t have said babies as much as birds. It’s a b-word!”) Sharon has a new target for her energy, splitting it between being angry at Jaye and trying to help an endangered species. Paired up on the bird hunt with Penelope, she finds a kindred spirit as the two talk about the birds and she takes a particular fascination in the fate of Lauren’s predecessor Bridget, eager to see herself as a similarly stubborn macaw and realizing she’d rather not peck herself to death. (Although she’d probably be a little less invested if she knew that Thomas stopped by to talk, and an emotionally vulnerable Beth leapt back into his arms.)
In comparison, Aaron’s having a much better time of it. Despite his sleep being interrupted by these lunatics invading the house, he’s getting a fair share of positive reinforcement out of events as his male pheromones are a possible factor throwing off the birds’ mating. (“Your powerful sexual chemistry is too distracting,” Penelope explains. “I get that a lot,” he replies.) Buoyed by this, he strikes up a conversation with Mahandra, and with Jaye’s unfortunate love life a topic of conversation this leads him to ask why they’ve never tried getting together. When he proposes they a kissing challenge to see if one of them laughs, Mahandra thankfully reacts exactly the way you’d expect, her take-no-shit attitude shutting him down before things get too uncomfortable.
An Aaron/Mahandra pairing is one that could easily reek of writers trying to give tertiary characters something to do, and while there’s a bit of that it makes sense they’d gravitate together, because as Jaye’s best friend and brother they occupy a similar place in the show. Once again “Safety Canary” works because it places Mahandra’s actions in more context than “Barrel Bear” did, making her seem both annoyed and hurt that she’s always cleaning up after Jaye and not having her own life. And we already know from “Muffin Buffalo” that Jaye’s experiences have seriously jarred Aaron’s atheistic worldview, so he’s lost and looking for a connection. While this is another relationship aspect that would have benefitted from being introduced earlier in the series—an episode or two mentioning they’ve known each other for years, or at least one prior scene together—there’s been enough legwork done that I buy Aaron would make this move and Mahandra would put some thought into it.
There’s buckets of relationship angst floating around between the humans, which is why it’s such an ironic twist that the macaws turn out to be the most stable relationship on the show. Having fled the Tylers’ laundry room, Humphrey and Lauren find sanctuary in Sharon’s SUV, where they’re finally able to consummate their affections due to the car’s “very strong female musk scent.” (“It’s patchouli!” Sharon hisses after a knowing look from Jaye.) And from this success, others seem to find the strength to move onto other things, setting potentially fraught romances in motion. Sharon takes a cab straight to Beth—just missing Thomas leaving with a spring in his step—and asks her to break down and just dominate her. Mahandra accepts Aaron’s challenge, no one laughs and the door is quietly pushed closed behind her. And Jaye tries to offer the still-unemployed Penelope a sliver of comfort, realizing yet again how the problems of other people are also hers: “You’re probably scared, and that’s why you’re using your animals as an excuse to avoid risk. … I have to go!”
It seems that we’re heading for a happy ending on all counts as Jaye heads off to make amends, scenes of romantic music filling the Barrel and a look of adoration on Eric’s face. Except in true Wonderfalls fashion, it’s all misdirection as the hand on the jukebox and pair of lips on Eric occurred before Jaye even arrived: his wife Heidi has come back to town. In an episode full of delightfully messy romances, this is the messiest, and that final look on Jaye’s face says it all. She spent so much time trying not to break Eric’s heart again, she never considered the possibility that someone else might swoop in and take it from her—and break hers in the process.
- “Safety Canary” has an unfortunate tragedy associated with it, as this was the last performance of Kellie Waymire’s career: She passed away in November of 2003 at 36, from cardiac arrest due to a heart condition. Fittingly, the episode is dedicated to her memory. And even more fittingly, she was very good as Penelope, an introverted exterior hiding equal passion and frustration for her beloved birds.
- Good to see Lee Pace again, one week after his pilot Halt And Catch Fire was picked up by AMC. He’ll be playing a computer visionary, who I hope keeps a cow-creamer on his desk and consults it for ideas.
- Speaking of Katie Finneran playing tightly wound, I was highly distressed this week when I remembered she was also in the execrable I Hate My Teenage Daughter, which featured a scene where she devoured a pie with her hands mid-nervous breakdown. It always makes me sad when terrible shows abuse actors’ natural comedic gifts.
- Best Caroline Dhavernas expression this week: Normally I give this honor to instances where Jaye looks appropriately mortified or startled, but the utterly shattered look on her face in the closing scene takes the gold here. Simultaneous surprise, horror and regret all in one.
- Rufus: “You know what happens when a fairy's wings lose their dust? The fairy dies, that's what.” Jaye: “Uh, restrooms are for customers only.”
- Mahandra on Jaye’s relationship practices: “You don’t just kill love, you stalk it, you toy with it and you kill it. You’re the huntress and love is your prey. Run little gazelle run! There’s danger at the watering hole!”
- Excuses abound for why the birds can’t be taken to anyone’s home. Penelope: “I have three cats.” Eric: “I sleep in dry storage!” Jaye: “My trailer’s messy!” (As to the latter, seems like it didn’t take her long to undo Katya’s good works.)
- Romance according to Sharon Tyler: “I want to be one of those spiked strips they use in car chases! I want to rip the rubber right off your hubs! Spin out of control and into my arms!”
Next week: Heidi only appears for a few seconds this episode, but a feud is almost certainly brewing for Eric’s affections in “Lying Pig.” Hopefully this won’t end with one of them sporting 60 beak wounds.