“Totem Mole” (season one, episode twelve, unaired)
“Sure, it can be nice on occasion, in a ‘triumph-of-the-human-spirit’ sort of way, but most of the time it feels like the universe doing this: ‘Why are you hitting yourself, Jaye? Why are you hitting yourself?’ That’s what being special feels like. At least that’s been my experience.” — Jaye Tyler, “Totem Mole”
Let’s talk a bit about Jaye Tyler, shall we? At the start of Wonderfalls she was the quintessential jaded 20-something member of Generation Y—viewed as a burnout by high school classmates and freelance reporters alike—holding an entry-level retail job disproportionate to her Ivy League education. Her friends saw her as spiteful, her siblings saw her as a lost cause, and every action she took indicated that being left alone was all that she wanted out of life. If the universe wanted to select someone to be their agent of change, a force devoted to helping other people and altering events for the better, the odds seemed better that they’d select literally anyone else to do their bidding—someone who demonstrated at least a shred of empathy or interest in the world around them.
However, with the bombshell revelation at the climax of “Cocktail Bunny” last week, it’s clear despite the ambiguous wording that Jaye wasn’t just picked out of a hat when the muses started talking to her. “Because… you listen” is a statement that implies that not only is Jaye a person who’s on some level willing to listen when inanimate objects start talking to her, she’s also a person who’s capable of listening to other people despite what she thinks may be her best interests. As the series has progressed, she’s gone from the path of least resistance to going above and beyond for the people the muses ask her to help. (And in the case of “Muffin Buffalo,” she didn’t even need their encouragement to meddle, and became decidedly uncomfortable when they told her to do things against a neighbor’s best interests.)
For all this raised empathy however, Jaye’s still never grown comfortable with her role as supernatural conduit, and the relationship between the muses has never gone past strained at best. Given the events of the last few weeks, where their instructions shattered her connection with Eric, it makes complete sense that she’d leap at a viable option to get rid of their presence. “Totem Mole” is an episode that seems to provide her with that chance, disconnecting entirely from the Jaye/Eric/Heidi love triangle and bringing the question of her abilities to the forefront. It’s a step down from the emotional and structural highs of “Cocktail Bunny,” but given how high those were it’s entirely understandable Wonderfalls would opt to take a breath and offer a more traditional, introspective installment.
Once again, Wonderfalls proves it’s a show with a long memory for even the most obscure details, and draws on a throwaway line from an earlier episode to develop its main plot. Back in “Muffin Buffalo” Mahandra mentioned she’s three percent Native American, and now she’s making it official by heading for the Satsuma Indian Reservation to affirm her tribal membership. Jaye tags along in an attempt to get away from the ever-present nagging on the Wonderfalls shelves, but it’s an ultimately futile effort given within 30 seconds an overly cheerful totem pole urges her to go inside a nearby teepee. Inside, she finds an elderly woman who greets her with a benevolent smile and an acknowledgement of Jaye’s secret: “They speak to you. In many voices, and many forms. For this you have been chosen for a great purpose.” Jaye, true to form, considers being given a responsibility the worst thing in the world, and she begs for a way out—a begging that takes an odd turn when she realizes that she’s been having a conversation with a dead woman. More specifically, the tribe’s spiritual leader Gentlefeather, who died leaving no successor to her role.
From there, the plot turns into a standard Wonderfalls adventure, as the totem pole instructs Jaye to “show him who’s special,” and she takes that to mean convincing Gentlefeather’s grandson Bill that he’s the seer-in-waiting. The difference here though is that unlike some of Jaye’s other efforts to help strangers, she’s got a personal stake in affairs as she’s trying to get a conduit back to the departed seer and hopefully shut the muses down for good. As such, it’s a more driven Jaye we see in this episode, inserting herself into the seer selection process—and an increasingly horrified Jaye as it turns out she’s passing more of the tests than Bill is, attracting feathers and identifying skulls with ease. Her desire to validate Bill also means that she calls Aaron in as a discount spiritual advisor, leading to more of the excellent sibling chemistry between Caroline Dhavernas and Lee Pace. (“You’re having a spiritual awakening. You’re being called.” “Well, I’m transferring the call to his extension!”)
We get a more driven Jaye out of the experience, but at the same time we also get a Jaye who’s more willing to step back when she realizes she’s gone too far. The Jaye of “Totem Mole” isn’t the Jaye of “Wax Lion” or “Wound-Up Penguin,” she’s more attuned to when what she’s doing at the muses’ behest might not be right for the person in question, and as much as she doesn’t want to be the seer she knows it’s not doing Bill any favors. (“I’m like the parents who force their uncoordinated children to play sports!” she bemoans to Aaron at the moment of realization.) Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of Wonderfalls is that once Jaye’s directions are taken seriously by someone, they tend to leap on her instructions with an almost manic devotion, and by the time she realizes that Bill isn’t the seer he’s completely convinced he is. And in a move that doesn’t do much for Jaye’s odds of winning a second Employee of the Month commendation, he declares war on Wonderfalls and its culturally insensitive line of souvenirs.
Again, there’s nothing new about seeing one of Jaye’s subjects go off the rails in response to her instructions, but what makes Bill’s journey work is the way the episode ramps up the emotional stakes. First Bill has a minor mental breakdown in the middle of the store, going on a rant against such offerings as the Cowboys and Indians Massacre playset, and then when Alec calls in the security guard a gunshot rings out sending Bill into a pile of boxes. For a show that treads regularly in dark territory this is an exceptionally dark twist—Jaye’s efforts may have gotten someone killed—and the episode stretches that scene out just long enough to twist the knife. And when it’s revealed that he’s fine, it leads to one of the show’s most introspective moments, as Jaye and Bill return to the teepee and debate the pros and cons of having a purpose.
“Totem Mole” is also interesting in that while Jaye’s spending all this time trying to help Bill on his path, the actual person who’s destined for the path is entirely off Jaye’s radar. The tribe’s lawyer Deanna Littlefoot—an old law school rival of Sharon’s—has been on a path of politically correct destruction in the Satsuma tribe, enforcing cigarette taxes on non-residents and denying Mahandra’s application to join. I’ve talked before about how one of Wonderfalls’ charms is that it adds depth to Jaye’s antagonists, and Littlefoot is a disappointing exception to that rule, as despite her claims of looking out for the tribe she comes across as an intractable bully. She’s less compelling than some of the show’s offensive characters, though her presence does help Sharon seem like a better person in comparison, managing to wear down the elder Tyler’s competitive streak into a place of empathy.
And the dislikable nature of Littlefoot also sets the character up for a more dramatic shift, courtesy of Chekov’s turquoise bracelet. Wonderfalls has conditioned me to pay attention to the littlest details as I know they’ll come up at a later date, and once the totem pole urges Jaye to confront Sharon and her bracelet gets caught in the latter’s hair, it’s a sure thing that bracelet’s going to play an important role. Which it does, as Sharon wears it to the gym to try to ingratiate herself with her rival and then takes it off in disgust, only for it to get snagged in the door of the sauna and trap the other woman inside. It’s an action that triggers once again the test to become a seer, as now it’s Littlefoot who has the near-death experience and encounters Gentlefeather in the mists (or the steam rather, a nice twist on the original instructions). She emerges a different person, ready to take the tribe in a new direction with Bill’s help: “We need an accountant to ride through this land of imperious plenty and bring back a casino with blackjack, poker, and Vegas-style slot machines.”
It’s one of the typical Wonderfalls twist reveals, only this time it’s not paired with Jaye whispering the muses’ instructions under her breath as they finally become clear to her—Jaye has no idea of the role she played in this spiritual awakening and probably never will. The seismic shift in Littlefoot’s worldview takes a backseat to the little moments that Jaye experiences in the third act, all of which are things the Jaye of the pilot would never do. She’s willing to have a genuine conversation with Bill and open up about her doubts. She has the foresight to use Bill’s tribal membership to buy Sharon a case of cigarettes, a gesture more genuine than any awkward hug. And, most surprisingly, once she mentions to Bill there’s a lot of problems on the reservation that could use a seer’s help, she pauses for a split second and asks if she can keep his resident ID. “Totem Mole” might not be the peak experience that “Cocktail Bunny” was, but for what it says about who Jaye Tyler has become, it holds its own.
- “Totem Mole” is directed by Jeremy Podeswa, a veteran director who’s worked on many notable dramas over the last decade, with episode credits including Carnivale, Dexter, Rubicon, Boardwalk Empire and Homeland. His influence shows in several shots that go beyond Wonderfalls’ typical visual aspirations: the drawn-out tension of Bill’s shooting, the Breaking Bad-style time lapse of day into night over the teepee, the lingering final shot as Jaye loads up her car.
- Also worth noting in this episode is a masterful transition: Jaye argues to Gerry she can’t be the seer as it wouldn’t look good for a “white chick” to be fighting the tribe’s battles, and then it cuts to Sharon doing that exact thing for Mahandra.
- Not only does Sharon try to buy two massive crates of cigarettes, she smokes immediately after exiting the car—right next to the gas pump. Adding that to the scene in “Crime Dog” where she paid $100 for the privilege of smoking in an interrogation room and lit up in between climbing flights of stairs, her lungs must look like grilled steaks by this point. (And one-dimensional bitchery aside, Deanna gets a sick burn in on Sharon as the other woman nearly coughs up a lung on the treadmill: “Looks like those cigarettes are taxing you!”)
- Best Caroline Dhavernas expression this week: The withering expression she gives Alec when he suggests a shockingly offensive way of marketing the souvenir Native American headdresses. “We could say we’re ‘scalping prices!’ Look! It comes with a kazoo!” I’m surprised he didn’t simultaneously burst into flames and turn to ice under that gaze.
- The Tyler siblings betray their respective cynicism and pop culture immersion in their attempts to persuade Bill of his higher purpose. Aaron: “St. Paul was just a punk until he was blinded by the light, and Gandhi was just drinking and whoring it up with his friends until he heard the cry of his people.” Jaye: “And Neo was just a big geek until he swallowed that little red pill.”
- The Wonderfalls shopping experience. Bill: “Thank you for supporting this imperialist establishment! Have a racist day!” Jaye: “We have some stuff that’s not racist! Look, a rainbow teddy bear! It’s not racist and it’s gay-friendly!” (Missed opportunity for the bear to start talking and Jaye to throw it to the floor in panic.)
- “You know, I’m not sure my burden is a burden or not. I mean, other people seem to want it. And that should always make you pause before you give something up.”
Next week: Our coverage comes to an end with the series finale “Caged Bird,” in which Wonderfalls meets Dog Day Afternoon for a hostage situation in the gift shop. Possibly someone is trying to get money for the wheelchair-bound transvestite from the trailer park to have a sex change?