Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Do I still hate this? A second chance for ONE TREE HILL's school shooting episode - Part 2

Yesterday I began a re-visitation of the infamous school shooting episode of One Tree Hill. For the first part of this series, go here.

Let's talk about Jimmy. When Colin Fickes was cast in the pilot in a role that had only a few lines, no one would have envisioned that less than three years later, that character's emotional breakdown would have to drive the series's most intense episode. For the most part, he fares okay. The script is not without its overwrought moments and in a few spots, it proves to be too tempting an invitation for the actor to go over-the-top. The extreme nature of the situation excuses some of this, but Fickes has one line-reading near the end of the show that always makes me wince. (I won't spoil it, but it comes when he confronts Lucas and Peyton.)

In spite of that, Fickes does a good job of conveying Jimmy's pain and the growing panic as it becomes clear to him that there's no good way to walk away from the situation he's responsible for. Unlike most of the school shooters we read about in the news, Jimmy doesn't walk into the school with the intent of mowing down as many of his enemies as possible. It seems he brings the gun for protection, expecting he'll be a target.

It's also notable that he brings a simple handgun and not any kind of assault rifle. That helps put a little bit of distance between this and the Columbine incidents, mitigating most charges that the show is exploiting those sorts of tragedies. Something else I hadn't considered until this rewatch: at no point does this storyline ever lead to any discussion of gun control. It's not an episode that's focused on America's gun culture. It doesn't want to say anything about gun control or the availability of firearms. It really wants us to be focused on the pain that might drive someone to do something like this.

When a teen show is in that territory, it's in immediate competition with one of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Earshot." You might remember it as the episode where Buffy gets the ability to read minds and ends up trying to prevent someone from killing everyone in the school. When she confronts Jonathan, who she assumes is the would-be school shooter, the young man snorts at her claims that she could understand his pain. He can't imagine anything that could be bad about being beautiful and popular.

Buffy, who's spent the entire episode unable to block out the thoughts of everyone around her, exposed unfiltered to all their fears and insecurities, says, "My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening."

One Tree Hill can't hope to top that, especially with as deftly as Buffy set up that moment, but it clearly wants to make that statement. I'll give them points for ambition, but too many other factors prevent them from earning that kind of moment.

I'm going to bring up something that couldn't have contributed to my initial dislike of the episode for the reason of "facts not in evidence" at the time. This is an episode that puts our characters in a room with a fellow student on the verge of shooting them, and asks us to feel HIS pain. We're absolutely preached to empathize with Jimmy and to feel that he's not a bad person so much as someone who's made terrible mistakes that he can't take back. He's clearly depressed and POSSIBLY suffering from mental illness. The show wants us to know "he - and people like him - need help."

In the following seasons, there will be no fewer than three antagonists who are depicted as, to use a clinical term, "crazy." The psycho stalker becomes an OTH staple thanks to:

Psycho Derek - stalker who claims to be Peyton's long-lost brother. He became obsessed with Peyton following a complete mental breakdown that was brought on by the death of his girlfriend in a car crash while he was driving. We eventually learn that his girlfriend bore a striking resemblance to Peyton, which led to him fixating on her to an obsessive degree. He becomes violent and unstable, but any effort the show makes at empathy comes far too late, and after several episodes of playing him as a violent deranged psycho.

Nannie Carrie - hired to look after Nathan and Haley's son Jamie, she gets fired after trying to seduce Nathan. She then attempt to kidnap Jamie and run away with him, determined to become his new mom. It's revealed that she too suffered a mental breakdown after her own child was kidnapped and murdered, thus eventually provoking her to "replace" her child with Jamie. As sad as this is, she too is treated like yet another horror movie stalker psycho and is the ONLY OTH villain to actually be killed by the "good guys" (well, Dan) in a sequence where we're supposed to cheer for her demise.

Katie - Katie is the only one depicted as already being treated for a mental illness and becomes dangerous when she goes off her meds. She becomes convinced she's Clay's dead wife, who she resembles (don't ask), and after an attempt to get Clay back fails, she shoots Clay and his girlfriend Quinn. In a later return she gets the same "horror movie psycho" depiction that Carrie got, with the difference being she gets captured and presumably treated.

So three villains shown to be suffering from either some kind of mental illness or grief-indued psychotic break, but all of them might as well be Michael Myers. This is how the show normally treats its antagonists, and why if you're watching this episode in context with the rest of the show, it's probably going to feel like more of an awkward fit than for the "very special episode" watchers.

The show's anti-bullying message also takes a hit just a few episodes later when Brooke bullies Rachel fat-shaming her by digging up pictures of her pre-plastic surgery self.

The thing that really pushed this episode over the edge for me on a first viewing was the ending. Keith, who's Lucas's uncle (and soon-to-be stepfather) enters the school in a bid to talk Jimmy down. He ends up confronting Jimmy in the hall, trying to reach this broken kid, but all of his "it gets better" talk only pushes Jimmy further over the edge. The boy turns the gun on himself and takes his own life. Keith rushes to the body and looks up to see his brother, Dan Scott standing there.

Here's where I explain way too much backstory. Dan and Keith never got along much. After Dan abandoned Lucas's mother, it was Keith who was there for her. Dan resented this, and had an even more legitimate reason to hate Keith when Keith slept with Dan's wife. After he attempted revenge for that, someone drugged Dan and left him to die after setting fire to his car dealership. Thanks to Lucas, Dan survived, but Dan was convinced his brother tried to kill him. He was determined to take revenge.

This episode ends with Dan picking up Jimmy's gun and shooting Keith.

It's a moment completely out of tone with the rest of the "very special episode." A decent story about the pain of the bullied suddenly turns into a shocking soap opera twist of one man using a school shooter to cover up the murder of his brother. It's like if Buffy's excellent "The Body" suddenly dropped in a scene with Glory and her minions doing business as usual.

I know. I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. Before I said part of the problem was that this episode was so removed from the show's usual soap opera antics and now I'm complaining when that reality snaps back and asserts itself. It provokes the question of if the problem really is the melodramatic twist... or how it's executed?

The whole rest of the episode is about the hidden pain of the invisible kids, the ones no one pays attention to except to bully. It's about the darkness that grows in silence. That's NOT Dan Scott by any means. He started the series as an asshole dad and by season three he was practically a comic book villain. There's no empathetic darkness there.

But Keith - the guy who's spent the two seasons (and presumably many years leading up to it) being bullied, tormented and manipulated by his brother - now that's a guy whose pain inspires some empathy. It would require a step or two to get there, but for the shocking ending to work thematically, it should be KEITH firing the fatal shot.

As it stands, when this episode becomes "the one where Dan murders Keith in cold blood," it becomes the point where no matter how much slack I give the rest of the show, I can't help but groan in frustration. When rewatching the episode, I ended up tweeting with a few people about it and several fans said that one thing they liked was that this episode had repercussions that were felt all the way up until the end. Well, yes and no.

The lessons from Jimmy Edwards's sad fate are forgotten pretty quickly, both by the show and the characters. Keith's murder lingers for a while. It's a full season and a half before Dan is exposed as the killer and the fallout from that keeps him estranged from his sons until the very end of the series. In other words, the fall out is all about Dan.

This isn't an episode about Dan. It's not even an episode that gives us particular insight into Dan. When Dan gets that gun, he's presented with an opportunity that the story failed to build up effectively. The turn comes too late to be anything but inexplicable.

So after two days of breakdowns and analysis, let's return to the original question: Do I still hate this episode?

You know what? No. It's not without its flaws, but it's not as exploitative or offensive as I found it on a first viewing. I'd have given it a D-,  maybe even an F back then. This time, it feels like a B-, maybe even a solid B if I'm feeling charitable. Schwahn makes some smart choices in terms of how he uses most of his ensemble. Even with the misstep of an ending, there are definitely TV writing lessons to be learned from this episode.

Does it deserve its reputation as the best episode of One Tree Hill? I'm gonna say "no." It's neither representative enough the series or transcendent enough to earn that title. My personal favorite is probably Season 1's "Every Night is Another Story," though a couple other episodes could challenge it.

Was it worth the revisit? Definitely. Aside from having a completely different perspective on the episode, it was a good reminder in general about how the context we bring to something at the time we experience it can inform our reactions. Some media will hit us differently under different circumstances. In my case, the hot button nature of the episode was probably a major factor in my initial disgust. I'm not the same person 11 years later, nor is the world the same place.

So will I be revisiting other TV shows and movies that got a strong negative from me before? You bet I will.

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