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Daria - Episode-by-Episode Analysis

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The Big House/The Teachings of Don Jake

So far, the show's mostly been about Daria and Quinn, with a few glimpses into the lives of the Morgendorffer parents.

"The Big House" and "The Teachings of Don Jake" show us how the Morgendorffer family (sometimes) works together as a whole.

I'm grouping these two non-consecutive episodes because they both reveal a lot about the Morgendorffers. Fundamentally, they're one of those families in which everyone more or less does their own thing. At times, it's this self-focus that allows the family to function. That isn't to say they don't care about each other. Rather, they know that they need to give each other space.

That's why the attempt at grounding Daria and Quinn backfires. Both Helen and Jake want to focus on their own lives. The fact that their daughters are both quite self-possessed has made this relatively easy for them to do.

While Quinn's active social life comes with its share of perils, she's shown herself remarkably adept at navigating them. Much has been said about how she treats boys more as accessories than anything else. While obviously not pleasant for her dates, it's probably something of a relief to her parents. Daria mostly avoids trouble.

Now, stricter parents wouldn't have had much trouble shutting down Daria and Quinn. It wouldn't have been hard to simply prohibit harmonica playing or excessive phone usage.

But the Morgendorffer parents aren't used to this. They'd much rather focus on their own lives than put extra (and largely unnecessary) effort into the lives of their daughters. On some level, they know that the punishment is probably ineffective. It's something they do for show. Parents are expected to do this sort of thing.

However, they know their family better than the pundits do.

Which is exactly why they let Daria talk them out of it. There are some major holes in Daria's reasoning. After all, she subverted discipline by finagling her parents into time-consuming board games. She broke out of the house to see the game. With all that, why not punish her harder?

Because the punishment wouldn't help. The parents know this. Daria knows this—she's too boring to keep grounded, after all. Ultimately, the Morgendorffers work best when they each do their own thing, occasionally reconvening over reheated lasagna.

It's really not a bad arrangement… except when it is.

"The Teachings of Don Jake" puts the family outside of its suburban comfort zone. Like a lot of hippies, Jake and Helen bought into a lazily reheated Thoreau philosophy of wilderness living. That perhaps in the wilderness, they could rediscover themselves and each other.

Unfortunately, the Morgendorffers aren't really about each other. They're about themselves. This is best illustrated in the campfire scene. Each story is about the teller, and the teller's obsessions. Childhood trauma for Jake, sexual longing for Helen, fashion for Quinn, and comic morbidity for Daria.

In fact, Daria's story is the only one that actually takes the family into account, even if she cares more about nauseating them than entertaining them. At least she acknowledges them.

This awareness carries over into the famous "glitter berries" scene. The rest of the family gets lost in hallucination. While their visions seem to coordinate in some respects, I'm not sure they're all seeing the same thing. When Helen describes the "spirit animal", it's pretty clear that this is coming from her own mind, not Jake's.

Of all the Morgendorffers, Daria appears to be the least engaged with her family. However, she's also the only one to recognize her own disengagement. "The Big House" makes this explicit in the way she games her own punishment and recognizes herself as too boring to ground. "The Teachings of Don Jake" handles this symbolically with her refusal to eat the berries (which might stand in for the illusion of family togetherness).

This episode is the first one to really focus on Jake. He's always been a comic relief character. Back in "The Big House", he played second fiddle to Helen, who dominated the court proceedings (for obvious reasons).

Though "The Teachings of Don Jake" plays Jake's pain for comedy, it does show why he's so disengaged. Of all the major characters in the series, Jake has probably had the toughest time of it. Mad Dog's emotional abuse, combined with the isolation and trauma of military school, left him in bad psychological shape.

As such, it's not really a surprise that he so often seems lost in his own world. This is illustrated most dramatically in his mini-breakdown while setting up the tents, but the episode keeps going back to it. His campfire story is just a pathetic tale about discovering his father's alcoholism. Similarly, one can understand how that suppressed emotion so easily bursts out into rage (albeit, rage of a harmless variety).

In fact, the whole camp idea could be seen as Jake's awkward attempt to prove his masculinity. What's manlier than living off the land, after all? Jake seems awfully subdued at the end (at least until Daria brings up the cost of the helicopter ride). Maybe he's thinking that his utter failure as an outdoorsman is just one more victory for Mad Dog Morgendorffer.

Notes

  • I'm still curious as to what Daria was coming home from in the opening of "The Big House". Traveling Museum of Medical Oddities exhibit?
  • The Lawndale students are pretty cold when it comes to Mr. DeMartino's mishaps on the court. That said, it's believable behavior for kids that age.
  • Likewise, Daria and Quinn are pretty cold about Jake's bloodshot eyes.
  • I love the way Helen's job influences her approach to family discipline.
  • On a similar note, I have to believe that Helen knew full well what Daria was doing with the harmonica and board games.
  • Andrea Alert (in "The Big House")! Andrea makes a lot more appearances in Season 1, making me wonder if she was initially intended to be a more important character.
  • I didn't go into Jane's storyline in "The Teachings of Don Jake". This actually provides the first real look at the Lane family, and illustrates its deeper level of dysfunction. The Lanes show what happens when self-absorption completely takes over.