Pierce Me/Through A Lens Darkly
I'm going to break the rules a little bit and do a combined write-up of Season 2's "Pierce Me", and Season 3's "Through A Lens Darkly". Both are good episodes that are quite similar in terms of structure. In each, Daria does something she's not comfortable with for reasons she's even less comfortable with, though she reacts to them in very different ways.
The episodes share a few other traits. Both feature Daria talking to Jane from the safety of a bathroom stall. Both reference Daria's pain sensitivity. It's actually a little odd that such similar episodes would be so close to each other, chronologically speaking. Maybe they figured most fans would forget the details in the gap between seasons.
"Pierce Me" is the second episode to really focus on Daria's crush on Trent. Adults often idealize the concept of a high school crush—they remember the intensity of youthful infatuation. But crushes are actually pretty scary for the person experiencing them. All your life, you've probably been focused mostly on yourself. And now, all of a sudden, there's someone who's taken over every thought and emotion you have. They become the world to you.
It's particularly scary for someone like Daria, who's defined herself more strongly than most people her age. She doesn't care about staying fashionable or impressing anyone else—except when it comes to Trent.
Tracy Grandstaff's voice acting in "Pierce Me" is probably the most emotional she's done up to this point in the series. There's real tension and need in Daria's voice when she calls Trent.
The piercing itself is notable for how dramatic it isn't. Daria puts up very little resistance to Trent's suggestion. You can see her struggling with the idea, especially as Axel preps for the procedure, but there's never any sense that she'll actually change her mind.
Later, Daria seems pretty comfortable with the navel ring (for the short time that she has it). Even after she admits she did it to impress a guy, the fact that she did it for someone she cares about soothes whatever anxiety she might have had about giving in to fashion (or at least, a particular alternative strain of fashion).
"Through A Lens Darkly", on the other hand, is more about Daria's sense of ethics. She's always made a big deal about not caring for popular opinion. Yet at the same time, she can't completely divorce herself from the world around her. Like anyone else, there's a small part of her that wonders what it'd be like to be popular.
I don't think Daria would ever envision herself as a cheerleader or as another Quinn. Her desire to be a brain is too firmly rooted for that. But she does wonder what it's like to get admiring looks as she walks by. She knows she can do this at least a bit, as "Quinn the Brain" showed.
So what happens when she gets the chance? A lot of shows at the time would take the simple approach. They'd have Daria learn how to be more relaxed, and maybe gain a newfound respect and understanding for her classmate's concerns regarding popularity.
Instead, the writers did the opposite. Daria's completely consumed by self-doubt and recrimination. Violating her sense of ethics is bad enough. Worse still is that she can't deny she likes the idea of being more attractive, as shown when she goes to school sans glasses and contacts. This knowledge haunts her.
It's telling that Daria projects her anxiety onto Jane. Daria's so consumed by her failure to stick to her guns that she can't see anything else. Of course, it's ridiculous to think this would bother Jane. She knows Daria is still Daria, even if she does try to look more conventional.
There's a difference between this and her piercing in "Pierce Me". Daria can be coaxed into trying new things if it's for (or with) someone she cares about. Jane and Trent matter to her. But she doesn't like to think she cares about Lawndale High's student body.
In the end, she doesn't give in, and that's why I like the show so much. It's not that Daria's right (I'd argue her stance is needlessly rigid)—rather, it's that the writers understood teenagers can still have standards and idiosyncrasies. That they aren't always running after the new fads or going on a neat climb to adulthood.
The episode's conclusion is almost subversive. Daria basically learns to take comfort in her particular sense of pride. That she doesn't need to care about attracting suitors or attention, because she can see the truth. And there's an ambiguity to this. One the one hand, it's admirable to see someone so young take a stand. On the other, there's a certain conceitedness in how sure she is of being right.
Which is completely normal for someone her age. The show presents it as is, without judgment, and in a way that viewers can relate to. Using intelligence as a basis for identity has risks but there's also an undeniable appeal, particularly if you're a smart outsider.
- "Pierce Me" once again shows the competition between Quinn and Sandi.
- Lawndale looks pretty rural in the opening scenes of "Through A Lens Darkly".
- Brittany again shows intelligence by being aware that a teacher's perspective of school differs from a student’s—maybe she's a postmodernist in the making?
- I really love Aunt Amy's advice in "Through A Lens Darkly".
- Daria doesn't need to worry about being vain. Her sin is clearly pride.
- Given how tightly wound Daria is, she's fortunate to have a friend as non-judgmental as Jane. Jane proves her worth by being supportive.