Life in the Past Lane
“Life in the Past Lane” isn’t a funny episode, and I’d initially planned to cover it in a combined write-up with “Aunt Nauseam”. But after watching it, I now think that it’s an important episode deserving some closer examination.
Season 5 is stuck under the shadow of The Kiss. Whatever the jokes, whatever the stories, that one event tinges everything that came afterward. Daria betrayed her only friend, a friend who’d been nothing but supportive of her. And Jane, against probability and good sense, forgave her.
All of this would suggest that Daria should at least be more conscious of her behavior toward Jane, that maybe she’d realize how lucky she is to have a friend like that. Yet this doesn’t happen. The relationship simply reverts to how it was before Tom: lots of snark with minimal emotional involvement. Except it can’t. Not really. Too much has changed. Neither Jane nor Daria is the same person they were in the early seasons.
I already commented on how unhelpful Daria was during “Art Burn” and she’s even worse in this episode. She reacts to Nathan the same way she reacted to Tom. But why? Back in Season 4, Tom represented a threat. Daria had no friends besides Jane and you could understand why she was scared about losing her to a boyfriend.
But what’s her excuse here? She can’t still be worried about Jane spending time elsewhere. It almost seems like she’s just trying to control Jane. But Daria doesn't have much of a manipulative streak. Instead, I think she’s just being cruelly and unbelievably thoughtless to someone who’s still feeling vulnerable because of Daria’s own actions.
Daria’s not wrong about Nathan (arguably, she wasn’t wrong about Tom, either). Still, she helps no one with her constant criticism. Daria later expresses some worry about Jane’s social life but this comes off as forced. Remember: Daria starts mocking Nathan the moment she hears about him, which annoys Jane. There’s no reason to think that Daria was actually worried about her friend. She was just snarking away for no reason, as usual.
Nathan himself is a jerk. He initially comes off as harmlessly eccentric but soon reveals his obsessive, selfish, and judgmental nature.
Hmm, obsessive, selfish, and judgmental… who does that remind me of?
Watching this episode again, I’m struck by how similar Daria and Nathan really are. Daria immediately looks down on Nathan’s vintage interests in much the same way he looks down on anyone who doesn’t live up to it in exactly his way. Both of these are self-centered reactions stemming from a desire to feel superior.
Consider Nathan’s comment about the “mindless, insipid mainstream”. It’s not hard to imagine those words coming out of Daria’s mouth.
In fairness to Daria, she rightly attacks Nathan for his absurd idealization of the past. When someone doesn’t fit in (and as someone who’s been a misfit, I speak from experience) there’s a tendency to assume that they’d be happy if they’d only been born in a different time or place. This is part of what motivates those American Anglophiles who idolize the UK and think they’d fit in there, completely ignoring the complexities of actual British society.
You see quite a lot of this today, particularly for previous eras that were assumed to be more stable, more artistic, more intellectual, or somehow more civilized. There’s also a troubling political dimension (which this episode touches on), in the longing that a white man might feel for an era of segregation. It’s clear that Nathan doesn’t really fit into the modern day, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with finding an escape in vintage fashion (and I’ll be honest: I personally think mid-20thcentury fashion looks a lot cooler than what we wear today), Nathan takes it to an unhealthy extreme.
The reality is, if you’re a misfit today, you’d have probably been even more of a misfit back then. Modern society is riddled with problems but the 2010s are more tolerant of weirdoes and eccentrics than the ‘90s were, which in turn were more tolerant than the ‘50s.
So Nathan is clearly bad news. But I’m not sure Daria is all that much better. Even if she has a more realistic view of the past, she still tends to look down on people for not being sufficiently cultured (though her metric for culture is different from Nathan’s).
And poor Jane has to deal with both. To Jane’s credit, she ditches Nathan once his relentless pickiness becomes too much for her. This episode is one reason that I’ve never bought the interpretation of Jane being a doormat. Daria’s needling had very little to do with her decision.
Maybe the experience with Nathan rattled Jane’s confidence in her own judgment. That’s the only way I can justify her going back to Daria at the end. Frankly, Jane deserves a lot better than Nathan or Daria.
This is the first episode of Daria to actually make me angry.
- I like how forward Jane is in picking up Nathan.
- Speaking of which, Daria’s objectively wrong. Dancing is quite fun. A foxtrot is a good introductory dance (though they didn’t animate the sidestep), and I’m quite fond of both West Coast and triple-step East Coast swing. Rumba and tango are also personal favorites.
- I didn’t comment on the B Plot about Upchuck and Stacy. It’s nice to see Stacy step out of her shell, though Upchuck was an odd vehicle for this.