Actions

Work Header

Daria - Episode-by-Episode Analysis

Chapter Text

Esteemsters

Premier episodes are tough to do. Not only must the show establish themes and introduce characters, it also has to grab the audience right off the bat.

What's interesting in "Esteemsters" is that it manages to do all this while maintaining a casual pace. The plot, such as there is, barely even kicks in until about halfway through. Instead, the episode hinges on Daria as a character.

So who is Daria, exactly? In this episode, she's intelligent (as shown in Mr. DeMartino's history class), sarcastic, and indifferent. This last bit is important. While her parents fret about her lack of popularity, it's clearly not something that bothers her.

Daria is not an outcast.

This is an important aspect of her character. High school's a pretty miserable time for everyone involved; we all wanted to find ourselves, make friends, meet that special someone, and maintain some kind of decent GPA. In this venue, I think Daria clicked not so much as someone who was necessarily like us, but someone we wished we could be. She's above all the crap (and a high GPA comes naturally to her).

Just look at her initial reaction to the school: bored contempt. She doesn't seem particularly frustrated or hurt by how the nascent Fashion Club embraces Quinn. Seeing her blasé attitude is downright liberating to anyone who's been frustrated by the vagaries of campus popularity. To hell with everyone else; why not just be yourself?

Well, there are reasons, but the show won't get to them until much later.

In the context of the times, "Esteemsters" satirizes the emphasis on self-confidence that was so prevalent in schools of that era (for the record, I went to high school from 1998-2002). It's definitely a deserving target. Obviously, confidence is important, but it's only meaningful if it stems from actual accomplishment. And to become accomplished, you have to work at something and put yourself out there; memorizing self-help aphorisms really won't do much.

We've all heard the cliche about Millennials having become spoiled through getting too many trophies in return for minimal effort. That it made us think we deserved the world just for showing up. The truth is, we knew it was nonsense. We knew the trophies were just knee-jerk reactions from lazy-minded adults. When everyone got a trophy, we still knew who the winners and losers really were.

And so did Daria. The way the show skewers the self-esteem movement is perfect. Mr. O'Neill is an accurate picture of bumbling good intention. He absolutely wants to make students feel better about themselves, but the only thing his program really nurtures is contempt for a transparently ridiculous system. His class demands almost nothing from the students, meaning they won't have anything to feel proud of. Likewise, he doesn't really put anything into it.

Laziness feeds laziness. There's also a perverse chord of truth to Jane's comment about low self-esteem making her feel "special", even if she was being sarcastic. O'Neill's class babies the students, giving them minimal and largely meaningless attention that might make a few people feel good for a little while, but won't actually help anyone.

Daria is a bit more aggressive in this episode than she is throughout most of the series. It's hard to imagine mid-series Daria taking her family to the Pizza Forest even to embarrass them. Far less effort to simply keep her distance.

Her relationship with Quinn is established clearly in the opening scenes, and continues to be a rich source of conflict for future episodes. At this point, Quinn's not particularly sympathetic, and her denial of sisterhood is one of the few things that actually gets under Daria's skin. At this point (and for much of the early seasons) Quinn is simply a foil.

Daria's introduction to Jane is done pretty quietly. No big drama, just two students finding common ground in the boredom of class. Plenty of us have had similar experiences. Daria is not all that invested in Jane at this point, which makes sense. She's navigating some pretty unfamiliar emotional territory, so her inclination is to keep things casual: watching TV, sharing answers, and so forth. It's a humble and believable start to one of TV's great friendships.

One has to wonder what Daria's thinking about Jane. Is Jane just someone who seems marginally more tolerable than the rest of the student body? Or is there a real sense of kinship? The Daria Diaries suggests the latter, though it's not clear if that's what Daria felt in the first episode. Regardless, Daria's keeping a safe emotional distance, staying above everything like always. This will have repercussions.

Chapter Text

The Invitation

"Esteemsters" established Daria as an introvert who's more comfortable on her own. So naturally, "The Invitation" drops her into a party.

A high school party is pretty much the worst kind of environment for someone like Daria because there's not much of an escape. She has to be social with people she doesn't necessarily like or care about. Even something like a rave might be preferable, as it allows for a certain degree of anonymity.

Like the first episode, "The Invitation" is pretty light on plot. This formula was common in the early seasons, if memory serves. In short, Daria and Jane drift into an awkward or unwanted social situation, wreak some relatively minor havoc, and snark off into the sunset.

What "The Invitation" does do is establish a number of themes that the series will revisit.

The most important of these is Daria's crush on Trent and her attitude to romance in general. "The Invitation" marks Trent's first appearance, as he drives Daria and Jane to the gated community of Crewe Neck. Interestingly, the crush is never made explicit. Daria says nothing during the drive and only later does Jane tease her about her silence. Daria's defensive reaction only hints at her romantic interest in Trent.

I'm honestly not sure if I'd have inferred that she was crushing on Trent had I not already seen several other episodes, but that could just be me being dense. What's interesting is how this ties in with the opening, which sees Daria following Quinn on the way to school, tormenting her with mere proximity. Daria's fun ends when the Three Js (their first appearance) swarm Quinn and beg for her favor.

Daria is not pleased. This is done relatively subtly. She doesn't say anything. Instead, she walks away, her expression sour.

Here's a case where Daria's lack of popularity does bother her. High school's when most people start getting seriously interested in romance and not even Daria can entirely divest herself from this. As such, it hurts all the more when Quinn gains admirers seemingly without effort.

Yet is mere attention what Daria wants?

Later, at the party, a pair of boys tries to pick up Daria and Jane (the boys don't have formal names, though one has gone down in lore as Bobby Bighead). They're obnoxious about it, and Daria's takedown is one of the episode's great lines.

And then Jane has to go and ruin it by making out with one of the boys, leaving Daria on her own.

The thing is, in high school you're pretty much expected to go for this kind of opportunity. Girls risk being labeled as easy, but as The Breakfast Club said, go too far the other way and you end up getting labeled as frigid. This isn't the sort of thing Daria cares to deal with. Plus, she's choosy.

In comparison, Quinn never seems to get very involved with any boys, but basks in their perpetual admiration. Jane is usually under the radar, but feels comfortable enough to take advantage of the occasional make-out opportunity.

Daria doesn't get much attention and is unwilling to avail herself. She is inhibited, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In this situation, however, it only leads to more isolation and reminds her that this is one area where Quinn does have her beat. Daria doesn't yet have the confidence to shrug it off.

You can see this when she's revealing Quinn's humiliating secrets to the Three Js. Daria's clearly trying to embarrass her sister, but is she succeeding? The Three Js certainly don't seem to care. Though Daria's dishing the dirt, she actually comes off as the awkward one.

Assuming Daria embarrassed herself, did she even realize it? I think she might be naive enough about social situations that she did not. But the damage is done.

I'm not sure if this was the intent of the writers. However, it reads that way to me. Daria does tend to be isolated, and maybe a bit bitter about it. Indeed, Jane's the main reason Daria is even in that party. When she goes off with Bobby Bighead, it reminds Daria of her own isolation.

Notes

  • Jamie is a lot more assertive than he is in later episodes. When people get his name wrong, he vocalizes his annoyance.
  • In addition to Trent and the Three Js, "The Invitation" also marks the first appearances of Ms. Defoe, Jodie, Mack, Upchuck, and Tiffany
  • Upchuck actually shows off a pretty formidable range of knowledge (while it may be BS on his part, he still has to know a fair amount to BS in this particular way), establishing him as intelligent. Unfortunately, he's still incredibly annoying.
  • Tiffany sounds normal.
  • I always liked the second Crewe Neck resident who comes through the booth when Daria and Jane take over; he actually seems entertained by their question, and answers with confidence. Farewell Middle-Aged Crewe Neck resident; we hardly knew ye.
  • Daria's only at the party because Jane suggested that they go. As is so often the case in the series, Jane is the instigator. Without her, Daria would simply stay in her room and read or browse the web.

Chapter Text

College Bored
Social corruption is a recurring theme in Daria. "College Bored" is the first episode that touches on it, and not in a way that necessarily makes Daria look that good.

First, the satire. College is the main target of the writers' barbs in this episode and it's interesting to see how many of them still strike true. Competition for college intensified during the '90s, as pundits warned parents that a lack of a degree would doom their child to a bleak adulthood of minimum wage jobs.

Of course, as more and more students got degrees, the values of those same degrees plummeted. A BA is not necessarily that useful these days and there are plenty of graduates who struggle to get good jobs in an increasingly competitive market. Worse, too many colleges became more concerned about tuition money than education.

You can see this early on, with Ramona reading an SAT prep book for toddlers. This is barely satire, since in real life some parents would go so far as to enroll elementary school children in preparatory courses.

Daria dismisses the idea (and offers a prescient comment about moving back in after graduation) but still ends up going to a high school prep course (Push Comes to Love), which is predictably useless.

When Daria and Quinn finally visit Middleton, they find that learning is not really a high priority, for either the students or the administration. Jake can't even figure out what the high tuition costs cover and the assistant bursar is evasive. In all likelihood, it reflects the tendency in many colleges to have increasingly large (and expensive) administrative apparatuses. Education is a distant second priority.

The NY Times had an interesting article on this tendency in 2015, so it still goes on. (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/opin ... .html?_r=0)

The students aren't much better, spending their energies on anything other than work. This is brought home when Heather, the Morgendorffers' campus guide, gets a pre-written paper that she ordered. Seeing the paper's low quality, Daria offers to fix it up, and is soon doing a brisk business.

Cheating in college is nothing new, but it expanded dramatically with the rise of the Internet. The Internet made it easy to find people or even entire companies willing to write mediocre college papers for students. A particularly infamous real life example is Dave Tomar/Ed Dante, who made a living off of writing papers for college students, and later described his experiences in a book called The Shadow Scholar.

What all of this shows is that college is mostly about money. Kids are sent there not to learn, but to get the skills they need for good careers. The colleges use money to enrich their own administrators. Students would rather party and pay others to do the work for them.

And Daria happily becomes part of the problem. Cash is cash after all.

At this point, Daria's character is still being fleshed out. Season 1 Daria is, in general, more cynical and indifferent than she is later on. She doesn't have the same strong morals she'd show in later episodes ("Fizz Ed", "Prize Fighters").

Yet some of these later episodes ("See Jane Run", "Dye! Dye my Darling!") show her doing the wrong thing for self-benefit. In "See Jane Run", the issue even relates to school corruption. Thus, "College Bored" establishes that Daria has a moral blind spot. Her cynicism is not always just for show.

Notes:

  • The experiences of the other students in Push Comes to Love continue the theme. Neither Kevin nor Brittany learn anything (granted, they're pretty thick), while Mack gets a firsthand look at corrupt athletics.
  • Middleton is later shown as being a second-rung school. Raft is hopefully a bit better.

Chapter Text

Café Disaffecto

"Café Disaffecto" is a bit of a rambling episode. The eponymous café acts as the focus at the first and final acts—but is only really shown at the end, and in a form different from its previous incarnation. The middle is mostly about the cutthroat world of high school fundraising.

Regardless, it's a funny episode.

Hard as it is to imagine now, the Internet still felt novel in the late '90s. At my upper-middle class high school there were more than a few students whose homes didn't have computers. Those who did could sometimes only access the Internet through wheezy dial-up modems (I was in this camp).

Internet cafes, which offered high-speed Internet at relatively low prices, filled an important niche. Gamers particularly flocked to such establishments. But it was hardly exclusive for gamers. Students used them to study, workers relied on them for email access away from the cubicle, and paramours found them helpful for arranging clandestine trysts.

Nowadays, when you can put the Internet in your pocket with a smartphone, there simply isn't as much need. However, Internet cafes are still around, and some do brisk business.

Mr. O'Neill's comment about how the robbery had isolated Lawndale from the "virtual community" is another very '90s line. It's now difficult at best to cut yourself off from the digital world. Daria's skewering of Mr. O'Neill's comment, where she points out the isolation of living life through a screen, is also prescient.

The meat of the episode deals with the extracurricular activities taken to restore the café, which brings us again to the ridiculous competition for college placement. In theory, these kinds of activities build character and add to the student's life experience—and sometimes they do. Too often, however, they just become cynical attempts to make a student look more appealing to the college of their choice.

Daria shows some signs of a flinty moral integrity in her refusal to sell chocolate to Mrs. Johansen. This foreshadows Daria's character development. Jane's actually the more callous one here, with her ghoulish photograph of a prone Mrs. Johansen (to be generous, maybe she was just inspired by the artistic qualities of such a sight).

The subsequent confrontation with Ms. Li is the first of many in the series. Ms. Li is the hard authoritarian equivalent of the wimpy Mr. O'Neill. Her intentions are not good, and she's easily one of the most cynical characters on the show. This helps define Daria as someone who does possess ethical values, even if (as "College Bored" shows) they aren't fully formed or consistent.

"Café Disaffecto" isn't one of the big or dramatic episodes, but it's an important one. High school isn't only about sneering at idiots and making snarky comments. Sometimes it's also about learning to do the right thing.

Notes:

  • I didn't comment much on the finale, but it's a grand one. We get our introduction to the deadly Melody Powers, and the first of Andrea's too-scant speaking moments.
  • Speaking of Andrea, I always wished they'd done a bit more with her. She seems a bit like Daria and Jane, but never has significant interaction with them. One wonders what could have been.
  • Quinn's presented as a canny operator in how she sells phone cards. Her marketing talent is almost frightening.

Chapter Text

Malled/This Year's Model

This will be the first write-up to incorporate two episodes. It's fitting, since both episodes revolve around the theme of adults exploiting teenagers. In "Malled", the exploitation is commercial, while "This Year's Model" has adults exploiting the dreams and bodies of young people. Both episodes also show Daria objecting to this exploitation, establishing that there is some idealism beneath the cynical exterior.

One wonders how Lawndale's Mall of the Millennium might look in a hypothetical Lawndale of the 2010s. Is it still a bustling jam-pack of franchise stores, combed through by shoppers eager for the next deal? Or is it a ghost town, its patrons lured away by the low cost and lower hassle of online shopping?

Malls don't have the same cultural presence they did in the '90s, to the point that it's easy to forget how big a deal they were back then. However, "Malled" sets its sights on consumerism rather than on malls per se, so a lot of the satire still rings true.

The highlight of this episode is when Mrs. Bennett takes the students to a meeting with mall executives, under the pretense of learning about business. In reality, the execs just want to use the teens for market research. Jodie's the first to question this, while Daria and Jane expose the whole façade by revealing observers taking notes behind a two-way mirror.

Daria repeatedly satirizes the way in which marketers attempt to co-opt youth culture in order to make a sale. The irony is that this is essentially the platform on which MTV itself was built. For all the talk of being a place for teens, MTV was run by adults who'd gotten quite good at making money by doing this.

And as "Malled" shows, it's pretty easy to do. After all, both Jodie and Jane are happy to accept the $20 worth of coupons that the executives offer as bribes in return for their silence.

In "This Year's Model", the exploitation comes in the form of the Amazon Modeling Agency. Fashion prizes youth and beauty, and the Lawndale students have plenty of both. What they don't have is the maturity or experience to realize that they're being used. What's more, they're being used in a decidedly creepy way.

This is reinforced in the casual cruelty of Claude and Romonica. One of their nastiest moments of this episode is when they use a homely student (named Diana, according to The Angst Guy's Backgrounders site) as a decoy to give the impression that everyone has a shot at modeling. In reality, only people like Kevin or Quinn have a real chance.

It's no surprise that they'd target Quinn, and a pleasant surprise that it backfires on them even without Daria's help. Insecure and status-obsessed though Quinn might be, she's still smart enough to sense that she's being used. Despite her initial enthusiasm, she's the only student to balk at the creepy "make-out" fashion shoot. Even in the first season, Quinn's strong enough to establish her own boundaries.

While Daria's objection to the mall execs was pretty half-hearted, she goes all-out on the Amazon Modeling Agency. There are a couple of ways to view her actions.

In one, her hostility stems from her hatred of all things superficial. Modeling fetishizes beauty and turns it into a product that influences how others behave. Plus, interfering gives her a chance to dash Quinn's hopes.

This isn't a particularly flattering interpretation. While the episode's critiques of the modeling industry are trenchant, one must also remember that Daria may be angry simply because modeling celebrates qualities that she doesn't think she can attain. Assuming the industry were less corrupt, why shouldn't people be able to make a living off their looks? Jodie highlights this early on in the episode, when she criticizes Daria's cynicism toward modeling.

The other interpretation is that, at least on some level, Daria's looking out for Quinn. That'd certainly explain why Daria goes through the effort of getting General Buck Conroy to show up and reveal that Principal Li was getting kickbacks for allowing Amazon onto campus.

I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. People can take comfort in exclusion. Those who are excluded by their peers may instead take a contrarian position in order to save face. Consider Daria's awkward behavior back in "The Invitation", or her hypocrisy later on in "See Jane Run".

But adolescence is also when we grow, and learn to put ourselves in others shoes. Daria cares about Quinn, even in Season 1 when she refuses to show it. If she truly didn't care, she probably wouldn't be so upset about Quinn refusing to admit their sisterhood. In this sense, Daria's behavior in "This Year's Model" shows her starting to grow, even if she doesn't totally realize it, and definitely wouldn't admit it.

Consider also that, in "Malled", Daria eventually gives up on her objections and goes to get a Doodad—whatever that is. In "This Year's Model", the stakes are higher, and she stands her ground. She will do the right thing, so long as there's motivation.

Notes:

  • '90s Reminder: The Fuzzy Wuzzy Wee Bits is a clear satire of Beanie Babies, which had gotten popular at around the time of this episode's airing. They're apparently still a thing.
  • Whenever anyone referred to the Amazon Modeling Agency, I'd automatically think of Amazon.com. How times change.
  • Claude and Romonica felt a bit lazy as characters, broad archetypes stretched past the point of breaking. For this reason, I consider "Malled" the funnier of the two episodes.
  • It's interesting that the rarely seen Mrs. Bennett plays a significant role in both episodes.
  • Brutal Mercenary Magazine is a clear reference to Soldier of Fortune.

Chapter Text

The Lab Brat

We need to talk about Kevin.

Daria's ire toward Kevin doesn't always seem justified. Sure, the guy's an idiot, but he means well. It's easy to see her dislike stemming from elitism. After all, Daria has little patience for those slower than her, something she already demonstrated in her sarcastic (albeit comprehensive) explanation of the vanishing point in "The Invitation".

However, "The Lab Brat" shows that her dislike may stem more from Kevin's entitlement than from his stupidity. Sure, he's a nice guy. But he's also someone who coasts through life, expecting to be treated like royalty for his athletic prowess.

You see this in how he interacts with the other members of the Morgendorffer family. Quinn goes out of her way to get his attention, but his eyes never wander from the Pigskin Channel. He's similarly indifferent to Jake's somewhat uncomfortable personal disclosures.

Simply put, Kevin doesn't care much about you if you're not a football player or cheerleader. He won't be mean to you. You're just beneath his notice.

And in this, he's not really any different from his peers. The difference is, society bends over backwards to justify Kevin's indifference. Later episodes show him getting freebies on tests, just so he can stay on the team. His fame on the gridiron translates into him being a locus for popularity, in spite of his actually pretty limited social skills. Do they actually like him? Or do they just want to benefit from his popularity?

Daria's interests lie in the written word, something to which society is largely indifferent, if not hostile. Kevin's easy popularity is a reminder of her comparative isolation. He'll get a pass because he's an athlete, but no one will give her a pass for being a brain.

Kevin's popularity is front and center all through "The Lab Brat". The Three Js all start trying to get good with Daria the moment they think Kevin has some kind of interest in her. Brittany works herself into a frenzy, fearing that Kevin's been stolen away by both of the Morgendorffer girls (and possibly their father). In reality, he just wants to watch football. The high drama around him doesn't register. What's more, it won't affect him. He's too popular for any of that to matter. Not even Ms. Barch giving him a D has any real effect. Kevin knows that someone, Coach Gibson or maybe Principal Li, will still pull the strings to keep him on the team.

With this in mind, Daria's hostility to Kevin makes more sense. Is her hostility really fair, however? I'm not so sure. Like I said, Kevin's not really cognizant of his fortune. He may not be capable of realizing it. In a way, he's a victim. Kevin's a talented player, but it's not at all clear he's good enough to make a career out of football. The system uses him for its own ends and will spit him out when it's all over (which is more or less what happens in "Is It College Yet?").

Daria herself doesn't necessarily care that much about those who don't share her interests. The difference is, no one will celebrate her for her attitude. Instead, she has to learn things the hard way, dealing with actual consequences for her actions. Which, of course, is how you grow and become a better person.

She's actually pretty lucky compared to Kevin.

Notes:

  • '90s Reminder: Brittany tells Kevin that she justified cable TV to her parents by saying she'd watch the History Channel. While the History Channel was sometimes criticized for overemphasizing World War 2 (hence the joke of calling it the Hitler Channel), there was a time when it primarily focused on its ostensible subject. Nowadays, it's just another reality TV station.
  • It's interesting to note that, when Kevin tells Daria about a party he's planning, she initially looks hopeful that she'll be invited.
  • While I might question the fairness of Daria's hostility, it's also a completely realistic reaction for someone her age.
  • I first watched Daria on The N, which was infamous for censoring episodes. The N's version of "The Lab Brat" omitted Upchuck's blackmail plan which made the character seem relatively harmless. The MTV Upchuck, however, is actually quite creepy.
  • This episode also marks Ms. Barch's first appearance. She's played for laughs but she'd honestly be a pretty horrible teacher to have.

Chapter Text

The Pinch Sitter

"The Pinch Sitter" is all about subversion. When Helen pushes Quinn to prioritize her life (meaning, put schoolwork first), she instead uses her newfound organizational ability to better plan her dates. When Daria meets the Gupty children, she subverts the neat narrative of their parents to introduce a bit of critical thinking.

What's interesting is that the senior Guptys, for all their progressive wholesomeness, are still tied into this theme. They believe in raising well-mannered and socially conscious children but unwittingly subvert their intent through dogmatism.

In one scene, the Gupty children tell Daria why it's bad to watch commercials (and, by extension, TV). Some parents use commercials to teach critical thinking. It's easy to see why: a commercial is designed to get you to buy something and they aren't usually that subtle about it. By simply explaining what a commercial actually is, a parent can help a child understand that those friendly people on the TV (or YouTube, these days) don't really have your best interests at heart.

Yet Tad can't explain why commercials are bad. He just knows they rot your brain.

Thus, what could have been an opportunity for critical thinking becomes mere dogma.

Though the term "helicopter parent" didn't become common until the 2000s, it was around in the '90s. The Guptys are an example of this kind of parenting. Their children have very little room for expression or discovery. In protecting the kids, Lauren and Lester risk stifling them.

In a strange way, consumerism can even be an avenue for self-discovery. How many of you learned something about yourselves after purchasing a CD, or buying a particular set of clothes? What about tuning into a certain television program? Yes, this continues the inundation of commercialism, but we all bring our own individual experiences to the table. We interpret what we consume, and in so doing, we may grow.

Tad and Tricia can't do this very easily. Everything's designed to turn them into their parents. It's not hard to imagine Lester and Lauren Gupty following their kids to college and job interviews.

Hopefully, Daria gave Tad and Tricia an opportunity to see things their own way. Tricia already seems inclined to buck the narrative a bit; witness how quickly she figures out which of Daria's (or Jane's) stories is not true.

Notes:

  • '90s Reminder: Daria's reference to renting out a mountain cabin is almost certainly intended as a reference to the recently arrested Unabomber.
  • The bric-a-brac in the Gupty home always puzzled me. It doesn't really fit their anti-commercial stance.
  • Responsibility is usually something Daria avoids. Much easier to just stand in the background and snark. Despite this, she does a reasonably good job of babysitting, albeit with help from Jane (who's a natural at this).
  • Quinn is planning dates months in advance which is actually pretty impressive for someone her age.

Chapter Text

Too Cute

Hardly rare in the '90s, cosmetic surgery has only gotten more common. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (admittedly, a potentially biased source) claims that the number of procedures has increased by 115% since the 2000.

Some people dismiss cosmetic surgery as exclusive to the vain, which I don't think is fair. Appearance can be an important part of a person's identity so who am I to blame someone for trying to capitalize on it?

At the same time, there's still an underlying tension. When you go under cosmetic surgery, are you doing it for you, or to please others?

Helen's comment touches on this when she talks about older women getting cosmetic surgery for professional reasons. Here, industry intrudes on a woman's body, expecting them to undergo invasive and potentially irreversible procedures (and men can be subject to this as well).

The issue's even thornier when it comes to adolescents, who are under tremendous pressure to look their best before they've necessarily obtained a strong sense of self (granted, not all adults have a strong sense of self, either). Is it right to make cosmetic surgery an option for teenagers?

Quinn is, without a doubt, the main character of "Too Cute". One of the challenges the writers of Daria faced was centering the show around someone who, by her very nature, doesn't do much. While Daria can be motivated to action she's usually content to be an observer. As such, the instigator is usually someone else, often Quinn or Jane.

But this episode is Quinn's story because it directly ties into her personality. Quinn's obsessed with her appearance. At the same time, she has a stronger sense of self than she realizes. This was seen back in "This Year's Model", when she showed visible reluctance to participate in the modeling agency's shenanigans.

She's still beholden to the cutthroat world of high school popularity. I love her monologue toward the end when she describes the constant arms race. I'll quote it here, because it's pure gold:

"I mean, I like being attractive and popular. It's, like, me, okay? So if Dr. Shar makes everyone else attractive and popular, then I'll have to be even more attractive just to keep up, and then if they, like, go back her to catch up to me, then I'll have to go back, and pretty soon it'll be like one of those vicious things! (melodramatic tone) Where will it end Daria? Where will it end?"

Quinn's trapped, and on some level, she knows it.

It's never stated, but I think the reason that Quinn shanghais Daria into going with her to Dr. Shar is that, on some level, Quinn wants to be talked out of surgery. She already knows she's beautiful and hates the idea of caving in and changing herself. At the same time, she identifies too strongly with the competition of the Fashion Club to fully shun the idea.

Quinn is very much Helen's daughter. Like Helen, Quinn has a strong identity and a strong sense of competitiveness. Though the two aspects are intertwined, they're also in opposition. Competition drives Quinn to get surgery while her self-identity resists the same.

Daria's sense of self is even stronger than Quinn's but this episode shows that she's not immune to social pressure. Dr. Shar's comments get under Daria's skin as surely as any scalpel. Dr. Shar's condescension reminds Daria that she's alone precisely because she has a strong sense of self.

Like any teenager, Daria wants to be accepted for who she is. Plastic surgery might lead to acceptance but in this context it also means a complete erosion of her self (a point made bluntly when the virtual surgery renders her identical to Quinn). Daria's not willing to give up her identity, and this reminds her that her stance will come at a cost, and that she is (in some ways, at least) responsible for her own isolation.

Ultimately, "Too Cute" is a tragedy. Despite her own misgivings, Quinn can't stand the thought of being left behind. Popularity and beauty are her whole world. So she caves and tries to get plastic surgery.

Fortunately, it's a tragedy without any real consequences (for Quinn). She's never able to get the funds she needs to go under, and Brooke's unfortunate "nasal relapse" ends the surgery fad in Lawndale High.

Many fans see Quinn's character arc to be as strong as, if not stronger than, Daria's own. That the groundwork for this is laid as early as Season One is impressive for a show that typically reverts back to the status quo (as it does in this episode). Though she gives in, Quinn puts up a lot more resistance than her peers.

Notes:

  • I love the Mayan décor in Dr. Shar's office. The Mayans practiced extensive cosmetic surgery, so the addition makes for a nice historical touch.
  • Speaking of Dr. Shar, I also want to tip my hat to whoever handled her character design. She's memorably ghoulish.
  • Poor Brooke! The episode implies that the relapse isn't as gruesome as initial reports made it sound but that's still got to be traumatic.
  • Andrea Alert! Her second spoken line is in this episode, and it's a classic.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

The Road Worrier

Here we are! The episode that launched a thousand 'ships!

There's no question that the Daria/Trent 'ship was (and is) a huge deal. It's easy to see why—Trent's a cool older guy. Someone mysterious, and driven by his own personal vision. He's dangerous—but not in a way that threatens real harm. Just in the way that promises to add some chaos to a perhaps too-predictable life.

Though "The Invitation" was the first episode to touch on Daria's feelings for Trent, "The Road Worrier" is where it comes into sharp focus.

This is also the first time that we really see Daria caught off-guard. So far, she's never been at loss for a dry observation or a cutting remark. She makes her opinion known, and woe betide the student, teacher, or family member who gets in her way.

Which is why it's such a surprise when she doesn't voice her opinion on Trent's music.

One of the things I like about this episode is that even now, in the throes of a teenage crush, Daria can't quite silence her analytical side. Though she gazes at Trent in rapt adoration, her big brain still tells her he's not all that great as a musician.

The scene touches on a key aspect of Daria's character: that for all of her pragmatism and intelligence, she's as emotional as anyone else. And like anyone else, that emotion sometimes gets the better of her.

It's worth noting that "The Road Worrier" does a perfect job of showing why Trent isn't a good match for Daria. Trent's is in his twenties. He has no job experience, no education beyond high school, and mostly slacks off with his buddies. His lyrics are terrible.

And the painful part is that on some level Daria knows all this. She's not some starry-eyed youngster who thinks that you just need to follow your dreams to succeed.

Adolescence is tough enough with the bad decisions you inevitably make; it's even tougher when you know they're bad but you just can't resist. If you're like Daria, you might go along with a bad choice, knowing it's stupid, that you'll regret it, but you just can't silence that inner hope, the hope that this is what you want and that it will work out.

This is something we see again and again with Daria. Later on, "Lane Miserables" almost explicitly states this with its fantasy sequences. The most devastating, of course, is what Daria does with Tom.

You could make the argument that Daria is, in many respects, more emotional than Quinn. Many of Quinn's interactions are pretty superficial. She acts emotional, but in reality she's rather calculating. Just look at the way she treats her admirers, or how she handles Fashion Club intrigue.

This isn't a set-in-stone rule. Daria does have a higher emotional threshold than Quinn. She's more likely to hold back. But when she does give in, it's like a breaking dam. Which is maybe why she's so reluctant to do this.

And what does this say about Daria? Does it make her a hypocrite for looking down on other, more visibly emotional characters? Is she maybe not particularly rational?

No, and no. All it says is that she's vulnerable, confused, and struggling with herself. Human, in other words.

Notes

  • I believe this episode marks the first appearance of Jesse Moreno, the Tank, and Mom's Diner. Quite a resume!
  • Curtis sports an impressive pompadour.
  • Fans often wonder whether or not Trent knew Daria had a crush on him. I don't think he does in this episode, since he seems as oblivious as Jane says he is.
  • For this piece, I fear that I over-relied on a Cartesian duality between emotion and reason. Obviously the two are more intertwined than popular culture suggests. However, I think my argument works if one assumes that the characters (particularly Daria) examine themselves and their surroundings through such a Cartesian lens.

Chapter Text

The Misery Chick

Whenever someone compiles a list of the best Daria episodes, "The Misery Chick" nearly always makes the cut, and it's easy to see why. This episode gets right to the heart of who Daria is, and why so many viewers have identified with her.

The episode also throws in a healthy dose of high school satire. On one level, the satire is plays it pretty safe—we've all heard the story of the washed-up former high school quarterback, which Tommy Sherman exemplifies.

As Kevin discovers, the closer we get to our role models, the more we learn that they're just human. Hopefully they're better than Tommy Sherman, but the fact remains that history's luminaries still had their bad days. This gives "The Misery Chick" an emotional resonance in the era of social media, when celebrities and famous people broadcast their thoughts 24/7, giving us a sometimes uncomfortable look into their thought processes (or at least the thought processes of their social media managers).

On a deeper level, however, the episode satirizes the way we approach death. Tommy's demise is tragic in the sense that it was needless and accidental. But the episode pulls no punches when showing how despicable of a person Tommy really was. Dying does not make you a good person. However, we all want to be remembered as good people. This is why eulogies will sing the praises of even the most despicable. We're all comfortable with that hypocrisy because, deep down, most of us are at least somewhat cognizant of our own failings and moral lapses.

Tommy's death leaves Lawndale High in a lurch. Everyone (except possibly Mr. O'Neill) knows that Tommy was a prick. But no one wants to be the one to judge a dead guy. It's a contradiction that can only be navigated by someone who's honest and analytical.

Daria, in other words.

The fact that Daria is the first choice of contact for both Kevin and Brittany tells us two things. One is that she has a reputation as someone comfortable talking about emotionally charged subjects. The other is that she's far from an outcast.

Despite this, she feels like one. And you can see why: people don't talk to her because she can comfort them. Rather, they talk to her because they assume she's already unhappy and used to dwelling on miserable subjects.

Except Daria's not unhappy.

Reading gloomy novels and shunning society are both things Daria feels entirely comfortable doing. Sure, she may feel occasional anxiety about how people view her, but on the whole she's more comfortable with herself than most people her age.

This isn't something many of her peers can easily accept, however. To them, anyone who acts like her has to have something wrong with them. And in a way, this gives her power. They perceive her as being an expert.

And this ties into my second point about Daria not being an outcast. It's sometimes tempting to think of her as one, particularly for those of us who've felt like outcasts. That she's a kindred spirit of some kind. However, the show indicates otherwise. People like Kevin and Brittany simply do not talk to outcasts. If they did, they'd have probably gone to Andrea instead of Daria.

Confidence is a type of social capital, one that's particularly valuable in high school, where almost everyone is trying to pretend a self-assurance they don't actually feel. Daria may have offbeat interests, but she has confidence in spades. If someone mocks her, she cuts them down without missing a beat.

And yeah, putting other people down is an important part of maintaining one's place in the high school hierarchy.

At the same time, I don't think Daria's popular, exactly. Though she's on speaking terms with the upper crust, she's not friends with any of them (except maybe Jodie). She knows how to mock people, but she doesn't navigate social situations very well.

I'd argue that Daria's place is somewhere outside of the social hierarchy. She earns some respect for her confidence and for her willingness to speak her mind. However, she's too strange to really be accepted.

In other words, she's found the perfect place for herself in Lawndale High. Her perch is remote, secure, and comfortable.

At this point, Jane's the only one who can really get through. Interestingly, she's the one who actually avoids talking to Daria about the issue. Some of this comes from Jane's (misguided but understandable) sense of guilt. It may also come from Jane knowing Daria better than most.

We don't know that much about Jane's life before the show, but it seems to have been a pretty lonely one. She's probably not someone who ever interacts with the campus aristocracy (at least, not until she starts hanging out with Daria).

Daria almost lives a charmed life by comparison. The Morgendorffer family has its problems, but they care about her even if she doesn't always realize this. Lawndale High thinks Daria's weird, but they more or less accept her weirdness. She has the luxury of not having to care.

From Jane's perspective, Daria might not be the right person to talk to about serious matters.

Daria makes the effort to smooth things over with Jane, and the conflict is resolved (at least, for the time being). However, "The Misery Chick" seems to show that Daria's unaware of her own popularity, and thus also unaware of how fortunate she is compared to Jane.

Notes:

  • Trent's unusually perceptive in this episode. Too bad he isn't perceptive later on, when it really counts.
  • As mean as Daria's approach to Sandi is, I crack up every time I see it. And hey, her strategy does work.
  • The version of this episode broadcast on The N leaves out some of Tommy's less savory dialogue. He's even nastier in the original script.

Chapter Text

Arts n' Crass

This might be my favorite episode in the entire series. Only "Lane Miserables" and "Boxing Daria" can seriously challenge this one for the top spot.

Despite this, I'll acknowledge that "Arts n' Crass" is actually pretty typical for a Daria episode. It's the standard situation in which Daria and Jane encounter the school's institutionalized stupidity, subvert it, and celebrate with pizza. Where the episode shines is in its execution. The dialogue is on point, the characters reveal their best (or worst) qualities, and the conclusion is satisfying.

The theme of the episode is self-expression, specifically in how it applies to students. Teenagers don’t necessarily have the experience to understand the larger social context in which they live (admittedly, this is true for many adults as well), so their self-expression may be offensive, clumsy, or disruptive. Which isn't necessarily bad—but it can be a problem in an institution like a school, which needs to maintain a certain degree of conformity in order to function.

On the other hand, schools in the US (at least back then) made some pretense to preparing students for living in a free society, which meant they had to appear to encourage self-expression. Hence, the art contest tries to draw in the students' desire for self-expression, and then co-opts it for the purposes of school propaganda.

So you have the forces of free expression (Daria and Jane) arrayed against the forces of censorship (Principal Li and Mr. O'Neill). As is often the case, the former group has to be a lot cleverer in order to win, since they don't have the power. But they can, judo-like, subvert the power structure.

Jane features heavily in this episode, but despite this, it almost feels like she's just along for the ride. The idea behind the painting, and its incendiary caption, all come from Daria.

You can see this in Jane's stammering explanation to Ms. Defoe's interrogation. It's clear that Jane focused on the artistry without giving too much thought to the underlying purpose (granted, she corrects this later on).

It's interesting to see Daria become so invested in this. Though she came up with the concept, Jane did a lot more of the actual work.

I think this says something important about the characters. Self-expression is essential to Jane. There are aspects of herself she wants to explore and reveal, and the mere act of doing so is important to her.

You can even see some cases of this that don't involve art, like her transformations in "The F Word" and "Life in the Past Lane". Likewise, she tends to lose some interest if the art isn't hers. That's the big problem she runs into in "Art Burn".

So is the painting in "Arts n' Crass" really Jane's? She only made it because Ms. Defoe asked her to. Including Daria seems almost like a way for Jane to stave off boredom. Daria is the one who becomes more invested in the work. Jane goes along with her, since the painting still reflects her worldview and interests, but she doesn't think it's truly hers because it isn't.

Also, consider that Jane's the one who seems to come up with the idea of defacing the painting. Enthusiasm dawns on her face the moment she suggests breaking the system. In a real way, the defacing is the first time in this episode in which she's able to express herself. She can defy both the schools constraints on her art, and Daria's interference.

Daria is much more analytical and critical than Jane. While Daria may not have a strong emotional connection to the outside world, she's definitely interested in it as an object of study. Thus, for her, Ms. Li's interference feels a lot more personal. Daria used Jane's painting to say something, and it's essential that this message is communicated.

Except I'm not sure Daria communicated her message all that well. When Ms. Defoe sees the painting, she initially assumes that it's mocking or judging those with eating disorders. Those are not unreasonable conclusions. Nothing in the painting or the caption offers sympathy for the girl, or explicitly critiques the social system that would drive her to bulimia.

In fact, given Daria's penchant for dark humor, I can't help but think she intended it as mockery, if only subconsciously. Consider the painting's genesis: all the ideas Daria and Jane come up with involve criticizing and insulting the aspects of school that they hate. Their goal is more to subvert the school propaganda than to make any statement actually supporting those with eating disorders.

But Principal Li and Mr. O'Neill aren't really any better. They don't object to the painting being unclear or mean-spirited. Rather, Li doesn't want the school to look bad, and O'Neill just wants to avoid conflict. Their desire to interfere is selfish. Ms. Defoe was the only one who actually saw the problem, but she didn't follow up on it.

There's plenty of cynicism to go around.

Notes:

  • Interestingly, Principal Li and Mr. O'Neill act as a mirror image to Daria and Jane. Li is all about the message (specifically, the honor and glory of Lawndale High), while O'Neill acknowledges the value of self-expression, but screws up due to his noxious half-measures.
  • Both Jake and Helen have great moments in this episode: the former in his defense of Daria's artistic integrity, and the latter in her epic takedown of Ms. Li.
  • Upchuck is a surprisingly skilled artist.
  • I'm pretty sure this is the first actual episode of Daria that I watched. As someone who's been a Type 1 diabetic since age three, Jane's "Not if you're diabetic," line made me a fan for life.

Chapter Text

The Daria Hunter

"The Daria Hunter" isn't one of the better entries in the series.

It's what I call a scattershot episode. These are episodes that lack any real overarching plot and instead set the characters loose in a particular venue, following them as they get into or cause trouble. Later examples include "Fair Enough" and "Just Add Water".

Scattershot episodes aren't necessarily bad and they can provide some nice character moments for the second stringers in the cast. But they usually aren't the most engaging simply because there's not much focus.

"The Daria Hunter" puts its satirical eye on paintball, which started becoming popular in the '90s along with other extreme sports. I occasionally play paintball though I'm not particularly well-versed in the culture. They do get some things right, like the way the field is divided up into areas named after various theaters of war.

I will admit that while watching this episode, I'm distracted by the fact that only Principal Li wears a mask. Yes, I understand that they needed to make sure you see the faces of the characters, but masks are an integral part of paintball safety. Goggles alone won't cut it.

Just needed to get that off my chest.

This episode does have some good moments. Brittany's surprising tactical acumen has deservedly won her some fans and it's fun to see Mr. DeMartino be even more intense than usual. Likewise, this episode marks the start of the rather unhealthy relationship between Mr. O'Neill and Ms. Barch.

The Fashion Club predictably gets into some backstabbing. What I find interesting is that Quinn seems a lot more aggressive toward Sandi than she is in later episodes. Likewise, Tiffany is more openly Machiavellian. It's a trait she displays intermittently, though in later episodes she's too stupid for it to be effective.

At the end, as Sandi recreates Platoon's most famous shot, it seems like Quinn's conducted a successful coup. But it's never referenced again and Sandi's back in charge the next episode so… what was the point?

Similarly pointless is the Great White Shark. The whole thing works like a weird exercise in experimental anti-humor. There's a lot of buildup, and the denouement is bizarre and nonsensical. What's this woman even doing out there? Why is a retelling of Jaws supposed to be funny? I don't get it.

Notes

  • Despite the Fashion Club's uncharacteristic aggression, I'm fairly certain that Stacy genuinely thought Sandi was Daria. Fairly certain.
  • Given how inaccurate markers (the term for paintball guns) can be, it's actually somewhat believable that Mr. DeMartino would miss every shot as Brittany cartwheeled toward him.
  • I like the kepi cap/Havelock combination worn by Jane and Jodie. Very French Foreign Legion.
  • Paintballs really do sting.

Chapter Text

Quinn the Brain

"Quinn the Brain" brings something new: a real threat to Daria's persona.

Daria has always been fairly comfortable with her loner status. Staying out of the social world suits her introversion and lets her focus on what she cares about.

I don't think that Daria is jealous of Quinn, exactly. Rather, she resents the fact that society celebrates Quinn's superficiality and good looks. Daria values honesty and thoughtfulness. She's accepted that these things won't make her popular and maybe even takes some pleasure in that. Lets her stay above the hoi polloi.

But when Quinn starts to adapt some of the traits that Daria values, it's a direct blow to Daria's sense of self.

I think it's worth looking at the samples of Quinn's work in this episode. First, her essay, "Academic Imprisonment." While over-the-top and suffering from a few errors, it works as a descriptive essay. She gets across her idea (that she doesn't like school) and relates it vividly. So while the essay's silly, I don't think it's necessarily bad for someone her age.

Later, she recites her poem about the French fry which is honestly kind of clever. It's the sort of thing you can imagine being passed around on Facebook these days. Quick, relatable, and easy to remember. Quinn has a future in marketing.

Now compare this to Daria. We don't see any of her writing in this episode, but from her personality we know that she digs deep. If she puts forth an argument she'll analyze it from all angles and present it logically. She cares more about getting her idea across than the feelings of her audience or readership. If you're offended, or bored… well, too bad.

Thus, I'd argue that it's not so much that Quinn's writing is bad. Rather, it's that her writing is emotive, which makes it better-suited for most people. She's the one who writes the clever but shallow aphorisms that the Mr. O'Neills of the future will use as platitudes. Meanwhile, Daria's the one who thinks deep, and whose opinions will only be known to a handful of academics and oddballs.

I think Daria realizes this. She definitely knows that Quinn isn't stupid. But to see Quinn achieve success at writing with an approach opposite to Daria's is an intolerable insult. And it is a painful one because society tends to reward that which is catchy and superficial. Some might argue that this has only accelerated in the age of social media.

This is reflected in the scene where Jake tries to reward Quinn. He gives her $20 for getting a one-time good grade while ignoring Daria's consistent high marks. In the workplace, superficial charm can be more likely to secure a raise or promotion than actual ability.

With this in mind, it's no surprise that Daria is so stressed out.

To Daria, this whole episode is a warning that Quinn's success will carry over into the adult world. That in the future, Daria will still be on the margins, respected but not really liked, and with few people who even pretend to care about her.

That she'll write and no one will read.

Notes:

  • The issue as to whether or not Daria is as beautiful as Quinn has been discussed ad infinitum, so I won't explore it at any great length. Suffice to say, I think that Daria is probably intended as reasonably attractive, but wouldn't be able to compete with Quinn. That said, a superficial imitation can go far…
  • Interesting that Stacy so quickly follows the fashion advice that Quinn intended for Sandi.
  • Back in "Arts n' Crass", I talked about how schools have an uneasy relationship with student self-expression. Quinn's essay is actually pretty critical of school, but is also light and superficial enough to avoid triggering censorship. It's more about her than about the school or student body as a whole.
  • So was Jake calling a 900 number?
  • Also, I don't think Mr. O'Neill would have been allowed to submit Quinn's essay to the Lawndale Lowdown without her permission. This won't be the first example of him overstepping his boundaries in order to "help" someone.
  • The Three J's seem pretty eager for Quinn to turn back to her old self. This surprises me a little—it's not like they'd find fashion any more interesting than Quinn's attempts at intellectualizing. But maybe it's less intimidating.

Chapter Text

I Don't

"I Don't" is another one of those scattershot episodes. The one it resembles most is "The Invitation". Once more, Daria's put into an unwanted social situation, allowing for plenty of awkwardness.

There's not really much of a theme to this episode but it is important for introducing us to the dynamic of the Barksdale family. "I Don't" anticipates Season 5's "Aunt Nauseum" and covers some of the same subjects, though from a much more distant perspective. There are no real stakes to the feud between Rita and Helen. At this point, viewers comfortably saw Quinn as an antagonist, so there was nothing alarming about the prospect of her and Daria carrying their quarrels into adulthood.

Aunt Amy makes her first appearance in "I Don't". She's gotten a lot of fan attention despite being a relatively minor character that only shows up three times in the entire series. A lot of this comes from her seeming similarity to Daria: both are sarcastic introverts who don't particularly care what others think. The connection is furthered in the descriptions of Amy's childhood, which, while scant, suggest she was much like Daria.

At this point in the show, Amy is believable as someone Daria would see as a role model. She has the independence and confidence that Daria wants. Daria's lack of the same is emphasized in her disastrous bridesmaid's dress. Amy, on the other hand, wears what she pleases.

I'll admit that I've never had particularly strong feelings for Amy one way or another. She's a fun character, but she doesn't appear often enough for her presence to mean much.

The satirical aspects of "I Don't" focus on weddings. What we see in the episode actually looks pretty tame in our era of Bridezillas and excessively lavish ceremonies. It's a case of real life outpacing satire.

Aside from the weddings, there are also a few jokes that mark this firmly as a product of its time. Jane's comment about hijacking a plane and taking it to Libya is still absurd but harder to joke about nowadays. Also, Amy's remark about weapons in schools was meant to comment on the popular perception of gang violence in inner city public schools, but reads differently after Columbine.

Notes:

  • Do high schools have bridal expos? Lawndale High having one always seemed really weird to me. Maybe it's a regional thing?
  • "I Don't" marks the one and only appearance of Luhrman, sometimes touted as a romantic match to Daria. His personality fits but I'm glad he never shows up again: his voice drives me up the wall.
  • Garrett is one of Quinn's more admirable suitors.
  • Daria entertains herself by telling absurd lies to the bridesmaids but seems genuinely surprised when this alienates them. It's a bit like the "dishing out the dirt" scene back in "The Invitation", where Daria's eccentricity makes things worse for her.
  • Quinn shows some good thinking in the way she puts the wine back on the waiter's tray. Another early sign that she's quite smart and has a lot of self-control.

Chapter Text

That Was Then, This Is Dumb

How much of ourselves do we give up to succeed? If we do succeed, is it because we made a conscious effort to change ourselves? Or did we just change without really trying?

The '60s had a pretty big cultural presence in the '90s. A lot of kids in that decade knew one or two people who'd been hippies back in the day, very possibly a parent or a teacher. Films like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery parodied the decade but still brought some of its imagery to a new generation.

Many of the then middle-aged Flower Children, like Helen and Jake, looked at themselves and realized they'd become the establishment they'd once sought to rebel against. Some felt a bit of longing for the authenticity of the hippies who supposedly led happier and more natural lives. Wasn't all the stuff in their houses—including their houses—just junk that kept them from being themselves?

Thankfully, "That Was Then, This Is Dumb" takes the piss out of this nostalgia.

The conflict between superficiality and authenticity is a recurring one in Daria, usually seen in Daria's relationship with Quinn. But this episode has the conflict play out in two different areas, first in the arrival of the Yeagers.

The Yeagers are hippies who never sold out. They certainly come off as happier and healthier than Jake and Helen at first glance. Coyote and Willow are relaxed and comfortable with who they are; a far cry from the workaholic Morgendorffers. The Yeagers would never pretend to be something they aren't just to cash in on their dreams. They're authentic.

But are they really? Are you truly being yourself if you go out of your way to avoid change? The episode explores this idea in showing how frustrated the Yeagers have become with their frozen-in-amber lifestyle. And why shouldn't they be? People do change. We don't have the same needs and desires at age 30 that we do at age 15. Frankly, it'd be worrying if we did.

The Morgendorffers have changed with the times. Helen, at least, seems to enjoy her work. Consider how bored she looks when tending compost with Willow. The simple life would be torture for her. And, if the flashbacks are any indication, the hippie lifestyle was never that good a fit for Jake. Still, he tried it, and then moved on, which is more than can be said for the Yeagers who are desperately trying to stay still, hoping that what worked for them in their twenties will work for them now.

Daria explores the same issue at the flea market. Though a Morgendorffer, Daria's less keen on change than her parents. In this case, she's analogous to the Yeagers: authentic and unwilling to compromise. She shows this in her hilariously awful sales technique. Daria doesn't pretend to be friendly, or to care about the client. She says exactly what she thinks, and naturally fails to make a single sale.

So if Daria is the stand-in for the Yeagers, Upchuck, of all people, is the one for the Morgendorffers. Though he comes off as unctuous, he tries to communicate with the customer. He adapts to the needs of the situation. And sure enough, he does seem to make a few sales. Granted, he screws it all up by wandering off, but he was willing to play the game while Daria wasn't.

Superficial? Sure. But being able to pitch a sale can get you far in the adult world, particularly during job interviews, which Daria struggles with in later episodes. My point here isn't that superficiality is good. Rather, it's that there's a benefit in flexibility.

At the end of the episode, the Yeagers realize that there's nothing wrong with trying something new (which in a roundabout way, is almost them being more true to the '60s ethos). Likewise, by the end of the series, Daria realizes that there's a social and personal cost to being authentic.

One thing I love about this episode is how so much of the flea market's wares are from the '60s. Though Trent's records aren't just limited to that decade, the only artists explicitly referenced in the episode are The Velvet Underground and Annette Funicello (which presents an admirably broad view of the '60s—it wasn't just hippies). Likewise, both Upchuck and Mr. DeMartino share a (somewhat unsettling) fascination with '60s men's magazines.

And here's the ultimate irony in the flea market. The '60s, that decade of self-discovery and exploration, has become just another commodity, something sold for a few extra bucks.

But that doesn't mean the '60s failed. Daria points out the positive legacy of the decade toward the end of the episode. Likewise, "The Velvet Underground & Nico" is still an amazing album, even if it is just more stuff being sold.

Maybe a balance can be struck between superficiality and authenticity.

Notes:

  • The central conflict plays out a third time when Trent and Jesse discuss the merits of CDs versus records.
  • At the start of the episode, Helen reflects on how it was a bad idea to tell Daria to be herself.
  • Also, this episode probably has Daria's single meanest moment in the entire series. I felt pretty bad for the guy looking for "Somebody Up There Likes Me".

Chapter Text

Monster

"Which is my best side?"

Quinn's oft-repeated question gets right to the heart of "Monster", though probably not in the way she intends. This episode is all about the sides of ourselves that we show to the world, the ways in which they're curated and the ways in which they unwittingly reveal.

It's easy to see why Quinn's popularity among fans has grown over the years. Though she is shallow and obsessed with popularity she's also intelligent, prudent, and more similar to Daria than either of them would like to admit.

Fan reaction to Quinn, so far as I can tell, was much different in the early days of the fandom. A lot of people simply saw her as a rival to Daria, ready to be put down with some righteous snark. And the early seasons do put her less admirable traits front and center.

It's worth remembering that Quinn could be pretty cruel to Daria. Consider how frequently she denies their sisterhood. Worse, Quinn's cruelty is completely thoughtless; Daria's feelings on the matter simply do not register to her, not when there are boys and clothes to worry about. That might hurt even more than deliberate meanness.

This gets right to the source of Daria's resentment: the world appears to value Quinn for who she is, while ignoring Daria for the same. Consider the videos of their early childhood seen in "Monster". Daria is annoyed by her baby sister's cries and is frustrated that Helen doesn't share her annoyance.

With this in mind, you can see how Daria could justify her project in "Monster". She wants the world to finally see Quinn from her perspective.

Of course, Quinn's too canny to play along, at least at first. Here's where the episode gets into her mantra: what side does Quinn show?

The school sees her as pretty, vivacious, and confident. Someone who always looks amazing, never breaks a sweat, and is never overtly mean. The truth is that she's insecure, anxious, and always comparing herself to her peers or to the models in Waif Magazine. Of course, Quinn can't show this to anyone, especially not her friends in the Fashion Club. It's not so much that her rant reveals her true self—rather, it reveals that the artificiality of the self she projects to the world.

And in a way, Daria's not so different. The self she presents is indifferent to appearance and flinty in demeanor, but like Quinn, she never wants to be seen as nervous or lacking confidence. Daria's projected image is a closer to her true self than Quinn's is to hers—but Daria still has her insecurities. Look at how embarrassed Daria gets whenever Trent comes around.

Though Daria's dream sequence shows the similarity, she never makes a conscious connection. For her part, Quinn shows laudable self-awareness in her monologue. She knows there's more to life than fashion, but she can't yet risk showing this side to others.

Notes:

  • Shame on Mr. O'Neill for not bothering to explain the definition of "verisimilitude".
  • Jane's attitude toward Quinn's humiliation is oddly inconsistent. At first she's for it. Then she shows doubt after Quinn's monologue. But at the end, she seems surprised that Daria removed the "pores" scene.
  • I love Daria and Jane's attempt to adapt No Exit.
  • I'd also be curious to see the rest of Daria's original script, which ends with Jane jumping out of a window and then having some sort of mid-fall epiphany.
  • While the finished film is nice enough, I don't think that the students would sufficiently moved for applause.
  • Jodie's analysis of the film shows that she's quite perceptive.

Chapter Text

The New Kid

Watching "The New Kid", I'm struck by a sense of missed opportunity. There's a feeling in this episode of possibility, of risk unfolding into adventure. In short, a bit like what you might feel when you go on a first date.

The neat trick the writers managed is that Ted may well be the least cynical character in the show. Ted lacks a social filter: he's openly (and infectiously) enthusiastic about his odd interests. He's also one of the very few characters who can rival Daria in knowledge of the humanities.

And this is actually why Ted's a good match for Daria. His earnestness counters her cynicism yet his eccentricity means she doesn't feel pressured to conform. Both are knowledgeable, but not always in the same ways, which means they can learn from each other.

Ted's fatal flaw is that, for all his peculiarities, he doesn't have that strong a sense of self. He approaches high school the way a young child would: full of wide-eyed wonder and curiosity. Though he professes to share many of his parents' values, it's clear he only does so superficially. Ted's beliefs have never been challenged or tested in any meaningful way.

Hence, it's actually not surprising that he got so wrapped up in the VR game. Everything's new and exciting to him, made all the more so because of his parents' disapproval. One could also see him latching onto sports or fashion if they were presented to him in the right way (fanfic idea: Ted joins the Fashion Club as its first male consultant).

Daria, on the other hand, has a much clearer idea of who she is. Hard experience has forged her into someone who holds conformity, excessive enthusiasm, and openness in doubt. She's never going to get too involved in some fad or subculture because that's just not who she is. Daria goes her own way.

Consider how she reacts to Ted's necklace. Daria does not want to get too emotionally involved since doing so threatens her hard-earned sense of self.

I don't think that Ted's some kind of soul mate for Daria (Jane's already got that job) or that they were destined for some happily ever after romance. The short duration of their relationship is pretty realistic for their age. But Ted's interesting in a way that Tom never managed. One can't help but wonder what might have been.

Notes:

  • How did Daria not know about Goya? Jane's been slacking.
  • I find Mr. DeMartino's behavior puzzling. He takes Ted's idea (fine), expands it and makes it law (reckless), and then tells the classmates to blame Ted and Daria (baffling). It's weird.
  • The VR machine is a lot more sophisticated than the ones actually present at the time.
  • You could have made Quinn's website with raw HTML/CSS.
  • This also marks the introduction of Robert, who's most notable for being oddly formal.
  • I love how out-there the DeWitt-Clinton house is.
  • While viewers have plenty of reasons to see Daria and Quinn as similar, I wonder which similarities Ted picked up on.

Chapter Text

Gifted

So how do you measure intelligence? IQ is the most common answer, but this measurement can't help but feel reductive. A score on a test does not necessarily imply success in the real world. Nor does a high IQ have anything to do with whether or not a person is ethical.

One of the most famous studies on intelligence is Genetic Studies of Genius. Here, Lewis Terman, a psychologist, tracked the progress of 1,528 individuals (dubbed Terman's termites) with high IQs. The study began in the 1920s and continues to the present day.

What's notable is that many of the "termites" ended up leading successful but relatively mundane lives. Only a few reached any kind of fame. None won Nobel Prizes. And, of course, some turned out to be screw-ups.

Melita Oden, an associate of Terman, compared the 100 best-off and the 100 worst-off "termites". These people all had IQ in the same range. Where they differed was in qualities unrelated to intelligence. The 100 most successful had confidence, resilience, and tended to receive a lot of family support.

Intelligence is a tool. But a tool's no good without a capable wielder.

I mention all this because the obsession with intelligence and IQ still casts a shadow on the American educational system. There's always the assumption that the smart kids will do well even if the facts don't necessarily bear this out. At the same time, there's a cultural distrust of intelligence. Smart people are seen as arrogant, aloof, or mentally unstable. In fact, one of the reasons that Lewis Terman conducted his study was to argue against this perception; he wanted to show that intelligent people could be happy and successful.

The idea of intelligence plays a major role in Daria. One of the ways that Daria defines herself is through intellectual pursuit. She reads classics, studies the masters, and easily earns top marks. For students of a similar bent, watching the show was like receiving manna from heaven. Though smart characters aren't exactly rare in popular culture their intelligence is usually limited to the technical sphere. The liberal arts tend not to receive a positive portrayal, if they are portrayed at all.

Even Daria limits itself in this regard. While there are a lot of references to classical literature and art, they tend to be in the background. I don't mean this as a complaint. Rather, I say this to emphasize how difficult it is to build a show around relatively niche cultural elements.

Whew, that was a long preamble. I wanted to discuss the idea of intelligence, and how the show treats it, because the concept is put front and center in "Gifted".

Superficially, it might seem like Daria as a show about the smart versus the stupid, with one's worth as a person depending on where they stand. This is not actually the case. Consider Kevin: he's stupid, but he's not a bad person. Upchuck, on the other hand, is frequently portrayed as quite intelligent. He's also loathsome.

Daria herself is ultimately a critic. No society, person, or situation is perfect, and she's the one who points out the problems. As I stated in my write-up of "The Lab Brat", she doesn't hate Kevin for his stupidity so much as she resents him for his unearned privilege. Simply being smart is no way to get into her good graces.

The kids at Grove Hills actually do treat intelligence as a line drawn in the sand. Simply being smart isn't enough—one has to be as smart as them. They define intelligence through metrics like IQ, test scores, and obscure knowledge.

Like Kevin, these kids have a lot of unearned privilege. Worse, they're actively cruel in a way that Kevin is not. Just consider the way they shun David, who did not score as highly as they.

Two of the students, Laura and Graham, both describe being ostracized for their intelligence, something with which Daria is familiar. Their reactions could not be more different. Laura and Graham both cling to a victim narrative, nursing their resentment and using their pain as an excuse to inflict cruelty on others.

While Daria is sometimes resentful, her experiences taught her to understand the human folly in the schoolyard. She saw how any society punishes those who don't fit in (consider her statement in "Camp Fear"). Laura and Graham have simply recreated the same system that treated them so poorly. The only difference is that good grades take the place of athletics.

Daria uses her brainpower in a different way. Her critical nature means she'll probably never fit in that well anywhere. However, we need people like her to point out the excesses and absurdities of society. Grove Hills simply treats intelligence as a status symbol.

All this, and I still haven't talked about Jodie.

Jodie was mostly a bit player in the first season (and for much of the second). "Gifted" is where she's given a chance to shine, and shine she does.

While Jodie's also aware of flaws in the system, she knows that you must sometimes go along to get along. Despite this, she's no mere social climber. She still has her standards, which she shows when she tells off the Grove Hills crowd.

The scene where Jodie talks about her personal situation is one of the episode's best. As one of the few black students in Lawndale High, Jodie is pressured to excel in all areas so as to set a good example. This is an enormous responsibility to place on the shoulders of one so young.

This puts her pragmatism in a new light. It's not so much that Jodie thinks that things are great and thus happily goes along with it. She sees the flaws as surely as Daria does. However, Jodie can't voice her criticisms. Rocking the boat carries risks, not just because she's a minority but also because the Landons are much more demanding of her than the Morgendorffers are of Daria.

At the same time, Jodie isn't some closeted cynic. She's more willing than Daria is to give people a chance. What's nice here is that Daria and Jodie are able to state their views and respect each other despite their disagreements. It's a mature way to approach such matters and a good contrast to the venality of Grove Hills.

Notes:

  • The grown-ups have the funniest moments in this episode. I'm specifically thinking of Helen's parenting-through-payouts early on, and the awkwardness with the Landons later on.
  • Speaking of which, the elder Landons are among of the very few explicit examples of black conservatives shown in popular culture. Dr. Hibbert, from The Simpsons, is the only other one I can think of.
  • Quinn's B-plot felt pretty detached from the main story, so I didn't comment on it. However again shows her remarkable perception in knowing that Jane's a safer bet than any of her friends, despite their limited interaction in the series so far.
  • I am curious as to what Tiffany expected Quinn to say, however.

Chapter Text

Ill/Fair Enough

"Ill" and "Fair Enough" don't really have that much in common. "Ill" focuses on Daria's character and social standing, while "Fair Enough" is another scattershot episode.

I'm grouping them because neither episode really has much that's new to say. While "Ill" offers more evidence that Daria is less of an outcast than she might think, this is territory already covered by "The Misery Chick" back in the first season.

Which isn't to say "Ill" is a bad episode, far from it. Daria's plight garners sympathy and it's fun to watch the school react to her absence. It's not quite heart-warming—Kevin, at the very least, seems motivated more by macabre curiosity. Still, when Jodie, Mack, Kevin, and Brittany all show up at the hospital, it proves that Daria's made at least some impact on Lawndale High.

The most interesting scene in "Ill" is Daria's dream sequence. Here, the oft-mentioned Mrs. Sullivan acts as Daria's psychopomp, ushering her into the afterlife. Unfortunately, it turns out that Heaven isn't for brains and the boorish inhabitants soon condemn Daria to Hell.

The scene reflects Daria's fears of again being an outcast and in a pretty dramatic why. It doesn't get much more final than the afterlife. As will be shown in “Groped by an Angel” Daria's either agnostic or atheist, but such ideas still have symbolic power for unbelievers. Being damned to Hell (or perpetual shunning) is a pretty intense fear.

The episode largely works to counter this anxiety by having Daria's classmates show up. Clearly, people outside of her family care about her. Yet early experiences leave a deep impact. Daria's not an outcast in Lawndale High but she was one in the past. That's not something she can just shake off.

"Fair Enough" is a fun, lightweight episode. A lot of the characters have good lines and the medieval setup is entertaining, but there really isn't much of a theme.

Medieval or renaissance fairs are common enough events. The first official Renaissance Pleasure Faire took place in 1963 and was actually a fundraiser for the radio station KPFK. Since then, they've boomed in popularity. I went to a few as a kid and they're good fun.

There's a lot that could be said about how modern society chooses to interpret medieval society. "Fair Enough" touches on this, with some of Daria and Jane's remarks at the end but it's mostly background noise. Again, it's a shame that Ted didn't become a major character since this really would have been the perfect place for him.

The episode has a few odd character moments. Quinn was wise to Sandi in the past but seems entirely oblivious to her machinations in this episode. The show wasn't always consistent about how Quinn and Sandi related with one another. I can't complain too much, though—the episode does provide Sandi with one of her few great villain (or maybe just antagonist) moments.

I also don't really understand why Mr. O'Neill is so impressed with Kevin's performance. While Mr. O'Neill is dangerously "nice" and wouldn't hesitate to praise bad performance if he thought a student's self-esteem was at risk, it's odd that he wouldn't extend the same courtesy to Brittany. Not a big deal, but it doesn't make much sense.

Notes:

  • "Ill" gives us our first appearance of the Zon.
  • Jake's clownishness becomes much more apparent in these episodes and will grow more pronounced as the show continues. I'm not sure this is for the best.
  • Andrea gets another one of her too-scant lines.
  • So Chuck can apparently play the mandolin. That's… honestly rather impressive.
  • When Jeffy gets the part of Palamon, Jamie seems to deliberately redirect him to the Pardoner's Tale, which raises an interesting question: is Jamie familiar with The Canterbury Tales? Is he secretly a brain?

Chapter Text

See Jane Run

Every friendship has its ups and downs, and that goes double (if not triple) in high school. What might seem like a lifelong bond at first glance can quickly shatter, undone by jealousy, opposition, or simple capriciousness.

"See Jane Run" is the first episode to throw a real wrench into the show's central friendship. "The Misery Chick" came close but Daria and Jane patched things up there before it got too bad. Here, they come closer to actual opposition.

One reason this works is for the simple fact that viewers are already invested in their friendship, which has been an integral part of the series since its inception. Another is that, despite the gloss of idealism versus pragmatism, the conflict in this episode really stems from the differences in personality between the two.

Daria's personality is fundamentally a conservative one. She dislikes change and is quite suspicious of other people. At the same time, when she does feel close to someone, she tends to keep them close. Consider her family: though she finds her parents a pain (as any teenager does) she communicates well with her mother.

Jane, on the other hand, is more willing to try new things. We don't know much about Jane's early life though she was probably also pretty isolated. Unlike Daria, however, the relationships she does form tend to be more superficial. This is reflected in how she interacts with most of her family members: they're usually kept at arm's length and not seen as anyone she can rely on. Jane's not afraid to move on.

Daria's astonished when Jane joins the track team. The idea of joining is foreign to her. It'd be an unwelcome disruption in a life that's probably gotten fairly comfortable.

For Jane, however, it's just something to try. Much like making out with Bobby Big-Head back in "The Invitation" or trying for the cheer squad in a season's time, Jane's curious about alternatives.

But Daria only sees this from her perspective. Jane joining track means that Daria can't spend as much time with her. That Jane's doing this for an athletic pursuit only adds insult to the injury.

Consider how in this episode, Daria voices her dislike of athletics. Though she might say she supports the idea of women athletes, she can't quite overcome her disdain for sports and competition in general. All the while, she sees her only friend slowly getting more involved with the team and winning accolades from the school's most popular.

It must be terrifying for Daria.

Thus, I think that Jane taking a bye on the test was really just the tipping point. After all, we know from "College Bored" and "Quinn the Brain" that Daria's not above helping people cheat on assignments (so long as she's paid). Sure, she holds academics above athletics, but she hasn't always been such a stickler for the rules.

Jane, for her part, is baffled as to why Daria is so prickly about this. Which does raise the question: why does Jane so quickly break with the team? Given Daria's behavior, one might expect her to double-down.

However, while Jane is willing to try new things, she doesn't necessarily stick with them. Her family taught her to always be ready to move on. Likewise, she has a resistance to being told what to do. I think that Evan's somewhat brusque response further cemented her decision to leave.

Jane and Daria are back together at the end of the episode. Both acknowledge their own faults. However, their underlying differences remain.

Notes:

  • Odd that Jake would assume Daria was dating.
  • The bit where Sandi mocks Evan, and the ease with which Evan turns the tables on her, suggests that the Fashion Club may not actually have much cachet at the school.
  • So if Coach Morris is having the girls in gym class do thinly veiled cheerleading practice, what is she having the boys do? Football practice?

Chapter Text

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.

Notes:

  • "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.

Chapter Text

Write Where It Hurts

Writing is, from an outside perspective, a pretty boring activity. There’s no real way to make it exciting. It’s just someone putting thoughts on paper. The action is almost entirely internal.

That’s one of the things that makes it so tough for visual media like film or television to explore writing. You really can’t “show” writing the way you can other creative activities. And it’s not just a matter of what the writer envisions; it’s also the quality of the prose.

And I’m not saying this is a problem. Giving Daria some lengthy monologue where she recites one of her stories would likely be a disservice to the audience. Television is a visual medium and should take advantage of that fact. However, this does underscore the difficulty of portraying, much less celebrating, the act of writing.

“Write Where It Hurts” works around this by portraying Daria’s stories as vignettes. This doesn’t let us see how Daria sets a scene or establishes character. However, it does give us a peek into her brain.

Early on in the episode, Daria complains about no one talking to her all week. It’s already been clearly established that Daria’s not an outcast. However, she is an outsider. Though she might rub elbows with Kevin and Jodie and others from time to time, they don’t ordinarily seek her out.

As viewers, we can see her relatively privileged position in the school hierarchy. However, from her perspective, the line between outcast and outsider might be pretty blurry. In a time where people increasingly define themselves by their social connections Daria sees herself as mostly alone.

Her isolation is emphasized when Mr. O’Neill gives her the special assignment of writing a story in instead of writing about one. It’s worsened when Helen makes an ill-timed comment comparing Daria’s caution with Quinn’s enthusiasm.

Daria’s reaction to this comparison is one of the more emotional moments in the series so far. Quinn is probably the only person who actually makes Daria feel insecure. Not only is Quinn celebrated for being vivacious, pretty, and (outwardly) superficial, she’s also intelligent and perceptive. In the long run, Quinn’s enthusiasm will probably serve her well while Daria’s pessimism might well become a stumbling block.

Daria’s indifferent (if not hostile) to popularity but she fears isolation. She also values autonomy. She never wants to be in a position where she’ll have to do something stupid or unethical in order to fit in.

And the irony is that she pretty much has that. Daria’s a comfortable outsider. She usually has the acceptance of the people who matter (Jane, her parents), and she’s not involved enough with anything to risk losing autonomy.

But her life is a constrained one. Though she has few obligations, neither does she have many opportunities that she’s willing to explore. Daria’s in a bit of a rut. She’s closed herself off to much of the world and is already discomfited by the inevitable loneliness.

What would make Daria happy? I think that this question is implicit when Helen challenges Daria to be honest with herself about what she wants. Daria understands the world that is—comfortable but marred by the anxiety of losing what she has. But as Helen says, Daria is reluctant to consider what she really wants. Part of this is her knee-jerk suspicion of anything optimistic, but it’s also her reluctance to admit that she does care what (some) people think about her.

Daria’s final story, as shown, isn’t actually much of a story. It’d be boring without the context of the episode (though Mr. O’Neill will still probably give it an A). However, it’s important in Daria’s growth. Here, she imagines herself as a published columnist in a happy relationship, comfortable with herself and her family. It’s the confidence that really jumps out. This Daria isn’t someone who is afraid of falling back into isolation because she knows she can clamber out of it.

And this is why “Write Where It Hurts” fits so neatly into the show as a whole. Daria is ultimately about growing up. And in Daria’s case, growing up means opening up. Of course, doing so is not without dangers, and Daria will eventually face the consequences of growth.
Notes:

  • I agree with Daria’s point about moral fiction. Art that intends to portray a moral point without any ambiguity is basically propaganda.
  • Do the Morgendorffer parents ever criticize Quinn by comparing her to Daria?

Chapter Text

The Old and the Beautiful/Depth Takes A Holiday

I bet you thought I forgot about this... but I didn't!

By the end of Season 2, Daria had established a reliable formula. In a typical episode, Daria and Jane would run (or be pushed) into an awkward situation and work their way out of it with sarcasm and aplomb. The series took no prisoners in its caustic view of high school life—portraying and mocking all of the superficiality, venality, and stupidity that make it so intolerable.

Sticking to formula isn’t necessarily bad, but it does risk stagnation. And this becomes more of a problem throughout Season 3. A lot of the episodes here are gimmicky, as if the writers are desperately trying something new. “Depth Takes A Holiday”, “Daria!”, and “The Lawndale Files” are all examples of this.

Eventually, this would culminate in Season 4’s attempt to shake up the status quo. I’ll get to that in good time. For now, we have Season 3, a mix of great episodes, awful episodes, and just plain odd episodes.

“The Old and the Beautiful”, unfortunately, isn’t a very good episode. The jokes are lazy ones that rely too heavily on stereotypes of old people and the characters don’t undergo any interesting developments.

Which is a shame, because there the setup had the potential to be a lot more. Adolescence is almost defined by short-sightedness which is why it can be so valuable for someone Daria’s age to have close interactions with a senior citizen who can take the long view.

The episode does attempt some character exploration. Daria’s disturbed enough by the bad reaction she gets at the nursing home that she goes to Brittany for coaching. Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t do enough to set this up. Daria’s not particularly interested in reading to senior citizens. It’s rare for her to care about what others think, so why is she so invested in the opinions of a group with whom she’ll have only fleeting interactions?

I suppose the answer is that she’s afraid that she’ll be getting these negative reactions for the rest of her life, but the episode just doesn’t do enough to show this. She mentions feeling like she owes her best to the senior citizens, which is laudable—but we never see any indication of her feeling this way. Daria isn’t someone who particularly cares about helping people she doesn’t know.

Interestingly, Daria demonstrates a surprising cluelessness early on, when she seems to think that something as controversial as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl would make for appropriate reading material.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that Daria wouldn’t be aware of Howl’s history. She might not be able to predict people’s reactions but she does know books. I’m not going to say that it’s completely out-of-character for her, but it is a little odd.

Brittany’s coaching attempt predictably goes nowhere. At the end, Daria makes peace with her lack of popularity and continues reading to the deaf Mrs. Blaine. I’m not really sure if Daria just pities her, or genuinely likes being appreciated. Given that Daria hates pretense and superficiality, I can’t imagine she’d particularly enjoy reading to someone who can’t hear her voice. There are good ideas in this episode but they never really coalesce into anything.

Which brings us to the episode that some fans consider the worst in the entire series: “Depth Takes A Holiday”.

Where to even begin?

Well, I’ll start by saying that I don’t actually dislike this episode. Mind you, I don’t think it fits into the series at all. It comes off as particularly strange fanfiction. That said, it’s fairly funny, and the novel premise is intriguing, if nothing else.

It does suffer from the same flaws seen in many scattershot episodes. There’s no real development. No depth, if you will. However, as a vehicle for jokes and odd situations, there’s a lot to enjoy. I liked St. Patrick’s Day’s continual griping about Guy Fawkes Day. The ghostly students representing saint’s days, and Thanksgiving having family troubles, are also clever touches.

Now, the problem is that “Depth Takes A Holiday” just doesn’t make sense as an episode of Daria, which is usually a fairly grounded show. Sure, it might be an exaggerated version of the real world but there’s nothing to indicate actual supernatural activity. Still, I find it fairly entertaining as episodes go.

Notes:

  • Jane shows a lot more enthusiasm for her volunteer work. Honestly, I’d have preferred to watch an episode about her efforts in the children’s ward. Also, 10-year old me would have vastly preferred Mongol raiders to clowns (I was the biggest Mongol Horde fanboy in my elementary school… not that I had a lot of competition).
  • “The Old and the Beautiful” gives us the first mention of Brooke since Season 1, and our first look at the Taylor household.
  • Jane looks off-model when she’s in her room talking to Daria and Sandi gets freakishly long legs when she’s walking down skid row with the rest of the Fashion Club.
  • Jane expresses a lot of exasperation with her family in “Depth Takes A Holiday”, which almost feels like foreshadowing for “Lane Miserable”.
  • The irreverent portrayal of Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day is somewhat insensitive, but not out-of-place for the late ‘90s. The world was much different before 9/11.

Chapter Text

Daria Dance Party/Daria!

I’m going to cheat again with the chronology and pair two non-consecutive episodes. They’re a good fit for each other. “Daria Dance Party” is a scattershot episode but a good one with some particularly interesting insights into the oft-neglected side characters. “Daria!” is, like “Depth Takes A Holiday”, another gimmick episode, though it also holds up pretty well if one can get past the oddness of the central conceit (a musical).

With “Daria Dance Party”, the setup is a school dance. It’s a pretty logical venue for a show like Daria. Like parties, dances are big events in the high school environment. Also like parties, they’re something Daria would avoid.

Which is why it’s interesting that she’s actually barely in the episode. This is by no means a bad thing. Daria as a fish out of water has already been explored, so it was probably a smart move to focus on some of the other characters.

There are lots of great details, from Jane copying Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (a possible foreshadowing of “Art Burn”), to the way Quinn makes at least some effort to stand up to Sandi as they bicker over the dance planning.

It’s hard to say much about the episode. The wealth lies in the side details. The most notable scene is probably when Daria and Jane meet Brad and Brett at the dance. Brad and Brett prove themselves to be kindred spirits, of a sort, but the whole thing ends badly when they reveal they’re related to Upchuck.

Re-watching this scene, I’m actually a little more sympathetic to Daria and Jane’s decision. While it’s obviously unfair to prejudge someone based on the behavior of their relatives, neither Brad nor Brett seem particularly condemnatory of Upchuck. They appear to like him as a friend, and given Upchuck's behavior I can't blame Daria and Jane for getting out of there.

“Daria!” is another gimmick episode, this time a musical. Like “Depth Takes A Holiday”, it tends to be divisive (though I think that, like “Depth Takes A Holiday”, it now has a more favorable consensus among fans).

There’s not really a whole lot to say about this episode. The songs are fun and catchy though Brittany’s voice is really strained in a lot of the numbers. This episode isn’t terribly engaging on a second viewing. "Daria!" depends heavily on the novelty of the concept, and once you get past that, there aren’t all that many jokes or character moments.

Curiously, “Daria!” does have some foreshadowing of later episodes. I have no idea if this was deliberate or not, but it’s worth noting. Helen’s comments about her own workaholism, combined with Quinn’s introspection, seem to foreshadow “Psycho Therapy”. Likewise, Trent going to the Morgendorffers, and the way Jane seems resigned to be forgotten, both help set up “Lane Miserable”, the next episode in the chronological order.

Notes:

  • So many notes for “Daria Dance Party”. First, we know Kevin’s a bad liar. This makes me think that when he says he was just fixing Zoey’s nose right at the last dance, he might have been telling the truth (despite his previous infidelities).
  • Andrea alert! And her withering line is worthy of Daria. I still think that the writers missed a lot of opportunities with this elusive goth.
  • I’m actually surprised that the Three J’s didn’t jump at the chance to help Quinn plan the party. They’ve never hesitated before.
  • Sandi’s flashback to her previous volunteering experience, and Linda’s callous reaction, shows she may be a more complex character than she appears to be.
  • I don’t blame Daria and Jane for skipping out on the pep rally. Those were annoying. When I was a kid they always made us recite the alma mater. My friends and I would swap out “Oceania” and “Big Brother” for our high school and mascot respectively, because we were huge dorks.
  • Principal Li is surprisingly reasonable about storm preparations.

Chapter Text

The Lost Girls

Why on Earth does the phrase: “the best years of your life” so often apply to high school?

Any high schooler, or anyone with even vaguely accurate recollections of high school, can tell you that the only point of high school is to get the hell out! It’s a miserable hormone-charged prison of thwarted ambition, frustrated desire, and shaky self-awareness.

Yet the meme remains. High school—adolescence in general—is a fixture in popular culture. A lot of this popular culture is made for a teenage audience but plenty of adults read YA literature or enjoy shows like Daria.

“The Lost Girls” explores and satirizes this nostalgia through the loathsome Val, the editor of a popular and vapid teen-oriented magazine (this was well before Teen Vogue was considered a respectable news source). Val is a thirtysomething woman who tries to pass herself off as a teen to go “undercover” in Lawndale High.

It’s worth examining exactly why Val does this. As unpleasant as she is, she’s also a woman approaching middle age in a world that values women who are young and conventionally attractive. She’s not (just) anxious because she’s aging out of a myopic beauty standard; she has legitimate reasons to fear for her career. Which is something faced by many women in many different industries. This doesn’t let Val off the hook; she’s culpable in this. But there’s more to her than just vanity.

What’s particularly interesting is the way she claims to have been like Daria when she was a teen. On the face of it, this seems absurd. But there may be some truth to the statement. Val had to have had decent writing ability to become an editor. While she’s aging out of her preferred element, she was intelligent enough to thoroughly understand the youth culture of her time. And while Daria’s contemptuous of youth culture, she does seem to understand it pretty well, at least on an intellectual level (as opposed to say, Ted, who doesn’t understand it at all). Further, Val uses the term “Faulknerian”, which suggests at least a passing familiarity with literature.

I actually can see Val as being at least a bit like Daria as a youngster. Which, in a way, would make her nostalgia for high school even more pathetic. It’s easy to imagine her as a weaker version of Daria, one who desperately wanted to be like Quinn but could never manage it.

And this attempt to fit in is all she has going for her. Val’s clearly bored in Mr. O’Neill’s class, just like students usually are (another reason NOT to be nostalgic about high school). She clearly didn’t miss the learning. If Val was isolated the same way Daria was, she probably doesn’t miss the loneliness (though Daria’s feelings toward her isolation are mixed, she’s relatively comfortable with it). Thus, Val may be longing for something she may have never actually had.

Val’s an adult now, and a successful one, but the insecurity remains. Maybe now, with her professional acumen and experience, she can be what she wanted to be.

Except… she can’t. She can be popular now (for a year or two more, anyway) but she can’t be popular back then, when she most wanted popularity. And that’s closed to her. Youth culture is fluid. Adults cannot really understand it because we only see it a distance. The world has moved on and everything she does is akin to Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock saying: “How do you do, fellow kids?”

Which also ties into the satire of the way youth culture is marketed. Daria’s completely on-point when she criticizes Val magazine and the concept of “edginess”. Adults may not be able to understand the culture, but they also influence it with the media they create. MTV is a glaring example. It was seen as a place for teens when in reality it was adults cynically exploiting those same teens.

Val breaks toward the end of “The Lost Girls” but it’s difficult for me to feel much satisfaction. Yes, she was a purveyor of highly marketed crap. At the same time, she comes off as a rather damaged person entering her final years of professional relevance before she’s even turned 40.

Notes:

  • For the record, I don’t think there’s much risk of Daria ending up like Val. Val’s type of success usually requires compromise which is something Daria just isn’t good at doing.
  • Once more, Mr. O’Neill vastly oversteps his bounds by submitting Daria’s essay to Val, and by trying to hug her.
  • My interpretation of Val does rely pretty heavily on taking her at face value when she talks about once being like Daria. It’s also possible that she was just a cleverer version of Brittany.
  • I like the concept of Daria as the “anti-teen”.
  • It looks like the hamburgers served at Lawndale High’s cafeteria have two patties. This seems excessive, to me.

Chapter Text

It Happened One Nut

The crummy part-time service job is practically a rite of passage for middle-class American teens. Ideally, the job teaches responsibility, provides income, and creates a whole wealth of on-the-job horror stories to share with friends and classmates.

Daria’s story is no exception, but the reason she was pushed into work deserve some more examination. Assuming they come from a financially stable family, most teens take these jobs in order to earn some extra scratch or because their parents want them to do something useful in their spare time.

In Daria’s case, her parents seem legitimately concerned that she has a deficit in social skills, and hope that the job will fix that.

As viewers, we can see how Daria navigates the tense social situation present in Lawndale High (and indeed, every other high school). Daria only has one friend, but she’s likely more accepted than she perceives herself as being. A true outcast wouldn’t routinely chat with people like Kevin or Jodie.

However, her parents don’t see this. So far as they can tell, Jane’s the only person with whom Daria spends any time. And when this relationship takes a bad turn (like in “See Jane Run”) Daria reacts quite badly. So the elder Morgendorffers have ample reason to believe that Daria’s situation is worse than it actually is.

And for all that, Jake completely undercuts this by using his connections to get Daria a job at It’s A Nutty Nutty Nutty World. Daria’s social graces are limited, true. However, she has enough to get through school and she has enough to function in a basic job (as this episode shows). The interview is the only area in this scenario in which she’d have legitimate difficulty!

Despite her visible lack of enthusiasm, Daria does well enough in her position. She’s no stranger to powering through boring assignments. However, the job never really challenges her social skills. All she has to do is put in a bare minimum of feigned politeness.

Parental misunderstanding is an underlying theme of this episode since the Morgendorffers also drop the ball with Quinn. Quinn’s told to get a job both for the appearance of fairness, and so that she learns the value of a dollar. Social skills aren’t really the issue here. But in many ways, she’s got far more to learn about responsibility than Daria does about sociability. Quinn’s tenure in the pet shop is a disaster on every level. She loses pets, claims some as her favorites, and treats the place as her personal property.

For their part, the elder Morgendorffers never understand what’s going on. They didn’t before the episode started and they’re just as clueless at the end. Which in some ways is an accurate summation of the teenage experience, because we’ve all been in situations where our parents misunderstood our problems. This ties in pretty well with “The Lost Girls”, in which Val is similarly clueless.

I do want to comment a little bit on Daria’s reaction when Jane and Trent come to the nut stand. Daria doesn’t give Jane any real chance to explain what happened. Instead, she assumes that Jane either forgot about Daria’s embarrassment or was actively trying to embarrass her in front of Trent. Jane has teased Daria in front of Trent a few times, but never in a serious way. Daria was being grossly unfair, and Jane deserved better treatment.

The episode doesn’t really comment on this. In fact, Jane helps Daria out of her bind shortly after their encounter. Jane’s quite forgiving, but Daria is not, which is something to keep in mind when we get to the events of the later seasons.

Notes:

  • I’m a little surprised that Daria is bothered by the idea of being a mortician. Season 1 Daria would have probably been thrilled at the idea. I think what really troubled her was the way the test acknowledged her poor social skills, which she may consider more important by Season 3 (which also ties in with how worried she was about the senior citizens in “The Old and the Beautiful” not liking her).
  • It’s A Nutty Nutty Nutty World really shouldn’t make its employees recite such a long preamble. Folks are there to buy nuts, not listen to ad copy. The first buyer even cuts Daria off!
  • I actually felt pretty sorry for both of the managers in this episode.
  • Quinn lies about selling the bird, but she’s smart enough to cover the lie by paying for the loss. Another sign she’s quite clever (though the lack of an invoice might be a problem).
  • Why does Helen assume that Jane needs a criminal attorney?

Chapter Text

Lane Miserables

Who is Jane?

She’s Daria’s best friend. She’s snarky. She’s an artist. But what really moves her? Where does she come from? How is she different from Daria?

Considering how often she appears, it’s surprising that the show spends relatively little time exploring Jane’s characteristics. Even Jane-centric episodes like “Arts 'n Crass” don’t always do much more than have her provide colorful commentary. At times it seems like she’s just there so that Daria has an audience for her witticisms.

“Lane Miserables” is one of the handful of episodes that shows Jane to be a complex character. She has a lot in common with Daria, yes, but she comes from a vastly different world.

As I mentioned in the analyses of “The Big House” and “The Teachings of Don Jake”, the Morgendorffers work best when they’re able to do their own thing. This doesn’t mean they don’t care about each other—far from it. If anything, their individualistic approach shows how much they care about each other because they’ll always step in to help if things get serious.

You can see it in this episode with the way Helen and Jake both ask Jane about Daria. The elder Morgendorffers might not be as involved in their daughters’ lives as they could be, sure, but they care enough to acknowledge and address this. Similarly, Quinn shows a lot of sympathy for Daria’s feelings for Trent.

Contrast this with the Lanes, who (for the most part) do not care about each other in the slightest. Every time I watch this episode I’m struck by the sheer indifference that informs their every action. Amanda’s goofy “butterfly” philosophy is just a paper-thin cover for her callousness.

It doesn’t get much better with most of the other Lanes. Penny couldn’t care less about the volcano in Costa Rica—even though that might actually kill people. Her only concern is with her arts and crafts stand. She won’t even speak in Spanish to the trade minister, despite having lived in the place! Wind is obviously self-absorbed, and Summer barely keeps track of her children. Vincent doesn’t care if someone gets poisoned with his photo formula—his only concern is making sure that he has enough of the stuff.

One of the most vivid elements in this episode is the story of Trent living out in a tent. So far as Amanda knows, Trent just did this because he felt like it. She lives her life for herself, so she assumes everyone else does, too. But when Trent describes it, he’s clear that he was hoping someone would care enough to ask him to come back inside. The only one who acknowledged him was Jane, who brought him sandwiches.

For his part, Trent is one of the better Lanes, though still no prize. He actually does care about Jane, though he’s not necessarily very good at it.

How the hell did Jane survive these people? More impressively, how did she come out of this as a decent person?

There’s not really any clear answer. Which is fine. Too many stories rely on some tidy explanation for why someone is the way they are. It’s enough that Jane stands out from the rest of her family. She cared enough about Trent to make sure he was fed. She cares enough about Daria to guard her privacy when Helen and Jake interrogate her.

What’s interesting is how well “Lane Miserables” fits with the way Jane’s been established. We know that her connections with others tend to be a bit on the superficial side. It’s never that hard for her to move on when things don’t work. Such an approach would have served her well in a family that cared so little for her well-being.

Likewise, she’s adaptable. Growing up in such an environment wouldn’t give her much choice. The empty freezer seen early on in “Lane Miserables” is played for laughs, but one gets the feeling it was far from an uncommon sight in the Lane household. How many times did Jane have to scrounge for food?

Daria’s always used irony and sarcasm as a defense mechanism. Later on, in “Boxing Daria” she explicitly says that she does this because she expects people to dislike her. Snarky comments expedite a process she sees as inevitable.

Jane’s irony, on the other hand, is more akin to gallows humor. While Daria could at least take refuge in a family that cared, Jane had nothing. It’s chilling to think how dangerous her early life might have been. The source of her sarcasm is the need to wring some humor out of a legitimately grim situation. Like Daria, Jane pays a social price for this, but her family taught her not to get too attached to anyone.

Earlier, in my analysis of “It Happened One Nut”, I pointed out that Daria was quite unfair to Jane. Daria in general hasn’t always been the best friend. But “Lane Miserables” shows how important Daria really is to Jane’s well-being. Daria won’t just abandon Jane in a heartbeat, the way so many of the Lanes have done. Thus, she provides a certain degree of structure to Jane’s life (and this becomes more apparent in Is It College Yet?). The other Morgendorffers are similar. They’re busy with their own lives, yes, but they know how important Jane is to their eldest daughter, so they treat her like family.

It’s the only time anyone’s ever treated Jane like family.

Notes:

  • My one complaint about the episode is that the “Who could that be?” running gag doesn’t really work.
  • Interesting that Quinn asks Jane for fashion advice.
  • Have Helen and Amanda met before this?
  • Jane’s one moment of callousness is a pretty glaring one—she doesn’t appear to warn Penny about drinking the formula. Though I suppose she might’ve done it off-screen (at any rate, Penny seems to be fine).
  • I didn’t comment much on Daria, but there’s poignancy in her fantasy sequences. She’s smart enough to know that things won’t work with Trent. But like anyone else, she has feelings. Once she lets them through, at the end, she can’t help but go back to wanting him even though she realizes it’s a bad idea. Self-awareness can be painful.

Chapter Text

Jake of Hearts

Jake is one of the more thinly sketched characters in Daria. “Jake of Hearts” attempts to flesh him out in more detail, but the episode is undone by inconsistent or overly broad characterization.

Part of the problem is Jake himself. By this point in the series’ run, he’s a caricature of a well-meaning but inadequate suburban patriarch. If anything, this episode makes him even more cartoonish (in fairness, he is a cartoon).

Jake’s not a bad man—quite the opposite. But it’s difficult to really accept him as anything other than a punchline. He rants and raves, he punches the bed, and scares easily. This might’ve worked if he’d been shown as a more stable person. However, his post-heart attack behavior is scarcely different from his normal behavior. As a result, his breakthrough with how he perceives his life doesn’t carry much weight.

This problem affects other characters as well. Since its beginning, the series has dropped subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints that Quinn is much smarter and more dedicated than she lets on. At first, “Jake of Hearts” seems to carry that forward with the way she starts studying medicine. But she goes from a medical textbook to “Operation”? Come on, she knows better than that!

Daria herself stays too cool. We know she’s a steady hand on the wheel. The problem is that, by continuing this, it makes the heart attack episode feel insignificant. I’m not saying that Daria should breakdown emotionally in public—that’s not something she’d ever do. But she should show a bit more vulnerability in quiet scenes with Jane or her father.

The DJs themselves are barely worth mentioning, though they are believably obnoxious. The subplot with Ruth shows that Jake’s childhood was legitimately traumatic and it’s not just him making a big deal about nothing. Like everything else in this episode though, it doesn’t add up to much. Jake still presents as a goofball doing goofy things.

If “Jake of Hearts” had committed to the underlying seriousness of its storyline a bit more, the episode could have been great, or at least good. There’s value in exploring characters when they’re caught off-guard by potential tragedy. “Lane Miserables” did a wonderful job of balancing humor with the underlying darkness of Jane’s home situation. Unfortunately, everything here is business-as-normal and what should be a momentous event is rendered routine.

Notes:

  • In fairness to the episode, the fact that Jake’s heart attack is mild (and that Ruth doesn’t suffer from any heart problems at all) may indicate that the writers intended it be a “much ado about nothing” situation.
  • I’m a little surprised at how much leeway the DJs had at Lawndale High. Some of their behavior (having Quinn publicly judge the fashion senses of other students) seems like it might be risky, and the ‘90s were a litigious time.
  • Spatula Man recovers from his fall remarkably quickly.
  • I do like Daria’s spin on the “glass half empty” statement at the end of the episode. Maybe things aren’t great, but you can try to enjoy what’s there.

Chapter Text

Speedtrapped

While “Jake of Hearts” fumbled in its characterization, “Speedtrapped” knocks it out of the park.

Daria and Quinn have almost always been adversaries, so the idea of putting them in a situation where they had to work together is so obvious that’s a bit surprising it took the series this long to do it. What’s particularly interesting about this episode how it emphasizes Quinn’s strengths rather than Daria’s. In fact, if anything, Daria often comes off as the weaker one.

This might be an example of the show easing itself into the more introspective fourth and fifth seasons. While the Daria Triumphant trope worked well in the beginning, it was already starting to wear thin. There’s only so much that can be said with that theme. Centering on the positive aspects of one of Daria’s rivals foreshadowed what was to come.

Which is not to say that the episode glosses over Quinn’s weaknesses. Picking up Travis really was an inconceivably stupid thing to do. Despite that, Quinn shows remarkable adaptability. This is most evident when the girls go to Mad Dawg’s. While Daria struggles to get anyone’s attention, Quinn instantly gets all eyes on her. Sure, Daria deflects a doubter with a well-timed Conway Twitty reference, but it’s Quinn who leads things along.

What stands out is how confident and comfortable Quinn is in this situation. Remember: she’s a suburban girl with no real country credentials (though it depends on whether or not Highland, TX is considered “country”). Yet she immediately understands how to connect with the patrons. It’s related to the way she so easily tailors her approach to get what she wants out of guys.

Daria, on the other hand, is a rather passive character. “Speedtrapped” uses this to its advantage, by giving her lots of opportunities for adventure, and showing how reluctant she is to engage. Daria’s someone who’s relatively happy just sitting in her room reading a book or watching TV.

Later episodes reveal that much of Daria’s sarcasm is a defense mechanism. I’d argue that her timidity is as well. Staying comfortably in her lane lets her avoid real challenges or emotional investment. And Lawndale High seems almost set up for this. Good grades come naturally to Daria and she’s satisfied with having Jane as her only friend.

But you can only go so far doing this. School is a much more structured environment than the adult world, where what you get often depends, at least in part, on what you put in. There are some workplaces where you can coast by—but not many. Usually you have to be aggressive, to put more of yourself in there. To open yourself to risk, in other words.

Likewise, friends move on. This doesn’t mean they’ll abandon you, but they will find other interests and change as people. With Jane, Daria found someone who worked for her, and left it at that. But this left her unable to really learn how to connect with others. Becoming friends with someone is an emotional process. It’s sometimes a messy one. You get pulled into their drama. Those are things Daria wants to avoid.

For now, she can get away with this. But it’ll be trouble for her in the future.

Notes:

  • Though sensitive about the American flag, the cops in this episode seem to have a pretty good sense of humor.
  • I felt the same way as Daria did when I started driving.
  • Jane really ought to know better than to argue with prisoners.
  • Claiming you taught Sid Vicious how to play guitar is nothing to brag about.
  • A Daria and Quinn mystery solving show would actually be pretty cool.
  • A lot has been said about the final scene, so I'll just point out that, yeah, I'm pretty sure Daria would have run Travis over if he hadn't gotten out of the way.

Chapter Text

The Lawndale File/Just Add Water

It’s fitting to cover these two episodes in a single write-up. Both are mediocre (or downright subpar), and both are cultural artifacts of the ‘90s.

“The Lawndale File” is the weaker of the two episodes. As the name suggests, it satirizes The X-Files and the general UFO/alien abduction craze that was prevalent in the ‘90s. The little gray alien icon was ubiquitous in those years, appearing over and over again on t-shirts, advertisements, and other media. It’s actually a bit remarkable how thoroughly this icon has vanished from popular discourse. Conspiracies are probably more prevalent now than they were in the ‘90s but they rarely involve space aliens any longer.

The big problem with this episode is that everyone acts like an idiot. I’m annoyed with the way the episode has people confuse “alien” with “illegal alien”, which is not something that actually happens. The agents at the beginning would almost certainly be more explicit about what they were looking for.

Daria maintains skepticism but is too easily spooked, and sometimes seems to be on the verge of accepting this nonsense. The scene with a bunch of characters stumbling onto each other in the woods is also weird, since Kevin and Brittany are the only ones dim enough to actually believe all this is going on. Even if Upchuck does think alien visitors are real, he’s smart enough to know that Mars is lifeless!

Maybe I’m being too nitpicky but I just didn’t believe the characters here. The humor’s also pretty weak. Artie makes an appearance, but he’s more odd than funny.

“Just Add Water” is an improvement, though still no prize. This episode is obviously a parody of Titanic, which was the highest grossing film of all time until Avatar. Like UFOs, it was a ubiquitous presence in the late ‘90s.

This episode follows the standard template of the scattershot episode. Daria and Jane play a minimal role here, which isn’t a bad thing as it gives other characters a chance to shine. Titanic was a romance, and while “Just Add Water” isn’t, it does focus heavily on relationships of one kind or another. This is the first episode to establish that Mr. O’Neill and Mr. DeMartino are friends.

I also like some of the interactions between Helen and Jake. They’ve argued a lot, particularly this season, but “Just Add Water” shows there’s a strong trust. Helen thinks nothing of leaving Jake with the sexually voracious DeeDee because she knows he won’t do anything. For his part, Jake isn’t even tempted. It’s a nice moment that shows the underlying strength of the Morgendorffer marriage.

Conversely, Quinn, who’s almost always with one admirer or another, has to manage going it alone. It’s another ‘90s moment to have her invite an adult as her companion without anyone really batting an eye, and one that’s a bit discomfiting to watch now.

Ultimately, there’s not a whole lot to say about “Just Add Water”.

As I mentioned in one of the earlier write-ups, the average Daria episode involves putting the heroine in a ridiculous situation and watching her make sarcastic commentary as it unfolds (with a little bit of prodding from her or Jane). This worked out well in the first few seasons. There weren’t (and still aren’t) many television protagonists like Daria, so her voice stood out.

But by Season 3 it was getting old. Daria and Jane are just going through the motions.

I’m not saying that every Daria episode should have high dramatic stakes, far from it. There were great episodes where very little of consequence happens, such as “Daria Dance Party” or “That was Then, This is Dumb”. My point is that by Season 3, you could tell the formula was getting stale. I can definitely understand why the writers shook things up, even if I don’t think they went about it the best way.

Notes:

  • '90s Alert! Artie has a pager.
  • “The Lawndale File” does have a lot of examples of Mr. O’Neill ignoring professional boundaries (such as his unauthorized assembly).
  • Quinn’s black beret isn’t really a new look for her if one takes “Quinn the Brain” into account.
  • I don’t know why I find it so funny when Mr. DeMartino describes Jane as “angular”, but I always laugh.
  • Why did Mr. O’Neill think Helen, of all people, could help Mr. DeMartino with his gambling issues?
  • Ms. Barch could’ve killed DeeDee with that shove. Similarly, Daria and Jane could’ve killed Kevin and Brittany by not going for help (though I’m not sure if Daria and Jane actually heard them).

Chapter Text

Jane’s Addition

Well, we had to get to Tom eventually.

Some might call Tom a controversial character, but he’s not. At this point in time, the fandom is pretty much unified in finding him unsatisfactory. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have defenders (or that he doesn’t have his moments). But even they generally don’t think that he was well-utilized.

I do think it was necessary to change the status quo.

But why Tom?

One answer is that romance is a mainstay of high school-themed shows, and it’s easy to see why. There’s plenty of dramatic and comedic potential in romance, particularly during a time of life when emotions tend to run high.

That said, not everyone has a big romantic relationship in high school. Daria’s certainly not somebody who’s established as particularly concerned about such things (her crush on Trent rarely requires much more from her than intermittent pining).

What Daria did need to do, as a show, was to challenge the central relationship between Daria and Jane. In high school, you have to make the best of limited options. Sometimes, you’re only friends with a certain person because there’s no one else to be friends with. It’s little wonder that high school friendships can get pretty strained.

There are a lot of ways they could have gone about this. Romance was the most obvious but imagine how much pathos they could’ve wrung out of Daria and Jane trying to keep their friendship alive despite diverging interests. Or maybe one or the other might have blown up due to buried resentment (I could see Jane doing this).

Despite all that, I don’t think romance is a bad choice as a stressor in and of itself. The problem lies more in the execution, but we’ll get to that. For now, I’m going to simply take Tom on an episode by episode basis.

And he’s not bad, so far. It’s actually kind of refreshing to see someone stand up to Daria’s snark and deliver some of their own in response. He’s relaxed and seems pretty considerate. The one really questionable thing he does is when he drives up to Daria and tries to win her over. His efforts feel artificial and it’s just weird to see him going to such lengths when Jane isn’t even around. I’ll admit that I might be letting future episodes color my interpretation here.

Tom isn’t the most compelling character (which I think is his biggest problem), but he works well enough for the purpose of this episode.

Along with this drama is the final dissolution of Daria’s crush on Trent. What I like about this is that it’s not some big emotional moment. High school crushes tend to fade subtly over time. Eyes stray to new people and the brain focuses on other things. You can get so used to a long-standing crush that you might not immediately realize you’re no longer infatuated with that special someone.

Daria giving up on Trent is predicated on his irresponsibility, which is completely in character. Trent’s always been flaky and unreliable and I think that Daria always knew this. She’s disappointed in Trent, but she’s not surprised. The difference is that she’s matured enough to get a better idea of what she expects. A guy who can’t get his act together for something as simple as a minute-long music piece isn’t worth having as a boyfriend.

You could see the seeds of this back in “Lane Miserable”, with her bleak fantasy of married life with Trent. Granted, she goes back to longing for him in a quickly (and totally believable way), but you can see that as the beginnings of the doubt that culminate in this episode.

So as one imagined relationship ends, a real one begins. It’s not surprising that Jane would be the one to get involved with a guy, as she’s always been more interested. And this is the sort of thing that might alarm Daria, who really doesn’t have anyone else she can connect to. Daria seems to reconcile herself to Tom by the end, though the early fourth season episodes show there’s still a rocky road to follow.

And it’ll get rockier.

Notes:

  • I do like how awkward Jane and Tom’s first meeting is. Neither of them really seems to know what they’re doing, which is appropriate because neither of them do.
  • Jane’s morning hair is frazzled, but it switches to smooth after the first commercial break.
  • Considering how much pizza Daria and Jane eat, their metabolisms should be the envy of the Fashion Club.
  • Daria’s projects reminded me of the PowerPoint presentations I sometimes had to put together in high school.

Chapter Text

Partner’s Complaint

Daria’s not always a very good friend.

She is not at all an easy person to get along with. Judgmental, emotionally opaque, and often cold, Daria challenges people to like her. First-time viewers tend to miss this. We see ourselves in Daria, so when she delivers some snark to an idiot, we imagine ourselves in her combat boots, delivering some snark to some deserving idiot that we know.

But we don’t have to deal with her the way Jane and Jodie do in this episode. “Partner’s Complaint” is one of my favorites because it makes very clear just how difficult it can sometimes be to spend time with Daria.

The fourth season establishes that Daria’s still resentful about Tom. When Jane praises him, one gets the feeling that this is almost as much about trying to convince Daria as it is about expressing her own fondness. It doesn’t work, though. Daria responds to everything with a sarcastic quip.

It’s particularly glaring after Kevin and Brittany argue about intelligence. Daria immediately assumes that Jane’s comment about Brittany standing up to Kevin was actually about her. She has no evidence for this. Jane’s statement might have been a statement of sympathy or even feminist solidarity. But Daria’s gnawing insecurity led her to interpret it as a veiled attack.

Daria’s behavior gets even worse. So far as I can tell, Daria does none of the work in her project with Jodie. Instead, she shoots down Jodie’s ideas, tags along to make sarcastic commentary, and takes Jodie to task for her perceived hypocrisy. Frankly, I’m surprised Jodie put up with Daria for as long as she did.

The conflict between Jodie and Daria deserves a little more attention. As I mentioned in the analysis of “Gifted”, Daria’s detachment is only possible because of who she is and who her parents are. Jodie, on the other hand, faces tremendous pressure both as one of the few African-Americans in Lawndale High and as the daughter of the aggressive Landons.

Jodie doesn’t have the options Daria does. If anything, Daria’s the one who looks hypocritical in this episode. She’s quick to strike down and attack any privilege that she perceives as unfair—the popularity of Kevin and Quinn, for example—but she’s blind to her own.

All of this shows that Daria’s very much stuck in her own head. She’s never cared much about the rest of the school. But now, something she does care about (her friendship with Jane) is in jeopardy. And this throws everything else out of balance.

The episode demonstrates just how badly Daria needs Jane. At every step of the way, Daria sabotages herself. Her angst about Jane pushes her to worsen the situation between her and her best friend. It’s why she’s such a burden to Jodie during the assignment. Daria’s defense mechanisms are going haywire.

By the end of the episode, Daria concedes that she’s done wrong. Both Jodie and Jane are quite forgiving, underscoring Helen’s recurring point about the rest of the world not being as awful as Daria thinks.

Notes:

  • The animation in the fourth season gets much sharper. However, there are some weird bits, like the way the lockers scroll past Daria and Jane when they walk through the halls at the end of the episode.
  • “Partner’s Complaint” gives viewers the first signs that Tom’s from a wealthy background.
  • I don’t really get why Brittany’s PoV was done up like the Terminator’s. It doesn’t make sense as a joke, unless she really is some kind of cybernetic killing machine (as possibly demonstrated in “The Daria Hunter”).
  • Speaking of Brittany, I also enjoy her line: “… if my mathematics hold… or holds.” Sure, she shows uncertainty, but I like how she’s at least contemplating grammar. She is definitely smarter than Kevin.
  • Helen knows exactly how to handle Daria and I love seeing her in action.

Chapter Text

Antisocial Climbers

“Antisocial Climbers” steps back from Tom to give us another scattershot episode. His presence is felt, but thankfully, Daria and Jane are still Daria and Jane.

While not a profound episode by any means, “Antisocial Climbers” has a lot of great character moments. We get to see Quinn undone by the adoring stupidity of the Three Js, Mr. O’Neill’s struggles with asthma, and a look into how the Morgendorffer parents relate to one another.

Things seemed to have calmed down between Daria and Jane. Bribery (from Helen for Daria, and from Daria for Jane) gets them together on a wilderness excursion that neither is particularly interested in. As usual, they’re content to snark along at the proceedings, a task made easier by the general stupidity on display.

This episode goes for a light tone but I’m not sure this completely works once the blizzard starts. Dangerous weather also appeared in “Daria!”, but that episode being a musical made it easier to dismiss the hurricane as a gimmick. The blizzard’s a bit harder to dismiss, but it’s never taken particularly seriously, even when Jane starts to think that this might be the end for them.

I’m not sure that this is necessarily a bad thing. After all, we watch Daria mostly for comedy. But the tone does feel a bit off to me. Similarly, it’s a little odd to see even Daria and Jane be so blasé about Mr. DeMartino walking off a cliff to his seeming demise. Then again, they had a similarly cavalier attitude toward him back in “The Big House”.

Regardless, Daria and Jane are still in great form. Even their impending deaths prove fodder for mockery. After the stress of the past few episodes, it’s almost reassuring.

“Antisocial Climbers” also gives more insight into the Morgendroffer family dynamics. As seen in “The Teachings of Don Jake”, the Morgendorffers often function best when they’re each allowed to do their own thing. But part of being a family means reestablishing bonds, and the interactions between Helen and Jake show that these might have been strained a bit too far.

The episode is pretty subtle about this. After the initial bout of passion, Jake gets distracted and leaves Helen to her own devices. Her disappointment is palpable. Helen’s focus has always been on her career, and to some extent she took Jake for granted. In this episode, she didn’t even bother telling Jake about her plans.

Which doesn’t let Jake off the hook. He might’ve more fully embraced obliviousness in order to compensate for being treated as an accessory to the family. But at the same time, his self-absorption would only give Helen more reason to focus on the job. It’s like one of those vicious things, as Quinn might say.

The overall context of the Morgendorffer marriage is still strong, as demonstrated by “Just Add Water”. But there are some underlying fault lines that will be explored more thoroughly in “Psycho Therapy”. For now, the Morgendorffers are able to gloss over this thanks to a game of charades with Mr. DeMartino.

Notes:

  • It’s hard to imagine the Lanes ever signing Jane up for scouts.
  • I gotta be honest: I just do not understand the appeal of a bearskin rug. I would not want be anywhere near a dead bear’s eyes while performing the deed.
  • I like the pronounced shadows in the cabin. Season 4 shows them being a bit bolder with the animation.
  • Daria and Jane betting on Fashion Club outcomes seems to anticipate “Fat Like Me”.

Chapter Text

A Tree Grows in Lawndale/Murder She Snored

A sequel of sorts to “The Misery Chick”, “A Tree Grows on Lawndale” puts the focus on Kevin Thompson.

Kevin’s a difficult character to explore. His most notable traits are stupidity, athleticism, and cheerfulness. There’s not really much to work with. In most episodes, he serves as an entirely unwitting foil to Daria, a target of her sarcasm who’s just too thick to understand that she’s mocking him.

“A Tree Grows in Lawndale” tries to expand on Kevin by knocking out both his athleticism and his cheerfulness. His collision with the Tommy Sherman Memorial Tree sprains his knee badly enough to put him out of the game. The core of his identity has been removed.

He reacts, understandably, by moping around. The dialogue makes clear that his injury is only a temporary one, though his dramatic reaction is believable for his character. Still, it is interesting to see the mighty laid low.

What’s particularly interesting is that Kevin’s popularity relies almost completely on his athletic prowess. As QB, he’s the toast of town, the hero of Lawndale. However, none of the players particularly care about him when he’s on the sidelines (an idea that’s revisited in “The F Word”). Brittany is the only one who seems inclined to give much support, even if it doesn’t help that much. Mack offers help, but he’s clearly frustrated with Kevin (not that I blame him).

When writing about “The Lab Brat”, I pointed out that Kevin’s been repeatedly let down by a school that keeps passing him despite his academic incompetence. Here, we see that he’s been similarly let down by his supposed friends. They only see him as a means to an end.

This doesn’t completely humanize Kevin. He still comes off as too much of a goofball to be a figure of pathos. It does show, however, that his privilege is actually quite tenuous.

On a related note, I am surprised that the Lawndale Lions would be so crippled without Kevin. His skill at quarterbacking almost seems savant-like, since a QB has to make quick tactical decisions. Put simply, Kevin doesn’t seem smart enough for the job.

One can’t help wondering how things might’ve gone if it turns out that the Lions are actually better off with someone like Mack as QB (he’s more believable in the role, to be honest). This might’ve forced Kevin to reassess himself in a more meaningful way. I always have to be careful when I say things like this, because I think Daria is a comedy first and foremost. But character development is important, and secondary characters like Kevin rarely go beyond their archetypes.

It’s also worth examining the degree to which Daria and Jane are responsible for Kevin’s mishap. Personally, I don’t think you can really pin this on them. While they knew of Kevin’s stupidity, they didn’t necessarily expect him to actually buy a moped. Their reaction is certainly heartless, though again, in a way that’s believably adolescent.

The episode also shows the importance of football to Lawndale, which always struck me as a little odd. Football is practically a religion in some small towns but Lawndale seemed a little too cosmopolitan for that to be the case. I’m not sure if Lawndale’s location had been confirmed at this point, so maybe there was some thought to it being in Texas.

I haven’t said anything about “Murder She Snored” yet. That’s because there’s really not much to say. It’s a bit like “Depth Takes A Holiday” or “Daria!” in that it’s a gimmick, in this case a parody of the mystery genre. I think “Murder She Snored” makes an error in using a dream as a framing device. The other two episodes I mentioned possess a sort of lunatic conviction by making a more-or-less realistic show blatantly unrealistic. “Murder She Snored” comes off rather pallid in comparison.

It’s not a bad episode, though as someone unfamiliar with the source material being parodied, I may have missed a lot of the jokes. But it’s also pretty inessential. Most of the athletes are shown to be cheaters but “See Jane Run” covered that back in Season 2.

Notes:

  • Odd that Kevin wears what appears to be a Sesame Street t-shirt.
  • Upchuck again shows remarkable talent, this time as a sports announcer.
  • I’m not sure that Mr. DeMartino would be allowed to open the door to the girls’ room like that.
  • Speaking of which, for all the praise he gets, “Murder She Snored” shows that Mr. DeMartino really isn’t that good of a teacher. He’s too easily angered to keep control of the class. Strangling students is also generally frowned upon.
  • Interesting that Andrea is the one with Upchuck as he calls his angels. Foreshadowing of Is it College Yet? Perhaps?

Chapter Text

The F Word

The Great Inspirational Teacher is a stock character in American media. Teachers are authority figures, but culture in the US (at least, past the ‘60s) tends to celebrate the rebels, and the inspirational teacher is always a rebel: someone who bucks the ossified, stratified school system, and most importantly, does it for the kids!

It’s easy to see why so many people like this. Students wish for teachers who’d do the same. The existence of such an archetype gives apathetic adults the chance to vicariously care about fictional teachers while ignoring the real ones. The Great Inspirational Teacher was almost a sacred cow during the ‘90s, each one usually patterned off of Robin Williams’s James Keating in Dead Poets Society.

So naturally, Daria takes the Great Inspirational Teacher down a peg or two.

Mr. O’Neill is the sort of teacher who watched Dead Poets Society a dozen times over, if not more (and I’m not knocking the film, it’s a fine one). Each time he imagined himself as a latter-day James Keating, a teacher who’s there for his students no matter what, cherished in memory and seen as a sterling example, being given credit so that he never has to have the gumption to actually take credit.

It’s a completely selfish fantasy.

Mr. O’Neill’s incompetence is placed front and center throughout “The F Word”. In fairness, the idea of learning through failure is not a bad one. We do learn through failure. But it’s also not really a lesson that can be taught in a classroom. Learning from failure almost has to be accidental. Otherwise, the failure is too structured to really be a learning experience. And Mr. O’Neill ought to know this. But of course, his enthusiasm overrides whatever little common sense he has, and he tells his students to do something they know they’ll fail at.

None of his students learn much from their failures. Kevin and Brittany are simply too dense to understand the assignment while Jodie and Mack just get confirmation for what they already know. I’ll talk more about Jane later. Mr. O’Neill himself fails this assignment (though he was trying to succeed) and doesn’t really learn anything from it.

A real teacher would rally, move on, and try to salvage the situation. Instead, Mr. O’Neill verbally flagellates himself in a ridiculous display, centering the whole class around his unhappiness. He doesn’t really care about how miserable his assignment has made the students, except insofar that them being unhappy has shattered his precious fantasy of being the Great Inspirational Teacher of Lawndale High. At no point does he actually help anyone.

And you see this throughout the entire series. Consider the way he submitted Quinn’s poem to the school newspaper in “Quinn the Brain”, or Daria’s essay to Val Magazine in “The Lost Girls”. He’s so in love with the idea of enabling youthful potential that he can’t be bothered to actually care for what his students actually want. This makes him a dangerous person, someone who’s too lost in fantasy to go through the trouble of empathizing with or trying to understand other people. I’ve known teachers like this, and they’re uniformly awful.

A lot has been said about Jane’s transformation in this episode. Personally, I don’t find the presentation all that believable. When she talks to Daria about attending cheer practice she sounds as enthusiastic as someone going in for a root canal.

Sure, Jane’s always been more willing to try new things. But that’s usually because they interest her in some way, like the track team does. Here, it seems more like she’s aware of authorial fiat and is simply going to cheer because the writers expect her to, and that she knows how absurd this is. The assignment’s over, so why would she engage with something she appears to be bored by? Just because it’s easy for her?

“The F Word” is a strong episode overall, but I don’t think the subplot with Jane works. A better way to do this would have been to give Jane some reason to actually enjoy the concept of being a cheerleader. As it is, her behavior is just odd.

Notes:

  • The opening scene is odd. It shows Lawndale High, and then cuts immediately to the seminar. Also, the school’s flagpole is missing its flag. Another victim of Li’s budget cuts?
  • “The F Word” gives us our only real glimpse of the cheer squad outside of Brittany.
  • Regardless of my complaints with Jane’s subplot, I do love the shot of Daria and Tom in mourning during the fantasy sequence.
  • What’s with the dogs barking when the cheerleaders bring Brittany back? Too many high-pitched shrieks? I don’t get it.
  • How on Earth did Mr. O’Neill get cleared to watch Quinn? Helen doesn’t trust him, and with good reason.

Chapter Text

I Loathe A Parade

In re-watching Daria from beginning to end, I’m surprised by how suddenly things get rolling between Tom and Daria. I first caught the show on The N, with the episodes truncated and sometimes missing. Somehow, I’d gotten the idea that there was more foreshadowing for this misguided romance.

But the suddenness is actually realistic. Something as simple as an hour spent in someone’s company can completely change the way you feel about them. And we see that in “I Loathe A Parade”, as Tom helps Daria navigate the travails of Lawndale’s Homecoming Parade.

And actually, Tom comes off as a pretty good guy here. He’s friendly to Daria (which, initially, can be read as something he does for Jane’s sake) in spite of the shabby treatment she’d showed him the past. He stands up to Mr. O’Neill (who’s even more obnoxious than usual). Which isn’t to say that Tom’s an especially interesting character, but it’s hard to really dislike him at this point.

It’s also interesting to see how similar Tom actually is to Jane in some respects. While Daria prefers to hide herself away, both Tom and Jane are more interested in engaging with the world in spite (or even because) of its madness.

The Homecoming Parade itself is wonderful in how over-the-top it is. I’m still gobsmacked at the lead float showing a Lawndale quarterback ripping the head off of a penguin (the rival school’s odd choice of mascot only underlies the absurdity of sports fanaticism). Judging by the sheer size of things, the parade is second only to security in the school’s budget.

The fact that all of Lawndale is so enthusiastic about something so ridiculous adds a bit of poignancy to Daria’s interactions with Tom. We know she’s often felt isolated due to her disinterest in large social gatherings and that she thinks this sort of thing is stupid. When you are alone in a crowd, it can be deeply comforting to find someone else who feels the same way.

Daria has Jane for that, of course, but episodes like “Partner’s Complaint” show why Daria might not feel completely comfortable having only one person she can rely on for this. What’s more, Jane is someone with her own life and interests that don’t always coincide with Daria’s. Tom is only the latest example.

Thus, Daria may realize on some level that she needs to branch out. But she’s still too distrustful and standoffish to really open up to most people. The Homecoming Parade, with all of its grotesquerie and superficial emotion, would only give her more reason to hide. She needs another person, but Jane is the only person she’s comfortable with. This means she looks for another Jane.

And unfortunately, Tom is the only one who fits the bill.

The ending of the episode isn’t subtle. When Tom and Daria exchange that significant look, the latter drenched in garish blue and yellow, there’s no doubt where this is headed. But it’ll take some time to get there. Daria’s not always that aware of her own emotions, and she may not fully understand the significance of this look, even if she suspects it intuitively.

Notes:

  • Though I’ve gone on record saying that Kevin’s an almost absurdly nice person, he’s actually a real prick in this episode.
  • How the hell did Upchuck talk himself into a parade position? I’d love to have seen that conversation.
  • Jodie and Mack talk about being elected Homecoming King and Queen each year. Can this happen? That suggests they’d have been elected in their freshman and sophomore years, which seems unlikely.
  • Tad Gupty and Ted DeWitt-Clinton both make appearances. So do Dr. Shar and the Spatula Man.

Chapter Text

Of Human Bonding

In many respects, Daria is a pretty relaxed show. Sure, there’s drama, but as is usually the case in sitcoms (animated for otherwise) from before the ‘00s, it’s almost always resolved in a half-hour. No one’s in real danger. Watching it as adults, we can even recognize much of what the high school-age cast worries over as being much ado about nothing.

But tension starts to creep in during Season 4. Tom is its harbinger, the first long-lasting threat to Daria and Jane’s friendship. Things appeared to have been smoothed over by the end of “Partner’s Complaint” only for “I Loathe A Parade” to show that this the calm is but a temporary one.

Nor is the tension limited to Daria, Jane, and Tom. You see it in the way Quinn and Sandi seem to increasingly be at odds, and (more worryingly) in how the Morgendorffer parents appear to be drifting apart.

All of this informs “Of Human Bonding”, an episode in which not a whole lot happens, but where every event underscores the sense of things quietly falling apart.

Jake features heavily here and the episode starts with him gushing about the conference. There’s a certain desperation to this. Jake’s father tried to mold him into a particular harsh masculine ideal, one which (to his credit) Jake rejected. But some of that poison remains. Jake feels some real anxiety at not being the home’s primary breadwinner. He knows there’s nothing wrong with Helen taking charge but some part of him still hears Mad Dog’s mockery.

His anxiety about this comes about in a desperate chase for success. Jake seems almost untethered from reality when he goes on about how great Terry Perry Barlow is (to the point that one almost wonders if he sees Barlow as some kind of weird substitute father figure). This only further alienates Helen, who doesn’t know how to handle Jake’s frankly bizarre behavior.

Earlier, in the write-up for “Jake of Hearts”, I criticized Daria for presenting him in too cartoonish a light. That this made it difficult to feel empathy for him. And “Of Human Bonding” doesn’t totally change my mind. But his desperation makes it easier to understand where he’s coming from, even if the writers exaggerated this more than they should have.

As for Daria herself, things seem okay, but there’s a weird note in her exchange with Jane. Earlier, in “I Loathe A Parade”, Jane enthusiastically invited Daria to join her and Tom for pizza toward the end of the episode. Here though, Jane initially seems to state that she will not be able to hang out with Daria because she’ll be bowling with Tom and his friends (and note that the presence of Tom’s friends suggests this encounter has room for more people). Jane quickly changes tack and says Daria can come, only to take a rather judgmental tone when Daria declines.

Is Jane picking up on what’s going on between Tom and Daria?

Does Daria really know what’s going on between her and Tom?

At any rate, the conference acts as a needed escape for both Daria and her father. I don’t totally buy their voiced thoughts. Daria’s mostly shown indifference to Jake (just look at the bribe she demanded in “I Loathe A Parade”), so it rings false to hear her think of him as a hero.

Still, the conference is fun to watch, and we get one of the Landon parents’ few appearances (I’m amused by how Daria refers to them as “Jodie’s parents”, though I wonder if that’s intended as exposition given how rarely Andrew and Michele Landon show up). Daria and Jake both go their own ways, as Morgendorffers tend to be the most comfortable with.

Terry Perry Barlow himself turns out to be an adult version of Tommy Sherman (maybe slightly smarter). Self-aggrandizing and dishonest, he’s a fairly broad caricature. Jake lets himself get talked into going onto a balloon ride, and in classic Daria fashion, fails to really break out of his rut. Sure, he says he’s conquered his fears, but he doesn’t seem to grow much from the experience.

Meanwhile, back at home, the rivalry between Quinn and Sandi (reflected by the one between Helen and Linda) gets more intense. Helen spills her guts out about her marriage to the girls, showing that she knows how bad it’s getting. Meanwhile, the call the reveals only Quinn was invited to Ricky’s party deepens the divides within the Fashion Club (and hints that, aside from Quinn, the Fashion Club really isn’t very popular).

There’s a lot of tension. And by the end of the episode, absolutely nothing’s been resolved. The characters can forget about it for a while with conferences, sleepovers, and so forth, but the problems haven’t gone away.

Notes:

  • The flag outside of the school is colored incorrectly at the beginning of this episode—that, or Daria takes place in Greece.
  • Quinn’s quite good at navigating tense situations in this episode.
  • Sandi mentions having a condition which requires her to sleep on a bed. Is this ever brought up again? Or is she just saying that to make everyone else sleep on the floor?

Chapter Text

Psycho Therapy

“Psycho Therapy” goes some way to easing the tension that’s wormed its way all through the fourth season. However, the episode does so in an odd way. Things are rarely settled in Daria. Flaws remains, and problems surface only to be partially resolved and then buried back under routine.

Helen’s the real star of “Psycho Therapy”. The show so far has portrayed her as a dedicated and skilled career woman. Which isn’t to say that the roles of wife and mother aren’t important to her—they are. She understands Daria probably better than anyone else in the show (though I’m not sure how well she really understands Quinn).

Her dedication to family life, however, sometimes takes the form of absence, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As I mentioned way back in the write-up for “The Teachings of Don Jake”, the Morgendorffers often function best when each is allowed to do their own thing. And for a long time, this worked.

But as this season shows, the Morgendorffer marriage might be starting to fray. Jake retreats deeper into himself which just leads Helen to focus more on her career.

In “Psycho Therapy”, Helen’s put in the spotlight. Her career might well hinge on her performance at Quiet Ivy. She assumes (not unreasonably) that Eric wants her report to describe her as pleasant, a loving wife and mother, and basically all of the things that society expects women to be.

At heart, Helen’s a careerist. She loves her family but she defines herself by her job, in much the same way that Daria defines herself through iconoclastic intellect and Quinn through popularity. She’s under tremendous pressure this entire episode. If she comes off as too driven, she fears it might cost her everything she’s worked so hard to attain.

I’m actually surprised that Helen’s not more frustrated at Daria’s pranks. As usual, Daria doesn’t take her surroundings particularly seriously. However, she shows great insight into the family dynamics, both during her session with Dr. Jean-Michele and later on with Helen.

“Psycho Therapy” reminds us of how the Morgendorffers can be self-absorbed early on, when Helen offers to make breakfast but neither Daria nor Quinn show any interest. Only Jake does, and when Helen has to leave for the abruptly un-canceled meeting, she goes right off to work without a second thought.

Both Jake and Quinn come off as somewhat clueless in this episode. The role-playing session at the end, however, shows that they seem to understand each other pretty well. While their imitations are barbed, they all sound and act like the family members they are pretending to be.

And with this, the elder Morgendorffers come to a realization. Helen sees how her focus on career has hurt Jake, while he sees how his self-absorption can be painful to Helen.

So do they make up and vow never to let such silly things get between them again?

Of course not. That’s not how this show works. Because at his core, Jake is still struggling under his father’s shadow and probably always will be to some extent. At her core, Helen loves the intensity and the competition that come from her job. Maybe acceptance and understanding of this—enough of both so that both Helen and Jake can usually go their own way without too much conflict—is the best they can hope for.

These aren’t problems to be solved. They’re intrinsic to both people. And it will likely flare up again in the future. Fortunately, Helen and Jake do love each other and that’ll make it easier for them to weather the storm. Real families don’t get happily ever afters. There are always bumps in the road and even the best personalities can conflict with each other. I applaud Daria for this realism.

In a wonderful twist at the end, Helen gets a report that describes her as aggressive and insensitive, which is exactly what Eric wanted to hear. Those are the kinds of qualities that make for a dogged, take-no-prisoners lawyer! Still, there’s a moment of doubt on Helen’s face. She loves her family, and she knows that her personality can be hard on them.

But that’s just who she is.

Notes:

  • Does anyone else think that Eric kind of looks like a middle-aged version of Tom?
  • I love the De Chirico painting hanging on the wall next to Jake. It underscores his sense of loneliness and vulnerability.
  • Quinn’s understanding of history is a bit askew, but I don’t think most high school kids could so quickly rattle off talk of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Marc Antony.
  • Hypnotism’s never worked on me, either—so far as I can tell.

Chapter Text

Mart of Darkness

“Mart of Darkness” gives us a good old-fashioned scattershot episode. This time the venue is a big-box store called Payday (which, judging by the interior layout, is probably more specifically a satire of CostCo). While big-box stores go back to the ‘60s, the ‘80s and ‘90s saw them greatly extend their reach throughout suburbia.

The image of long lines of shoppers with enormous boxes in their carts is an easy one to satirize (though I have some criticism for how the episode handles this—I’ll go into that more later).

The episode finds the cast heading to Payday on a variety of errands. Jane is there to purchase some gummy bears. She’d had some before, intending to use them for an art project, only for Tom to unwittingly eat them.

Jane’s reaction is another sign of tension in their relationship. In fairness to her, Tom should have asked before eating those gummy bears (as a general rule, I don’t eat anything on display without asking first, unless it’s at a dinner). Still, she reacts more harshly than she should have. I'm also surprised that Tom could eat such an apparently large amount so quickly.

There are a couple of ways to read this. The most believable, I’d argue, is simply that Jane and Tom are starting to drift apart. High school relationships don’t usually last very long and friction can start appearing in unlikely places as the people involved search for ways to vent their dissatisfaction with the relationship. It’s worth noting that Jane’s normally pretty easygoing. Then again, she does take her art quite seriously.

The other interpretation is that she’s nervous because she’s already picked up on Tom’s growing attraction to Daria (and his decreasing interest in her).

Tom himself comes off as rather unpleasant in this episode. His criticism of Payday reeks of his own wealth and privilege. The large quantities of cheap goods at such stores can be helpful to big families on a tight budget. I’m actually not sure that we were supposed to see this as Tom being elitist; the writers may share his opinion. Regardless, that’s how it came off to me.

He also shows no real gratitude to Trent and Jesse for driving him there. Then again, I can see how it’d be very frustrating to deal with Trent.

While the Season 4 tension underlies this episode, it’s mostly relegated to the background. Payday gives the characters a chance to show off their best (or more often their worst). Andrea, who gets more lines here than in any other episode, is the most interesting. Plenty has already been discussed about her exchange with Daria and Jane and what that says about them. I still maintain that this came about because of Andrea’s own sensitivity in being an actual outcast, and in being one of the few students clear-headed enough to actually know when Daria and Jane are making fun of someone.

Mr. DeMartino also gets a lot of exposure. One thing I find interesting is that Mr. DeMartino is the only teacher who complains about his salary outside of “Lucky Strike”. Certainly, teacher salaries tend to be pretty low but no one else seems to be hovering on the edge of penury the way he is. My theory is that he’s penny-wise but pound-foolish, and thus quickly burns through whatever he earns.

The episode ends in chaos, with Mr. DeMartino’s escape resulting in a power outage. No one really gets the thing they wanted, fitting in with Season 4’s more pessimistic outlook.

Note:

  • Jane shows admirable ambition in trying to get her work to a larger audience. It shows she takes her art seriously.
  • Doug Thompson comes off as an older, meaner version of Kevin.
  • Jane’s quite obliging to Mrs. Johannsen. I wonder if she feels guilty for her earlier callousness in “Café Disaffecto”.
  • Why is Principal Li worried about Kevin’s grades? We know she’s not above pulling strings to keep him on the team or allowing him to get byes on tests.
  • Sandi’s aggression toward Quinn continues to get worse.

Chapter Text

Legends of the Mall/Groped by an Angel

The two episodes covered here give the audience a bit of a breather before things get heavy in “Fire!”. “Legends of the Mall” is a gimmick episode, but a pretty funny one. “Groped by an Angel” deals with serious subject matter but handles it with a light touch (though it’s mediocre as a comedy).

Like a lot of the gimmick episodes, “Legends of the Mall” doesn’t reveal much about the characters. Mostly it’s just an excuse to reimagine the main cast through the lens of previous decades. I’m not sure how long we’ve been envisioning a decade as a distinct cultural moment though I know it goes back to at least the 1920, when there was a nostalgic revival of the 1890s (the Gay Nineties, as they were called).

As a kid, I remember my middle school having dress-up days for the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s (this was in 1996, so the ‘80s were still a little too recent). This sort of nostalgia creates an idealized version of the decade in question that often ends up anachronistic in the way it slaps together disparate elements of popular culture. It also ignores that culture doesn’t shift in neat ten-year increments; for instance, the early ‘60s more closely resembled the ‘50s than anything else.

Which isn’t to say that decade nostalgia is a bad thing, and the writers have some fun with it here. The Rattling Girl of Lawndale re-imagines the Fashion Club in ‘60s haute couture, and the Legend of Metalmouth skewers both ‘80s teen comedies and the slasher films that were in vogue at the same time. The Girl in the House of Bad Grades satirizes ‘50s paranoia (and gets to throw in a little bit of the ‘70s at the very end).

What’s interesting here is that all of the stories feature supernatural vengeance of some kind. ‘60s Sandi’s rattling haunts the high school’s popular kids. Metalmouth tries to get back at ‘80s Kevin. ‘50s Daria ensures that no one who lives in the house after her escapes Lawndale. Given the time in which this episode takes place (shortly before the infamous Kiss), it almost feels like a warning. However, Daria escapes any real comeuppance for her act so this is probably coincidence.

“Groped by an Angel” goes after a sort of gooey feel-good spirituality that was mainstream in the ‘90s, most exemplified by the endlessly reiterated Chicken Soup for the Soul books referenced in the episode.

Yet this one differs from some of the satirical episodes in the past in that Daria actually pulls back. Even though she regards Quinn’s concept of guardian angels as nonsensical, she understands that it’s something does give Quinn comfort and that, so long as Quinn doesn’t over-rely on this belief, it can be helpful.

It’s by this point that Daria understands how insecure Quinn really is. It’s difficult for Daria to empathize with such insecurity since she is pretty comfortable with herself in most respects, but she actually makes the effort. It’s a touching scene.

I’m an agnostic, but I’m familiar enough with Christianity and its founding texts to know that there’s not much in there about guardian angels who’ll swoop to the believer’s rescue. This might be a nice thing to believe but it lacks any real theological basis. Just look at Job. Christianity does itself a disservice when churches promise that belief will bring good times and happiness. True faith is rigorous and demanding, not for the faint-hearted. If you are not willing to suffer for your cause, you do not truly believe in it.

Granted, what Quinn believes in seems to be some fuzzy all-inclusive faith rather than any specific religion, but my point remains.

The reason I include that rant is that I’m still a little iffy about Quinn’s beliefs by the end of the episode. Though she acknowledges that a hypothetical guardian angel will only save her from big problems, what happens when there’s a big problem and that angel doesn’t appear to help? It’d be a repeat of her episode with the ruined jeans.

Still, I think Daria ultimately made the right call at the end. Criticizing Quinn’s beliefs would have only alienated her and I can easily see it as something she’d grow out of. “Groped by an Angel” isn’t that funny of an episode but I think it’s important as another one that shows real growth on Daria’s part.

Unfortunately, she hasn’t grown enough to avoid what’s coming in the next few episodes.

Notes:

  • “Legends of the Mall” shows that Lawndale does have a lot of wilderness interspersed with the suburbs, as earlier indicated in “The Lawndale File”.
  • Mr. O’Neill assumes he’s invited to Brittany’s party. This guy…
  • Another interesting element is that Jane seems quite disheartened by her analysis of Daria’s attitude toward guardian angels, and one gets the feeling that Jane’s describing her own outlook rather than Daria’s.
  • Considering how wealthy the Taylors are supposed to be, it’s odd that Mr. Taylor would need to borrow from his son’s college account. Maybe he’s living beyond his means?
  • Jake’s quite childish in the both of these episodes. “Psycho Therapy” may have helped the Morgendorffers gain better self-realization, but the parents are still stuck in their ruts.

Chapter Text

Fire!

By the time of “Fire!”, Daria can no longer ignore how much things have changed. Tom’s gone from rival, to acquaintance, to object of desire. And Daria has no idea what to do.

She’s always kept her feelings at a distance. Her sarcasm and flintiness created a safe wall around her, one from which she rarely ventured. Though Daria cares deeply about Jane, there’s still a certain emotional distance between the two (one which Jane happily reciprocates, most of the time). This has served Daria well.

Until suddenly, it doesn’t.

The scene at the beginning of the episode illustrates this larger theme pretty well. Jake’s thoughtlessly going through the steps of getting a glass of warm milk (he’s apparently still on his milk kick), making some poor decisions along the way. Everything’s fine, until it isn’t, and he starts a fire in the kitchen.

Jane and Tom are in a similar position. The cause of their argument (Fellini films versus B-movies) is trivial. The reason it gets worse isn’t because they can’t agree; rather, it’s because they’ve just gotten tired of each other. The relationship is over, and neither of them is willing to admit it. Which makes sense given that neither has the experience to know when a relationship has run its course.

The sad thing is, I’m not really sure that any of the characters here had a real chance at averting catastrophe. They simply don’t know enough about themselves to take proper action. Much like characters in a Greek tragedy, all they can do is march toward the inevitable finale.

Of all of them, Jane is easily the most sympathetic and maybe the most self-aware. She actually takes the step of opening up to Daria about her fears. It’s a shocking moment. Jane, who’s always be so self-possessed, admits that she’s afraid of losing Tom to Daria. It takes guts to confront a friend about something like this—in so doing, Jane is risking the friendship the wants to save. Her saying that she and Tom were meant for each other is a moment of naivety, but it’s a heartfelt one. She genuinely believes it.

I absolutely love how Jane still tries to minimize her own emotional reaction. There’s a forced jokey quality to her tone, as if she’s trying to convince Daria and herself that it’s no big deal, even though it is. Jane would rather just go back to the way things were, when she didn’t care so much. Wendy Hoope nails the voice acting here and it’s a shame that Jane so rarely gets dialogue like this.

For her part, Daria takes it in stride, though her reassurances will look heartless in retrospect.

Tom, on the other hand, is much less sympathetic. Of the three, he has the least to lose and the audience has the least investment in him. It’s infuriating to see how cavalierly he treats Jane, keeping her waiting for hours so that he can chat with Daria.

That said, their conversation actually does a good job of explaining why Daria falls for him. “I Loathe A Parade” touched on this as well, but it’s more explicit here. The fact is, if you have obscure or odd interests, it can be incredibly hard to find someone who shares them.

I look back on my high school self. My interests tended toward the geeky and academic (well before such things became popular—and history, my main passion, still bores most Americans). I didn’t dare hope I’d ever find a girlfriend who shared these interests—I figured the best I could get was someone who tolerated them. Getting older, I learned that emotional compatibility is more important to a relationship than common interests, but I didn't realize this during those years.

So if I imagine myself in Daria’s shoes I can understand why she fell for Tom.

We already know that Daria tends to wall herself off from the rest of the world. This is true even when she’s with Jane. To some extent, their friendship is predicated on a shared disdain for everything else. Tom, on the other hand, gives her a chance to be unguarded about her interests, to have someone who can meaningfully respond to them. Viewed through this lens, it’s a powerful moment. If you’ve resigned yourself to being lonely it’s almost painful to get a sign that you might not have to be.

Daria’s never found herself in such a situation. By the end of the episode, she knows that things are liable to blow up in her face. But she can’t break out of it. On some level, she probably hopes that it’ll just blow over and she can go back to her comfortable isolation. Except, at her age, she might genuinely believe this is her only chance to ever find someone.

And that can make people desperate.

Notes:

  • Helen and Jake seem to make up pretty quick. It’s abrupt, but sometimes a change in venue is all you really need.
  • I love how Jane fingers the power drill when she says: “be my guest”.
  • Quinn knows a lot about ‘60s television, though I suppose she might just be referring to the ‘90s film adaptations of The Avengers and The Mod Squad. Neither of those were especially popular though, which makes me think she’s talking about the originals.
  • There’s a really weird map of South America in Penny’s room. Judging by the borders, I can only assume that Bolivia and Peru won the War of the Pacific in the Daria-verse.
  • I didn’t really go into Trent in this write-up, but his seeming failure to warn Jane is both foolish and inconsiderate. Maybe he was just hoping it’d blow over, which would fit with his lazy nature.

Chapter Text

Dye! Dye! My Darling

I still find “Dye! Dye! My Darling” a pretty tough episode to watch.

Some of this comes from how invested I’ve become in Daria’s friendship with Jane. The two have an easy chemistry that informs every episode but is rarely the focus. Daria needs the friendship. Jane acts as an emotional bedrock for Daria, and also an instigator who can get her to occasionally try new things.

There’s a certain exclusivity to Daria and Jane’s friendship. Not everyone can relate to the barbed observations and ironic witticisms that make up the bulk of their conversation. Not many television series have a central relationship of this specific type. Being able to relate puts you in a selective group. It feels like something special because it is.

And this is why the tension in this episode has nothing to do with who will get Tom. No one really cares about that (or about Tom). The tension rests in wondering just how badly Daria and Jane will hurt each other. We’ve seen how easily both of them shrug off the opinions of the student body, but for all their professed indifference, each cares about what the other thinks.

It’s painful to see Jane put through the wringer. She knows that her accusations will sound paranoid. And in a certain sense, they are. Daria’s always been pretty passive and she’s never cared that much about romance. Logically, it’s difficult to believe that Daria would do anything like try to steal Tom.

Except she sees how well Tom gets along with Daria. They have a natural chemistry that was absent in his relationship with Jane, even during better days. As Jane watches them get closer together she can only compare it with how adrift she now feels.

I’ve often commented on how isolated Daria really is, but this episode points out that Jane may have it even worse in some respects. While she’s better able to befriend others, most of her other interactions tend toward the superficial (and I’d argue that her relationship with Tom is no exception). Daria’s more visible isolation has, in this season, forced her to realize that she may have to reach out a bit more. Jane’s problem is subtler and she may not recognize it. She can get friends easily—it’s just that they probably won’t go much beyond casual acquaintances.

So now, Daria, Jane’s one real connection to the outside world, looks ready to stab her in the back. The signs are all there and Jane can’t ignore them even if such a betrayal seems uncharacteristic of Daria.

Making matters worse is the fact that I don’t think Daria understands how much she likes Tom. Events in “I Loathe A Parade” and “Fire!” gave her an idea but these realizations didn’t stick. In “Dye! Dye! My Darling”, Daria is still in full denial mode. Her intelligence makes it easy to rationalize her conclusions. Maybe she’s told herself that she’s just come to see Tom as a friend, or that the attraction is there but is too fleeting to matter. Sure, Tom’s cute and kind of funny, but so what?

When Jane relays her concerns to Daria, I think that Daria’s reassurances are genuine. She leaves the Lane house believing that this has mostly been resolved. Daria knows herself. She’s not someone who betrays friends, who engages in drama like all the other high school kids do. She’s above that.

Until she runs into Tom, and everything falls apart.

Whatever this episode’s faults, I love Daria’s reaction. She doesn’t thrill to the thought of sneaking behind Jane’s back, or delight in the experience of finally kissing a guy. Instead, she’s outraged at her own behavior.

But for all her intelligence, she can’t fight her own emotions. She can’t just make it go away with a smart remark. For someone who prizes self-control as much as Daria does it’s a horrifying moment.

Naturally, she flees. Her first thought is about Jane. Daria knows she’s screwed up big-time, and that there won’t be any easy way to patch things up. It says so much about Daria’s values that she chooses to tell Jane about her indiscretion. As much as Daria wants Tom, her personality simply won’t allow her to engage with him in any context beyond the heat of the moment.

It’s actually not inconceivable that a different Daria would have simply talked to Tom, agreed never to tell Jane about the Kiss, and simply sat it out. Her anger at herself (and at Tom) might have been strong enough to suppress the attraction. In this scenario, Tom and Jane would have certainly broken up in a week or two and things would be back to normal.

Except Daria just cannot do that. I’ve said before that Daria’s not always as honest as she claims. Consider how she helped the Middleton students cheat. But I do think she values honesty with those she cares about. She may also seek some kind of absolution in her confession.

The results are predictable. Jane had spent the last few episodes hoping that Daria’s reassurances would dispel her anxiety. For a little while, they did. The confession undoes that. Almost everyone Jane values is ripped from her: Daria, Tom, her sense of worth. All she has left is Trent, and that likely means a retreat to whatever kind of life she had in Lawndale before Daria arrived. I doubt it was a pleasant one.

Both Daria and Jane are still too self-possessed to attack each other. Their discussion near the end shows each trying to figure out where they stand with the other. And neither of them is sure. These are uncharted waters. Both of them want everything to go back to the way they were, but both know that won’t happen.

I actually consider “Dye! Dye! My Darling” to be a pretty strong episode for the most part. Even the most controlled people can be overwhelmed by strong feelings, so I see Daria’s behavior as believable (though it’s her subsequent reaction—being honest with Jane—that really sells it).

Where Daria really gets out of character is at the end. She would’ve hung up on Tom the moment he called. We’ve already seen that Daria ultimately values Jane more than Tom, and that she doesn’t really think Jane is okay with the two of them dating. While Daria’s not always the best at reading people, I don’t for a moment believe she’s so dense as to think Jane would really give her approval to the relationship.

But the writers had decreed that we needed more drama, and thus begins one of the most poorly implemented relationships in TV history.

Notes:

  • I didn’t go into the whole hair dye subplot. It’s poorly thought out on Jane’s part but I don’t think it’s out of character. She often avoids direct confrontation.
  • Jane makes a lot of literary references during this episode, while Daria is unusually patient with Jane.
  • Yes Jane, Tom is a real idiot.
  • In the car, when Daria talks about how important Jane is to her, she seems to emphasize how comfortable her life in Lawndale had become. This goes with my theory that Daria’s largely content to coast along in life.
  • “You're going to have just a super time dating Daria. She loves to have fun.” Jane’s prediction is apt.
  • Helen also gets some good moments when she comforts Daria.

Chapter Text

Is It Fall Yet?

I’m going to admit up front that I’m not a big fan of either of the two TV movies. Both of them tend to drag, and a big part of the problem is that it’s not easy to go from writing a half-hour program to an hour-long one.

Examples abound throughout television. The Twilight Zone’s fourth season suffered for this very reason. To quote Rod Serling:

"Ours is the perfect half-hour show... If we went to an hour, we'd have to fleshen our stories, soap opera style. Viewers could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse.”

I’d cite the Futurama movies (the first few, at least—I never bothered watching the others) as another example of this problem.

Like these, Is It Fall Yet? suffers badly from pacing issues. A lot of scenes feel like padding, and the stuff that’s genuinely interesting often gets short shrift. Which isn’t to say it’s all awful—there are some good lines and character moments. But they’re spaced across 59 minutes. For the first time since starting this series-long review I found myself checking the time. It’s really too bad that the writing team decided to do the two movies instead of a 6th Season.

Because Is It Fall Yet? is so long, I’m going to take a different approach and review the main storylines (Daria’s, Jane’s, and Quinn’s) separately. The subplots featuring Jodie, Mack, Kevin, and Brittany are frankly little more than filler, so I won’t discuss those.

Daria:

Daria actually gets two storylines in this movie. She’s the protagonist, so fair enough. The more prominent (and unfortunately, less interesting) of the two is her navigating the fallout of the Kiss while also dating Tom.

I mentioned in my last analysis that I don’t think Daria would have gone back to Tom. Her self-loathing over her own weakness would have overcome whatever attraction she felt. Remember: she confessed to Jane almost immediately, which makes it clear that she considers Jane a higher priority.

I wonder if that’s why the scenes between Daria and Tom feel so lacking in IIFY? Whatever chemistry they had in “Fire!” and “I Loathe A Parade” is long gone. Daria often seems like she’s just putting up with Tom. Granted, this is Daria we’re talking about; gushy enthusiasm isn’t in her nature.

For that matter, it’s difficult to believe Tom would be interested in trying to maintain the relationship for this long.

It’s worth exploring why Daria keeps going with Tom in the first place (other than authorial fiat). The continued dating might simply be a reaction to isolation. Jane’s in the art colony and it’s not clear if their friendship will survive the summer. Maybe Daria just wants to have some connection outside her family.

This would suggest she’s not actually that interested in Tom and is really just using him to fill an emotional void (which is a crummy thing for her to do, though a somewhat believable one given her situation and personality).

Class difference is another big obstacle to the relationship. The Sloanes are an old money family to whom dropping a few thousand here and there is simply no big deal. Daria is understandably rankled when the Sloanes assume that the Morgendorffers can be similarly cavalier with their money.

There’s no doubt that Tom is born to privilege far beyond that possessed by anyone else on the show. At the same time, the way they present this class issue has always rubbed me the wrong way. Though the Sloanes are far wealthier than the Morgendorffers, the Morgendorffers are by no means poor. Not even close to it. At no point does Daria ever have to worry about not being able to afford college.

Which isn’t to say that Daria’s wrong for feeling the way she does. Though Kay’ Sloane’s invitation is well-intended, the hurt is real. My problem is that the writers themselves seem blind to how fortunate Daria really is. It’s even more galling when you compare her to Jane, whose financial situation is much less stable.

The writers make some attempt at acknowledging this when Tom talks about Jane, saying that his family never really knew about her. The idea is that Jane never got upset because she was never put under this pressure. But later on, Jane herself says that she just liked going to a place with a full fridge. This may have been hyperbole on Jane’s part, but I suspect there were a few times in her life where her refrigerator and wallet were both empty. The fact that Daria barely acknowledges this makes her look somewhat clueless and the writers don’t realize this.

The series really would have been served better if Daria and Tom had simply broken up in IIFY? By the end, Daria going back to him almost feels like she’s doing it for Jane’s sake, even though that doesn’t make any sense.

The better of the two storylines features Daria’s “volunteer” efforts at Mr. O’Neill’s It’s Okay to Cry Corral, a summer camp for sensitive children. The sheer level of Mr. O’Neill’s cluelessness and selfishness is jaw-dropping. Once more, he’s trying to present himself as one of the “cool” adults, someone who genuinely cares, but reveals himself to be utterly indifferent to his charges.

When the kids want to go outside, he makes them stay inside. When they want to have fun, he makes them do one of his self-actualization exercises. If one of the kids is hurting, it’s not sad because they’re hurting—it’s sad because it makes Mr. O’Neill feel sad.

The whole thing smacks of sensitivity fetishism. Mr. O’Neill loves the idea of someone who’s sensitive finding self-confidence and acceptance, but he’s blind to the fact that emotions don’t work in such a simple way. People might be overly sensitive for a number of reasons. Maybe some of the kids don’t actually want to be so sensitive.

But he doesn’t care about any of that!

The combination of cluelessness and well-meaning hypocrisy means this could have been a brilliant subject for an episode. Daria was born to skewer things like this. Unfortunately, much of the impact is dulled by it being interspersed with the other storylines.

The subplot with Link is especially disappointing simply because it had so much potential. Link is like an even more misanthropic version of Daria. Unlike Daria, he seems to be in a genuinely bleak family situation. Spending time with Link would have been a great chance for Daria to see both how fortunate she is and to better understand the importance of opening up.

I’d have loved to watch Daria try to reach out to Link, only to see him brush her off with her own favorite defense mechanisms. That’s the sort of experience that prompts real introspection. The scene where Link assumes that Daria was simply doing Mr. O’Neill’s bidding could have been a great moment for Daria to realize how her own cynicism might hurt others.

Unfortunately, their interactions are too minimal for this story to have much impact. While watching IIFY?, I was surprised by how small a role Link actually plays. I’d remembered him being much more prominent. One issue is that Daria doesn’t really have anyone to talk to about her encounters with Link. Tom’s already too involved in the first storyline, and Jane’s far away. Maybe Daria could have opened up to Mr. DeMartino about him instead?

The end of this storyline is abrupt and unearned. Link leaves the camp, still convinced that Daria betrayed his trust, only to apparently change his mind and try to keep in touch. It’s not believable. Link has no reason to give Daria a second chance because she frankly isn’t shown doing that much for him.

Jane:

Of all the storylines, I think Jane’s posed the biggest challenges to the writers. A lot of the real drama is internal. Even more than Daria, Jane’s in a situation where she has to do some serious self-analysis.

Her dialogue at the beginning makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with Daria. I don’t think that, at this point, she actually wants to be friends with her again. She’s probably thinking that by the time she gets back from the Colony, Daria and Tom will be so into each other that they’ll both leave her alone. Jane can go back to seclusion.

Jane trusted her best friend and was betrayed for her trouble. Seclusion might seem pretty comforting after such an experience. She’s scared to open up to anyone else.

Predictably for Daria, the Colony turns out to be another morass of corruption, laziness, and indifference. The art world is pretty easy to satirize and I think Dotson’s self-aggrandizement was spot on.

It’s interesting to see that Jane doesn’t really fit in that well in the art world. I’ve earlier said that she’s more adaptable than Daria, and I hold to that statement, but she may have a harder time fitting in than I thought. Admittedly, her grim mental state at the time would likely contribute to this.

Alison’s also problematic as a character. In fairness, predators do exist on all points of the sexuality spectrum. However, she’s also the only openly LGBT character on the entire show and to make her a predator was insensitive at best.

Another problem here is that, in addition to Alison being deeply unsympathetic, the script doesn’t give much sign that Jane feels unsure about her sexuality. As such, Alison’s comments don’t have any impact. There’s no hint that Jane might be realizing something about herself. The only tension comes from the discomfort of watching Alison try to entice someone who’s still in high school.

At the end of her stint in the colony, Jane has learned (assuming she didn’t already know—she probably did) that the art world is just as crummy as Lawndale High.

So what’s going through her head at the end of all this? Not only does she take Daria back, she actually encourages her to get back with Tom.

As far as I can tell, the best way to make sense of this is as follows. Daria’s betrayal left Jane alone and adrift. She made no friends in the Colony, and probably felt even more isolated at the end than she did when she started.

Jane’s starving for company. Maybe she’s still mad at Daria, but she doesn’t have anyone else. With this in mind, she decides to just give in: forgive Daria, get her to re-engage with Tom so that it’s absolutely clear there’s no ill will, and resign herself to being a third wheel for much of the next school year.

This might be the most depressing storyline in the entire series. Somehow, the fact that the writers don’t seem to see this makes it more poignant.

Quinn:

Quinn’s story is another good idea garbled by poor execution. The show’s made it clear that Quinn is much deeper and more intelligent than she allows herself to be. And now she’s starting to realize it.

I like how Season 4 sets this up. All the way through, Sandi’s gotten much nastier to Quinn, who handles these tense situations with aplomb. Quinn’s definitely smart enough to see what’s going on, and as a result, she’s finally realizing that there will be life after high school. What’s more, she needs to prepare for it. That’s a good setup for a story about Quinn’s intellectual self-improvement.

Where the writing stumbles is with her tutor, David, who’s a real prick and incredibly unprofessional. In fairness, I can see how a young person would be driven to frustration by the neuroses of the various Fashion Club members. We give Mr. DeMartino a pass for similar behavior—the main difference being that DeMartino is funny while David is not.

David’s talk to Quinn at the end of their tutoring is especially galling. First, I will say that I could see how it’d be tense or even downright terrifying for a student to express that kind of an interest in him. But I don’t think his speech was the result of some desperate attempt to defuse the situation. He sounds calm, and what’s worse is that I think we’re supposed to agree with him.

There’s a bit of truth to what he says. Quinn can still come across as superficial. But David is incredibly judgmental and unfair. The speech may have been intended as inspirational—something to get Quinn to become better—but it comes off as condemnatory. The reason he turns her down isn’t because it’s wrong for a tutor to engage with a student this way—it’s because he’s too good for her.

Frankly, it makes no sense that Daria wouldn’t have verbally ripped David a new on when Quinn explains the situation. I’ll be charitable and assume that Daria was consumed with her own problems and may not have understood how cruel David had been through Quinn’s account.

Once more, the writers don’t seem to recognize this.

Quinn seems to brush it off. Nonetheless, I think that David’s unpleasantness would have impacted her confidence a bit.

Conclusion:

Is It Fall Yet? consists of four potentially good-to-great episodes that are jumbled together and made bad or mediocre. I get the feeling that if the writers had had a little more time to think things through, they could’ve come up with some excellent storylines. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that TV programming of the time would have been amenable to multiple interlinking episodes.

I know I’ve harped on this a lot, but I can’t get over how the writers never seem to fully consider the ramifications of what they show. There’s no good reason for Daria to go back to Tom. I don’t think Link would write to Daria given that they never resolved their situation. Alison is a predator but only comes off as a nuisance. David’s a prick but is treated as being right, or at least having good points.

Is It Fall Yet? is one of the weaker entries in the series overall. It’s an awkward setup to Season 5. Fortunately, Season 5 manages to have some strong episodes even if it labors under the nonsensical nature of Daria and Tom’s relationship.

Notes:

  • Is Kevin smart enough to cut it in vocational school? I don’t think he is.
  • I never understood the appeal of lanyards.
  • I also really enjoyed George Orwell at age 12.
  • So did Quinn already know about the Marquis de Sade?
  • I’m a little surprised that Quinn would be into Ethan Frome, though I should also admit that I haven’t actually read that book and only know it by reputation, so there’s very possibly something I’m missing.
  • It was pretty gratifying to see Mr. DeMartino rip out that sink.

Chapter Text

Fizz Ed

Now that we’re entering the fifth and final season of Daria, I want to take a look at how the show has evolved. The early seasons brought us the sharp satire and deadpan wit of Daria Triumphant. Many fans today consider these to be the funniest episodes overall, and I don’t think I’d disagree.

However, there was only so much the writers could do with this setup. Having Daria and Jane blithely glide through one absurd situation after another could only be funny for so long. Season 3’s reliance on gimmick episodes like “Depth Takes A Holiday” and “Daria!” (neither of which were bad episodes, in my opinion, but definitely odd ones) showed that they might be running out of ideas. Season 4 brought us drama, primarily with Tom. Is It Fall Yet? escalated the drama in the context of a muddled TV movie.

“Fizz Ed”, the Season 5 opener, jettisoned the dramatic elements of Season 4. It’s almost a return to Daria Triumphant… except it isn’t, not quite. Sure, Daria gets her way (to an extent), but this seems to have as much to do with Ms. Li’s panic attack as it does with Daria’s wit. More importantly, Daria’s motivations in “Fizz Ed” are drastically different from what she displayed in earlier seasons.

Season 5 was Daria’s most overtly political season. “Fizz Ed” tackles the uneasy-at-best topic of commercial funding for public education. Unfortunately, I don’t think the episode quite figures out how to handle the characters. While “Fizz Ed” does have one of the funniest scenes in the show overall (Ms. Li’s freakout), the satire misses its mark. I don’t really believe it when Daria states that she’s concerned for other students. Yes, she’s grown a great deal since the start of the show, but not to the point where she’d be altruistic toward people she normally holds in contempt.

I suppose that one argument is that, by now, she’s gained respect for Quinn, someone she previously looked down on. And to Daria’s credit, the show has built this up beautifully over the seasons. Still, Quinn’s exceptional by any reasonable metric. I’d argue that Daria’s acceptance of her doesn’t stem from growing tolerance of “normal people”, but rather that she now classifies Quinn as being more on the level of her, Jane, and Jodie. Daria may be more aware of her own fallibility by this point, but that’s not the same thing.

Her arguments about advertising destroying any respect that students might have for the school is also undercut by the show’s presentation. Lawndale High has always been corrupt. Only the foolish or naïve would feel much respect for it. True, Daria has always been in favor of learning, but learning is distinctly shown as something done in spite of school, not because of it. The show doesn’t support Daria’s argument.

What’s interesting is that Daria’s criticisms of Ultra Cola’s campaign end up being irrelevant. The problem doesn’t arise from students losing faith or becoming unhealthy (with the notable exception of the football team, and then only because of Ms. Li’s intervention). The situation falls to pieces because of Ultra Cola’s insistence on exerting direct control and Ms. Li crumbling under the pressure. Had the superintendent arrived earlier, when things were more normal, I’m not sure he’d have done anything.

Which isn’t to say that Daria’s wrong… just that the show in general, and this episode in particular, don’t do a good job of backing her up. I think Jodie brings up a fair point about schools benefitting from outside income, though Ms. Li’s misplaced priorities render this a moot point.

Notes:
- The episode also comments on the athletics obsession that drives some American schools.
- Daria really does owe Jane hugely.
- Jodie also comments on the Chechnyan Conflict, which was a regular news item at the time.
- I think there’s a lot that can be said about the dangers of making profit the point of education—it’s just that this episode doesn’t do a good job of it.

Chapter Text

Sappy Anniversary

“Sappy Anniversary” is the first episode where the now official Daria/Tom relationship gets the limelight. It’s not an unrealistic portrayal of adolescent dating, given the characters involved. Daria has zero experience with this sort of thing, so it’s not surprising that she’s unsure what to actually expect from this relationship.

People who are new at dating tend to be heavily influenced by their peers simply because they don’t know themselves well enough to understand what they actually want. As such, it makes a certain degree of sense that Daria might buy into some of Quinn’s expectations, even if she doesn’t seem that enthused about them.

In fairness to Tom, a six-month anniversary is kind of an odd thing to expect. A year I could understand, or even the first month… but six months? Tom’s rather clueless about what Daria wants, which is again not that surprising given who he is (while I won’t rule out the possibility that he was a player slumming at the Zon when he met Jane, neither am I convinced he was one).

What’s really striking is how devoid of chemistry they both are. Say what you will about Daria and Tom, but they did have real chemistry in Season 4, in “I Loathe A Parade” and “Fire!”. Here, they’re just hanging out. Daria evinces very little interest in Tom even while she worries that he takes her for granted. And Tom does seem like he’s taking her for granted.

Though probably unintentional on the writers’ part, I’d argue that this is believable. Someone like Daria would never be able to forgive herself for what she did to get Tom. Dating him simply comes with too much emotional baggage.

But, as we’ve seen, it’s easy for Daria to slip into a rut so long as she’s comfortable enough. And Tom is nothing if not comfortable. He doesn’t seem to challenge her the way Jane sometimes did. Instead, he invites her into another acerbic cocoon where they can snark at the world around them while staying uninvolved.

Which isn’t to let Tom off the hook. I don’t think he’s bothered about betraying Jane. He’s already moved on. Like Daria, he’s comfortable in the relationship. But Daria’s brief fantasy about Tom viewing her as furniture is actually a pretty apt way for how they feel about each other.

The difference between the two is that Daria is disturbed by what happened. She may want Tom to pay more attention to her, but the way she caves in so easily at the end tells me she doesn’t care that much. At any rate, this doesn’t seem to significantly change the tone of their relationship. There might be some sunk-cost fallacy at work here; Daria’s gone through so much to get Tom that she doesn’t want to give him up.

So she coasts. Tom’s comfortable for her. Jane says she’s okay with them dating. No reason to rock the boat.

Except Daria isn’t happy. Which I think explains much of her behavior toward Tom in Season 5. This relationship is not what she wants, but she can’t yet bring herself to realize it.

The B plot in “Sappy Anniversary” is the funnier of the two. The rise of the Internet in the ‘90s saw countless startups trying to capitalize on the platform, only to result in the Dot Com Crash at the end of the decade. The problem was that these companies were pretty much all hype, not actually providing the services that investors (and clients) expected.

BuzzDome.com is a picture-perfect satire of the tech industry in the ‘90s. More compellingly, it’s relevant today. I was struck by how many buzzwords and attitudes seen in this episode are still being used. Noah pretends to offer a fun workplace while demanding exorbitant hours from employees. He puts on a friendly face but displays contempt toward those not in the know. He even drinks kombucha, which I had no idea was popular back then.

He wouldn’t look out of place in modern Silicon Valley.

Jake undergoes a series of humiliations in BuzzDome.com, but I think that the episode actually builds him up in some ways. He does try to fit in despite no one really helping him. He made a genuine attempt. He’s certainly a better person than Noah.

Notes:

  • Quinn has a remarkable memory.
  • I think Jane should go with “Pottery Blam”.
  • Nice to see Quinn standing up for Daria.
  • Looks like Jake might’ve gotten an A/S/L or two in some chatroom. Endearingly, he doesn’t understand the intent.
  • Jake’s fondness for The Lord of the Rings, combined with how engaged he gets with the computer stuff, are just more reasons I’m convinced he’d have eventually gotten heavily into World of Warcraft.

Chapter Text

Fat Like Me

In fiction, a deuteragonist is a secondary main character. Like the protagonist, they have their own arc, one that doesn’t receive as much attention but may actually be just as important. Examples might include Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes, or Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

And, I’d argue, Quinn Morgendorffer.

Her changes have been even more dynamic than Daria’s. The series initially presented Quinn as a shallow and annoying foil while subtly showing her to be far smarter and deeper than she pretended to be. Her growth has become more apparent by Season 5, thanks to episodes like “Monster” and Is It Fall Yet? (though I don’t think IIFY? necessarily handled it all that well).

“Fat Like Me” presents something of a missed opportunity. It’s a funnier episode than I remembered it being but it doesn’t have the strength that a Quinn-centered episode deserves. Because make no mistake: Quinn is the star of “Fat Like Me”, with Daria in the sidelines.

Watching it, I did find myself wondering about the dynamics of the Fashion Club. It seems pretty clear that the Fashion Club is not at all popular aside from Quinn. Sandi’s the Queen Bee, but only of her own little world. Her opinions have little to no impact on the student body as a whole.

Quinn is smarter and more likable than Sandi. Stacy is chafing under Sandi’s reign (Tiffany doesn’t seem to care either way). So why do they all go along with Sandi? It could just be another example of the characters coasting, not willing to endure the discomfort of upsetting the status quo.

This episode has the same problem. There are two courses of action that Quinn could have taken. We see her choose to help Sandi reduce her newfound weight, which shows a level of forgiveness and selflessness. On the other hand, it might have been better to have Quinn take over the Fashion Club given that no one was happy with Sandi’s leadership.

One thing I want to make clear is that I don’t think that the writers necessarily made the wrong choice. While women characters in fiction have too often been shamed for displaying ambition, it doesn’t follow that a woman character is weak for being good-natured or choosing reconciliation. Strength takes many forms.

The problem is the execution. Quinn obviously knows that Sandi’s trying to manipulate her, but goes along with it out of… friendship? It’s difficult to know how genuine Sandi is being here. She’s one of the least sympathetic characters in the series and she’s never been provided much depth (beyond a brief flashback in "Daria Dance Party"). Sure, we know that Linda bears some responsibility for Sandi’s situation, but there aren’t many details.

By the end, is Sandi actually grateful for Quinn’s help? When Sandi backs down on some of her less reasonable commands, this seems to come more from the other FC members being willing to speak out than from any real change on Sandi’s part. And her new weight allowance can easily be read as more self-serving than anything else.

Ambiguity can be powerful in fiction, but it usually only works if there’s a lot of evidence for multiple interpretations. Here, there isn’t much. Stuff just happens. You could say that Quinn doesn’t think she’s ready to assume that much responsibility, but that doesn’t seem to be her reasoning. Sandi guilts her into helping.

“Fat Like Me” isn’t a terrible episode but Quinn should have been the focus of a much better one.

Notes:

  • Given how strict the FC diet is, I’m not at all certain that it was healthy for Sandi to go all the way back to her previous weight, though I wouldn’t expect Quinn to realize this.
  • The subplot with Daria and Jane is pretty boring.
  • Stacy demonstrates some hidden talents here. She shows initiative in planning for the Fashion Club and understands how to pitch a sale (with the way she uses bikini pictures as a way to get a male perspective on fashion—it doesn’t work, but she put some thought into it).
  • Quinn once more references ancient history. I am convinced she is a history buff.

Chapter Text

Camp Fear

“Camp Fear” is a good episode in terms of plot, characterization, and humor (though Jane and Trent’s digression to the farmhouse is more odd than funny). It’s probably the best episode when it comes to meta-commentary.

By this point, everyone knows the theory that Amelia, Daria’s worshipful friend from summer camps previous, is a stand-in for fans of the show. Put simply, what would Daria the character think about us, the fans?

Probably not much.

Daria’s someone who prizes individuality. She’s always shunned conformity. I think that the reason she likes Jane so much is because of Jane’s own iconoclasm; while the two of them have much in common, there’s never really the sense that one is imitating the other. This is reflected in how they rarely let down their emotional barriers, even with each other. Both Daria and Jane live their own lives and respect others who do the same.

Now I have to be cautious when I say this, because it could come off as insulting to fans. Obviously, I myself am a fan. But it’s difficult to imagine Daria responding well to someone who writes fanfiction about her, or fanfiction in general. Fanfiction is obviously a creative process but to someone in Daria’s context (someone in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s who’s steeped in old school literature), it’d seem absurd. Why are we writing about her or other people’s intellectual properties? Shouldn’t we write about our own lives, thoughts, and experiences?

Granted, when a lot of us write about her we are writing about ourselves, but that’s a separate story.

I don’t think “Camp Fear” is intended to be condemnatory of fans. Sure, Amelia is a little annoying, but she isn’t unsympathetic.

We don’t know much about her, or her status in whatever high school she attends. Amelia’s earnest and a little insecure (though perhaps less so than Daria imagines). Her design has some visual shorthand associated with intelligence (glasses) and she’s reasonably eloquent once she starts speaking.

Daria interprets a lot of her dialogue as indicating sycophancy but you can't really call Amelia sycophantic. Remember: it’s been several years since she’s last seen Daria. Are we to think that she’s spent all that time thinking about the cool girl she met at Camp Grizzly, and wishing she could be more like her? I find this unlikely. Amelia probably has her own life. She doesn’t seem enthusiastic about the reunion, so it’s a safe bet that her parents pushed her to go. Seeing Daria isn’t a chance to resume some misguided hero-worship—it’s a chance to reconnect with someone she hasn’t seen in a long time.

Consider Amelia’s dialogue after Daria describes the camp’s social system.

“At least we're not doing that, Daria. (pause) Daria? Did you hear what I said? At least we're not following the crowd.”

When Daria ignores Amelia’s initial comment, Amelia confidently demands to be heard. When Daria takes her to task for being as bad as the others, Amelia drops her like a bad habit. Hardly the behavior of a sycophant.

The episode again showcases Daria learning more about herself. By the end, she realizes she’d been unfair to Amelia and the two part on decent terms. Had this happened in the first or second season, it’s easy to imagine Daria smirking to herself after Amelia gets frustrated, and the storyline ending there. Here though, Daria is aware that she’d been needlessly cruel.

I love how the episode doesn’t treat this as some dramatic moment of self-realization. Instead, it’s a portrait of a teenager better understanding the needs of others and doing so in a quiet and realistic way. By the end, it doesn’t seem like Daria has changed, but I think she has.

Notes:

  • I have never actually been to a summer camp of any kind, so I don’t know how well this episode satirizes the institution. But people like Skip Stevens can be found in almost any environment.
  • The subplot with Jane and Trent was just weird. I don’t know what the writers were trying to accomplish. Luckily, the main story was strong enough to make up for it.
  • Quinn’s storyline is a little on-the-nose, but still amusing.
  • I actually wouldn’t have minded seeing Amelia pop up again in a later episode though it’s admittedly hard to figure out how they’d have incorporated her (given that she probably doesn’t live close to Lawndale). Camp Grizzly’s location is already a matter of intense debate.
  • I’ve always kind of liked Mr. Potts for some reason.

Chapter Text

The Story of D

Let’s face it: writing is a boring activity for anyone other than the writer. Visually, it just consists of someone typing on a keyboard or scribbling on a piece of paper. All most all of the action is internal. What’s more, it’s private, one of the few things that still are.

The constraints of television and film make it even harder to showcase skilled writing. “Write Where It Hurts” worked around this by animating Daria’s stories, but this means there’s no way to know about the quality of prose. The only way to do that is to have someone read it out loud, which simply doesn’t work in this kind of medium. We don’t really know how good of a writer Daria is (and what constitutes good prose is a whole other controversy).

Daria sidestepped the issue for most of its run. Sure, Daria loves reading and has an interest in writing, but aside from “Write Where It Hurts”, her talent rarely features front and center. Jane’s art actually gets a lot more attention, perhaps because painting lends itself better to a visual medium.

“The Story of D” is a brave attempt to actually focus on Daria’s supposed passion. For the most part, the episode does a good job. I absolutely love how reluctant Daria is to actually talk about her work; I can be pretty cagey about my own work, even when I’m with people I know. The episode ratchets up the tension by having Jane sound pretty ambivalent as to the story’s quality. Likewise, Jake’s complete lack of songwriting talent provides an uncomfortable reminder that just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you’re good at it.

Submitting something for publication is always a little scary. When you write (or paint, or program, or compose), you put your ego on the line. What the authorities are judging is not just the work—it’s you. Daria doesn’t like being put in a position where she’s judged. She prefers to stand back and observe, where she can judge without being judged in return. A big part of her arc in the show is getting more engaged with the surrounding world and admitting she can actually care about things, so submitting this story for publication is an important step for her.

Likewise, the rejection. “The Story of D” is one of the rare cases where I actually sympathize with Tom (even if he still comes off as patronizing) since Daria’s so unfair to him. But it’s a realistic reaction for her. It’d be hard for anyone to be found wanting, particularly if they’re not used to putting themselves out there and getting rejected. Adolescents in particular are sensitive to such things.

Daria’s conversation with her father at the end is what gives her the perspective she needs. Seeing his frustration over one small song helps Daria realize that she can’t get too worked up over one story. There’s more to a person than whether or not they’re accepted for a particular talent or interest. Jake’s a dedicated (if occasionally absent-minded) father and a caring man. Likewise, Daria failing to get one particular story published doesn’t mean she can’t excel at other opportunities.

In school, things are given to you. Teachers give you assignments, parents often decide what you do off-campus. It’s easy to become passive and just do what’s expected to get by. The adult world isn’t like that. It demands a certain level of engagement. A big part of Season 5 is Daria coming to terms with this fact. She can’t be remote and judgmental forever.

Notes:

  • Quinn gets his name wrong, but she has some idea as to who J. Edgar Hoover was. Again, impressive for her age and social venue.
  • O’Neill again showcases his obnoxiousness. He is seriously the worst.
  • Sandi’s actually a decent writer judging by the excerpt, which makes me surprised that she did so badly on the aptitude test back in IIFY?.
  • Interestingly, Tiffany shows something approaching actual emotion when her fashion forecast proves incorrect.

Chapter Text

Lucky Strike

“Lucky Strike” is a funny episode with a somewhat wobbly premise. The idea of swapping roles is classic when it comes to comedy. And the classroom looks quite different from a teacher’s vantage point. Of course, it’s not remotely believable that any student, even Daria, would be considered for this role, but we’ll go with it for the sake of comedy.

What’s interesting is that the episode actually shows very little of Daria teaching. We see her introducing herself to Quinn’s English class and the very next scene of her teaching career is prepping her students for the test. That’s quite a jump!

The reason I focus on this is because I’m not at all convinced that Daria’s that good of a teacher. Throughout the show we’ve seen that she has genuinely poor social skills, which brings into question her ability to read the room. Recall again the confused bridesmaids in “I Don’t”.

Further, her interactions with her students don’t seem all that promising. It’s hard to believe that the Three J’s wouldn’t be insulted by her indifference to their actual names (particularly when her tone is frequently bored and sarcastic). No one likes being talked down and Daria comes pretty close to doing just that throughout the entire episode.

I suppose one way to interpret this is that she really is one of the popular kids and can get away with it—but I still see her as a comfortably niche outsider, neither a queen bee nor an outcast. And there are limits to what the student body will accept from the upper crust.

This episode is another reason that I don’t think Daria has matured all that much, even by the end of the series. Her comment to Quinn is telling.

“Hey, why should you go out of your way to protect the stupid? You’re not one of them!”    

Earlier, I suggested that her increasing acceptance of Quinn is based less on tolerance and magnanimity, and more on realizing Quinn is actually similar to her. In fairness, a teacher has every right to be upset or annoyed at lazy students (of which I’m sure the class has plenty) but I can’t help but view this through the lens of Daria’s misanthropic contempt for Lawndale High as a whole.

Which isn’t to say that it’s pure misanthropy. Daria’s anger is often roused by unearned privilege, which is abundant in this environment. Yet she still enjoys looking down on people who don’t meet her standards and I think she’s still doing that here.

On the other hand, she explicitly accepts the teaching gig for the purposes of annoying Quinn but ends up being perfectly fair to her sister. Which, to Daria’s credit, is a sign of growth.

Despite my complaints, I actually quite like this episode. “Lucky Strike” doesn’t quite earn its big moment at the end—Quinn publicly and confidently acknowledging that Daria is her sister—but that doesn’t matter because the series as a whole has done such a brilliant job of setting it up. Quinn’s statement still feels inspiring, many re-watches later.

The rest of the episode is also pretty strong, with some good moments from the teachers. It’s always fun to see Mr. DeMartino embrace his anger and I enjoyed most of the commentary from the Three J’s.

Notes:

  • Aside from Mr. DeMartino, Mrs. Stoller is the only teacher who won’t cut Kevin any slack.
  • O’Neill can barely remember a name, but he remembers Trent?
  • This Mrs. Bennett’s first speaking appearance in a long time.
  • The signs aren’t Jane’s most inspired work. It’s another example of her doing best when she follows her own muse, not Daria’s or Ms. Defoe’s. On the other hand, Trent’s song in this episode is probably one of his better efforts.

Chapter Text

Art Burn/One J at a Time

As I re-watch Season 5, I’m noticing that it’s actually a pretty funny season so far. Yes, Tom drags things down, but a lot of the dialogue and situations are on-point. Episodes in the early seasons could feel a little aimless at times, a problem that the writers seem to have fixed by Season 5.

The episodes I’m writing about today are, in my opinion, some of the funniest in the entire series. Both of them also portray Daria herself in a rather unflattering light.

“Art Burn” returns to some of my favorite subjects: Jane and art. Jane’s approach to her creativity is actually better realized than Daria’s is. Going all the way back to “Arts n’ Crass” and “Monster”, we know that Jane’s motivated mostly by a desire to express herself. If she’s assigned to create a specific work, the talent might be there (she displays an admirable professionalism) but the passion won’t be.

Her experience with Gary’s Gallery is another example of this. Jane’s got the talent to be an excellent copyist, and it is indeed a good way to make money. But it runs so counter to her idea of what art is supposed to be that she quickly burns out. And then, as if in desperate search of some release, her creativity instead turns itself to paranoid fantasies about art counterfeiting rings.

Jane’s monetary situation is tight so getting a job like this is a lot more important for her than it would be for Daria. Quitting isn’t something she can do lightly, and this informs the nature of her suspicion. Daria is (unsurprisingly) critical of Jane’s new job, but I don’t think she actually understands why it’s a problem for Jane. She simply sees it as an issue of crass commercialism replacing original vision, which isn’t exactly wrong, but also misses the real problem. Daria’s commentary is actually pretty funny but it comes from a bad place. Jane’s working hard, and all Daria can do is judge her for not being sufficiently creative.

I’m surprised Jane puts up with it. Unlike Jane, Daria does not have to worry about money, which only makes her complaints more obnoxious (and this again is why it bothers me when the writers emphasize the class difference between Tom and her—yes, there’s a major gap but Daria never seems cognizant of the similar gap between her and Jane).

At any rate, coming away from this episode, I’m not sure how well Daria really understands her best friend. But at that age, who really does?

“Three Js at a Time” is another funny episode. In some ways it’s almost the mirror image of “Quinn the Brain”. In that episode, Daria felt anxious about Quinn appearing to take on the role of the “smart girl”, while in this one, Quinn is aghast that Daria seems to have more meaningful romantic success.

Daria’s pretty mean to Quinn but such behavior isn’t that unusual in the context of their relationship. I love the way Quinn’s inexperience leads her to take Daria at face value, as well as the suffering the Three Js bring upon themselves for her sake. Jeffy’s expression at the “matching cemetery plots” line is priceless.

Daria does stick up for Jake in a pretty admirable way. This episode does a better job than previous ones of showing how much she really cares for her father by having her fully aware of his weaknesses and eccentricities but loving him in spite of that. And I can understand her anxiety about Tom; he does seem like he might needle Jake about these things.

The episode ends on a curiously abrupt note. Daria gets scolded for misinforming Quinn but doesn’t seem to regret it. Quinn’s brief monologue shows introspection but doesn’t seem totally consistent with the themes of the episode. I didn’t get the impression that it was trying to say men and women couldn’t understand each other; rather, the message is more that no one can understand anyone all that well.

After all, Daria incorrectly thought Tom would be critical of her father. Quinn mistook Daria’s mockery as genuine advice. Quinn herself doesn’t really know what she wants from a relationship (which is understandable given her age). While the monologue does trip up by gendering the situation, I do think that it underscores Quinn realizing that there are still a lot of things she doesn’t know.

Notes:

  • How exactly does one look existential or nihilistic?
  • I’m surprised that Trent even knows about resale value.
  • '90s Alert: Sister Wendy reference!
  • Cheeseball though he may be, Steve Taylor does seem to have a pretty good layman’s knowledge of art
  • I didn’t really comment on the B-plot of the Fashion Club and the caricaturist, though it does show Stacy might be growing in spite of her sometimes-toxic surroundings
  • What’s Jake’s actual employment situation by this point? Is he without any kind of job? Boredom might explain some of his behavior in Season 5.
  • Sandi tries to reduce competition for boys by encouraging Quinn to go steady with someone but there’s no indication that anyone’s interested in her (or the other Fashion Club members)

Chapter Text

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.

Notes:

  • 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.

Chapter Text

Aunt Nauseam

The extended Barksdale family has typically been relegated to the background of the show. Rita hasn’t made an appearance since “I Don’t”, while Amy’s most recent episode was “Through A Lens Darkly”. By Season 5, all we really know about the Barksdale sisters is that they aren’t terribly fond of each other.

In early seasons this neatly reflected the mutual antipathy between Daria and Quinn. But by Season 5, the Morgendorffer sisters had come to respect each other. As such, it made sense to bring out the Barksdales to offer a compare and contrast.

“Aunt Nauseam” is a solid episode and a much-needed palate-cleanser after “Life in the Past Lane” (I’m still sort of mad about that episode as I write this). I do think that MTV misplaced it chronologically. “Aunt Nauseam” would have been better aired before “Lucky Strike”, as that episode brought the Daria-Quinn rivalry to an end.

While the episode is funny, there’s not a whole lot of tension here. If the Barksdale sisters grew apart during adolescence and young adulthood, we’ve seen the opposite with Quinn and Daria. Sure, Daria still needles her sister but the events of previous episodes (particularly “Lucky Strike”) show that they’ve grown closer. There are differences between the ways in which Daria and Quinn view their sisterhood. Daria’s come to respect her sister, but this respect is largely on her own terms. It’s not so much that Daria’s become more tolerant as it is Quinn has proven herself in Daria’s eyes. Quinn, on the other hand, has actually risked some social standing in order to affirm her sisterhood with Daria. Granted, the risk was pretty low (I’m quite sure that everyone in the Fashion Club already knew Daria and Quinn were sisters), but Quinn might not have been fully aware of that.

Regardless of their problems, the Morgendorffer sisters are at least communicating with one another. Partly this is due to circumstance but a lot also has to do with Helen. We never get Grandma Barksdale’s perspective, though we know that she was perceived as favoring Rita.

Helen takes a much more even-handed approach. Daria saw her as preferring Quinn early in the series but subsequent episodes have shown that this isn’t the case. Helen is actually more open with Daria than she is with Quinn. Yet this doesn’t mean Daria’s necessarily the favored one either. Rather, Helen does the best she can with two very different daughters and a demanding career. And that turns out to have actually been pretty good.

Watching this, one gets the impression that Grandma Barksdale played her three daughters off against each other which is never something Helen would do. The rivalry between Daria and Quinn comes mostly from personality conflict. In many respects, this episode is a very subtle paean to Helen’s skill.

Quinn acts as a peacemaker throughout “Aunt Nauseam”. Interestingly, she’s not a very effective one. The Fashion Club’s problem is solved via clumsiness and carelessness while Daria takes initiative with the Barksdale sisters. It’s a little odd, since Quinn’s people skills should make her a natural at this sort of thing. But it’s probably easier to control the situation when you don’t know the involved parties particularly well.

Notes:

  • The Fashion Club subplot regrettably falls back on the sexist and cliched trope of two women getting mad at each other for the same dress. In fairness, the FC members might actually buy into this trope.
  • Grandma Barksdale does play Helen in much the same way Helen sometimes plays Daria.
  • So is Jake officially unemployed at this point? His culinary attempts feel like some kind of compensation.
  • While I don’t agree with Sandi’s argument about Dracula’s authorship, I do find it interesting.
  • Amy, like Daria, is needlessly antagonistic. Interesting that Daria would think she’d make a good peacemaker.

Chapter Text

Prize Fighters

“Prize Fighters” is probably the most political episode in the series. It’s mostly good though I don’t think it did all of the groundwork it needed for Daria’s realization at the end to be entirely convincing.

Much of the episode revolves around the idea of competition, which ramps up for the college admissions crowd toward the end of high school. Competition, as an idea, tends to be lauded in an individualistic society like America’s but is hardly unique to the country (though it may take more of a group form in some other cultures).

This assumption lends itself to the narratives that those inclined toward competition might endorse. That it’s part of life and should be embraced. Speaking as someone who finds most forms of competition to be dull and unpleasant, I’m actually not sure I entirely disagree. Having the most competitive people set the drumbeat for all of society can be problematic but it’s not necessarily better to forcibly restrain their natural impulses. As an example, consider how frustrating it’d be for someone like Helen to hold back her competitive nature. Some balance is probably ideal but I haven’t the faintest idea how to implement that, or if it even can be implemented.

(And I don’t think "Prize Fighters" is saying that competition is inherently bad, just that there are problems with how it is practiced in the United States).

The episode makes some pointed critiques at the way the system forces high schoolers to fight each other to get into a good college. Scholarship applications are resources, not to be shared even with friends. It’s a bleak setup for the bitterly competitive adult world, where success may be prioritized over family and friendship. Some people have the resources to choose not to play this game (or play it in only a smaller capacity), but those in more marginal situations may have no option but to make some very hard choices.

Daria herself is not even remotely competitive. Competition, after all, tends to be social. It requires aggression and involvement, neither of which are things Daria cares about. She prefers to stay as an observer. I don’t even think Daria’s high grades show much competitive spirit. After all, her straight A’s require very little effort on her part. She usually already knows the material as well as, if not better than, her teachers. Tests never test her.

High school is actually a pretty comfortable place for Daria. And this understanding affects the way I view the episode. While her criticisms of the system aren’t necessarily wrong, I think they may come from a self-serving place. Sure, the drive for competition divides friends, encourages harmful behaviors, and can force people to kowtow before authority. But it’s also something she just plain doesn’t like.

“Prize Fighters” tries to show Daria buying into the system but I don’t think it quite succeeds at this. Daria drags her feet at every step. She only gets into it because of Helen’s prodding. While Jake’s in a slump, there’s no evidence that college admissions would be taxing for the Morgendorffers. Though her essay is meant seriously, it’s hard to imagine that even she believed the Wizard Foundation would like it. She doesn’t pretend to think much of Dr. DeNada.

If Daria does show any competitive spirit, it probably comes from Jodie applying for the Wizard scholarship. Daria took this as an affront on some level though she wisely forgives Jodie for this (and I don’t really blame Jodie—Daria did say she wasn’t planning on applying, and that was totally believable given Daria’s behavior thus far).

The end is mostly a strong one. The older Daria gets, the more she finds that staying true to her ideals will come with a cost. I particularly liked the fact that no one gets the scholarship. Another hard lesson is that you can try hard and do everything right and still not get what you wanted. The corruption of the Wizard Foundation, and the way it encourages a cutthroat aspect to competition, provide yet more sobering reminders of the real world.

The only weak point is Daria’s admission of actually wanting to get the scholarship. The episode just doesn’t do enough to set this up, since she never evinces any strong desire to win.

I’m not sure how much longer she can afford to be apathetic.

Notes:

  • ‘90s Alert: Angela’s Ashes reference.
  • Honestly, “hot dog jalapeno hotties” sound pretty damn good to me.
  • I like Jane’s subplot, since it gives her a chance to criticize Daria. I don’t think it’d be too hard for her to win an arts scholarship but her background is not one in which higher education is emphasized. I can understand why she’d feel left out.

 

Chapter Text

My Night at Daria’s

Culture and media, particularly in the ‘90s, held sex to be a rite of passage. The then-iconic American Pie film revolved around characters trying to lose their virginities. Sure, there was usually lip service paid to the idea that it wasn’t something anyone should do until they were ready, but the implication was that sex was fun and normal. Which is not, in itself, a bad message (though American Pie has aged poorly for other reasons). Still, the idea that everyone wants to (or should want to) have sex can unwittingly imply that there’s something wrong with those who abstain. This is one reason that the approach Daria takes “My Night at Daria’s” is a good one. No one’s choice is condemned. Daria is unsurprisingly reluctant to become physically intimate, and her decision to not do so is ultimately respected. At the same time, other characters aren’t shown as bad for having chosen to engage in this way.

The wobbly nature of Daria and Tom’s relationship is a bit of a problem for this episode. One could almost read Daria’s choice as being a commentary on Tom’s decidedly lackluster personality. Happily, I think the writing avoids that. Though still lacking their Season 4 chemistry, the dialogues between Daria and Tom show that they do care about each other. Their exchanges feel natural and comfortable for friends, if not necessarily lovers.

What’s notable is that Daria does not necessarily know how society expects her to react to romantic situations. Her socialization is limited and largely non-romantic in nature. Likewise, consider her reading material, which might reflect older assumptions and expectations regarding relationships. This isn’t to say that Daria is someone stuck in a past she’s never experienced. She’s completely aware that the standards expressed in the books she reads may well be obsolete. But I think her awareness of her own lack of familiarity makes her feel even less secure.

We’ve seen this before in “Sappy Anniversary”, where Daria’s suddenly made aware of social expectations she hadn’t really thought of before. What’s interesting is that she has very little defense for them. This may be why she so abruptly chooses to conform with a system she doesn’t necessarily like or understand. Daria impulsively announces to Tom that she’ll sleep with him, even though she’s clearly uncomfortable with the idea. It’s one of the rare times where she doesn’t have a response, or a clear position to fall back on.

But a big part of Daria is about forging your own way amidst society’s expectations—being conscious of the world around you but not being completely beholden to it, either. And while Daria might not be sure what’s expected of her, she wisely decides that it doesn’t matter. She’s aware that changing her mind may negatively affect her relationship with Tom but realizes that this is one case where her standards are more important. Tom can make his own decision on how he reacts to this (though he is quite accepting).

What we see in “My Night at Daria’s” is Daria being put in an unfamiliar situation, getting a better understanding of it, and then sticking to her guns while being aware of (and even sympathetic to) the fact that Tom may be disappointed. In short, she’s being an adult.

And this makes “My Night at Daria’s” a valuable episode. It takes apart the myth that one needs to experience sexual intimacy to be an adult. Maturity is about understanding, weighing the consequences, and establishing personal standards while being aware of the world around you. Sex has nothing to do with it.

Notes:

  • Kant’s work does make for a pretty dry read.
  • Stacy seems surprisingly upset when Quinn tells her the rumor about Daria. Then again, Stacy gets upset at the drop of a hat…
  • Tom has good taste in movies (as indicated by The Third Man poster in his room).

Chapter Text

Boxing Daria

There’s no one event that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. Maturation is too gradual and idiosyncratic for that. Sure, society sets milestones—graduation, work, marriage—but we all know people who’ve checked those boxes but remain fundamentally immature. Still, there are elements that distinguish maturity from immaturity. One of these is coming to terms with how we’ve hurt people, intentionally or otherwise, simply as a function of being. All communication is miscommunication. Even the most well-intentioned actions or comments can cause injury.

And Daria’s certainly caused a fair amount. The early seasons privileged her perspective. Her cutting remarks annoyed those that she (and by extension, we) saw as stupid, vain, or greedy. It’s not until later that she (and again, we) saw some of those targets as human beings, not necessarily much worse or better than Daria herself.

Here is when she finally starts to figure it out. The episode sets this up beautifully, with the sight of a mundane refrigerator box triggering a cascade of memories and realizations. It’s a reminder of how easily upended our world really is—all it takes is the right stimulus. I’m not saying that Daria would never have undergone self-realization without the box. Just that realization, like most things, doesn’t adhere to a predictable schedule.

“Boxing Daria” distills what we already know (or at least have been given reason to suspect) about her. It shows that her childhood and early adolescence was genuinely lonely, and that her defensiveness comes about from trying to cope with this. This same defensiveness is the source of the sarcasm that so entertains us. Except now, we’re given a chance to see how it’s negatively affected others. The Morgendorffer parents were an ideal choice for this. The show’s already established Helen as formidably intelligent and perceptive. Jake’s goofy, but there’s no doubt that his heart is in the right place.

Both the Morgendorffer parents make it clear that they accepted this as part of who Daria was—the flipside to her intelligence. They accept her, flaws and challenges and all. What’s important is Daria’s realization that her behavior is sometimes questionable.

What I love about this is that it’s not presented as Daria suddenly thinking she needs to overhaul her personality. The show respects her (and us) too much for that. Rather, it’s simply a step in being more conscious of how she presents herself to others. I wouldn’t expect Daria to be any much less sarcastic or diffident in the following years (she certainly isn’t in Is It College Yet?), but there might be a subtle change in her perception that deepens as she gets older.

All in all, pretty good. Except there’s one important element that “Boxing Daria” just glosses over. One that really demanded a lot more attention.

Jane. And her friendship with Daria.

Frankly, Daria’s been a terrible friend to Jane. In addition to betraying her trust regarding Tom (itself more than sufficient justification for Jane to cut all ties), Daria spends much of Season 5 snarking at Jane’s expense. Though Daria did warn Jane about Nathan, the antagonistic way in which she did it probably harmed more than it helped (if I were Jane, I’d have been inclined to go with Nathan simply to spite Daria—at least until Nathan became more obviously awful).

And now, after all this, Daria has a crisis and spins off the road in the middle of nowhere. Confused and feeling lonelier than ever, she calls Jane who drives out to Mom’s Diner for a heart-to-heart with a supposed friend who’s been nothing but annoying if not awful for the past year, and then guides her home, giving a reassuring wave as she leaves.

What on Earth is going through Jane’s mind?

There’s no way that Jane came to the same conclusion as Daria’s parents. The hurt would go too deep for that. I don’t think the writers put much thought into this scene, which probably leaves us in the realm of speculation. The most believable explanation for Jane’s mindset is that she no longer particularly cares about Daria and is staying friends mostly out of inertia. High school’s almost over anyway, right?

But I’m not sure inertia alone would move Jane to come out there. It’s a lot of effort on her part. What’s more, Jane looks visibly surprised when Daria is distressed enough to hug her. Granted, Daria’s usually not one to hug anybody, but it suggests to me that Daria understated the seriousness of her situation when she called Jane, giving Jane even less of a reason to head out.

So why did Jane go?

I don’t have a good answer to this. The best I can think of comes from Jane’s own background, one probably lonelier and certainly less stable than Daria’s. That is, Daria needs Jane in a way nobody else does, and that part of Jane likes being needed.

Jane clearly has a lot of energy and creativity. She takes her art more seriously than Daria takes her writing. Her family, of course, ignored all this. The other Lanes are selfish to an extreme degree, so wrapped up in their own worlds that no one else can make more than a momentary intrusion. This might be why Jane tends to go all out when she finds a new person or interest. Consider the track team (I think Evan was only important as a gateway), the cheerleading squad, Nathan, and arguably even Gary’s Gallery. Jane didn’t hold back. The idea of being valued means a lot to her.

You can imagine Jane driving back, her headlights burning a path through the dark of night with an exhausted Daria following behind. Jane’s the strong one. She’d been through worse and she never broke. Daria has a loving family and Jane’s ex-boyfriend… but Jane is still the only one she feels comfortable with.

In a strange way, this might be the only way Jane can ever see the friendship as restored. It’s probably not the healthiest way to do this, but no one in Daria is all that healthy. For Jane, maybe it’s enough to know that there’s someone who truly needs her.

Is this a sign of maturation? I’m not sure. On one hand, it shows Jane is more willing to engage. But there may be an underlying and unresolved desperation. Jane’s been taken advantage of before and this opens her up to more of the same. What’s clear to me is that this is probably the best she can do for the time-being. She doesn’t have the luxuries that Daria enjoys.

Notes:

  • Ms. Li’s snack checks would have been problematic for a Type 1 diabetic like me.
  • Daria reveals that her coping mechanisms are still poor. She gets visibly defensive at most of those who try to help.
  • I still love Daria’s response to Jane’s comment about the neighbors.
  • No way could Daria get away with revenge fantasies these days, and even back then she’d have been walking on thin ice.
  • Tom’s lines in this episode are actually pretty funny.

Chapter Text

Is It College Yet?

I stand by my earlier statement that Daria is fundamentally ill-suited to anything other than a half-hour episode format. However, Is It College Yet? is a big step up from the borderline incoherent Is It Fall Yet? Yes, IICY? drags a bit (particularly toward the end) but serves as a funny and (mostly) emotionally satisfying conclusion to my favorite television program of all time.

While IIFY? focused almost exclusively on Daria, Quinn, and Jane, IICY? opts for a broader approach to the characters. Though I think a few get short shrift, this is ultimately a better choice. Once again, I’ll give each notable character their own section in this analysis.

Daria:

As the star of the show, it’s not surprising that Daria once more gets two storylines. Unlike the her weirdly disconnected plots in IIFY?, the two here happen successively, the events of the second building neatly upon those of the first.

Daria starts off aiming to attend Bromwell, which appears to be a stand-in for Harvard or Yale. It’s interesting to speculate exactly why she’s aiming so high. “Prize Fighters” tried to make the case that Daria is more driven and ambitious than she’d admit, but I still don’t think that episode actually made a convincing argument. The fact remains that she avoids competition and also shuns the extracurricular activities that are so important in the admissions process. In other words, I’m not sure she’d have ever aimed so high.

So what is it then? Does she just want to be with Tom? That’s not very convincing either. The show seems clear that Daria at least thinks she has a shot at the best school in the country, so I suppose it only makes sense she’d try for it.

Now, I’ve said in the past that I didn’t really like the class conflict angle that the writers tried to introduce to her relationship with Tom. Yes, the Sloanes are absurdly rich, but it’s not like the Morgendorffers are anywhere close to being poor. But IICY? does a good job of showing just how different their worlds can be. This is brought home when Tom and his mother take Daria to visit Bromwell and Raft. Their sheer indifference to her schedule is almost physically uncomfortable to watch, made all the worse by their complete absence of malice. Her needs simply do not register.

The Sloanes are wealthy enough that missing an appointment doesn’t necessarily mean anything. They can always fall back on their connections or pay for another. It’s enough to frustrate anyone. I firmly believe that Daria lost all romantic interest in Tom the moment they got stuck in the traffic jam; it just took her a little longer to acknowledge it.

Daria’s put on a waitlist for Bromwell, which is effectively the same as a rejection. Tom offers to have his parents speak on her behalf. She rejects this at first (maybe more sharply than she needed to, but I kind of understand where she’s coming from). However, she eventually gives in. Part of this is to provide an example to Jane, but there’s more to it than just that.

Should Daria accept getting into Bromwell via the Sloane’s connections? We’ve seen this sort of thing before, as far back as “See Jane Run”. In that episode, Daria was blind to how she benefitted from Jane’s athletic pull. Here, she accepts Tom’s nepotism with full realization. She resists a bit, but not all that much.

How does this reflect Daria’s growth? I’d argue that this is an example of her becoming more realistic. Attending Bromwell would potentially open doors. Is it really worth turning that down just to prove a point? I suppose everyone has to figure out where they draw the line, but I don’t consider Daria’s actions to be unreasonable.

What I like is that, even then, it doesn’t work. The script wisely refrains from explaining exactly why. Maybe Daria’s lack of extracurriculars came back to haunt her. Maybe the Sloanes didn’t try as hard as Tom claimed. Just like in real life, the answers aren’t always clear.

This uncertainty plays a part in what comes next: Daria breaking up with Tom. It’s not a big emotional moment because, partly because neither Daria nor Tom are much for emoting, but also because their relationship never earned that kind of investment. Watching it, you really get the feeling that they ought to have done this much earlier, probably at the end of Season 4.

Still, it’s well-done for what it is. Daria accepts that Tom simply lives in a different world and that while he isn’t that bad of a guy (and in fairness, he’s not worse than most others in the show), they’re just never going to be on the same level. All they really had in common was intelligence and sarcasm which don’t make the best foundation for a romantic relationship.

I do like the way that both Daria and Tom accept this. Yes, breaking up is painful (and can be for both parties), but neither of them falls apart. The show respects their maturity enough to let them realize that it wouldn’t have worked out and move on from there. It’s a nice contrast to the melodrama so typical of teen-oriented shows of the time.

The conclusion is a gem. Her speech is a wonderful encapsulation of the show’s best themes, delivered with wit and verve, so it’s no surprise that this scene is cherished by most viewers.

Quinn:

I remembered not liking Quinn’s story very much the first time I saw IICY? Seeing it again I’m actually impressed by how well it’s done. The subplot suffers a bit in how disconnected it feels from everything else, but all in all the writers do a good job in showing how much Quinn has grown as a person.

The setup is classic Quinn: she spends too much on fashion and has to earn it back. Quinn’s last attempt at working was a complete debacle (“It Happened One Nut”) but here she displays competence. Being a hostess lends itself to her sociability and she again shows off impressive skills of observation how how dating progress influences customer tipping habits (though you should always tip as much as your finances allow, regardless of whether it’s the first, third, or hundredth date).

It’s entirely believable that she’d end up befriending a college student like Lindy. By this point, Quinn is mature for her age. It’s definitely not the best idea for Lindy to invite a high school kid to a college party, no matter how mature the high schooler might be, but there’s no predatory motivation here. Lindy genuinely likes Quinn and it’s easy to see why.

I enjoy the bits where Quinn occasionally slips up and reveals her youth. They’re realistic moments that don’t detract from the fact that Quinn mostly acquits herself pretty well.

Some have complained that the overall tone of the subplot is too similar to that an after-school PSA, and I can see where the critics are coming from. It’s certainly an unusual approach for Daria. I think that the story’s low-key tone and ambiguity ultimately make it work. There’s no dramatic moment of realization, just the quiet sadness of Quinn seeing that Lindy is an alcoholic who’s unwilling to acknowledge her problem or get help. The story even subverts audience expectations. When Lindy shows up at the Morgendorffer home after the initial confrontation, we think she’s going to admit to Quinn that she has a problem, neatly wrapping everything up.

Instead, Lindy just digs herself deeper in denial. Quinn seems to understand that there’s not much she can do. Sometimes adulthood is about realizing one’s limitations, and it’s a lesson Quinn learns early.

To go back to what I said earlier, the story doesn’t feel well-integrated into the rest of IICY?, in part because Lindy is a new character who never interacts with any of the other recurring cast members. Despite this, it’s emotionally resonant and takes the laudable step of resisting any easy resolution.

I do like some of the other bits in this section. Seeing how well Quinn holds her own during the college party (which, technically, she did once before back in “College Bored”, though there she seemed more like a passive object of attention) invites some inevitable comparisons to Daria, who I don’t think would have done as well. When Lindy criticizes the practice of tearing others down to feel better about oneself, her words apply equally well to both Morgendorffer sisters, but I’m not sure that Quinn’s the one who most needs to hear it. If Daria had been the one at the party she’d have probably snarked back and alienated Lindy.

Jane:

Jane’s storyline, on the other hand, is far too easily resolved. IICY? puts most of the emphasis on Daria and Quinn, giving much less time to the other characters. While these smaller stories typically aren’t bad, they don’t always get enough time to really have the impact they should. This is most egregious with Jane simply because she’s such an important character.

The underlying idea is a bit odd. Jane’s never been shy about letting others see her work. She’s submitted entries to competitions (“Mart of Darkness”) and tried to sell paintings in public (“Art Burn”). This suggests she’s not really bothered by rejection.

I don’t think this necessarily undermines the concept of Jane feeling her work isn’t up to the expectations of BFAC. After all, a lot more is on the line. Still, I don’t think they explored this as much as they should have and the storyline suffers a bit for it.

What drama that does exist here is that of Jane sinking into a pit of comfortable passivity and resentment. The script doesn’t need to spell it out—the season’s already set her up for this. Jane’s dealt with almost nothing but deep disappointment for the past year, so I can see why she’d be tempted to just give up.

Trent certainly wants her to. Trent here is presented as someone who needs Jane the way Daria does. It doesn’t  work as well though, since Trent hasn’t exhibited this in the past. He typically lets Jane go her own way (seen most disastrously in “Fire!”). Again, the circumstances might explain it. Losing Jane to college would be a bigger change. 

Jane also gives in without too much resistance. What’s weird is how chipper she seems throughout most of IICY? Early on, she seems positively thrilled about joining Daria in Boston. It’s hard to imagine her being quite so enthusiastic about that considering what Daria did to her. Sure, she might want to continue their friendship, but her feelings would have to be a bit more ambiguous. It seems like the writers want us to take her happiness at face value, even though that doesn’t make much sense.

Daria’s characterization and narrative never quite recovered from The Kiss, and Jane’s probably the biggest casualty.

Jodie:

Jodie was always an under-used character. She’s like Daria with a better attitude and a much more sympathetic backstory. The contrasts between the two—Jodie’s flexibility and perseverance compared to Daria’s rigidity and apathy—could have made for many more great episodes. 

Unfortunately, IICY? makes Jodie a rather passive observer in her own story. She wants very badly to go to Turner but can’t bring herself to even admit that she applied (let alone got accepted), letting Mack save the day. I don’t this is necessarily out-of-character for her. While she has a strong personality, she’s never directly rebelled against her parents (of whom she almost seems terrified). Doing so would require a major instigating event and a lot of buildup.

She’s a victim of timing in some respects. The A-plot of a full episode would be needed for such a confrontation to be satisfying. A subplot in a not-terribly-long TV movie simply isn’t sufficient (and no, I don’t think they should have made IICY? longer).

Which goes back to my earlier criticism about the Daria TV movies. Both of them would have been better off cut up into multiple episodes. I’d love to see an episode about Jodie standing up for herself, giving her story the time and attention it needs to really provide a cathartic finish. What we get here is a disappointment. Mack has a quick conversation with Andrew Landon, and everything goes Jodie’s way. Which is nice for her, but Jodie deserved to be the star and had the chops to do a great job of being one. Here, she’s not much more than a supporting character in her own story.

The Fashion Club:

The Fashion Club’s storyline is short and fun. Sandi’s been losing her grip on the Fashion Club for quite a while (arguably ever since Quinn joined, though the process greatly accelerated in Season 5), and we finally see the culmination of this.

Stacy takes center stage, and it’s easy to see why she became such a fan favorite. She’s a fundamentally sweet person who grows more of a backbone throughout the later episodes. She’s initially horrified when she thinks that she might’ve inadvertently cursed Sandi to silence, but gradually comes to realize that she prefers not being bossed around.

Even Sandi gets some development. Though I don’t think “Fat Like Me” quite pulled it off, there was clearly an intent to soften Sandi’s personality, and that comes through here at the end when she relinquishes power to be with her friends. It’s a nice scene, though I can’t help but think they’ll drift apart in senior year.

Interestingly, this breezy storyline has the darkest humor in the entire movie, with Sandi and Stacy arguing while Tiffany seems to be choking to death after accidentally drinking Stacy’s concoction. She gets better though, so no harm done.

Mr. O’Neill:

Not a whole lot to say here. Mr. O’Neill resists the idea of marrying Ms. Barch, and she ends up liking that about him. They’re both awful people who deserve each other, so far as I’m concerned.

Kevin:

It’s a stretch to even call this a storyline. I only bring this up because I find it more sad than funny. Kevin obviously doesn’t deserve to graduate, but that’s more the school’s fault than his. It’s hard for me to feel any satisfaction at his bleak fate and I’m somewhat annoyed that the writers want us to laugh at him.

Conclusion:

Courage seems to be the underlying theme of IICY? Daria is brave enough to move on from Tom and go to Raft. Quinn confronts Lindy’s alcoholism, while Jane decides to submit her work to BFAC. Jodie and Stacy both stand their ground, while Sandi gives up her self-destructive dream of power. Mr. O’Neill finally makes a firm statement.

Going from high school to the world beyond is a big step, one that requires some bravery. Few of us remember high school with much fondness, but there can be a comfort in its routines and customs. But growing up is, to some extent, about taking risks.

IICY? benefits greatly from being organized around a theme, the lack of which was a major stumbling block for its predecessor. As a series finale it hits most of the right notes. It doesn’t resolve everything neatly—but Daria, like real life, usually doesn’t.

My thanks to everyone who’s been reading these! Writing these took a lot of time and effort but was well worth it. The process definitely refined the way I see this show, and I hope that reading them has deepened your appreciation as well.

Notes:

  • I really like the intro to IICY?
  • Quinn’s got a lot to learn about negotiation, but she has moxie.
  • Daria’s internal monologue during the interview is comedy gold. Plus, it rings true; it’s easy for a critical outlook to be turned on oneself.
  • Sandi again displays a pretty extensive vocabulary for her age. Hard to believe her SAT scores were so low. Then again, all the SAT really tests is one’s ability to do well on the SAT.
  • I know the future alter egos in the credits are just gags, but Daria and Jane as morning hosts? Really?