Remember what it was like to feel like a weirdo in school? Remember when you realized that your parents were actually fun, normal people? Remember when you learned that change — hormonal, emotional, or otherwise — is very hard? This week’s episode takes on these big questions, with decent results. “Gotta Be Me” reinforces the necessity of being yourself, not changing for anyone, and grappling with what that philosophy means.
The cold open sees Louis at a video store, longingly gazing at a copy of Beethoven. Rather than indulge his love of that adorable puppy, Louis chooses to maintain the illusion that he prefers obscure French films about gnomes, lest he embarrass himself in front of the laconic film nerd who runs the store. Uh-oh! There are late fees on the Huang account, for a whole grip of action films, rented by a family member with a predilection for the smooth and oiled torso of Jean-Claude Van Damme.
After conducting an exhaustive search of the house and ruling out the major suspects, Louis finds them hidden under Jessica’s side of the bed and assumes that his wife has a secret yen for the unrestrained virility of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. Jessica certainly isn’t seeing it from him. The face she makes when her husband — the same man who wears a T-shirt when he swims in the ocean — crushes an empty Cheerios box shirtless and tosses it into the corner of the dining room says it all. But Jessica’s not the one, either. It turns out the secret action-movie fan is … Emery?
What follows is a very endearing father-and-son scene in which Louis grapples with how to have the birds-and-bees conversation with his middle son, who might possibly be gay, based on his fondness for shirtless, oiled men brandishing machine guns and yelling. He mentions Greg Louganis and Broadway, but Emery interjects. The tapes are research, not an exploration of his burgeoning sexuality. All his friends are going through puberty, transitioning from gentle souls who want to play Magic: The Gathering at lunch to macho man-boys with weird facial hair who like fart jokes. All Emery wants to do is write poetry. This goes against everything the most sensitive Huang believes in, but that’s what dads are for: Giving their sons advice that eventually backfires.
Emery’s supposed to toughen up and bro out with his friends, since they’re no longer interested in tapping mana. Unfortunately, whatever bro-tricks he tried get him a black eye and a trip to the principal’s office for fighting. Part two of father-son bonding time is a little more productive, with Louis telling Emery to just be his own person and trust that people will like him. Being a people-pleaser like his father isn’t the best move after all.
Embracing his inner sappy preteen leads Emery to write the poem that he wanted to write in the first place — and putting his doofus friend Chad’s name on it is a masterful power move that proves fart jokes and poop humor can be trumped by a rapier wit. Fists not needed. Poetry might be for ‘ginas, but this time, it works.
While Emery learns a Very Important Lesson about the power of being yourself, Eddie is, uh, being himself, and irritating his mother, which seems to be his own personal superpower. Breakfast at the Huang household looks like wrangling a drunk bachelorette party down Bourbon Street — that is, it looks like hell. Jessica just wants Eddie to eat his food, get dressed, and leave for school on time. Eddie, on the other hand, just wants Jessica to sign a permission slip so he can go on a field trip with the rest of his classmates, like a normal child.
Jessica doesn’t hate fun. She just hates the fact that Eddie spends a half-hour every morning playing Mario Brothers instead of putting on his little shorts and getting his life together and getting ready for school. I suppose it’s all perspective, but as a faithful viewer of this show, I too am growing weary of Eddie’s shenanigans. I wouldn’t sign that slip either. The trip is a visit one of the very best things America has to offer: Colonial Florida Town, a strange mashup of Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, full of “actors” dressed in period garb, churning butter, speaking in old-timey accents, and chasing chickens through dusty yards. Unsurprisingly, Jessica LOVES colonial American history, and so with that in mind, Eddie gets to go — but only if she gets to chaperone.
Nothing strikes more terror into the heart of a teenage child than the thought of their parent chaperoning a school trip. Nothing embarrasses a child more than their parent, out of their natural habitat, doing embarrassing parent things and ruining the event for their friends and everyone else who happens to come into contact with them. If either of my parents chaperoned a trip in my school days, I couldn’t tell you, because that memory is so deeply repressed that it will never, ever see the light of day.
While everyone else watches a woman wash bloodstains out of a colonial-era undershirt, Jessica, Eddie, and his friends are doing all the cool stuff that they never let you do at these places, like forging ladles with the blacksmith and dipping backpacks in steaming tubs of tallow. Surprise, everyone: Jessica Huang is fun! Eddie’s friends are obsessed with her and Eddie reacts with the low-key embarrassment that you’d expect out of a teenage boy whose friends suddenly seem to like his mother more than him.
The potential for fun is hiding within Jessica, but she doesn’t show it at home because she constantly has to nag her son. Eddie doesn’t do his homework. Eddie won’t take out the trash. Eddie won’t listen. If he did the bare minimum, Jessica could ease up and be the fun Colonial Florida Town mom all the time, but without that compromise, the nagging will never end. But if he plays his cards right and packs his own lunch and dresses himself without anyone bellowing at him from across the house to find his socks and put them on, right now? He’ll get to play Super Mario Brothers with his mom before school and learn that his parents are real people. Yes, real people. They’re not just complaint machines put on this Earth to torture children into submission.
- +8,000 tricorn hats for Jessica being the “fun” mom out of context. I spent the majority of my teenage years being mortified by my mother while my friends crowed about how awesome she was. Out of all the bright spots of truth this show has offered, nothing has hit as close to home as Eddie’s squirmy feelings about his mom being “cool.”
- +10 handmade candles for the canny observation that the Chinese and the Colonial Americans had a lot in common. Both are hard-working immigrants with an early fondness for nose-to-tail eating. They use all the parts of the buffalo!
- +11 coonskin hats for the Huang boys eating cereal with soy milk. Just because you (might be) lactose intolerant doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Cheerios like everybody else.