Looking For Alaska
Remember “We Are All Going,” when we just sobbed our eyes out for a full hour over Alaska’s death? I’m pleased to report that the final episode of this miniseries rebalances the tears-to-laughs ratio, sending us out on a clear-eyed but less bleak note. I do need to offer a content note that this episode addresses both risk factors and methodology for death by suicide. Viewers, please put your well-being first.
After finding Alaska’s puzzling marginalia in her copy of The General in His Labyrinth, Pudge, the Colonel, and Takumi go full Hardy Boys with their investigation into her death. My librarian’s heart grew three sizes seeing them developing a decent search string, tracking down primary sources, and relying on their own background knowledge to refine their research process as appropriate.
Initially, their attempts to map suicide risk factors to Alaska’s behavior don’t yield much. Of the signs that applied to her, she talked about death “just to be pretentious,” and though she had experienced significant loss, it was years ago, and although she was drinking heavily, she had lost none of her sexual appetite. The state trooper who witnessed Alaska’s car crash shares some details that make the Colonel more willing to consider that she intended to die. She never swerved or braked to avoid the crash, and her BAC was 0.21, or “powerful drunk,” as the trooper puts it. But after reading the trooper’s written report, the Colonel is convinced Alaska’s death cannot have been purposely self-inflicted, because it was clearly an impulsive act by someone who was planning for her future. On the other hand, her failure to swerve or brake doesn’t make sense as an accident, either.
The only way to resolve this conundrum, the Colonel believes, is to get in Alaska’s head the night of her death. Clearly, he must get as drunk as she was, and he’ll know for sure just how drunk he is by testing his BAC using the breathalyzer the Eagle keeps in his house. You know what that means: It’s heist time!!
Okay, I’ve been calling the Eagle’s house the Eagle’s Nest for the last two episodes, not knowing that the Eagle himself calls it that, too! Lesson: I … am not that clever and have only ever been harvesting low-hanging humor fruit. C’est la vie! While Pudge and the Colonel distract the Eagle with a semi-earnest request for some kind of memorial service for Alaska, Takumi is sneaking in to retrieve the breathalyzer, but there’s a twist: Ms. O’Malley is there! In a really cute pink robe festooned with cherry blossoms! I can only echo the Colonel’s horrified but also very delighted response: O mon dieu! Also, I need a GIF of Takumi’s “this is gossip GOLD” face, and one of his triumphant dance, seen through the Eagle’s window. As the boys leave, the Colonel pronounces the Eagle and Ms. O’Malley “crazy cute,” and I could not agree more.
Back in Pudge and the Colonel’s room, they learn that drinking to 0.21 BAC is very challenging! The Colonel is doing shot after shot of ambrosia to the strains of J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” and remarks that “the milk is what may kill me.” I’ve never heard of a fatal case of lactose intolerance, but someone needs to take pity on this child and hand him a bottle of Lactaid pills. There’s no way the Colonel could get behind the wheel in his current state, which makes him and Pudge realize just how poor their judgment was the night of Alaska’s death. Takumi points out that they believed Alaska was fine to drive “because we never knew if she was drunk or not, if she was happy or not, and we always did what she wanted.”
Their detecting work comes to an abrupt end when the Eagle pays a visit. Pudge explains that he asked Takumi to come over and help comfort a dramatically fake-crying Colonel, while Takumi offers that his “shoulder is known as Culver Creek’s best for crying on.” The Eagle, bless his simple, earnest heart, is glad the Colonel has such good friends and offers the services of a grief counselor to the boys while chivvying Takumi off to his own room: “It’s way past your bedtime.” Bravo to this series for clowning the Eagle relentlessly while also making him a strong role model for sincere Dudley Do-Right types everywhere.
On the phone with his parents, Pudge notices a classic Alaska flower doodle on the wall by the payphone and has a flash of insight: The little bouquet of plastic daisies from her room, where are they? Were they in her room when they went through it for contraband? According to the police report, they were in the car the night of her accident. They must mean something! When they realize that Alaska might have been taking the flowers to a cemetery, they hit legacy.com, which yields … a single result for the surname “Young”? Okay, I can’t get derailed by this impossibility. Maybe they did an advanced search that we aren’t being shown because literally nobody but librarians cares about accurately dramatizing the research process; it’s fine, it’s fine, I’ll live — just know that a single-term search on a massive website is going to provide an ocean of mostly irrelevant results in 99 percent of cases.
Anyway! Bingo, they find Alaska’s mom’s obituary. Alaska’s crash was eight years to the day after her mother’s death. It’s all clear now: She was distraught about nearly forgetting the anniversary of her mom’s death. The Colonel and Pudge race to share their discovery with Takumi, but he’s down at the smoking hole with Lara and isn’t impressed with what they’ve learned: Even if the Colonel and Pudge do discover the truth of what happened, would it matter? Alaska will always be dead, the mystery will always go unsolved, and her friends have to live with not-knowing forever.
As you’d expect, tempers flare and moods swing wildly as people process their grief in different ways. As a result, the core friendships among Pudge, the Colonel, and Takumi are all unsettled throughout the episode until they return from Christmas break. They’ve all had the time and space to begin to believe Dr. Hyde’s reassurance that managing to show up every day for class and for their friends is evidence that they are actually okay and will likely continue to be okay.
When the students return to campus for the second semester, it turns out that the Eagle has chosen to honor Alaska’s love of reading and imagination by unveiling the Alaska Young Memorial Bench.
Me, a sap: Aw, that’s sweet! But it fails to capture her essence.
The Colonel, no fool: She would have hated that shit!
You say potato, Chip, I say potahto. The gang decides, at Lara’s suggestion, to pursue the Alaska Young Memorial Prank. She’d been saving it for their senior year, but the timing is right to do it now. The entire school needs to get onboard, and it could result in everyone getting in major trouble. Pudge is instantly in.
Sara and Pudge pitch their class’s Speaker Day speaker, Dr. William Morse. He’s a friend of Pudge’s dad, a professor “at a university in Florida” who “studies adolescent sexuality” and who is against premarital sex. The Eagle thinks this sounds promising, and when he calls the number Sara provided, Pudge’s dad (a Culver Creek alumnus who was party to some pretty sweet pranks in his day) poses as Dr. Morse.
At Speaker Day, Gus the convenience-store attendant appears in a natty three-piece suit as Dr. Morse. He introduces the topic, speaking from some crumpled notes about how, among heterosexual teens, boys often objectify girls, and girls usually don’t objectify boys. Lara stands up and hollers lustily at him to strip, followed by then Sara, then Ruthie, then Holly, and well, he can’t disappoint the ladies, can he? Surely not when they’re calling for a subversion of the patriarchal paradigm! As Takumi cues up Kelis’s “Milkshake,” Gus yells into the microphone “THIS IS FOR ALASKA YOUNG!” and rips off his tearaway suit, proceeding to gyrate and caper around the stage in an iridescent silvery Speedo. His performance isn’t a patch on Magic Mike, but it is enthusiastic, and within seconds, all of the male students follow suit, stripping to their underwear and shaking what their mamas gave them, all in the mischievous name of Alaska Young, whose memory will forever be a blessing.
Throughout this performance, the Eagle is somehow glued to his seat, only arising at the very end to chase Gus out of the gym, remarking, “Well, that was unexpected. It’s not funny!” But then, in the grand tradition of initially hard-ass school administrators who wind up being fondest of the students who drive them battiest (see also: Vice-principal Van Clemmons from Veronica Mars), it turns out that the Eagle is actually wildly entertained by the whole thing, commenting that it’s as if Alaska herself had written Gus’s speech, and chuckling heartily as he walks back to the gym.
The episode closes out with Pudge and the Colonel finally visiting the site of Alaska’s car crash and having a cathartic cry together. Pudge’s voice-over is his final essay for Dr. Hyde, a lovely and thoughtful weaving together of all that he’s discussed and learned in the classroom and outside it over the course of the year. In the end, although Alaska is gone, something of her essence endures and can’t be destroyed. Pudge has made peace with never being certain what caused Alaska’s death, but “the not-knowing will not keep me from caring. Alaska’s last words to me were ‘To be continued’, and so I choose the labyrinth, even if there’s no way out, even if we’re all going, even if everything falls apart.”
As one final prank, Alaska’s friends steal the bench and install it at the smoking hole, as she’d have wanted. Life goes on, as it must.
Famous Last Words
Musical Cue of the Episode: “Milkshake,” by Kelis. What a perfect little sonic bookend! Alert readers may recall that a plaintive, acoustic version of “Milkshake” played over Paul and Marya’s tryst in “Famous Last Words.” Using the original reminds us never to accept any substitutes when subverting the dominant patriarchal paradigm!
I promised I’d keep an eye out for Wes Anderson allusions and am very pleased to sound the allusion klaxon one last time. When we see Miles at the bottom of the pool over Christmas break, that is a direct homage to a depressed Bill Murray at the bottom of the pool in Rushmore.
A special shout-out to Dr. Hyde, whose steps in at Christmas to coach the Colonel through the worst of his grief. Feel your feelings! And remember, it’s all right to cry!
In crisis? The number for the Suicide Prevention Hotline in the U.S. is 1-800-273-8255, or you can visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.