The seven-episode first season of I Am Not Okay With This — co-created by Jonathan Entwistle of The End of the F***ing World fame and, like that Netflix series, based on a graphic novel by Charles Forsman — ends with a gross explosion and a semi-reveal and a cliffhanger that practically guarantees that there will be a second series of this superpowered coming-of-age story.
(At this point, I’m obligated to point out to you that there will be nothing but spoilers for I Am Not Okay With This from here on out.)
In the final moments of episode seven, Sydney (Sophia Lillis), covered in splattered blood because of that thing that happened at the homecoming dance, which we’ll get to momentarily, runs away from the school, into the woods, and to the deck of a cabin where she contemplates running away altogether. To an extent this mirrors the end of the comic, in which Syd, having accidentally used her brain to kill the awful Brad by giving him what appears to be a brain aneurysm, becomes consumed by guilt and goes to a water tower alone; once there, she reaches the conclusion that she can’t bear to live anymore, and makes her own head explode, the same thing she does to Brad in the TV version. The comic provides an ending that’s bracing and finite, but as a streaming series that seems poised to continue, or at least leave its options open, I Am Not Okay With This interrupts Syd before she can do anything to harm herself, by having the shadowy figure that’s been tracking her all season long suddenly appear and seemingly confirm that he’s an actual human being and not some figment of Syd’s imagination.
For a while, I was thinking that maybe, somehow, the figure was Syd’s father, and that he hadn’t actually died. I Am Not Okay With This is produced by some of the same people behind Stranger Things, and clearly they have no problem with stories in which deaths are faked. But when Syd sees the person, she does not recognize him as her dad. All the guy says in response to her question, “Should I be afraid?” is “They should be afraid. Let’s begin.”
Assuming the person is real, here are my guesses as to who he is: (1) someone associated with the military, who knows about the deaths Syd’s father accidentally caused and wants her to take over where he left off; (2) someone who works for the government in another capacity, but, similarly, trains people with abilities like Syd’s to act as potential weapons of mass destruction, making Sydney the potential equivalent of Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen or, if you prefer, Eleven from Stranger Things; (3) a helper of some sort who wants to train Sydney to control her impulses so that government and/or military forces don’t catch on to who she is and use her for the reasons described above. In all of these scenarios, a government and/or military conspiracy is involved. That makes sense to me because, again, Stranger Things.
We don’t have the answer to that mystery yet, which is why I am much more interested in discussing some other, non–Stranger Things influences running through I Am Not Okay With This, both in the finale and the season as a whole, and how they illustrate the series’s broader tendency to remix classic teen movies of yore.
In case this wasn’t as obvious as a bucketful of pig blood to the head, the homecoming dance sequence in the finale is a riff on the ending of Carrie. In both the Stephen King novel and the 1976 movie starring Sissy Spacek, Carrie gets to go to the prom with Tommy, the most popular guy in her high school. She’s having a fantastic time until she and Tommy are crowned prom king and queen and two of her nemeses dump pig’s blood on her and Tommy as a prank, in front of the whole school. Carrie, who has been tormented throughout the story, perceives that her classmates are laughing at her, at which point her telekinetic powers are released at maximum capacity. By the end of that dance, everyone who attended is dead, save for Carrie and her friend Sue.
While the homecoming dance in I Am Not Okay With This ends in almost equally bloody fashion, only one person — Brad, your prototypical awful jock — winds up dead, at least as far as the audience can tell. What’s more significant is what makes Syd snap versus what makes Carrie snap. In Carrie, the high schooler is ridiculed by her peers and her completely delusional mother for being a normal teenage girl with normal teenage-girl instincts. When she gets her period in the girls’ locker room, she is mocked. When she expresses interest in going to a dance with a boy, her mother goes ballistic. She is being told, again and again, that it is abnormal simply to be a heterosexual cisgender girl. No one has any idea that what’s really unusual about her is her ability to, among other things, start fires with her mind.
Like Carrie, Syd is enjoying her time at a dance, but she’s enjoying it with Dina, her best friend and the object of her deepest affections. Her bubble gets burst not because she and Dina are crowned royalty and then pranked, but because Brad takes over the homecoming ceremony, starts reading from Syd’s diary and reveals all her secrets, including that she is in love with Dina. Syd’s mind descends into “Decapitate Brad” mode just before he can announce that she has secret, potentially lethal powers. Carrie is pushed over the edge because she’s viewed as weird, but because of things that are absolutely not weird; Syd is pushed over precisely because she does have an unusual nature she wants to keep private, but what’s “unusual” about her is not the fact that she’s attracted to Dina and, most likely, gay. (She had sex with Stanley, and clearly wasn’t attracted to him. Still, in theory, she could be bisexual.) When Brad reveals that Syd is in love with Dina, no one is laughing at her, and Dina even tells him to shut up.
I Am Not Okay With This reinforces for its viewers that being gay or bisexual or anywhere on the sexuality spectrum considered outside the quote, unquote norm is not weird. That message is buried underneath a lot of plot and typical coming-of-age drama and comic-booky action, but it’s definitely there. It’s communicated in the way the series uses not just Carrie, but other teen-movie classics, as a foundation on which to build its own narrative — specifically the films in the John Hughes canon, which are basically the Shakespearean plays of the modern-day coming-of-age genre, a template that storytellers return to and modify, again and again, to explore the unique burdens of going through puberty.
The most blatant I Am Not Okay With This spin on a John Hughes movie is the Breakfast Club–inspired fifth episode, “Another Day in Paradise,” which finds our main characters stuck in an afternoon of detention. In this version, Brad is the athlete, Emilio Estevez’s Andrew; Stan is the brain, or at least the nerd, à la Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian; Jenny, the school bad girl, performs the John Bender (Judd Nelson, a.k.a. the criminal) function; Dina comes closest to being the Claire, the popular Molly Ringwald type; and that makes Syd the Allison, or Ally Sheedy. She’s the perceived weird one, but instead of using her own dandruff to add snow to a sketch, she can, you know, chuck bowling balls at people just by thinking about it.
There are numerous ways in which “Another Day in Paradise” references The Breakfast Club, from the smoking of pot during detention to the attempt to sneak through the hallways and outsmart the principal to the appearance of a janitor named Carl. But one of the more interesting deviations from that script is the fact that it’s the Bender and the Andrew figures, in this scenario, who hook up with each other toward the end of the day, not the Bender and Claire characters. Okay, fine: Technically, Brad and Dina make out during detention as well, and both of these scenarios, within the context of the Netflix series, are girl-on-guy experiences. But if you know the source material that’s being commented upon, you know that Entwistle & Co. are subverting it.
That’s even more true when you look at the show more broadly. In a different episode, there’s another Breakfast Club–style moment where Dina, definitely in Claire mode, helps Syd put on makeup the same way Molly Ringwald does for Ally Sheedy. In I Am Not Okay With This, though, it’s not just a platonic moment between girls beginning to understand each other. Here, it’s tinged with Syd’s desire and a palpable romantic energy.
This is also true when looking at the series in the context of other Hughes films. The primary teen characters comprise a foursome in a way that hearkens back to both Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, something that’s especially hard to ignore considering how much Sophia Lillis, who plays Sydney, resembles a young Molly Ringwald. To do those character parallels again, in a Sixteen Candles structure, Syd is Samantha, Stan is Farmer Ted, Dina is, simultaneously, Jake Ryan and Samantha’s best friend Randy, and Brad is Caroline Mumford, except 50 times more deplorable. In Pretty in Pink terms, the breakdown is even clearer: Syd is Andie, Stan is Duckie, Dina is Blaine, and Brad is 100 percent Stef, the obnoxious, privileged James Spader.
The idea that Molly Ringwald, America’s teen sweetheart, could have grappled with romantic feelings for another girl was unimaginable in the mid-1980s when these movies were released, not because girls didn’t have those feelings, but because they were not talked about in teen movies. Hughes’s movies were radical in how they took young people’s concerns seriously and depicted their problems without condescension, but they could not have been more conservative, and even embarrassingly backward, when it came to matters of sexuality and race. Hughes did not have the vocabulary to imagine a world where a Samantha Baker could swoon just as hard for a girl like Dina as she might for a Jake Ryan.
I Am Not Okay With This uses Hughesian language, but also course-corrects those stories to allow for gay relationships to exist. By couching them in that recognizable teen-movie world, it announces, without being preachy about it, that those relationships are no different than any of the other romances that pop culture has conditioned us to view as the norm.
Like Pretty in Pink, I Am Not Okay With This even ends with its Ringwald, Lillis’s Syd, going to the big dance, reconciling with her geeky but also cool as hell best guy friend, and nearly getting the climactic kiss from Dina that Andie gets from Blaine. It stops short of that because, again, this story isn’t over (seemingly), and also because such an ending would be far too pat for a series about a girl with telekinetic superpowers. But simply by invoking those movies, it sends a message that what Syd should not necessarily be okay with is her capacity to cause terror and destruction. But her capacity to love another young woman? This series makes it very clear that everyone should be okay with that.