Freaks and Geeks
In honor of Freaks and Geeks’ long-awaited return to streaming on Hulu, Vulture is revisiting every episode, one at a time, to see what made this one-of-a-kind high-school series tick. Check back for new episodic reviews every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening.
When is the end of childhood? There are legal, psychological, and physical standards for this, and varying religious and cultural definitions, too: the age when you start to fast during Ramadan, the tradition of bar and bat mitzvahs, or maybe when you realize Santa isn’t real. But thanks to the widely celebrated, mostly secular nature of Halloween in the U.S., there is a uniquely shared quality to the trick-or-treating tradition. Maybe you plan your costume for months — maybe you make it yourself, or you figure out a theme with your friends. You dress up for the Halloween costume parade at school, and compare and contrast your getup with everyone else’s. What do you use to collect the candy when you go trick or treating: a pillowcase or a plastic pumpkin? Do you stay in your neighborhood, or if you’re in the suburbs, do you ask your parents to drive you around? What’s the candy you keep, and what’s the candy you trade? My dad always said lollipops were his tax for chaperoning us, but as long as no one touched my Almond Joys, we didn’t have a problem.
There’s so much planning that goes into all of this, but simultaneously, exaltation and abandon. You get to be a different version of yourself, and it’s not only allowed, but encouraged. And then, all of a sudden one year, you just don’t do it anymore. Maybe that’s the truest end of childhood: when something you once loved sincerely and wholly is now arbitrarily decided as no longer being for you. Not the candy haul of it, and not the innocent exuberance of it. The whole process just stops, and all that emotion and energy — where does that go?
“Tricks and Treats,” which takes place during the day before Halloween, the ensuing Devil’s Night (shout out to The Crow, which should never be remade, and RIP to Brandon Lee), and on Halloween itself, is described as “an unexpected turning point for Lindsay and Sam,” and that’s a nice way of capturing what I think is the series’s most devastating moment. I can’t get over how fantastic Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley are in this episode, or how deeply felt and truly tragic the final ten or so minutes of this episode are. So far in the pilot and “Beers and Weirs,” we’ve met a Lindsay (Cardellini) who is trying to change her identity, torn between the academic overachiever she was for many years and the more go-with-the-flow freak she wants to be. Meanwhile, younger brother Sam (Daley) has been struggling with the transition from junior high to high school, and with the accompanying pressures of adolescence that come along with that jump between grades.
There are only a couple of years between Lindsay and Sam, but they’re fighting in different ways against that gap. Lindsay wants to keep moving forward: to act more mature, to partition more of herself away from her parents, to do her own thing and be her own person. Sam would like to move backward: to keep doing the things he loves (even if they’re considered childish), to continue hanging out with his friends, to cling onto the norms he recognizes and the joy he receives from them. But by the end of “Tricks and Treats,” Lindsay is reckless, and Sam is betrayed, and if I think too long about Lindsay’s devastated face when she sees how hurt Sam is, and how the battered Sam hurts her back by calling her a “dirty freak” and part of a “bunch of dirtbags,” I might cry!
“Tricks and Treats” begins with Martin Starr’s Bill turning a trick into a treat (here is some of what goes into that disgusting concoction that he doesn’t mind drinking: mustard, cayenne, pickle juice, salt, sardines, vinegar, soy sauce, canned chili, jelly, dairy creamer, and after-dinner mints), and it’s the first of the episode’s little subplots about food. Bill going back for a second huge gulp of this drink is gross, hilarious, and continues his experience with the beer in “Beers and Weirs”: Bill will try anything once. (See also: his very committed Bionic Woman costume.) Sarah Hagan’s Millie, who is so principled in her academics and her faith, is sort of addicted to the Fun Dip–like Lik-M-Aid, which “makes my spit taste like fruit juice.” It’s a crack in her do-gooder armor, probed at by Daniel’s (James Franco) “thanks for the candy, Skinny” and further widened when Lindsay sees Millie with her “secret love” whom she met at church camp. And the final food-related narrative here comes from Lindsay and Sam’s mother Jean (Becky Ann Baker), whose homemade, prettily decorated, toiled-over cookies are dumped on the Weirs’ front yard by parents concerned that they might hold hidden razorblades or needles. Jean already feels far away from her children, and to realize that the surrounding world is abandoning her, too — preferring store-bought candy to freshly baked treats — feels like a mirroring of that rejection.
“But isn’t it normal for children to outgrow their parents?” you might ask, and of course! Jean can be kind of a nag! In terms of the adults on this show, she falls somewhere between the embarrassing pontificating of her husband Harold (Joe Flaherty), who gets a lovely moment with Sam at the end of this episode, and the consistently amusing antics of high school guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen), who burns Lindsay real good with his Amelia Earhart joke. (“You head to class, but you never seem to get there.”) Jean can guilt trip. She can be judgmental. But does Jean deserve Lindsay running out on her on Halloween? Not really. Yet that’s exactly what Lindsay does: Aghast that Millie has a boyfriend while she’s still pining over Daniel, Lindsay says yes to a Halloween-night double date with Nick (Jason Segel) and the back-together Daniel and Kim (Busy Philipps). And while she’s off trying to live in one moment by talking shit with the freaks, kicking pumpkins, and smashing mailboxes, Sam is convincing his friends to revisit the past. Daunted by his freshman English teacher’s assignment of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and inspired by Jean’s singing of “Monster Mash” at the dinner table, Sam decides he will go trick or treating after all, and his enthusiasm eventually convinces Bill, Neal (Samm Levine), and Harris (Stephen Lea Sheppard), too.
So as Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Groucho Marx, the Bionic Woman, and a “guy with a knife in his head,” Sam, Neal, Bill, and Harris set out for the night, and are nearly immediately disappointed. Parents keep staring. One lady almost refuses to give them candy. Their recurring tormenter Alan (Chauncey Leopardi), still bitter about when Neal, Bill, and other geek Colin (Jarrett Lennon) picked a fight with him, challenges the foursome to another rumble. And yet none of that — not Bill and Neal arguing over whether “Groucho sucks,” not no one recognizing who Gort is, not Alan and his crew stealing all geeks’ candy — is as tremendously horrible as Lindsay and Kim egging Sam.
Director Bryan Gordon and writer Paul Feig capture the contrast between sister and brother so effectively that it almost gives you whiplash: how downtrodden Sam and the geeks are when Alan runs off with their treats, how excited Lindsay is to finally be included with the freaks once she starts going along with their antics, the utter shock Sam feels once he’s pelted with the eggs, and how quickly Lindsay’s glee curdles into horror once she realizes who their target was. Gordon injects some absurdity here with Daniel reversing the car all the way down the block so that Lindsay can apologize, which Bill and Neal misconstrue as the attackers “coming round to finish us off!” But every other element is heartbreaking in its irreversibility. Lindsay can’t take back what she’s done, and the freaks’ laughter at all this (Kim’s “I told you she’d be a drag”) show the yawning gap between her and them. Sam can’t believe who his sister is becoming, and he’s not going to forgive — certainly not now, maybe not ever. And the worst thing about it is that Lindsay and Sam, in those moments, see each other as others do. Lindsay saw Sam as just some geek she and her friends could attack with no consequences. Sam saw Lindsay as a freak who didn’t care what she did, or whose feelings she hurt. It’s a sharp turn from their previously prickly-but-supportive relationship; up until now, the siblings haven’t really understood each other, but they also haven’t hurt each other. They haven’t bought into the narratives and labels others assign. With this turning point, though, something between Lindsay and Sam shifts: It’s in the harsh tone Sam uses when he tells Lindsay, “Nobody thinks you’re cool, you know,” and in the weariness of her replied “Trust me, I know.” They’re not children anymore. It’s time to grow up. And maybe that means it’s time to grow apart, too.
(If you subscribe to a service through our links, Vulture may earn an affiliate commission.)