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 episode reviews every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening.
Kim Kelly is a live wire. She is Busy Philipps’s smirk, and her eyebrow quirk, and her shriek. It takes a lot to scream — have you ever done it? It requires a decisive decision to act and then an unexpected amount of energy. The effort required knocks you back, wipes out your lungs, leaves you winded and unnerved. And Philipps absorbs all that wear and tear into her body in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend,” the first episode to give us the home life of any of the freaks whom Linda Cardellini’s Lindsay has befriended. And man, is the Kelly house — perpetually in a state of renovation and haunted by Ann Dowd’s Cookie Kelly, a nightmarish version of a Tennessee Williams heroine by way of Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy — a mess.
So far, Kim has served as Lindsay’s foil in practically every situation. The freaks are often jerks to her — you could get trashed real fast with a “take a shot every time the guys imply Kim is on her period” drinking game — but they have years of history with her that Lindsay doesn’t, and she’s naturally integrated into their group in a way that Lindsay isn’t. She’s crass when Lindsay is quiet, combative when Lindsay retreats. She is abrasive, aggressive, and deeply angry, and for the most part, Freaks and Geeks as a show has conditioned us to hate her. Think of the events of “Tricks and Treats”: Lindsay was horrified to learn she had egged Sam (John Francis Daley) and then deeply remorseful over how devastated he was as a result. Kim just laughed and made her annoyance with the Weir siblings plain. She, at minimum, made out with James Franco’s Daniel in Lindsay’s bed during “Beers and Weirs,” and that’s not very gracious guest behavior! But Freaks and Geeks pads out the world of McKinley High School by giving Kim, well, her very own Kim: Rashida Jones’s Karen Scarfolli.
In her only Freaks and Geeks appearance, Jones is the opposite of her future breakout role, Ann Perkins in Parks and Recreation. Ann Perkins is a poetic, noble land mermaid; Karen Scarfolli is a flat-out monster. Karen knocks over the doughnuts Sarah Hagan’s Millie was taking to her French class — pastry murder! (Millie’s exasperated “Just take the plain, okay?” when Jason Segel’s Nick asks for a doughnut after Daniel swipes a sprinkles is quietly hilarious, as Millie customarily is.) Karen yells at Daniel and Nick (not enough to dissuade the former from pursuing a hookup with her, though). And, most damagingly, she graffitis Sam’s locker with the word GEEK in bright-pink lipstick and then with PYGMY GEEK in unremovable black marker. After Sam’s Halloween egging, Karen’s calling him “pee-wee,” “midget,” and “geek” and pulling his shirt up to look at his lack of body hair is all too much. Kim laughs alongside Karen and becomes even more of an enemy to Sam — so much so that he finally begins to break the “don’t tell Mom and Dad” policy Sam and Lindsay had established. Every person has a breaking point, and Sam might be reaching his.
But Sam’s story is very much the B-plot in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” because, of course, the titular Kim Kelly is the main story here. Why does she invite Lindsay to dinner at her house? Sure, it’s partially because Nick asked Kim to be nicer to Lindsay. But it’s more because Kim is, like so many Freaks and Geeks characters, trying to break outside of who others expect her to be. We only spend a few unbearably uncomfortable minutes with the judgmental Cookie and Kim’s unnamed stepfather (Jack Conley) in that house, but the scenes before and after capture so much about who Kim is. Before Lindsay and Kim walk in for dinner, Kim’s story of her Aunt Kathy living in California is the kind of “getting out” dream that believably serves as a touchstone for Kim. Sure, Aunt Kathy eventually died of a cocaine overdose. But she also gave Kim her Gremlin, which may be a crummy old car but is the only thing that seems to be exclusively Kim’s. It’s Kim’s way out of that house and away from her parents, and she’s never going to let go of it.
And who wouldn’t want to get away from Cookie and Stepfather Guy? Admittedly, Kim shoots Lindsay in the foot by inviting her to dinner and then not letting her know any of the lies she’s told involving her over the past few weeks. How was Lindsay supposed to be Kim’s cover story when she didn’t even know she was Kim’s cover story? But Philipps does a great job here capturing Kim’s myriad conflicting emotions: her desire to impress her parents and prove to them that not all her friends are losers; the hidden truth that such a longing for normalcy ties back to Kim herself, and her wish to be perceived differently by others; and her explosive anger when that doesn’t work out. To Kim’s credit, though, she never gets angry at Lindsay in these scenes. She knows what she’s dragged Lindsay (played wonderfully guilelessly by Cardellini, who keeps trying to roll with what Cookie is asking her about) into, and she knows that she’s set Lindsay up to fail. But when the two finally make a break for it by fleeing that claustrophobic table and running back to Kim’s car, with Cookie and Stepfather Guy’s assault on the Gremlin shot like an homage to Cujo, they’re united as two young women against the world.
When Lindsay described Kim to her mother Jean (Becky Ann Baker) as “different … Just ’cause a girl speaks her mind, doesn’t mean she’s a psycho,” wasn’t that a compliment? A blunter reading might construe this relationship as entirely defined by pity: Lindsay feels sorry for Kim for being poor, as Kim feels sorry for Lindsay for being so unsure of herself (or as Kim so bluntly puts it, “a total loser”). I think seeing Daniel and Karen together, though, crystallizes something for both Lindsay and Kim that is outside of their own intermittent dislike for each other. For Lindsay, it’s that maybe Daniel isn’t really the guy she wants to have a crush on anymore. Not if he can hurt his girlfriend so casually, and lie about it so easily. For Kim, Daniel’s shortcomings confirm something she already guesses about men: They are all mostly terrible, so if you find one who isn’t entirely awful, that’s a rare thing. “That’s why I’ve got to stay alert. I have to be a bitch, you know?” Kim admits to Lindsay when she reveals how afraid she is that Daniel will leave her — and remember how Kim screamed about her Gremlin: mine, mine, mine. When you have so little, you’ll latch onto the few things you have even more tightly. Kim puts up with so much of Daniel’s crap because he is the best she thinks she can do, and there is something so deeply upsetting about that — for both of them. Kim isn’t perfect. Daniel isn’t perfect. They’re not perfect for each other. And although they might cling together, I’m not sure how you could watch that kitchen-altercation scene and think, Oh, great, I’m glad they’re still together!
Is this good for Kim in the long run, to have her understanding of love and trust so muddled and malformed? Probably not. But Philipps gives Kim so much raw ferocity tempered with gossamer fragility that she’s impossible to look away from — she even wins over Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean, however briefly! Lindsay doesn’t want to be Kim, and Kim doesn’t want to be Lindsay, but each of them admires the other.
I think something similar is going on with Sam and Neal (Samm Levine), who get into a fight after Karen, the “busty succubus from Hell,” starts bullying Sam. Neal is obviously in the wrong here on so many things, from his conservative ideas about female sexuality (“Only guys get horny”) to his pretending that he didn’t flee Karen as soon as she turned on “Bilbo Baggins,” and I remain shocked that Bill (Martin Starr) would say Sam was the bigger geek! Ultimately, though, Bill’s timid “What’s geek mean, anyway? It’s just a word” is what seems to bring Sam and Neal together the next day. This isn’t the first time they’ll fight, and it’s not the last time, either. But for now, they have each other, and there’s no use crying over spilled acid.
“Sometimes relationships can be a drag,” Daniel had said to Lindsay about Kim’s relationship with her mother, but that observation goes all ways in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend.” For Kim and Daniel, whose on-again, off-again bond remains reliably tumultuous. For Lindsay and Kim, who aren’t going to become best friends anytime soon, but who understand each other a little better. For Lindsay and Sam, who still aren’t on good terms: Notice that Lindsay says the quiet part out loud this episode, snarking at Sam, “Well, maybe you are a geek,” after he says he hates Kim Kelly for her bullying. For Harold and Jean, who don’t understand their daughter very much anymore, and who certainly don’t understand why her friends are working out all their romantic drama in their home. But then there’s that concluding scene of “Kim Kelly Is My Friend,” which answers a question raised by the ambiguity of the episode title.
Who is making the statement that “Kim Kelly Is My Friend”? You would assume it’s Lindsay, since she goes with Kim to dinner, then invites her back to her house, introduces her to her parents, and steps outside the kitchen to let Kim and Daniel make up in peace. But could the speaker be Sam, too? Because when Kim storms into his bedroom while trying to hide from Daniel, and then begins threatening Karen in various outlandishly violent ways, he laughs — a thawing of the icy hatred he feels toward her. And the next morning, when Kim protects him from an enraged Karen with “After school, I’m going to hit on you,” her actions operate as a retroactive apology. “No problem, geek,” Kim says when Sam thanks her for being “really cool,” and Sam’s smile is genuinely appreciative. But it’s laced with something else, too: acceptance of the “geek” identifier when someone says it with affection rather than derision. It might not seem like much, but for Sam, in that moment? Geek is just a word, and it might sound a little bit like “friend.”
(If you subscribe to a service through our links, Vulture may earn an affiliate commission.)