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.
No TV series will ever have penultimate episodes as gripping and devastating as The Wire, which over the course of five seasons established that every second-to-last episode would include a death, betrayal, revelation, or other significant plot development that hammered home the series’s overarching ideas about bureaucratic corruption, structural decay, and individual perseverance and helplessness in the face of such things. Frank Sobotka walking to that meeting with The Greek and Vondas, or that rooftop conversation between Avon and Stringer? I cry about those still!
But you know what? “The Little Things,” the 17th episode of Freaks and Geeks and its only penultimate offering, does pretty well for itself in capturing many of the show’s central themes: being true to yourself and standing up for your friends and people you love. And, most importantly, learning to let go of what you think other people want for you or expect from you. For Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), rejecting the question approved by Vice-President George H.W. Bush’s people and voicing her own concerns before the entire school is the second step forward in a major decision she makes for herself — her first step was in the preceding episode “Smooching and Mooching,” when she became friendly with McKinley High Dead Heads Laurie (Samaire Armstrong) and Victor (Russel Harper). For Sam (John Francis Daley), his realization that longtime crush Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick) is not at all his dream girl despite years of pining is an important moment, too — an affirmation that Sam’s interests are valid, that his personality is fine, and that he deserves to be in a relationship with someone who accepts and appreciates him for who he is.
As in “Smooching and Mooching,” Lindsay offers Sam some worthwhile advice: “Not all good-looking people are cool.” It’s the kind of observation that of course must have come from Lindsay’s own life experience, and it raises an interesting question: Who are the cool juniors and seniors at McKinley? Are star athlete Todd (Riley Smith) and head cheerleader Vicki (JoAnna Garcia) supposed to be juniors and seniors, like the freaks? Or are they freshmen and sophomores, like the geeks? Is there a whole other group of “cool” upperclassmen, more in line with the ages of Lindsay, Daniel (James Franco), Kim (Busy Philipps), Nick (Jason Segel), and Ken (Seth Rogen), whom we haven’t yet met? On the one hand, this doesn’t really matter, because Freaks and Geeks doesn’t ascribe to a particularly regimented idea of high school in terms of class year. But on the other hand, Lindsay’s wisdom clearly has to come from experiences of her own, and although the freaks often spar with their teachers and parents — and sometimes with, say, Millie (Sarah Hagan), who is unfortunately absent from the final trio of Freaks and Geeks episodes — they rarely spar with popular peers. For as well-developed as Freaks and Geeks has made the interior world of McKinley, that seems a bit like an oversight.
Or, to play my own devil’s advocate against my own idea, maybe having cool kids with whom the freaks would butt heads would be counterintuitive. The freaks have enough going on with their home lives and with their approaching adulthood — do they really need bullies, too? Consider the Ken storyline this episode: Girlfriend Amy (the late Jessica Campbell) shares with him that she was born intersex and her parents and doctors chose to raise her as a girl. Amy is phenomenally brave in sharing this with Ken, and hopes that he’ll protect her secret because they care about each other so deeply, but, well — Ken sort of bungles it. He turns cold toward her. He’s not sure what this means about his own sexuality, because he doesn’t really understand what Amy has told him, and he doesn’t understand the differences between sexual identity and gender identity and sexual preference, and he doesn’t know where to go to learn more. He turns to Daniel and Nick for advice, and they’re initially jerky, telling Ken to “get rid” of Amy before Daniel says he was joking. He speaks with Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen) because he thinks Mr. Rosso is gay, but Mr. Rosso isn’t, and Ken becomes embarrassed by his own assumption. Later on, he punches Daniel in the face when Daniel refers to Ken and Amy as “guys,” thinking that Daniel was misgendering Amy — when in reality, Daniel was just being his usual casual self. This is Ken’s first real relationship, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and meanwhile, Amy is torn up over what seems like Ken’s rejection of her. Amid all that, do these older teens really need more conflict? I suppose not.
That kind of turmoil is all over “The Little Things,” in which the rhythms and routines of McKinley are thrown into disarray with Vice-President Bush’s upcoming visit. Cindy, head of the Young Republicans Club (gross), gets to introduce Bush at school, an honor of which she is very proud — and that Lindsay, bless her, cannot hide her derision toward. While Cindy is on edge in preparing for that, Secret Service agents roam the halls, ushering the freaks out from under the stairs (Daniel’s “How are we ever gonna plan our coup?” is a little suggestion that he might be more politically aware than you would expect). The preparations make tuba player Amy anxious because the band has to perform “Hail to the Chief” when Bush walks in, and that additional stress drives further the wedge between herself and Ken. And it turns out that Lindsay has been selected to deliver the first question to Bush during his Q&A with students, an honor that she didn’t really want given that she’s a committed Democrat, but that she shoulders anyway because she has no choice to back out.
Whatever should Lindsay, “a special person” for whom this is “destiny,” according to Mr. Rosso, ask about? She’s curious about the October Surprise theory and the real impact of Reagan’s trickle-down economics, while Kim wants to know about Area 51. But when all of Lindsay’s questions are rejected by Bush’s people — and when she sees how Mr. Rosso, who for all his flaws is a committed guidance counselor trying to make a difference in the world, is disrespected by the VP’s entourage — she decides to go rogue. With Mr. Rosso’s deeply demoralized, utterly understandable rant about nothing in America changing after his protest days at Berkeley fresh in her mind, and with her realization that the Secret Service agent played by Ben Stiller has barred Mr. Rosso from attending the assembly with Bush because of his anti-establishment past, she rejects Mr. Rosso’s idea that there’s “nothing we can do.” She stands up with the T-shirt advertising her father’s sporting-goods store and she asks, politely but directly, why Bush rejected all of her questions, and why he’s afraid of an open dialogue with students. She stands her ground. (And shout-out to Stiller’s character, whose utterly lackadaisical response to the possibility of Bush being assassinated is essentially the premise of Veep: “Will it ever happen? No way. Because who cares?”)
Both Weir kids defend themselves in “The Little Things,” as Sam decides — against simp Neal’s (Samm Levine) shock — to end things with Cindy. Why? Because Cindy is mean (she calls cheerleaders from a rival school “dirty”); because she’s vapid (she gets offended when Sam and Todd don’t fight over her); because she’s overly confident in holding political opinions that rub Sam the wrong way (“Republicans aren’t selfish, they just don’t believe poor people should get handouts”); and because she didn’t think the Steve Martin movie The Jerk, which the geeks adore, was funny. I suppose if you wanted, you could say Freaks and Geeks is character-assassinating Cindy here by making her purposely unlikable so as to end her relationship with Sam. But I think Freaks and Geeks has been steadily suggesting for a while that Cindy isn’t exactly who Sam thought she was. She isn’t trying to share his interests, or graciously accept the family heirloom he gives her (asking how much it costs, so gauche!), or pick up on his discomfort with the sexual components of their relationship, or even go along with being friends after their breakup. Cindy used Sam as a friend when it suited her needs — when she needed someone to talk to about Todd — and then she used Sam as a boyfriend when it suited her needs: when she wanted to date a “nice guy” to prove to herself that she could. (Honestly, this episode low-key showed us that Todd might actually be a catch: He refuses to accept Cindy’s bait and fight Sam, and he was a Democrat!) And that all crystallizes for Sam when he’s talking to Ken in the bathroom after throwing up from the anxiety of breaking up with Cindy.
Recall that in the house-party episode, “Beers and Weirs,” Ken and Sam formed a tentative sort of friendliness when Ken realized the geeks had swapped the keg with nonalcoholic beer and then won money while gambling with all the other partygoers who thought they were drunk. So in the bathroom together, there’s already a bit of camaraderie there as the conversation they share illuminates for Sam that he can’t date Cindy anymore, and for Ken that he can’t stop dating Amy. “I might even love her,” Ken had said to Daniel during that awfully uncomfortable conversation earlier in the episode, and he realizes everything he has in common with Amy, and how much he cares for her, and how much he can be himself around her, and how important it is that she can be herself around him — all of that matters. Ken’s genuine apology to Amy is the most emotive acting the normally sarcastic or deadpan Rogen is asked to do throughout the entirety of Freaks and Geeks, and it’s a solid moment; they might have the healthiest relationship by the series’s end.
Although Cindy reacts badly to Sam’s request that they go back to being friends, well, let me spout a cliché here: You live and you learn. Not every relationship is meant to last. Not every pairing turns out great. Not every person for whom you have feelings is the right person for you. Sam learned that the hard way, but he learned it. Neal learned it, too — notice how he tells Sam, “You’re too good for her,” after seeing Cindy admit that she was only dating Sam for her own selfish reasons, not because she actually cared about him. And Bill, who is used to people not believing him when he tells the truth (like Neal refusing to accept that Bill made out with Vicki in “Smooching and Mooching”), and who had been open about his worries that Sam would leave them behind, is glad to get his best friend back at their lunch table. For a little while longer, at least, the geeks remain together — until series finale “Discos and Dragons” grows their number by one very unexpected addition.
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