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.
Well, here we are. The end of the road! The final look back in this Freaks and Geeks recap series, more than 20 years after the shows’s single season premiered, got yanked around NBC’s schedule, and was unceremoniously canceled. Thank you for joining me these past six weeks. Let’s get into “Discos and Dragons.”
Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow had suspected their show was being canceled when Feig wrote and directed “Discos and Dragons,” they told Vanity Fair in 2013. NBC hadn’t ordered any additional episodes past the initial 13, so Feig wrote the ending he wanted. The network would eventually order an additional five episodes to bring the total to 18, but NBC West Coast president Sam Sassa had already decided to cancel the show when he saw a rough edit of the final episode (which he didn’t like; as he says in that Vanity Fair piece, “And I thought, ‘That’s not how this thing should end’”). Nevertheless, Feig stuck with “Discos and Dragons” as written. As Linda Cardellini described it, “To do the last episode in the middle felt rebellious, like we were part of dictating our own fate.”
That is, of course, what Lindsay Weir (Cardellini) does. Not to diminish the character of Sam Weir or the work John Francis Daley does over the course of the series, but for me, Freaks and Geeks has always been primarily about Lindsay and how her reassessment of her identity kicks off the series. About her grief over her grandmother’s death and how that loss impacted her worldview. Her affection for the freaks and her desire to be accepted by them. Her deliberate choice to leave the mathletes behind and to abandon the competitive academic rigor through which she had defined herself. Her struggle to be both a good daughter to the Weirs and a good person by her own standards — someone who defends others, as she defends Sam in the pilot against the bully Alan White (Chauncey Leopardi); as she defends her eventual best friend, Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps), against Kim’s abusive mother; and as she defends Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen) against the Secret Service lackeys who tried to diminish his voice. Lindsay wears her heart on her sleeve, and she says what she means, and she does what she feels. She was never going to stay in her parents’ suburban life; she was always going to leave and see the America she read about in On the Road and try out identities different from the white, middle-class hypocrisy she accuses her parents of. Lindsay loves them, but she doesn’t want to be them. Freaks and Geeks is her story, and it’s only fitting that the series ends with her choice.
Before then, though, it is somewhat unclear what Lindsay is going to do — what any of the freaks or geeks are going to do — as the end of the 1980–81 school year approaches. When the freaks learn that Nick has not only been secretly dating Sara (Lizzy Caplan) but has also turned into a disco-dancing, Saturday Night Fever machine, they’re shocked. What happened to the guy they knew who used to yell “Disco sucks!” with Daniel (James Franco) and Ken (Seth Rogen)? Does Nick actually like the overly familiar Sara, who calls Ken “Kenny” and Daniel “Danny,” or is he just trying to make Lindsay jealous? Meanwhile, when the kid Daniel paid off to let him cheat on his math test fails to show up, that means yet another year under the thumb of Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos). In a panic, Daniel tries to pull the fire alarm to get the test postponed, but he’s caught by Mr. Rosso and then sentenced to spend the remainder of the year as part of the A.V. Club, the realm of the geeks. (Mr. Rosso’s “How you like them apples?” has to be a nod to Good Will Hunting, no?) Frustrated by what he sees as his continued bad luck, Daniel vents to Kim, but she’s tired of hearing it. She’s tired of Daniel’s ups and downs, tired of the emotional labor of their relationship. And though she’s not really jealous of Lindsay being selected for the academic summit at the University of Michigan — getting ranked daily after hours of reading, debating, and networking truly sounds like a nightmare, so I get where Kim is coming from — she’s envious of what this opportunity means for Lindsay. Lindsay gets to go somewhere new and meet new people and experience new things, and that sort of possibility has never seemed available to someone like Kim.
For her part, Lindsay isn’t sure she wants to go to the summit at all. She didn’t try very hard, she tells Mr. Rosso and her parents. So what if she’s part of the top one percent? Her tentative, disbelieving delivery of “I’m one very lucky girl?” says it all. And anyway, Lindsay has been considering something else since meeting the McKinley High Dead Heads Laurie (Samaire Armstrong) and Victor (Russel Harper), and that idea really takes form when she listens to the Grateful Dead’s 1970 album American Beauty, which Mr. Rosso lent to her to clear her mind. With “Box of Rain” playing, Lindsay has the most genuine reaction to music we’ve seen all season long. Sure, she listened to Led Zeppelin and Rush with Nick, sat in on Creation’s terrible practices, praised Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks with Kim, and listened to the Who with Millie (Sarah Hagan, who, disappointingly, does not get a final conversation with Lindsay in this finale). But Lindsay listening to the Grateful Dead is an all-body experience. She nods her head, then she sways, then she’s exuberantly dancing, spinning, going all whirling dervish in her bedroom to lyrics like these:
Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams to another land
Maybe you’re tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted with words half spoken and thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
To do for you to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through
Even with all that foreshadowing — Lindsay’s immediate, thorough embrace of the Grateful Dead; her good-bye conversation with Nick and how agonized they both look as she walks away after saying to him about Sara, “You seem like you’re having way more fun with her than you ever did with me”; her kissing Sam, Neal (Samm Levine), and Bill (Martin Starr) good-bye at the train station; and the brief flicker of anguish on her face when she tells her mom, Jean (Becky Ann Baker), that she loves her — it’s still a shocker of a moment when Lindsay ditches the academic summit to follow the Grateful Dead on tour with Kim, Laurie, and Victor. But Feig builds this reveal so well, and Cardellini plays it so perfectly, that every corresponding detail clicks into place: Lindsay stepping off the bus and seeing Kim’s face transform from skepticism into a smile, then ditching her formfitting jacket and barrettes to put on her father’s old Army coat and shake out her hair. Once Lindsay gets into the back of that van, the way the Dead Heads described the band comes floating back: “Judging has nothing to do with it. That’s not what the Dead are about. It’s all about being connected and being free.” Of course, that’s what Lindsay would want, and who could have guessed she would end up taking some of Mr. Rosso’s advice after all?
And shockingly, Mr. Rosso’s “punishment” of Daniel ends up being good for him, too. At first, not so much: The geeks are trepidatious of this freak in their midst, and Daniel embarrasses himself by not knowing how to set up the projector for Lindsay, Kim, and Nick’s English class. But we’ve seen glimpses of the Daniel who wants to make himself better, and Sam — who defends Daniel to the other geeks — sees it too when he notices Daniel studying a projector manual. We’ve seen the Daniel who has some affection and affinity for the geeks (not just in his own adult way, as when he gave Sam the porn; remember his conversation with Harris about their personae?), and they all experience that when they invite Daniel to their Friday night Dungeons & Dragons adventure. A.V. Club adviser Mr. Fleck (Steve Higgins) makes their status as geeks the central component of a Lester Bangs–like speech about the jocks’ “long journey to the middle,” but most of that falls aside when Daniel joins them as Carlos the Dwarf. He’s just a guy, and the geeks are just guys, and they’re all having a good time together in ancient Babylonia.
If we had another season of Freaks and Geeks, would Daniel become a geek, as Nick mockingly calls him during that failed Romeo and Juliet presentation? Maybe, and the question of whether the geeks are cool or not through Daniel’s presence at their game comes up again at the end of the quest. But ultimately, classifications like this — freak, geek, jock, whatever — feel ancillary. The geeks have a new friend, and that matters more. Kim is Lindsay’s friend, and that matters more. “The best part is you get to pretend to be somebody you can’t be in real life,” says Gordon (Jerry Messing) of the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons. But Freaks and Geeks ends with most of its characters stepping tentatively, then confidently, forward into who they want to be — not just in a fantasy world but in our real one. It may be painful for them, or it may be bittersweet. It may end in friendships broken or in new relationships formed. During a fight in “Smooching and Mooching,” Mr. Andopolis (Kevin Tighe) tells Nick, “Your only personal property is your future,” and although his parenting tactics for Nick are wrong, his core message isn’t. The freaks and geeks have their whole lives ahead of them, and “Discos and Dragons” ends with all those exciting, painful, difficult, and worthwhile possibilities lying ahead. We’ll never know what could have been, but that doesn’t detract from the one-season perfection that is Freaks and Geeks.
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