It’s been difficult, at times, to locate the emotional center of this season of Mythic Quest. This is ostensibly a story about Poppy and Ian striking out on their own to work on Poppy’s new game, but besides the expected squabbling, we haven’t seen much conflict within their relationship — especially with last week’s Christmas episode focused more on warm and fuzzies. Season three hasn’t gotten dramatic the way that season two did.
I suspect that’s about to change, based on “Sarian.” Like “Backstory,” last season’s stand-alone flashback installment, it’s an interestingly and perhaps imperfectly timed episode, a celebration of the core friendship of this series at a time when they’re already on somewhat solid ground, at least compared to last year. But overall, that’s not a knock. If anything, the ending of “Sarian” left me feeling tense about the final three episodes to come, about what forces could threaten this important relationship. And leaving aside the future, “Sarian” is just a beautiful exploration of the people Ian and Poppy used to be, and the events that would lead them to form the most fruitful creative and personal partnership of their lives.
In 1987, Ian is a 10-ish-year-old living with his grandpa and manic-depressive mother, with his abusive father fighting for custody. His creative impulses are already beginning to develop, but his teachers only seem to fixate on his bad grades, a result of both his inability to focus (perhaps brought on by ADHD?) and his fraught home life. A lot is riding on his newest science project, which is supposed to be a report on a planet in the solar system, though he wishes he could make up his own planet instead.
Sarah, Ian’s mom, is supportive and kind in all the ways his dad isn’t. (Between this and The Fabelmans, it’s a good month for mentally ill moms encouraging their sons’ artistic ambitions.) She assures him that he’s not dumb; he just thinks differently. She recognizes and nurtures his genuine creativity and talent, taking him to the art store and using the supplies to help him envision the world he wants to create. As Ian describes the attributes of his planet, Sarah throws materials into the air, conjuring in their shared imagination a vast swath of outer space filled with colorful moons, comets, and nebulae. Lindsey Kraft beautifully conveys how Sarah not only respects her son’s creativity but has genuine admiration for it; I found myself pretty moved when she tells him, “I am in awe of your brain. You are the smartest kid I have ever met.”
But after a while, Sarah’s excitement — and her willingness to let Ian disregard his grades for his own creative pursuits — starts to feel like mania. As awful of a man as Ian Sr. is, maybe there’s a kernel of truth in his concern about Sarah’s laissez-faire parenting. As Principal Taggart recognizes, it’s difficult to rely on a single parent whose “bed days” prevent Ian from making it to class. Even so, the end of this story, when Ian’s dad gets temporary custody and pulls Ian away over his shouts, feels like a nightmare.
Fourteen years later, Poppy is around the same age that Ian was in ’87. And while the root of their issues isn’t the same, they share a stubborn refusal to abandon their creative pursuits for a more conventional childhood. Like Ian, the closest person Poppy has to a friend is a parent: her dad, who indulges her love of video games despite her mom’s desire for her to play piano. When Poppy overhears her parents arguing about how she’ll never make friends if she’s inside staring at screens all the time, she commits to piano to impress them. Her big recital earns the pride from her parents she’s always wanted, and it’s all the sweeter because her more popular sister, Tracy, gets jealous. It also earns her a bicycle, which she uses to go to the library and access the Final Fantasy walkthroughs she can’t get at home.
Both of the child actors in “Sarian” are great, but Isla Rose Hall is practically a clone of the Poppy we know, voice and all. She nails both Poppy’s need for validation and her natural filthiness, like when she calls out, “Eat shit, Tracy!” And she perfectly conveys the magic of stumbling upon something new and game-changing on the internet, as when Poppy discovers the user-created game Ian created.
One of the episode’s smartest moves is threading together these stories despite the gap in time between them; it feels like Ian and Poppy are kids at the same time, each developing their passions while dealing with problems at home. And it all builds to the moment they first meet: when Poppy, studying to be a programmer at MIT, approaches Ian after a guest lecture about his game Twin Daggers. She’s looked up to him since she was a kid, but not because of the game that really put him on the map — the game she really connected with is Sarian, named after the planet Ian and Sarah made together.
It’s striking to see Poppy and Ian’s early dynamic, with Poppy animated by wide-eyed admiration and Ian even more self-obsessed than he is in 2022. But the scene still has everything that makes this pair unique. Poppy’s brutal honesty is there from the beginning, even with this lopsided power dynamic; she insults his code, and she criticizes the name “Grimm Quest” as they head out together. Ian is amused by her from the beginning, especially her lack of social acumen. When Poppy brings up Sarian, Rob McElhenney’s expression transforms, turning wistful as Ian remembers his mom and the game she inspired. It’s obvious why it’s enough to intrigue Ian: Most people are talking about his recent successes, but here’s a random programmer who was inspired by that lesser-known early project. In a way, Sarian was the purest distillation of Ian’s passion — something personal to him from before he’d actually refined his technical abilities and found commercial accessibility.
As “Sarian” came to a close and Starship kicked in, I found myself tearing up. Mythic Quest might not be one of the very best shows on TV, but it does feature one of the best platonic male-female friendships I’ve seen onscreen. This episode doesn’t really do anything to clarify what direction this season is heading, but it doesn’t need to; it’s more about remembering how strong these two characters are together and how much they need each other. It’s an origin story we didn’t need, but I’m glad we got.
• Nice old-fashioned NES-inspired video-game intro for this episode, complete with an 8-bit version of the theme.
• I haven’t mentioned Ian’s new clean-shaven look yet this season, but I do like how each new style conveys something about his personality at the time, including his beard ponytail in the final scene.
• A lovely moment: Ian and Sarah laughing after agreeing that maybe she’s dumb, too, and defusing the tension. That scene also features some C.W. Longbottom books.
• I wonder if we’ll see some of these characters in the present day sometime. Poppy’s sister feels like a natural side character to introduce, like season two did with Brad’s brother.