We Are Who We Are
Just like its premiere episode, the title of the second installment of HBO’s We Are Who We Are is “Right Here Right Now.” Well, there’s a II right after. But I love thinking about the way this HBO drama wants to continually ground us in the here and now, even as this episode has us move backward in time before circling back to some of the scenes we first saw (from Fraser’s perspective, at least) last week. It adds a distinctive rhythm to the series, more recursive than propulsive.
Indeed, to judge by these two episodes alone, it’s clear We Are Who We Are wants us to embrace a leisurely approach to its storytelling. Just as last week we were egged on to merely follow Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) along and learn to see the world through his eyes, this time around we’re encouraged to do the same with Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón). But where Fraser was trying to find his footing in a new environment, it’s immediately clear that Caitlin (or Cait, to everyone around base) is wholly at home here, handily navigating early morning errands, afternoon beach trips, and late-night adventures with ease.
If there’s something that director Luca Guadagnino and his co-writers, Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri, want us to witness in these seemingly disparate moments it’s the sense that this routine Caitlin has mastered has, perhaps, become too rote. Something must break. This tomboyish young girl, who boxes at night with her dad and runs hot and cold with her de facto boyfriend, is ready for a change within and outside herself.
Caitlin, like all teenagers, contains multitudes. At one moment, she’s giddily joining her father on an early errand on the water; the next, she’s freely dancing on her own. Throughout the episode, we see her trying different trappings on for size, testing out different ways of being in the world in ways that are very literal: She’s swimming in her father’s shirt; a certain red hat can’t account for her head of hair; she struggles with a tampon; she’s “Harper” one minute while rebuffing a leery Italian dude, and “Harper” another when flirting with an Italian girl.
And here is where we praise Seamón, who anchors Caitlin’s shifts in mood with aplomb. Teenagers, by their very nature, are mercurial. Too often, though, such a characterization leaves them looking — on films and television — like selfish brats who don’t know what they want and who have no rhyme or reason to what they do. But if, as we were encouraged to do in episode one, you focus on Seamón’s eyes, they tell you everything you need to know about Caitlin at any given moment. She’s just figuring herself out, seeing how far she can push the boundaries set by others and the limits she imposes on herself. She’s constantly wary, especially around Fraser, for instance, but she’s also wide-eyed and curious at the same time. Also, her scene in the bathroom that ends in a mischievous smile to herself was just divine.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about We Are Who We Are is that, because it is so light on plot — and dialogue, even — it’s constantly letting its images speak for themselves. Seeing Caitlin bury a bloodied sanitary napkin in the sand, for instance, feels instantly symbolic. But my favorite moment of this episode was the shot of Caitlin’s mother in her bedroom, which captured their fraught relationship as well as the teenager’s identity crisis. Seeing Faith Alabi’s Jenny inaudibly trying to bond with her daughter standing next to a Serena Williams poster (“Strong Is Beautiful”) as she’s drowned out by the sounds of Young M.A’s “OOOUUU” ( “When you tired of your man, give me a call / Dyke bitches talking out they jaw”), I suddenly felt like we’d gotten a snapshot into their dynamic in a stupidly efficient sort of way, all the while telling us what it is she most values right then and there.
Those various identities or impulses Caitlin leans into throughout the episode (embodied by her various outfits) aren’t so much at war with each other as trying to figure out how (and if) they all fit within her whole self. But these aren’t distinct jigsaw puzzles that need to fall into place. They’re more like ocean waves that ebb and flow and blend and crash into one another depending on the tide.
From its title, it may seem as if We Are Who We Are is positing a kind of unchanging sense of self — or, perhaps, more to the point, a kind of prideful assertion in the wake of criticism. But its plurality should already alert us to the fact that the HBO drama is fascinated with the multiplicity that’s inherent in ourselves. The we could just as well be referring to Fraser and Caitlin as it could to Harper and Caitlin.
It explains her response to her father (played by Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi) when, during a discussion about her first period, he tells Caitlin it’s all just hormones. “It’s just my body,” she echoes him, finding a new mantra of sorts that allows her to both dissociate from the messiness that her body may seem at times and embolden her to take ownership of it.
The episode ends with a leap of faith. Two, to be exact, both encouraged by young men in Caitlin’s life. In the first one — the literal one — Guadagnino slows time down so that we can see how liberated she feels when she steps off into a controlled free fall. The other, more figurative, finds her trying on the clothes Fraser sends her, an overture that further sets the two teens up for a nurturing friendship that will hopefully push them to embrace whom they might yet be right here, right now.
This Is What It Is
• I don’t think I’m going to get over Kid Cudi donning a red MAGA hat with pride anytime soon (or to the way a 45 ad helps frame a tender father-daughter discussion about menstruation).
• “Happy period, you little slut!”
• Fun fact: The poem preceding Walt Whitman’s “I Am He That Aches With Love,” which Caitlin both recites out loud and later revisits on her own, is titled “O Hymen! O Hymenee!”
• Fraser may not get too much airtime this time around, but it’s a testament to how immersed we were in his mind last week that seeing him from Caitlin’s perspective this episode brings out the goofiness of the blond teen, who’s much more awkward to the outside world than he seemed last week.
• Closing with a Klaus Nomi song? ::chef’s kiss::