“A Dick and a Dream or Fight the Honey”
September 13th, 2009
While we can argue back and forth on whether Hung’s ensemble were used to the degree that Nurse Jackie’s, or whether Thomas Jane could possibly stand up to Edie Falco in a direct comparison, I don’t think there’s any question that Hung had a far clearer sense of its own identity in its freshman season.
From beginning the end, the show was an investigation of these economic times we live in, portraying a potentially farcical concept (high school teacher turns prostitute) in a starkly realistic context. When we learn in the finale that 70% of the teachers at Ray’s school are getting laid off, only so that they can then re-apply and be denied the benefits they currently have, it feels like another drop in the bucket, and that’s the point: it’s not going to stop anytime soon, and whatever you can do to stay afloat is understandable if not particularly ethical.
As such, we find a finale where every single character is forced to make adjustments to who they believe they are in an effort to maintain this screwed up status quo, this realistic scenario wherein a poet becomes a pimp. Tying together quite marvelously nearly every single character, the finale depicts those moments where your attempts to alter your identity run head first into a brick wall, and how each character works to climb over top of it into a new stage in their life.
For some it’s almost too easy, and for others it’s going to prove a comic, dramatic, and engaging challenge.
Perhaps the first time in a while that I’ve really found Ray’s kids to be relevant, there’s a great scene in this week’s episode where Damon asks his sister to talk to him in private. He has just had an altercation with his “male acquaintance” wherein he pretty much told him to break up with him, that if he thinks Damon is withholding “fooling around” that he should just move on. He decides to do just that, believing Damon to be a straight boy screwing with his head, and then Damon appears to go to run after him.
But he stops, and asks his sister for said private conversation. WE as the audience have seen that entire conversation, but she hasn’t. And when Damon tells her that he has no idea why he left, and doesn’t know what he did wrong, and asks to be held, we see it as the desperate grasp at attention and affection we know it to be. It was as if his attempts to define himself as homosexual (whether he is in fact straight or not) were sidelined, and his first response is how he can turn the loss of that identity into a new position within his sibling relationship. It’s an enormously immature maneuver, but also a very intelligent one: he knows what he is doing in that moment, and it’s about surviving – rather than talk to her about his problems with intimacy, or his questions about the true nature of his sexuality, he feigns ignorance and begs for sympathy.
It’s a small moment, and one that never really directly connects into any major storylines, but it’s a fine example of what I consider to be the sort of Fight or Flight response that the episode is investigating. This is most particularly apt for Tonya, who with Lenore biting at her ankles is forced to make some fairly important decisions about Happiness Consultants. Tonya, we know, isn’t made out for this kind of climate where she’s forced to make major decisions, and where she isn’t able to control all aspects of her life. When a group of flies come into her apartment, it becomes a sign: her boyfriend is lost in Cuba, and now there are flies in her house, which means that Ray is going to leave her and everything is going to go very, very wrong.
The thing is that she isn’t entirely crazy. We knew going into the episode that Lenore was after Ray, and we see very clearly that Ray is interested in the potential Lenore could offer. And Tonya, although neurotic beyond repair, is aware of this threat but doesn’t have any sort of response to it. She relies entirely on a sense of loyalty, which carries Ray only until he finds out that he’s losing his job, and until he’s forced to make a Fight or Flight decision of his own. And with Tonya the Pacificist and one side and Lenore the Tigress on the other, he is forced to make a compromise that has everyone working together.
The final scene of the episode is telling in that it isn’t, in fact, about Ray. It’s Tonya, with “Women who Run with Wolves” in her hands, seeing a fly land on the table and smashing it underneath, deciding to take matters into her own hands. We know, of course, that this is going to be a humorous and potentially dangerous journey for Tonya, but the show really ends on that note of temporary empowerment. For better or for worse, she’s choosing to fight to keep her “dream” alive, a challenge for anyone and especially for Tonya. The episode didn’t pretend that Tonya has actually changed, as her altercation with Ray outside of her house was anything but calm and rational. However, it shows that Lenore moving into the picture is going to create a dynamic that brings a different Tonya into the picture, one that I’m really interested in seeing unfold in the very capable hands of Jane Adams.
As for Ray, I think that it’s interesting to see the degree to which he tries to negotiate his way out of making a definitive decision as it relates to his predicament. Ray really does end up with a dick and a dream, hopeful that he can get his teaching job back when the summer ends and hopeful that the peace he has brokered between Lenore and Tonya is actually feasible. Dreamers are the kind of people who either triumph or are broken in the context of economic recessions. If you dare to dream, you dare to fail: and for Ray, perhaps more than ever, he’s hinged everything on the success of what would have months ago seemed fundamentally ludicrous. And while this may not happen every day in terms of increased rates of male prostitution, taking life gambles in the midst of an economic crisis is a common tale, period.
Which is why I enjoyed that the episode did such a subtle piece of footwork when it came to the scene that the show has been leading up to for weeks. Everyone and their mother knew that Lenore’s interactions with Jessica would lead her to the point of becoming a client of Ray’s, but the way the show handled it was to essentially put both characters in front of a mirror. Their phone conversation is about both of them looking into a mirror (Jessica literally, of course), pondering just what brought them to this point. Ray’s side of the conversation has him reminding himself (and Jessica) about how much they’ve done for their kids, and how everything they do is for them. He’s justifying his position in those words, while consciously guilting Jessica into making the mistake she is making in that moment.
Although, let’s remember for a moment that Jessica isn’t doing this for some sort of sexual release. In many ways, this is a decision she is making for her kids, just like (in her eyes at least) her divorce was. She divorced a boy to marry a man, in the process securing financial stability and giving up sexual satisfaction. Faced with fight or flight in her marriage, she chooses to fight but believes (based on Lenore’s coaching) that the only way she can do this is to find sex elsewhere and be content with her passion-less marriage. It’s the same kind of convoluted logic that gets anyone into a difficult situation, and it’s one that she backs away from when she looks in that mirror.
Some could argue that the show is taking the easy way out by having Jessica remain unaware how close she became to being her ex-husband’s client, but I thought it was extremely well handled. Rather than turn it into a huge scandal (I’m looking at you, Nurse Jackie), the show sits comfortably knowing that in making Ray aware of what was going on while Jessica remains clueless you get both a mature moment for Ray (who avoids judging Jessica, who he tends to not like very much, for being as desperate as he is) and a moment of levity for Jessica, who too often falls into that shrill, overreactive mode. In what one expected could be something explosive, we got instead something very emotional and meaningful to both the show’s central theme and its central character. That’s the sign of a show that knows what it’s doing, and that continues to subvert expectations that it is all about exploiting and scandalizing.
There are two elements of the episode that I don’t entirely know what to do with. The first, Ray having sex with his neighbour including some scandalous use of honey, felt actually kind of exploitative. True, there are some very interesting underlying elements there that could come back later, such as Mrs. Koontz (should her English be good enough) realizing just what Ray is and perhaps taking advantage of that fact, but it certainly wasn’t there to connect with anything or to tell us anything about Ray’s character. The honey in the wall felt like a sort of “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” sort of moment, and I’m sure there’s a lot of directions you could go with it, but the show seemed most interested in the “liquids on a woman’s body are sexy” line of argumentation.
The other is something which, too, felt like a brief little moment designed to tease for next season. Perhaps to convince us that Jessica isn’t in fact being too rash, we see her husband flirting with a high school chum and fellow doctor as he investigates her crotch mole (I’m not making this up). Perhaps it was designed to bring a sense of comedy to the episode, but I nearly forgot about it in the end and other than putting his head into another woman’s crotch I’m not entirely sure what to even do with it. It could be an example of the show ticking off a comedy mark (Austin Powers proved the distractive powers of a mole can be both initially funny and run into the ground very quickly), or them laying the groundwork for next season – Damon’s sequence, also, never really went anywhere and leaves a lot of groundwork for season two.
In the end, what I liked about the finale is that it brought everyone together without bringing them together. Yes, the show has now set up an alliance between Lenore (the business sense), Tonya (the ethics) and Ray (the dick), but the episode never actually put the three of them in the same place and instead let the various pairings act out independently. You have the smooth-talking Lenore convincing Ray of her unique perspective on the business, you have Lenore exerting power over Tonya (as she always has) in the park as she breaks the news on her terms instead of on Ray’s, and you have Tonya losing the ability to control her own body as she confronts Ray on the subject at hand.
Everyone has to fight or fly away at some point, and in this instance we see everyone stand up and fight although in their own unique way. In that sense, we get the traditional false conclusion, the idea that in some way the tenuous arrangements made at episode’s end will help stave off the uncertainty of the world around you. When Tonya and Ray sit in that chain restaurant, Tonya is compromising: she wants comfort food, and because it’s family owned she is willing to sit down and eat. Everyone makes those kinds of sacrifices, of ethics or values or for your kids’ future, and the question becomes about who is capable of succeeding.
And, with a strong and focused first season, I think Hung has succeeded as a series for me, and I am far more interested (and far less concerned) in what they put together for Season Two than for Nurse Jackie.
- I remain unsure of whether I actually want Jessica to find out the truth or not. On the one hand, it opens up questions of custody and the like which generally are not that interesting to watch unfold. However, on the other hand, the show struggled most in terms of how to integrate her into the main storylines, and I’m not sure the distance from Ray’s life will help Anne Heche’s up and down performance (I thought she was great tonight) stand up over time.
- Interesting that Ray and his kids were watching an old, schlocky horror flick, and that none of them were actually reacting to it: I don’t know if the Extras were simply overacting at the scares, of if the director wanted to capture the distracted nature of Ray and both of his kids in the midst of the film, but it was a neat juxtaposition that made me wonder if the horror flick had been chosen for just that reason.
- Ray made the most overt, direct reference to the economy when he noted that capitalism is about supply and demand, the line that makes Lenore back down from her “Me or Tonya” proposal. I remain unconvinced that male prostitutes are quite so easy to fit into a traditional supply/demand curve, but I think the show plans on getting into that in the future considering the potentially lucrative but particularly finicky client base Lenore has at her disposal.
- I don’t know if we’ve yet confirmed if Rebecca Creskoff has in fact been given a full series regular spot for the second season, but I hope so. I found Lenore to be a really interesting addition to the world as the sort of anti-Tonya, and I want a full season of them working together instead of a quick few episode of chaos before Lenore moves onto greener pastures.