[Review by Noah Burns]
[Writer: Jane Espenson | Director: Allan Kroeker | Aired: 06/29/2005]
Without a single reference to the plot of “New Girl in Town” [1×01], “Everything Nice” manages to pick up exactly where that episode left off. It advances some of the series’ most important themes, setting up the character arcs for Rebecca and Paul. It also has some good moments of character continuity. But it is also an effective and (as ever on The Inside) gruesome drama in its own right, a real tragedy that is surprisingly subtle at its core. All this is not to say that it doesn’t have a few problems, but they are merely superficial; the core of the episode is strong thematically and dramatically. This means that “Everything Nice” is one of the episodes of the series that, from the grading critic’s perspective, benefits most from re-watching.
This is an irregular episode of The Inside. For one thing, it is full of bright outdoor scenes. For another, the setting is off in the suburbs, far away from the concrete desert we had been so thoroughly introduced to in “New Girl in Town” [1×01]. And perhaps most unusual for this show, Rebecca doesn’t get kidnapped. The first question I had upon viewing this episode for the first time was, “What are we doing here?” The characters themselves ask this. With respect to them, that question will take some time to answer. But for the viewers, I think it’s safe to say that writers Tim Minear and Jane Espenson expose a darkness just as deep in the bright idyll of Hidden Harbor as exists in the darkest back alley of Los Angeles, and that is why we are here.
We start out this time with the team talking outside the office in the morning sunshine before work. Paul is showing off the ultrasound photos of his unborn son to Danny and Mel. Rebecca interrupts, thinking that they are discussing crime scene photos from a case. While her mistake is quite funny, it is actually also understandable given the way that Paul, Danny, and Mel were talking. Apparently, their jobs have become enough of a part of who they are that the first thing that they do when confronted with the prospect of happiness is worry about how to keep it safe from Web. But whether they like it or not, “New Girl in Town” [1×01] showed us that the darkness that Web exposes them to is that which is within them. “Everything Nice” is a tragedy that shows us just what happens when we try to hide away from that darkness within.
The second half of the teaser is a scene that is always very difficult for me to watch. Beyond the fact that it deals with the death of a small child, something that is as horrific as can be, this scene feels very real to me in a way that most “body finding” scenes do not. The first thing that gets to me is the smile on Henry’s mother’s face as she goes out to scold him and bring him inside. The emotion is so true to life. As a child, I experienced many times the simultaneous playfulness and remonstration of my own mother when I did something “bad” that she found amusing. So the look on Mrs. Olsen’s face and the jokingly reproving words that she speaks as she walks out to the pool make the scene resonate. But even worse, perhaps, is something that can only be experienced on repeat watches. That Madison St. Claire is standing somewhere behind the bushes that surround the pool patio, watching the horror unfold with as much pleasure as we feel revulsion, is truly chilling and sickening.
I want to use this teaser to point out one of the things that sets The Inside apart from other shows on the basic level of writing quality: the use of structure to enhance and inform the drama. Often, when people hear the word “structure” they think of something rigid that binds the imagination. But these opening scenes are a perfect example of how a skilled writer can use structure to make a story more meaningful. In the first half of the cold open, we follow Rebecca as she interrupts a conversation she believes to be about something dark and disturbing, only to find that it was about something innocent. The subversion of her and our expectations provides us with a moment of levity and a small character insight (Rebecca sees darkness wherever she goes). The second half of the cold open, meanwhile, starts with just such a moment of levity and innocence, only to end with a disturbing image of innocence desecrated. Sandwiched in between these two scenes is a brief exchange between Paul and Rebecca about safety, and whether it is really possible to protect children from the world.
This teaser, then, has given us a glimpse of the structure of the episode as a whole: we will have our expectations about innocence continually subverted; we will have a debate about protecting children from losing their innocence; and we will have a tragedy in a pool that is the consequence of these factors and of a parent-child relationship in which the parent fails to deal with them properly. How neat is that? What follows after this opening scene feels inevitable because of it, a quality that only the best drama writers are able to achieve.
I want to start digging into the meat of this episode with the first point above, the subversion of expectations and appearances. There is an emphasis in the script and in the visuals throughout the episode on the back yards of Hidden Harbor. They are ritual spaces for the sheltered lifestyle of the people here to be enacted in. Pools, tree-houses, and barbeques mean summer fun and good memories for the children. The innocence is almost palpable. And then, one by one, the innocence of these places and of the people that inhabited them is stripped away. In the teaser we see a child murdered in a pool. We find out later that the murder was planned in a tree-house. And towards the end we learn that the murder weapon was first seen by the killer’s friend at a barbeque.
Our expectations about the characters are also subverted. Teddy Bunch seems just the type to be the “unsub” at the beginning of the episode, but by the end he’s probably the most sympathetic character left alive. When Danny and Paul are going through his apartment, they find photos of a small child. Immediately they assume that it is child pornography, but they quickly realize that the photos are of Bunch as a kid. Even the fish gutting knives turn out to be an innocent heirloom.
The people of Hidden Harbor, on the other hand, appear civilized at first, the establishing shots of the community showing us their mild mannered existences. But they quickly turn into a mob, dragging the designated freak to be beaten up, like a gang of schoolyard bullies. Ironically, when these people are confronted with someone who is truly innocent, Teddy, they see him as a monster.
But the greatest and most important subversion of our expectations that this episode pulls off is that of the innocence of Madison St. Claire. I have to give credit to Jenette McCurdy, who played her: she was very convincing both as a sweet, innocent girl, and as a psychopathic murderer. The drama of “Everything Nice” doesn’t come from the search for the identity of the killer as was the case with “New Girl in Town” [1×01], but from the impact that her character has on the people around her. Still, to understand this impact, we have to look at what Madison represents to the characters we care about, Paul and Rebecca.
Just as Simon Gunther was a personal demon of Rebecca’s, Madison is also a demon that comes from within rather than from without. But she is actually more complicated than Simon, because she means something slightly different to Rebecca and Paul. To Paul, she is the temptation to hold onto innocence, whereas to Rebecca she is the temptation to destroy it.
Let’s start with Paul. Just like last episode, this episode features Paul breaking out the white hat and trying to protect the innocent. Then it was Rebecca, and now it is his unborn son. I do not blame him or his motives. They are undoubtedly pure. But ultimately, his desire to keep people safe from the world is destructive. It is a lie that we can be kept safe indefinitely, that our childhood never needs to end. For we were never safe in childhood, we only thought that we were. To go through life maintaining that illusion is dangerous. A perfect example of the dangers of Paul’s philosophy is the community of Hidden Harbor. The residents of Hidden Harbor have taken Paul’s strategy of “Building better walls” to protect innocence literally. They really do believe that they can keep the “bad guys” out there, completely ignoring the danger among them: themselves.
They are human beings, and as bleak a thought as it might be, they are therefore dangerous. There is darkness in every one of their hearts, or, as Minear wrote on Angel, “They wouldn’t be people. They’d be angels.” It is that darkness that no wall will ever be able to protect them from. They are like Paul wanting to keep joyful ultrasound photos away from Web. It is the willful ignorance of the destructive darkness within, and the constructive possibilities that recognizing it and working with it provide that cause the tragedy in this episode. If they had dared to look at the darkness on the inside, the lives of two whole families would not have been ruined. And unfortunately for Paul, he doesn’t learn what this tragedy has to teach him yet. He will do so in “Thief of Hearts” [1×07], where the tragedy will be of his own making.
As for Rebecca, her challenge is exactly the opposite of Paul’s. Instead of wishing to hold onto innocence too long, she holds it in contempt. This is, of course, a consequence her childhood abduction. She had her innocence taken from her all at once by a sociopath like Madison St. Claire. But the secret that she is holding onto is that just as much as it was taken from her, she gave it up in order to survive. If she had remained Becky George, the scared little girl, ignorant of her own darkness and the darkness of the world, she never would have been able to use the insight that comes from pain to survive, both physically, by lighting a match, and psychologically. I said in my last review that Rebecca is protecting Becky George from the world with her new name. But she is also protecting Becky George from herself.
What this means for us in “Everything Nice” is that Rebecca has a paradoxical relationship with innocence, and that here the side of her that is contemptuous of it prevails. Innocence is what got her kidnapped, and it is what she had to give up in order to survive that ordeal, so she compensates by believing that it is something destructive, that ought to be gotten rid of. The problem with this is, of course, that living a jaded life of fear is just as destructive as living an ignorant life of bliss until your ten year old daughter guts you. Rebecca’s contempt clouds her judgment. She shows her gun to Madison, provoking Madison into hurting her own arm and claiming that Rebecca was to blame. It prevented her from truly empathizing with Henry Olsen.
Unlike the pilot, however, “Everything Nice” does not wrap up neatly with the demon slayed and lessons learned (yes, on The Inside I call Web shooting the bad guy in the head while manipulating both Paul and Rebecca a neat wrap-up). This episode merely sets up future internal conflicts for our characters rather than resolving them. The climax here is an event as morally ambiguous as the question of innocence itself.
This penultimate scene is a fantastic mirror of the opening one (another great example of effective use of structure). It begins, as did that second half of the teaser, with a mother going into the back yard to scold her child for playing in the pool when they aren’t supposed to be. It ends, as did the teaser, with a dead Olsen floating in a pool. It is a confrontation between two mothers, Ellen having learned the most painful way imaginable about the follies of living the lie of safety in Hidden Harbor, and Tessa St. Claire clinging desperately to that lie. She justifies herself with, “She was going to hurt my baby.” But Madison St. Claire was never her baby. She was never a child, never innocent. She is a sociopathic adult in a child’s body, and she is what we cannot protect ourselves from no matter how hard we try. She is a human being.
We achieve some sense of closure with the reunion of Teddy Bunch and his mother. All along, Teddy has been contrasted with Madison St. Claire, who hated him (examples include the interrogation scenes, with the juxtaposition of Madison crying “I want my mommy” with Teddy declaring, “I want a lawyer”, or my personal favorite cut in the series, from Paul’s line “Teddy Bunch murdered Henry Olsen” to Tessa’s line, “Madison made the cookies”). This scene is no exception. Like Tessa St. Claire, Teddy’s mother treated him as if he were made up of everything nice and nothing else when he was a child: “She didn’t like the thought of him learning to kill things”. In a show where killing and death are intimately connected with growth and life, I feel safe in interpreting this line as her saying, “I don’t want him to grow up.” But in a hard childhood, sometimes growing up early is the only safe thing that a child can do. And for Teddy’s part, he learns to accept that no matter how much he grows up and no matter how well he learns to kill things, his mother will always be his mother, loving him like the baby in her arms he once was.
I had a difficult time reviewing this episode, and I think this last scene sums up why. We are left with a seeming contradiction. Madison’s actions have brought out the best and worst sides of both being innocent and being grown up. How then to understand innocence? I think the takeaway from this episode is that we should honor childhood’s blissful ignorance and its deep wisdom, but we shouldn’t cling to it past its time. Doing so leaves us oblivious and denuded as adults. Indeed, The Inside is an adult drama on a very deep level. It teaches us of the strength and courage required to make it in this sometimes hellish world, and shows us the beauty and love that sometimes paradoxically come from the acceptance of the reality of that world.
“Everything Nice” is a very strong outing, far superior to standard crime show fare. It says something about the quality of the very best episodes of The Inside that it is “only” very good in comparison.
As we saw in “New Girl in Town” [1×01], The Inside is teeming with Christian and Biblical symbols and character associations. That is the case in “Everything Nice” as well, with one of the most well known of all Christian symbols front and center: the fish. Both Teddy Bunch and Henry Olsen are associated with it directly, but in different ways.
Teddy Bunch is a fisherman, like the first apostles that Christ calls to himself in Matthew 4:18, Simon, Peter, and Andrew. Given this association, it is fascinating that Paul so readily suspects him of murdering a child. He is in conflict with an original disciple of Christ, thus implying again the separation between the ideology of Paul and that of Christ that I talked about last time.
Henry Olsen was murdered in the way that a fish is killed, gutted, from genitals to breastbone, and then shoved into the water. It is here that some of the symbolic elements of the fish that are less directly or not associated with Christianity come into play, and these are perhaps the most interesting. The fish has a long association with phallic and genital imagery in literature, as well as innocence and coming of age (an appropriate nexus of meaning). In one version of the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, Osiris is murdered by his brother, Set, and chopped into thirteen pieces. The pieces are recovered except for one, the phallus, which is swallowed by a fish. The recovered pieces are scattered throughout Egypt, and become the sites to the temples of Osiris, which were centers of Egyptian knowledge. The life giving piece is lost, and the body becomes knowledge (death). So here the association of the fish is with eternal life, as well as with the genitals.
This seems to track with the way that these symbols are used in “Everything Nice”. Madison St. Claire (there’s another Christian association, albeit an purposively false one) affronts Henry’s innocence and childhood (which is eternal life in the sense that he does not understand his own mortality, and in other ways that I’ll get to in a moment) by gutting the fish at the genitals. She is also binding herself to Teddy Bunch in that her act is perverse mockery of his. Teddy’s only happy childhood memory is of gutting fish (growing up), and she uses his knife to attempt to destroy it. Her murder of Henry Olsen is as much a spiritual attack on Teddy Bunch (who she thinks is “skeevy”) as it is a desecration of Henry Olsen. It happens in the place that is common to the both of them (the pool – Madison plays in her treehouse) that is associated with childhood memories in Hidden Harbor.
There are further associations, however. In the late Medieval Romance and coming of age story Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Fisher King Anfortas is the king of the Grail Castle, the holy seat of divine life that every knight is seeking but none who looks for it will ever find. Anfortas is wounded in his groin, and suffers always from great pain such that he is nearly confined to bed and cannot function as grail king. Parzival, at this point in the story a young, innocent knight comes across the Fisher King, whose identity he does not know, and is invited into the grail castle. While in the castle, Parzival sees Anfortas’ discomfort, but says nothing. He spends the night in the castle, and when he awakes everyone is gone.
Parzival’s sin is that he did not “ask the question”, namely, “What ails you?” He sees suffering, and ignores it because he was told not to be too curious. This is a very interesting parallel to the residents of Hidden Harbor, who must see the suffering in the world around them, and the darkness within, but do not even ask the question because they cannot bare to hear the answer. Thus both Parzival and they are denied the eternal life that is the thing that we all search for all our lives but ultimately never acquire.
But perhaps that’s because we’re looking in the wrong place. The child/man relationship and the relationship of innocence/death to growing up is at the heart of Jungian psychology. In his only recently published Red Book, Jung speaks of how the voice of the depths explained to him in one of his visions that the god of a child is a man and the god of a man is a child. For one who doesn’t grow up, his god is an already grown man who will become old and die (keeping him from eternal life). The residents of Hidden Harbor are children, as are many, many people who call themselves adults (including Paul, “Thief of Hearts” [1×07]). Madison’s god appears to have already died, leaving her empty, sociopathic, and nihilistic. But for the one who is willing to accept the sacrifice of growing up (I think Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows us just how great a sacrifice it is) and die the death from which there is rebirth, her god will be a child, and will never die. The process of growing up, then, seems to be a progression from illusory immortality in the child state, a spiritual death (the loss of innocence, often one’s first “little death”), and a spiritual rebirth that leads to true immortality.
This is one of the challenges set before all of the characters in The Inside who aren’t Web. There are others, healing trauma being a parallel process for Rebecca. But in this episode, at least, this central moment of the spiritual death in one’s life, which came far too early for Rebecca, is explored in all its facets. The symbol of the fish gives us special insight into the coming of age story taking place on the spiritual/psychological plane of the show’s world, which is where the most important drama of The Inside is always taking place.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Everything having to do with Mel climbing the tree
+ Web’s face when Danny tells him about the “fabulous set of murder weapons” that Bunch owns
+ I feel somewhat perverse listing this as a “pro”, but I admit to delighting in the irony of Tessa St. Claire destroying her own “with pool” asset
– How does Madison overhear Rebecca and Nora speaking softly from the other side of a wall?