Clearly the MVP of the the third season of The Wonder Years is Dan Lauria as Jack. He’s already had some great showcases: The Family Car, Faith, The Powers That Be, and The Tree House come to mind. Daddy’s Little Girl is one of his best showcase episodes yet. It also echoes the most resonant theme of the series — growing up is a loss of innocence. The plot works especially well given the setting, early 1970 in the midst of a cultural upheaval.
Karen’s getting ready for the next phase of her life. To her, that means a nontraditional education, whether at a progressive college or a trip across Europe. To Jack, that means the end of her hippie phase and attendance at a state university. The question of who is ultimately in charge of her life is the central question of the episode, and, to its credit, it doesn’t fully take one side or the other.
Not a lot actually happens in Daddy’s Little Girl — a lot of push and shove between characters and some planning for Karen’s birthday party, really. The focus is instead on character interaction. Kevin asks Karen to go easy on their dad, and gets a brief glimpse of just how alone, scared, yet stubborn she is. There’s an air of fear for Jack as well — of losing his little girl.
The bubbling, complex emotions underneath the characters are subtly played by Lauria and Olivia D’Abo. I wouldn’t call D’Abo a weak link on the show, buy t she’s the least used of the regulars. This episode is her best showcase yet, and it gives her a lot more to do than play know-it-all teen, which is what she’s usually asked to do. Her best moment of the episode is her response to Kevin’s blunt cut to the chase — the whole family knows she’s going to be gone next year, and both she and Jack are having trouble really coming to grips with this.
Lauria has earned my repeated praise, and he deserves it again here. His take on Jack’s thinly veiled sadness at losing his daughter drives the episode. Jack’s both impatient and a little hurt that she’s rejecting his plans and suggestions for her, so he takes it out on the people who still have to follow his orders, Kevin and Wayne.
The episode builds to the tremendously moving conclusion of the episode — Jack finding the perfect gift for his little girl, allowing her to move forward while still holding on to him. Meanwhile, the porch light is always on. Even if she makes mistakes in her life (she already has and she certainly will) there’s forever a spot for her at home.
Jack is the one who finally ends the standoff, successfully coming to grips with the fact that he can’t make her do what he wants. For such a hard, stubborn man, it’s a pretty big move.
Those last few minutes choked me up, and it’s hard to look at Daddy’s Little Girl as anything less than one of the best, most moving episodes of the season.