Fred Savage was nominated for an Emmy after only the six-episode first season of The Wonder Years aired. But his work here in Good-Bye is the most award-worthy yet. Those heartbreaking forty seconds, an extended shot of Kevin’s expression as he learns that Mr. Collins passed away, show Savage working with an emotional articulation and subtlety that isn’t just fantastic acting for a thirteen year-old; it’s fantastic acting, period.
Good-bye (which should have been named Math Class Cubed) could have been nothing more than an act-off between Savage and the always-excellent Steven Gilborn and it would have been memorable. But the plot brought back the reliable conflict of Kevin’s lack of natural math talent and gave it yet another spin: Kevin is satisfied with his C, but Mr. Collins doesn’t express any satisfaction with Kevin’s performance.
Kevin eventually starts up after-school lessons with Mr. Collins, who we don’t know is very sick, and the two develop their bond. The episode’s depiction of that strange relationship between a teacher and student — the ultimate paradox of personal and impersonal — is one of its greatest strengths. Kevin advances in the material, but also develops an emotional attachment to the journey that Mr. Collins always pushes him further through.
When Kevin admits that the bond is something special to him — he viewed Mr. Collins as a friend — the teacher has to remind him of the dichotomy. Kevin may click with Mr. Collins, but they can’t really connect in any meaningful way other than through math and the passing of knowledge.
Mr. Collins response may have been initially too impersonal, but we know that’s the type of teacher he is: on the surface, calculated, passionless, and pragmatic. But Kevin responds in a way far too personal; to an extent that it actually penetrates through Mr. Collins’ unbetraying shell. Kevin acted in anger and knows by the end of the weekend that he’d gone too far.
The death of a minor character is a common ploy by drama shows to pull at the heart strings without having to fundamentally change the dynamic of the show. But that doesn’t cheapen too much what Mr. Collins’ unexpected death wreaks upon Kevin. “A private hell,” he calls it. If the show had elsewhere used the death tactic (other than the defining death of Brian Cooper in the pilot), I would probably fault the show more for the coincidental timing of Mr. Collins’ passing. Instead, it worked very well.
Kevin makes up with Mr. Collins beyond the grave; Mr. Collins gives him another shot as a stroke of both apology and forgiveness. And Kevin proceeds to ace it. It’s a slightly saccharine ending, the second one in a row for the show, but it’s executed well enough that I didn’t particularly mind. Fred Savage’s brilliant performance as Kevin and Steven Gilborn’s understated work as Mr. Collins ground the episode and make every emotion feel earned.