The Wonder Years S04E01 – Growing Up

About a year ago, I wrote recaps for the first three seasons of The Wonder Years as I watched the episodes for the first time. I got bored with the recaps, but not with the show, and finished the series.

But I’ve been meaning to pick up where I left off and write recaps for the later seasons of The Wonder Years. To prep myself, I watched the finale of the third season and skimmed over some of my past recaps.

Because I’ve seen the whole series and I know where everything ends up, my perspective will be different than if I was writing my recaps in fake-real time. However, I will try to avoid spoilers of future episodes and try to judge an episode based on its individual merits and the role it plays in the series up to that point.

And so we come to Growing Up, the opener to the show’s fourth seasons. The third season wrapped up in a very satisfying fashion, bringing the series to that point full circle, restating some of the themes and points from the pilot, and showing everyone a bit more grown up than they had been in the first season. It was an affirming episode, showing Kevin’s world expanding but remaining intact and just as sentimental as it had been a couple years earlier.

I’ve called Moving, the third season finale, a “de-facto series finale” in that it effectively wraps up the show up to that point without leaving much hanging. Thus, the beginning fourth season needs to introduce some new conflict and re-state the show’s themes.

And what Growing Up shows is some of the darker themes of the show, including the way our bodies can betray us and push us to do things we don’t want to. Kevin and his friends are showing signs of uncontrollable teenage hormones, ogling a tanning babe at the swimming pool. Kevin forgets about Winnie in the blink of an eye when a big-chested girl (Deadwood’s daughter)  comes running up to him, fawning.

That’s not the only sign of the weak footing of Kevin’s relationship with Winnie. Whether it’s a commentary on teenage relationships in general or a specific note on Kevin and Winnie, the show depicts their relationship not so much as rocky as shallow. Their idea of “sharing everything with each other” is splitting a piece of gum, while their “big plans” are going to a movie two nights in a row.

Still, the episode starts pleasantly enough, showing Kevin enjoying his summer and bickering with his family, just like old times. But just when you think this is going to be another light summer episode like “Summer Song” before it, “Growing Up” starts to dig deep. Kevin learns that his stalwart dad missed out on a promotion — not to anyone, but to the office clown. It hurts that his dad has been hiding his failure from his family. In the company softball game, we see the rift between generations grow hostile and shortsighted. Kevin injures Jack and, worse, doesn’t notice it until everyone else has.

When Kevin convinces himself that he’s the one at the center of this ever-complicated world — full of exciting and scary hormones, rejection, and inadvertently hurting the ones we love as we stand up for ourselves — the show twists again by bringing us to Wayne’s perspective.

The end of the episode suggests that growing up — that terrifying ritual whose end result is a loss of innocence and purity — is an inevitable and painful process that makes every person a victim.

It plays out as a downbeat affair, but it’s redeemed from being too negative with some great character work. Some of the heavy lifting is purely practical, as the opener has to re-introduce the main characters. The first scenes with the family do a remarkably efficient job summarizing the relationships between the different Arnolds that have developed over the past three seasons.

Other character bits do more than summarize, showing us sides of characters we haven’t seen much of in the past. The conversation between Kevin and Wayne at the end of the episode does a great job of letting the characters connect in a meaningful way that they haven’t before, sharing the agony of feeling rejected and isolated.

Growing Up is a strong episode and re-introduction to the series, but it doesn’t work particularly well as a standalone because the  narrative does not have a consistent arc. Instead, it feels like a series of threads vaguely tied together by the setting of the summer of 1970.

Where the episode excels is defining some dark and angsty themes for the upcoming episodes of the series and suggesting a more drama-filled season to come than the ones that preceded it.

A few other thoughts:

  • The line of the episode came from Karen: “Picnics are for fascists”
  • This episode has some great dramatic lines, too: “Don’t ever grow old, kiddo” – “Why do these things always happen to me?” – “We didn’t hate ourselves for getting older, we just had to forgive ourselves for growing up.”
  • Not the funniest episode, but Jack’s “heh?” can reliably extract a laugh from me.
  • Like much of last season, Dan Lauria again sets himself up as the cornerstone of the series, perhaps the best comic and dramatic actor among the regulars.
  • Wayne’s new girlfriend didn’t add much to the episode. I tried to find something meaningful in her one defining trait — perhaps something about the consumptive nature of baby boomers — but mostly she just felt like a one-joke character.
  • It seems significant that the episode ends with the “present” in film grain. Everything else that had been film grain before had been prior to the rest of the episode, but I think that last scene of the characters in film grain reminds us that the  present too will soon be part of the past, and — in fact — already is.
  • It’s hard to root against an episode that gives Wayne a killer mullet

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

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