“You know what it is? It’s the contacts. Ever since she got contacts, she thinks she’s so cool. She’s turned into a real snob. You know when my mother took me to get contacts and we found out I’m allergic to them? Well now I’m glad. I’d much rather wear glasses and be a nice person than contacts and be a snob.”
At its core, The Heart of Darkness is about the vicious cycle of popularity. The popularity of some people breeds resentment in other people. But that resentment in turn makes it harder to bridge the gap between the “popular” and the “unpopular.” Fresh off missing his chance with Winnie and seeing her “ascend like an angel to junior high heaven.”
Kevin turns bitter about this pretty quickly, and Paul is not far behind him. (Paul’s bitterness leads to his excellent rant about contacts quoted above.) In response, they gravitate towards the ever-bitter Gary, who seems to have a fondness for reckless decisions.
The episode builds to a campout that Gary, Paul, and Kevin have, which ends in a dark storm drain where Kevin and Paul get a better glimpse of exactly what kind of friend Gary is.
Apart from being hysterically funny, the campout (especially the cave excursion) is beautifully filmed. There’s some a lot of tension in the scary story moment at the end of the storm drain.
The “heart of darkness” from the episode title comes in that storm drain when Kevin and Paul seem to realize the hypocrisy in their bitterness: In resenting Winnie her popularity, they’ve turned into bigger “snobs” than she ever was.
The episode is framed with Kevin’s prophetic nightmares, all of which connect Kevin’s first encounter with Gary (the math room) to that excursion into the “Heart of Darkness” in the storm drain. It could have been tacky, but I loved the way the dream scenes added gravity to Paul’s and Kevin’s dilemma, and I was glad the dreams were never too on-the-nose.
Paul gets the best lines and best moments (as per usual thus far in the series), including his line about how he smokes only when he drinks. But his high point was not letting Winnie walk away in that final scene. Even though Kevin ultimately commanded that conversation, with his jokes about the glasses and contacts and his acknowledgment that he and Paul still think of Winnie as a friend, it seemed like he was ready to let Winnie drift even further away from them before Paul started talking to her.
Another fantastic episode. The second season of The Wonder Years is seventeen episodes long, nearly three times as long as the first. Hopefully they can keep up the momentum of a show that’s been firing on all cylinders from the start.
A few other thoughts:
- I was really glad that The Wonder Years didn’t fully villainize Gary. They acknowledge he’s just a confused and pathetic kid who’s probably lonely and desperate for some friends even as he alienates them.
- I was relieved that “The Heart of Darkness” concluded not with Kevin and Paul getting in trouble as I expected, but with their own revelations about the kind of people they were becoming by looking up to Gary.
- I’ve continually lavished praise onto Paul and actor Josh Saviano, but I really haven’t given enough credit to the fantastic work as Kevin by Fred Savage, who was twelve at this point. He’s the heart of the show and clearly has excellent dramatic and comedic chops.
- On the other end of the spectrum is Danica McKeller, who isn’t expressive or engaging at all. I keep hoping they’ll do something to make her a little bit more magnetic or interesting.
- One plot question: Why did Kevin say that he had been “dumped” by Winnie when really he had never been with her? Obviously there’s an element of rejection in the six episodes, but there’s no breaking up to speak of. A few guesses: Maybe “dumped” had broader meaning in the ’60s than it does today. Or maybe Kevin feels scorned and is playing the unreliable narrator here, attempting to make her the villain. It’s also possible that the writers wanted to retcon more romantic history between Kevin and Winnie. But I think it’s most likely that the writers just wanted a succinct way to approximate the relationship between Winnie and Kevin at that point.
- Seriously, why did Gary have so many cigarettes? Was he planning for them to smoke all of them that night?
- Speaking of the cigarettes and booze, I was surprised Kevin and Paul could smoke and drink with coughing or commenting on how unpleasant it all tasted.
- Tipsy Paul is comic gold and I wouldn’t mind seeing him again. “Spelunking-lunking-lunking…”