In 1969, people tried so hard to find themselves. Sometimes they got lost. Sometimes they found their way home again.
The other Karen-centric episode up to this point is Angel, the fourth episode of the series. Both episodes do a great job exploring the complex moral nuances and contradictions of the emerging social liberalism of the late ’60s. Where Brightwing succeeds that Angel does not is fleshing out the charcter of Karen.
We see a lot of different sides of Karen in Brightwing: the rebellious teen, the clever manipulator, and the fun-loving sister Kevin finds at the hill. That version of Karen is the one that most reminds him of the girl she used to be.
Olivia d’Abo had been shortchanged more than any of the other leads going into Nightwing, but she finally got a showcase, and she made the best of it. The Karen character is intentionally offputting, but d’Abo has a lot of presence in the role. The highlight here was the fantastic conclusion, when she locks eyes with Kevin. That glance carries so much weight, apologizing to him and admitting that everything may not be as fine as she thought and bidding him to enjoy what’s left of his youth.
Karen is at the center of episode, but Kevin has his own journey. His realization that Karen is a skillful liar and manipulator forces him to confront whether or not he wants to follow in that path. He falls in love with The Hill just as much as Karen, but has a moment of clarity and empathy when he sees Norma cut herself cooking dinner. Karen claims that her parents are “just people” but they prove her wrong. Norma and Jack do something that “just people” wouldn’t do — take her back in as the prodigal daughter after her trip to San Francisco.
I looked up the writer for this episode and was surprised that it was the same writer as Hiroshima, Mon Frere — while I wasn’t a fan of the latter, Brightwing is an extremely effective exploration of one of Kevin’s sibling.
Following up Birthday Boy, Brightwing continues The Wonder Year’s creative peak. Great, rich episode.
A few other thoughts:
- The grainy flashbacks work especially well here because Karen’s personality has changed so much. Compared to last episode’s flashback, which shows Kevin and Paul several years younger but with the same relationship, it set the framework nicely but didn’t have the same impact as the flashbacks in Brightwing.
- After a few week’s off, here’s this episode’s edition of Wow, Awesome Editing: the cut from Kevin in the afternoon to the TV screen, which ends up showing a dream. Cut to Kevin waking up startled in his bed.
- Question I’ve gone back and forth on: Was the episode trying to imply that Karen’s on drugs? The sneaky notes and Karen’s general euphoria at the hill along with the suspicious counselor suggest she might have been.
- That last scene is so, so perfect. The shot of Kevin listening and thinking as he sits up in bed, walking into the kitchen wordless, and locking eyes with Karen. Over it is Kevin’s monologue about people getting lost trying to find their place Definitely the show’s best ending in awhile.
- I haven’t been able to determine the significance of the title. We see Brightwing at the hill in one scene, but he’s not a pivotal figure at all. Any thoughts?