The Wonder Years S03E18 – Faith

In this world, nothing can said to be certain, except death and taxes.

-Benjamin Franklin

Faith isn’t an episode about anything important, except marriage, and uncertainty, and family, and faith (its title topic), and death, and the meaning of life. But nothing really important.

It’s one of those episodes like Whose Woods Are These? that reminds us that the show isn’t just damn entertaining and sweet, like Night Out, but also tremendously thoughtful and illuminating at its peak. It plunges deep into the fears of growing up (while still maintaining an excellent sense of humor) and emerges as a resounding testament to the power of family and faith against the daunting dark side of life.

I’ve described Jack’s and Norma’s marriage as “passionless” in the past. Faith doesn’t really attempt to refute that, but it does prove that passionless doesn’t mean unhealthy. That final revelation of Jack and Norma “closer than ever,” inadvertently reliving the past twelve months of their lifelong project that is maintaining a family, is weirdly poignant — honestly one of the series’ best moments yet.

Faith parallels three plots at once — the Arnolds’ impending tax day, the Apollo 13 space mission, and Kevin’s writing assignment. Through the lens of the the latter plot and Kevin’s narration, the episode considers the contrast of the former two plots. What do a failed space mission and tax day have in common? On the surface, nothing. One stretches as far as humans have ever gone; the other takes place under every American roof. But for the Arnolds, both are symbols of uncontrollable catastrophe; astronauts are lost in space, receipts are lost somewhere in the house or around town.

Kevin worries that only heavenly forces will be able to save either controversy, but both the astronauts and Norma handle their disasters with aplomb. We never learn the astronauts’ fate in the episode, but we know they’re saved through the astronaut’s ingenuity and communication with home base. Norma, similarly, communicates openly with her family and uses her own ingenuity to re-create the receipts.

Kevin worries that Jack’s brutish stubbornness will supersede his love of family, which often isn’t demonstrative. Jack defines himself, in the heartbreaking moment of the episode, as someone who has to wake up, fight traffic, bust his hump, fight traffic, come home — day in day out. And pay taxes.

But the true meaning behind that grind — the reason he puts up with it — is family. His marriage with Norma is at the heart of everything he does. So Jack doesn’t let something like Norma’s loss of the receipts break him down. Instead, he lifts her up. It brings them closer together than Kevin had ever seen them. This allows Kevin to come to the realization that what matters — what he really wants to write about in his mock obituary — is family and faith. Sure, there’s catastrophes and uncertainties (he calls his uplifting draft “a lie” or at best “a wild guess”) — but faith and family prevail.

For all its literary ambition, Faith also manages to be really funny. The best bits were everyone’s response to the obituary assignment. Paul’s thrill that he can both marry Marcia Brady and work at his dad’s practice is priceless, as were most of the other eighth graders’. I also thought Wayne’s version of Kevin’s obituary (“…died a butthead”) was hilariously played.

I had only a few minor complaints: The one bit of humor that didn’t work for me was Paul’s fear of not being able to contain everything in a school assignment. The cartoonish execution of Paul’s encyclopedic obituary stuck out in an episode that was otherwise very buttoned down. I also know the episode could have benefited from bringing up Brian Cooper’s death; there are only twenty two minutes per episode, but if ever an episode should have brought up the climactic twist of the pilot, it should have been Faith.

Nonetheless, Faith is one of the strongest episodes of the series yet in the series.

A few thoughts:

  • Faith shows Jack and Norma as a couple that has figured out how to communicate with each other comfortably in a private setting only two episodes removed from an episode that focused on Winnie and Kevin’s attempt to figure out how to do that very thing.
  • I was ready to call out the show for showing Kevin and Norma arriving at the church at the same time when Norma left first and drove while Kevin biked, but the episode actually explained the plot hole away — she went to the store first.
  • This answers the question about whether the Arnolds are religious or not. They don’t go to chruch every week. For a family that adheres to the traditional, WASP structure and values, I was surprised to learn that they don’t go to Sunday service.
  • It was a nice bit of subtlety that the episode never quoted Franklin’s line that I opened this recap with, even though it is clearly alluded to it numerous times.
  • I’ve said it over and over. Dan Lauria and Alley Mills do incredible work in this show. They also get some of the best writing in the series. That makes episodes that focus on the Arnold parents nearly always a success.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

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