At this point, I think it’s safe to say that we will almost certainly not be seeing Greer this season. Given production schedules, the abridged episode order, and her role in the show, there’s no reason for us not to have heard about Gracie Dzienny’s return, if it were going to happen. This, on one hand, is disappointing, because Greer is absolutely wonderful. On the other hand, it’s also super-interesting, largely because if this were any other show, there’s no way she wouldn’t be around. At this point, it’s impossible for the writers not to know that she’s a fan favorite. There’s no scheduling conflicts that I’m aware of that would have prevented her from being around, unless Dzienny is simply not focusing on acting right now. The only reason I can think of for her absence is that the writers are incredibly committed to a plan, and that plan means that Greer cannot be in the picture for now.
The weird thing, though, is, that as “The Life of Brenna” shows, Greer is very much still in the picture: the episode is framed by an e-mail communications between her and Brenna, marking Greer as a confidant and repository of all of her former girlfriend’s angst about changing schools, her sister April’s cancer, and a life that seems to be spinning out of her control. She is obliquely alluded to when the show alludes to a character’s mentally ill ex, which accurately describes Greer during the second half of the first season. If there was ever an episode that merited a cameo, this was it. But no. Not that the episode suffers for this absence, as even without our favorite eco-club president, “Life of Brenna” still manages to be a fantastic showcase for its title character.
Almost from the beginning–since meeting Greer, in fact–Brenna has proven a critical part of Chasing Life, and one of its most consistently interesting and successful elements. Part of being a teenager is discovering oneself, and Brenna’s journey–which, as she tells film club mentor Margo near the end of the episode, has been rocky and eventful–has tempered her into a fantastically self-assured human being, whose journey of self-discovery has been fascinating to watch. Having her carry an episode feels both natural and well-deserved, and both writer Joni Lefkowitz and actress Haley Ramm knock it out of the park with an episode that is a fantastic distillation of everything that makes her one of my favorite characters on TV.
Brenna’s story is very often about balancing her desires with familial expectations and responsibilities. For years perceived (due to a combination of unfair expectations, neglect, and actual mistakes on her part) as the Carver Family Screw-Up—a narrative she herself partially accepts—Brenna often feels that it’s her duty to step up and do whatever is necessary, including sacrificing herself for the good of the family, be it via hiding a pregnancy and abortion to spare them (and herself) from the drama, cozying up to half-sister Natalie to secure her as a bone marrow donor, and generally being there for April when necessary. When she isn’t able to step up—such as when she proved not to be a bone marrow match for April, or when her attempts to woo Natalie fail—it hits her hard–she so does not want to be That Person.
As “Life of Brenna” shows, however, her undertaking of these new responsibilities hasn’t exactly made her family view her any differently. Her choices are still being questioned: when Sara presses Brenna to come up with a post-high school plan, and Brenna decides that she wants to take some time to travel, Sara makes no secret of her dissatisfaction. When Sara’s financial situation becomes untenable, she decides that the optimal solution is to take Brenna away from Charton against her wishes, which not only forces Brenna to quit her job and puts her travel plans at risk, but also means abandoning the one extracurricular activity that she has come to enjoy. On top of that, after April makes her Maid of Honor, Sara stresses (not entirely inaccurately) that the timing of the wedding means that the planning needs to be done ASAP, adding additional pressure to Brenna to sacrifice her own wants for April’s “needs” (it’s worth noting that April herself feels none of Sara’s urgency). Even April, who is more sympathetic to Brenna, often treats her as someone to be coddled and protected. Understandably, Brenna is growing ever more tired of it all, and getting pushed ever closer to the breaking point. With no allies in the Carver household, she turns to half-sister Natalie, whose own whimsical approach to life makes her more obviously sympathetic to Brenna’s problems.
From a certain perspective, it’s entirely possible to see Brenna and her woes being nothing more than whining. After all, she has screwed up plenty, and tends to keep her problems close to her vest, which keeps family members from knowing all that is going on in her life. What’s more, given that April’s cancer is literally a matter of life and death, it makes sense for matters pertaining to it to be top priority. Similarly, it’s possible to see why Sara continues to be worried about Brenna’s path in life, given the way the status quo consistently makes the path towards financial stability ever narrower. It doesn’t make Mama Carver right, but it makes her mistakes understandable. However, that’s not the side we’re asked to take here. However, we’re also meant to sympathize with Brenna, who tries to do her best even when her life often sucks, and who passionately pursues what she wants, even when it comes at a cost.
And that’s key. Chasing Life is largely a show without villains, but rather, people with different conceptions of the world, trying to do their best. Brenna’s situation is a perfect recipe for drama, and “Life of Brenna” milks it all expertly. Curiously, the strife here isn’t between Brenna and Sara, but between Brenna and April, who, after being told by Natalie about Brenna’s prior aborted pregnancy–first revealed in the second half of the first season–who didn’t know she didn’t know about it, feels hurt about being kept in the dark about huge parts of Brenna’s life.
But first, let’s talk about Margo.
Margo’s introduction this season has been a weird thing. After the season one finale introduced cancer patient Finn as what seemed to be a potential love interest for Bren, and after a scene in which Brenna and Ford kiss was included in the season 2 trailer, the expectation was that either or both would eventually fill Greer’s shoes. Supporting that speculation is the fact that the three have comparable weight: Greer made Brenna discover new sides about herself, and the two were there for each other during some of their darker periods; Ford was a friend when Brenna really needed one, and helped her get an abortion and keep it secret when they were still only lab partners; Finn and Brenna, from all appearances, share an intimate connection, even though they’ve yet to meet—she was apparently the anonymous donor of the bone marrow that helped him deal with his cancer.
Margo, in comparison, exists. She has things in common with Brenna, and they get along and find each other attractive, but they don’t seem to connect on a fundamental level the way Greer and Brenna could. And that’s fine: not every relationship has to be a great romance–see Kieran whoe eventually turned out to be perfectly likeable. Still, this is not what I expected going into the season, and given the notable age difference and ex-girlfriend baggage, it all makes me suspect that Margo (much like the film club subplot as a whole) is actually a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. That she initially rejected Brenna’s advances before reversing herself and making some advances of her own only adds to that feeling. In the end, I’m more interested than invested.
Where Greer, when she was around, was oftentimes the focus of Brenna’s story arcs, the romance part of “Life of Brenna” ends up feeling like a sideshow: the real meat of the episode is Brenna’s interactions, and feelings towards, her two sisters. The bond between Brenna, Natalie, and April has led to some of the series’ most consistently compelling scenes—although there’s stiff competition there—and this episode is no exception, exploring the whys and wherefores of their current dynamics.
Even before April asked Natalie to take care of Brenna, Thomas Carver’s middle child had already taken her little sister under her wing. As mentioned earlier and is made explicit by Beth (who, sadly, is mostly absent this episode), this makes perfect sense from Brenna’s perspective: Natalie’s approach to life is closer to Brenna’s than April’s is, and so she is more likely to be understanding. What’s more, the fact that April is oftentimes the indirect cause of Brenna’s angst means she’s too close to the issues to be a good confidant. Still, this doesn’t stop April from being somewhat hurt by that distance, particularly since, from her perspective, she’s been doing all she can to help Brenna. These feelings shape the climax of the episode, which occurs when all three sisters, stuck inside a classroom after breaking into Brenna’s school in order to retrieve the wedding invitations Brenna had forgotten there, decide to hash out their various issues. As is Chasing Life‘s wont, they end up with a greater understanding of one another, and with implicit promises that they’ll try to do better.
This, again, is a perfect example of what is so compelling about Chasing Life. All three women are trying to the best they can. They’re not perfect, screw up plenty, and rarely see eye to eye, but they’d go to bat for each other at a moment’s notice—see Natalie’s possibly ill-advised but passionate attack on Jake, the boy who got Brenna pregnant, after a chance encounter in a wedding dress store—and care about each other enough to admit mistakes in order to solve whatever issues may arise. What largely works about the episode is what largely works about the series as a whole: its rather large bench of compelling characters, which interact in often funny, poignant ways. After starting out being kind of horrible, Ford has become a character I’m always glad to see, and her teasing of Brenna and her interactions with Margo is fantastic. While Beth doesn’t get a lot to do here, she does her best with the time she’s got, particularly during a “trying on dresses montage” with Brenna and Natalie. Even Sara, whose foot probably pays rent what with all the time it spends in her mouth, feels properly sympathetic as someone who is in over her head and sucks at dealing with things, but keeps on trying.
This, in turn, speaks to the detail in the episode which most bugs me, which occurs when Margo receives a text message from her so-called “Crazy Ex”, who is apparently an alcoholic. We’ll be meeting said ex next episode, and from all appearances, we are being asked to view her mental illness as a license to see her in an unsympathetic light. This bugs the hell out of me, and especially because “crazy ex” could be used—and was used—to describe Greer, and I’m not sure if the writers realize this. It may well be that the show actually intends to explore stigmas attached to mental illness, but even if that’s the case, this episode is still portraying Margo as the sort of person who thinks “crazy” is the first adjective she needs to use to describe an ex, which strikes me as being neither kind nor well-intentioned.
Speaking of less-than-successful things, this episode also features a b-plot involving Dominic and his mother, but even then, the reason it doesn’t succeed has less to do with its components—it’s actually rather lovely, thanks in large part to Illeana Douglas’ performance as Marianne Russo—and everything to do with the fact that it’s completely extraneous to everything else that has been going on. After the second half of the first season took steps to keep Dominic relevant after his breakup with April—with ties to April via the Post, Natalie, and Beth—the second season has severed those ties, leaving him without much of a reason for existing in April’s story, beyond propping up an unnecessary love triangle. The show has had to give him something to do separate from April, and while it’s not bad material—Dominic here is the most likeable he’s been all season—it also uses time that might be better spent with more relevant characters. As is, he’s very much in the vein of characters like Larry in season 2 of Orange Is the New Black.
“Life of Brenna” is very much a transitional episode (although one could argue that all episodes are, with this sort of series) it’s very much about saying goodbye to one chapter in Brenna’s life before beginning another. Here, too, Greer shows her weight; while she’s been absent from the series since the next-to-last episode of the previous season, she’s been mentioned every episode since, as befits a character of such importance to Brenna. Here, however, as Brenna edits her latest e-mail to her former girlfriend during the episode’s final minutes there’s a certain sense of finality. Thanks to the evolution of Brenna’s relationships with April and Margo, Greer feels less essential. It’d be interesting to see if she continues to be mentioned with the same frequency, or whether her role in the series has now come to a definitive end. I still miss her, though.