Monday, July 15, 2024

Atypical Deepens its Character Work in Season 3

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Spoilers for season three of Atypical

At this point, I think it’s safe to say Atypical is about a lot more than living with autism. The Netflix family dramedy has always excelled at writing authentic characters and relationships, and the third season was no exception. Digging into existing bonds and creating new ones, Atypical enriched its own world this season. The writers took several existing relationships in new directions this season, and gave greater life to these connections and the people within them through some stellar backstory development.

Romance and Bromance

Atypical made unique choices with their relationships this season, providing the viewers some unconventional storylines. For one, they ended a boy-girl-girl love triangle with the two girls together. The fandom was kind of expecting that, but it was a big deal nonetheless. And while it would have been easy to make the jilted boyfriend the bad guy or the good guy, they went for more complexity. Evan’s initial reaction to Casey’s feelings for Izzie reflected the pain he was in and was realistic for a teenager. However, his kind and caring core came through and he and Casey were able to salvage their friendship in the end. Like he said in the season premiere, Evan loves Casey no matter what, whether that’s as a friend or a boyfriend.

Romance aside, the show has always done a great job of showing how devastating fights between friends are, treating them with equal weight as fights between romantic partners. Casey’s friend break-up with Izzie from last season obviously comes to mind. To be fair, that one was also laced with confusing romantic feelings, but it’s far from the only example. Casey was also devastated when Charice briefly betrayed her after she was recruited by Clayton Prep in season one. In season two, Elsa admitted that her falling out with her friend Holly had felt like a break up and she’d cried a lot. This season Atypical examined this theme again, this time with a male-male friendship.

While friendship between men is hardly a rare commodity in a medium historically written by men, it’s unusual to see such focus on the pain caused by a strained or ended friendship. Guys are supposed to ‘man up’ and get over their pain, so it was refreshing to see several episodes worth of angst when Zahid “un-homied” Sam after Sam exposed his girlfriend as a thief. Sam was quite frankly heartbroken over Zahid’s reaction. He was even sad after achieving his goal from the beginning of the series, losing his virginity, because he couldn’t tell Zahid about it. That sadness gave way to anger, which spiralled into Sam making a scene at their workplace, singing angry karaoke at Zahid and accidentally setting his clothes on fire.

Sam: Zahid, I know you don’t wanna be my friend anymore, and I don’t care. But I keep being reminded of you, and it’s making it very hard for me to draw dead baby penguins. I even knew you were working today because I memorized your stupid school and work schedule. But I want every reminder of you gone, so here’s your stupid shirt back!

If that’s not equating the importance of friendship with romance enough for you, after Zahid’s girlfriend dumped him and he and Sam made up, they were officially reunited by an Elvis impersonator marriage officiant declaring them homie and homie. Then the season ended with Zahid proposing they take their relationship to the next level and move in together, which Sam agreed to. Their bromance is very sweet, and to see it canonized in this way and treated with such importance was amazing.

Childhood Troubles and Character Development

This season Atypical also invested in giving more depth and backstory to several of their characters, much of which explains or adds more nuance to their behavior in earlier seasons. For instance, it was revealed that Casey has a history of anger management problems leading to violent and disruptive behavior. This might not be the biggest surprise, seeing as she has punched someone (or their milkshake) in each of the season premieres so far, but in two of those situations she remained calm and was making a statement rather than lashing out. For the most part, she seems pretty put together, rarely losing her temper, so it was interesting learning just how much rage is lurking beneath that chill, sarcastic surface. It explains her surprising outburst at Sam in 2×01 and gives us more insight into how difficult it was for her being the more neglected sibling growing up.

There were also some pretty interesting revelations about Casey’s boyfriend. We already knew that Evan was expelled from Newton High for stealing a tuba, but it was never explained why he chose to go to technical school instead of enrolling in a different high school. It turns out that Evan is dyslexic and has a lot of anxiety about school and tests, which continues to hamstring his career prospects. Not only does he have limited ambitions because of his academic troubles, he doesn’t want to dream big because if he left town he’d feel like he was abandoning his family the way his father did. We met his father this season and yikes, it explained a lot. Evan has always seemed like a nice but unmotivated teenager who was perfectly happy doing nothing with his life but playing video games, not necessarily long-term boyfriend material, so this fleshed out his character significantly.

Izzie got some more development this season as well. Some of it was away from Casey, too, which bodes well for her as an independent character. We already knew about Izzie’s less than ideal home life, her unreliable mother and the several younger siblings she has to care for. This season we saw more of how that instability has affected her and led to some self-sabotaging behaviors, mostly once she and Casey became somewhat of an item late in the season. Izzie was nervous about what other people would think, but it appears that under the surface she was also hesitant to really commit because she didn’t want to screw it up and get hurt.

This rings true with her reaction to the Nate drama last season and her shutting Casey out because she was afraid of losing her. It seems Izzie doesn’t believe she could possibly hold onto someone as “good and solid and wonderful” as Casey or that she is worthy of love, and it was really sad to watch, even if she committed to Casey in the end. She said she’s trying not to be like her mom, but her brain just betrays her sometimes. This was a really good case study of how adverse childhood experiences mess with someone’s ability to make healthy choices as a young adult. Casey and Evan’s backstories hint at this concept as well, making it a common theme this season.

Elsa’s Redemption

Speaking of adverse childhood experiences, surprisingly the most interesting revelations this season were about Elsa, Sam and Casey’s mom. Elsa has long been somewhat of a pariah in the show and fandom because she cheated on her husband Doug in season one and it caused a ton of upheaval in the family. Also, she’s just plain annoying. While she’s compassionate and generally kind, she’s obsessive and smothering to a painful degree. It’s also been difficult to truly empathize with Elsa in the past because she is mostly used as fodder for comedy, from her spiralling thoughts in the supermarket to shopping stoned to accidentally setting a bed on fire. She’s so easy to laugh at that it can be hard to take her or her storyline seriously. Atypical finally remedied that in season 3, making Elsa not only sympathetic, but likeable.

Like many parents of teenagers, Elsa is vilified by her own kids but popular with their friends. In particular, her bond with Evan has always been one of Atypical’s more interesting background relationships. While we don’t know a lot about Evan’s mother, he has a very strained relationship with his father and seems to appreciate Elsa’s caring ways more than her actual kids ever could. Evan will listen to Casey complain about Elsa but throws in occasional comments that suggest he actually likes her, and Elsa is fond of him too. One of their more poignant moments last season came when Evan was repairing the hole Doug punched in the wall after finding out about Elsa’s affair. Elsa remarked that they must seem like terrible parents, to which Evan said they just seem like parents. Like people.

This season Elsa also formed a surprising bond with Izzie. After walking in on her and Casey almost kissing last season, she was aware of their feelings for each other and the stress it was causing Casey. However, instead of reacting judgmentally towards Izzie, Elsa treated her with compassion and took her under her wing. When Izzie came by one day to drop off a textbook and seemed hesitant to go home, Elsa invited her to stay and help out with a clothing drive she was organizing. The bonding time then took a surprising turn when Izzie started crying in the middle of a heartwarming tale about Casey’s childhood.

Fivel Stewart as Izzie in Atypical 3x04 "Y.G.A.G.G."

Though hesitating to admit why she was upset (because she thought it was stupid), Izzie confessed she wished she’d had a childhood like that. One where she was happy, loved, taken care of. Elsa said, “me too,” and for a second it seemed she was merely sympathizing with Izzie. But then she went on to reveal that her own home environment was not a healthy one when she was a child, and that’s why she has always tried hard — probably too hard — to give her kids the perfect childhood. Then she told Izzie what she always wished someone had told her: their door is always open to her, for whatever she needs.

This revelation was nothing short of mind-blowing. Maybe it shouldn’t have been, but when you see a middle-class white lady who tries too hard to have the perfect home, it’s easy to assume that obsession is driven by a desire for status. This was a delightful subversion of that stereotype, a reminder that we never really know what’s driving other people’s behaviors.

The next episode we saw Elsa run into an older woman in the street and have a friendly but stilted exchange about how her kids were doing. It seemed like this was just some random lady Elsa knew from somewhere until she left with a casual farewell and Elsa said, “Bye, Mom.” Mind-blowing moment number two. Elsa then proceeded to have an anxiety attack in her car, quite possibly the most heartbreaking scene of hers to date. Watching her monologue about it at Paige’s plants was also sad, if a bit funny.

Elsa: They say the best caretakers are those that weren’t cared for themselves. That’s definitely true for me. I am great when I’m needed, not quite so good when I’m not needed. But you guys, you really needed me, and I loved being there for you.

Elsa is often maligned for meddling, which is actually fair to be honest, but her mother’s intuition paid off when she suspected that an absence from Izzie was not as benign as Izzie claimed it to be. Both she and Casey knew about Izzie’s strained home life, but it was Elsa who understood that ‘I’m fine’ doesn’t always mean ‘I’m fine.’ Her misgivings convinced Casey to check up on Izzie, and it turned out her mom had disappeared again.

Similarly, Elsa could see the strain behind Paige’s smiles after she dropped out of college, and decided to pop in on her at her new (old) job waitressing while dressed as a potato. The ensuing heart-to-heart was delightfully heartwarming and absurd, which is very on-brand for this show.

Clearly Elsa is empathetic, even if she can be selfish at times. And even then, it’s less intentional selfishness and more a tendency to be self-absorbed. Notably, Sam is the same way. Elsa is almost certainly neurodivergent, and a case could be made for her being on the spectrum herself. I’ve always thought this, but there was additional evidence added this season. During Elsa’s next conversation with her mother, she admitted she was a difficult kid: “rigid, and particular, and very specific.” Sound familiar? Elsa went on to say her mom should have supported her marriage before muttering a heartbreaking, “I don’t know what I wanted from you.” Her mother admitted that Elsa was a unique kid and she didn’t help her, and that Elsa’s kids are luckier in that way.

Whether or not Elsa’s kids ever see it that way remains to be seen, but this information is transformative for the viewers. By introducing us to Elsa’s wounded inner child, Atypical fundamentally shifted the way the audience sees her. At least, if they are willing to reevaluate their viewpoints and empathize with her. Like the additional information about the teenagers, Elsa’s backstory provides a lot of insight into her past and present behavior, insight that’s difficult to ignore.

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Elsa Gardner in Atypical 3x05 "Only Tweed"

In particular, this new information explains many of her smothery, overprotective behaviors towards both of her kids, especially Sam. It sometimes seemed that her efforts to be a good autism mom were more about her than Sam, like she needed to see herself as a good mom (or appear to others to be a good mom) more than she needed her son to grow up to be an independent human being. Now we have a little more context for why it’s so important for her to see herself as a good mom. Beyond that, it seems she tried so hard to make Sam’s life easier because her mother didn’t do that for her and she wanted better for her own kid. She certainly overcorrected somewhat, but at least she tried.

Elsa’s backstory also adds another layer to her relationship with Casey. The big unwanted surprise party last season, in particular, comes to mind. It seemed at the time that Elsa threw Casey a big party because in her opinion Casey ought to have one for her sixteenth birthday, like that was a milestone Elsa needed to tick off for herself to be a good suburban mom. Now it seems that, while she did throw the party based on her own wants and ideals, it was more because she was trying to create a fairytale childhood for her daughter because she herself did not have one. Maybe she was living vicariously through Casey here, and either way, her motives were still somewhat selfish, but with the new background information, this mistake is much more understandable.

A tragic backstory alone isn’t enough to redeem a villain, but it can make them more sympathetic by providing context for their behavior. And to be fair, Elsa is not exactly a villain, just a very flawed but well-intentioned person. What we learned this season allowed me, and hopefully the rest of the audience, to have a little more empathy for her moving forward.

Elsa’s redemption is only one facet of this excellent season from an excellent show. Not only is Atypical a realistic and gratifying depiction of autism (as this writer can attest to personally), all the characters and relationships feel real. Even comic relief characters like Elsa, Paige, and Zahid got fleshed out this season, and that allowed the show to become even more immersive. It’s an easy binge, entertaining but surprisingly poignant and deep. The show has yet to be renewed, but it seems Netflix is fond of four-season runs these days. If it indeed gets another season, or even more, I have no doubt Atypical will finish strong.

All images courtesy of Netflix

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