By Cameron White
Season 2, Episode 2: “Drive”
Original airdate: Sept. 3, 1999
So Weird‘s second season is already feeling the effects of ongoing stories on its episodes. “Medium” brings the characters home and launches an exploration into the spaces that separate the Phillips family members from each other and how those gaps can be crossed. “Drive,” meanwhile, infuses an old adolescence tale with added meaning. It also passes the major beats of the story to Jack, leaving Fiona to the fringes. With a new season comes new confidence in its characters, and thus new opportunities to expand the world of the show beyond the mind of Fi Phillips.
Tellingly, “Drive” employs a few of Joss Whedon’s choice Buffy phrases (Jack asks if Fi is “jealous much” when she finds out, at five in the morning, that he and Clu are searching for a used car to purchase; later, Jack and Clu describe the seller of the haunted car they buy as “wiggin’ out”) as it tells a decidedly Buffyesque story. Clu and Jack buy a car from a guy who rebuilt almost the entire thing, save for the engine, but when they try to drive it, the car freaks out and tries to drive somewhere else, causing a few near-misses and some accusations of lousy driving by the others to Jack.
It’s the driving part that’s more important. The show is wise to have Molly bring up Rick’s car accident; her anxieties about her children growing up are amplified by the loss of Rick, and those anxieties hang over the episode as Jack tries to drive a car that appears to have a mind of its own. Mackenzie Phillips continues to show her worth as an actress, striking a balance between motherly concern and starting to see her children as soon-to-be adults. (Rick may also be on her mind a bit as she marches on with the recording of “She Sells,” which dominates most of her scenes in the recording studio—they’re not back on the road yet.) Along the same lines, Clu is preparing to head off to college, and multiple times mentions his older brother, including the fact that he chipped in some money for the car so that he could drive it when he’s around. This is in preparation for Disney’s attempts to make Erik von Detten a movie star; Clu will become absent for multiple episodes, and the college talk is partially about that. But it also works here in “Drive” as Clu prepares to leave the nest, which is still considered a signature move to adulthood even if buying a car or getting a driver’s license isn’t anymore, at least on television.
On the edge of the story is Fi. She shares her mom’s anxieties about Jack driving the car, but she approaches the problem from her own angle: the paranormal. She successfully appeals Molly to drive out to the auto shop where the former owner of the car got the parts to rebuild it. There, the owner tells them about the accident the original car was in, which guides Fiona to an older story about a car crash in Denver. As a man named Billy Ornest was driving his wife to the hospital, the brakes faulted and they crashed. Fiona’s opening narration initially suggests a “machines are taking over” scenario along the lines of Terminator or Battlestar Galactica. And certainly, there are elements of artificial intelligence at work. But when Fi learns the truth about the original car, whose engine is the only remaining original part in Jack’s car, she comes to a much different conclusion: the car feels guilty about what happened, and is looking for catharsis.
This is what is meant by Buffyesque: obviously, cars aren’t actually alive (though with onboard computers, maybe we’re just inching closer to artificial intelligence for cars as a society), but by tying the idea of redemption to something sci-fi or supernatural, the show successfully literalizes a demon that still hangs over the Phillips family: lack of catharsis. The car itself receives “cartharsis” when Fi finally convinces Jack to “let the car drive,” at which point the car takes Jack and his beleaguered driving tester to Hope Springs Hospital, making up for its own faulty brakes.
But the Phillipses have to press onward, despite the temporary setback of Jack failing his driving exam. “Drive” doesn’t end with Jack victoriously holding up a driver’s license and the whole gang celebrating; it ends with Molly having Ned give the car its third checkup of the episode and an insistence that no one will drive it until he’s done. It also ends with Jack and Clu formally saying goodbye to each other two months early, lightening the moment by employing humorous declarations about who would get the car while Clu is at college (an ongoing discussion throughout the episode). And it closes with more of Molly’s single “She Sells,” a song that was first heard several episodes ago and continues to evolve here in “Drive.” Fiona is still an anchor to the world of So Weird, investigating the paranormal as is her wont, but there’s a confidence in “Drive” that the show might actually accomplish something cool with its characters. Doing so without Clu (the master of cool) could be difficult, but as will soon be revealed, his leaving turns out to be a blessing in disguise.
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets about being the walrus. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007. He sells condos by the seashore, he sells.