To prove their devotion, Shaolin monks carry huge cauldrons of boiling water with their forearms. To strengthen their hands, they plunge them first into barrels of rice, then into barrels of stones. They spend all their time mastering the arts of kung fu, denying themselves basic human comforts, secure in the knowledge that because they have done so, they can kick the ass of any three people on the planet. This is the dedication that my mother has displayed in mastering the art of passive aggression.
About two years before they finally divorced, my mother decided that my father was an alcoholic. She went to Al-Anon, a support group for the grown families of alcoholics, and took me to Alateen, the same version for young people. My mother was probably right about my dad. He was, and still is, quite the drinker. The thing of it was, I knew I didn’t belong at Alateen. No matter how many times my mother told me his drinking effected my life, nodding the whole time and using her sincere voice, I couldn’t really point to any time in which it had. Then I heard the horror stories in the group, about insane abusive fathers and extreme poverty, and my non-problem started to feel uncomfortably like voyeurism, but I knew that kicking too much against attending would start a fight I couldn’t win and result in the passive aggressive equivalent of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. So I went.
Any reputable look at recidivism rates among alcoholics who attend AA shows that the program does not work. Part of that is the ridiculous religious emphasis on man as weak and useless, practically begging those attending to foist their problems on an invisible force and chalk it up to some supernatural will when they fall off the wagon. Another part is the silly assertion that alcoholism is a disease: literally no good research supports this hypothesis. Though AA is useless, Al-Alon and Alateen most certainly are not. There were people in that room who belonged and who needed a place to talk about all the truly horrible shit that happened in their lives. Al-Alon and Alateen aren’t trying to stop a behavior. They’re just providing a safe place for those who need it.
So why am I airing my dirty laundry? Because this episode, “Francesca, Baby,” is about Alateen, something I have actual, real world experience with.
I feel I should apologize to both my readers for those four paragraphs. It got a little dark, and there wasn’t a single dick joke to be found. I’ll pick it up.
Better? Okay. On to the episode.
Right from the beginning, there’s trouble in the James house. As teen Francesca and her tween sister Katie rake leaves, their parents scream at each other like they think the other’s tears are secretly oil reserves. The kids are clearly uncomfortable, but that doesn’t stop neighbor lady Connie from stopping by and making light of the situation. Connie is one of those people that means well but, through a combination of Asperger’s and a love of the spotlight, manages to make nearly everything worse with lame jokes and forced levity. Connie has her sights on the James family, and Francesca is far too nice a person to beat Connie to death with a garden weasel and bury her in a shallow grave by the railroad tracks.
Part of the problem is that mom is an alcoholic. A fictional one, so her drinking is painfully obvious, nearly constant and heralded by more unintelligible slurred speech than Jeff Bridges in True Grit. Francesca picks up the slack and it takes its toll, as she gazes wistfully at carefree classmates from behind a massive armful of groceries. Instead of going to the sock hop or the absinthe frolic or whatever it was teenagers did for fun in 1976, Francesca has to go home and make dinner for mom and Katie.
This is when we get the title of the episode. Mom, in a last ditch effort to infantilize her caretaker daughter, refers to her as “Francesca, baby.” Her friends call her “Chess.” In my notes, I called her “Fran.” This is apropos of nothing, except that if you name your child “Francesca,” only nuns played by Meryl Streep will call her by her full name.
The central conflict of the episode surrounds little Katie’s birthday party, which takes place two days after Halloween, and nearly everyone seems confused that Katie might want to have a Halloween theme. I can only imagine what these people think about Christmas decorations going up before Thanksgiving, or when Whacking Day falls in the middle of Ramadan. Mom, plowed worse than Dean Martin at a roast, wants to help planning. The look on Francesca’s face, as well as the halting way she deflects the offer, tells the story: Mom can’t plan anything beyond the next Ladies Night at Torchy’s. Mom reacts to Francesca’s refusal with an incredible pity party. Francesca fires back with a needling comment about her mother’s obviously spiked tomato juice. The passive aggressive battle lines have been drawn.
Francesca takes Katie out Halloween/birthday shopping. At the store, they run into a handsome redhead named Bix, possibly because his parents were playing Scrabble when he was conceived. Bix is a charmer, flirting with Francesca and pretending to think Katie is twelve when she’s about to turn ten. Francesca has to turn the poor guy down. Mom totally clamjammed Francesca without even being present.
Bix is a complicated guy. He has a brother that he won’t talk about, other than to say they aren’t close. Remember, this is fictional, so everything mentioned will tie in thematically with everything else. In real life the estrangement would have come from another source, like Bix’s brother becoming a Scientologist or an assassin for a drug cartel. But this is about having an alcoholic in the family, so we know what’s going on there.
As Katie’s party rolls around, Mom is concerned that ten children are too many guests. Fortunately for her, the kids aren’t too keen on coming to the home of a sentient moonshine still and half of them cancel. Francesca gets Connie to keep mom occupied (Connie “hilariously” says they’ll play gin rummy). The party is initially a big success, with Katie dressed like a prostitute that caters exclusively to the undead. Sensing something she could fuck up, Mom comes downstairs drunk off her ass, proving that Connie has outlived her usefulness. As the mortified little girls leave en masse, Katie sobs, her makeup running into thick Tammy Faye tears, vowing never to forget “what she did to me.” This suddenly became the origin story of a superhero who exclusively kicks the living shit out of embarrassing drunk relatives. In other news, I got my ass kicked the other night by a zombie hooker.
With Mom running roughshod over Francesca’s life, something has to give. The poor girl can’t even listen to some rocking Tchaikovsky records with Bix and her schoolwork is suffering. Francesca is in denial over Mom’s problem, saying she has a nervous condition. A friend of mine got so nervous on New Year he barfed all over the hood of someone’s car. This has been a running theme I’ve enjoyed in the After School Specials thus far: inappropriate euphemisms. Between Sara’s brother’s shyness and Mom’s nervousness, I can’t wait for the euphemism for having a raging case of syphilis.
When I opened this piece with a lengthy paragraph about my mother being passive aggressive, it wasn’t to be a dick – that was a side benefit. I did that because the other theme of this episode is about solving one’s problems with loud hand wringing, pointed comments and subterfuge. Someone slips pamphlets for Alateen into Francesca’s mail. In this modern age, I hope Alateen changed their name to something a little less terroristy. Katie wants Francesca to go to a meeting because she has had fights with every girl in school about their mother and has no one left to have lunch with. This was an obsession of my mother’s as well. All though junior high and high school, every day she would ask who I had lunch with. It got to the point where I would occasionally make people up. One of those people popped up so many times, I had to keep up the lie and even claimed he graduated. To this day, my mother thinks I have a friend that is totally fictional. One day I’m going to tell her and watch her go crazy trying to guess who it was. Man… I’m really a horrible person.
Anyway, right as Francesca leaves to go to the meeting, Mom is drunk, in bed and smoking, which only slightly less dangerous than covering yourself in chum and trying to rape a great white. Francesca claims she’s heading to an Episcopal church for a “young people’s” meeting. I would be concerned she was joining a cult, except that the Episcopal Church has strict rules against doing anything remotely interesting. The meeting opens with the usual bullshit: a prayer and alcoholism as a disease. And who should show up to lay a comforting and freckled hand on Francesca’s shoulder, but Bix. They sit together through a poorly acted and very helpful meeting.
This is when the limits of the budget hijack the story. The rules of drama, at least melodrama, demand that the house be on fire from Mom’s cigarette. No such luck. She almost started a fire. Almost. That’s as exciting as it sounds. Mom promises never to do it again, but Francesca has heard this shit before. She has two choices. The direct approach is to wait for Mom to smoke in bed again and hose her down with a fire extinguisher. Instead, Francesca follows the advice of one of the wooden Alateen people and comes up with an escape route for the house. It’s just a rope ladder from Katie’s room out the window. What is not mentioned is that this escape route gives up Mom for dead. Children grow up so fast under constant threat of burning alive.
Francesca’s newfound attitude is not a hit with Mom. She misses all that old enabling behavior and confronts her daughter about it twice. The first time is when Mom finds the Alateen pamphlets, and after determining that Francesca hasn’t joined a terrorist front, yells at her daughter for telling everyone about Mom’s problem. Francesca coldly replies that everyone in town knows already. That line made me love Francesca a little. The second time is when Mom catches Katie halfway out the window on the rope ladder. Mom is understandably distressed that her ten-year-old is about to fall two stories. Francesca explains that life in the James household has gotten terrifyingly Darwinian. The kids either have to grow fireproof skin or get the hell out of the house.
The next day at school, Francesca gets a desperate call from neighbor lady Connie. For once, Connie stows the liquor-related wordplay and tells Francesca that Mom wouldn’t answer the door. Maybe it was last call? Sorry, Connie got to me. Anyway, Francesca gets home and finds Mom smoking in a chair, which is a vast improvement. Mom called AA, and after they patiently explained they couldn’t offer roadside assistance, she asked for help. The fire drill was the wake up call that she needed. Is there anything that passive aggression can’t solve?
Next up: “Beat the Turtle Drum,” in which a girl plays drums in the Riverbottom Nightmare Band.