Suspense and Wonder

Nathan has been writing some great stuff recently about Halloween, and I wanted to get in on the fun. So I rewatched one of the spookiest episodes that I could think of from a definitively non-spooky show, Wonderfalls.

Wonderfalls, created by Bryan Fuller in 2004 for FOX, is the definition of a hard sell. It centers on Jaye Tyler, an underachieving retail clerk (boring) who struggles with the high expectations of her super-successful family (cliché) while falling in love with the local heartbroken bartender (*yawn*) and getting cryptic supernatural messages from an assortment of animal figurines (wait what?). It defies normal genres, changing weekly from film noir to romantic comedy to psychological thriller. At least partly because of its oddity, it only aired 4 episodes before being taken off the air, but the way the writers and directors played with genres is one of my favorite aspects of the show, and it produced what is probably the best episode of Wonderfalls, “Cocktail Bunny.” [*Spoilers ahead*]

We’re bobbing along in our barrel…

Every episode, the Muses (those previously mentioned talking animal figurines) demand increasingly absurd things from Jaye, and although she doesn’t usually understand exactly what they mean, she has learned that there are some dire consequences when she ignores or disobeys them. Prompted by the Muses, Jaye has broken her own heart by driving the man she loves back into the arms of his estranged hussy of a wife. So when a picture of a bunny comes to life and cheerily demands that Jaye “save him from her,” she is more than willing to interpret it in the way that best suits her. Jaye assumes that the man she adores, Eric, needs to be saved from his wife, Heidi, and sets about spying on them. When a brass monkey tells Jaye that “she’s going to kill him and it’s all your fault,” and then Jaye spots Heidi buying suspicious pills in a parking lot, the episode switches gears into a suspense thriller.

I love the way the horror sections of this episode are shot. Extended POV shots show someone spying on Jaye at her therapist’s office and stealing DVDs of her sessions, and all we can see of the person is their hands covered in black leather gloves. The suspense builds as Heidi walks into Eric’s bedroom and the camera rotates, turning the room onto its side while Heidi stands framed in the doorway like a Hitchcockian femme fatale. But it isn’t until Jaye returns to her therapist’s office to confront the brass monkey about his misleading instructions that the suspense tropes really get going. Power outages, thunder and lightning, and jump scares all come into play in the climax of this episode, and it is simply a joy to watch. I heartily recommend it as Halloween viewing.

My favorite thing about this episode though, is how it uses the genre of the week to focus on developing its characters. This episode, focused on horror and suspense tropes, illustrates the way we are all capable of goodness and evil. In suspense thrillers, motives are murky, methods are questionable, and nothing is quite what it seems. Jaye displays some of her best and worst qualities throughout this episode, and sometimes the only difference is the situation. Her single-minded determination blinds her to the ways in which she is hurting Eric, but it saves lives later in the episode as she pursues the truth. She is both a crazy ex-lover and the mostly-willing instrument of a benevolent higher power. Jaye swings from broken hearted lover to avenging angel to bewildered prophet in just 42 minutes. A show that can produce episodes that both play with genre conventions and reveal the depths of its protagonist’s heart is a win for me.

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