Friday, August 2, 2013

Wonderfalls 1.07: "Barrel Bear"

“At least the hooker fight would draw a crowd.”

This episode should be epic. It does, after all, involve Rue McClanahan (Blanche from “The Golden Girls”) and Louise Fletcher (Kai Winn from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) fighting over who actually went over the falls in a barrel in their younger days. Unfortunately, Mahandra’s craziness in “Barrel Bear” keeps it from quite reaching epic status. Mahandra usually seems to have an overdeveloped sense of injustice (as my dad would phrase it). Here though, she goes to bat for someone who has been lying about an important event in Niagara history that propelled her to fame and fortune. Mahandra is suddenly crazy obsessed with preserving Niagara history, whether it’s actually true or not. Mahandra never seemed all that interested in Niagara history or city pride before this episode, yet she somehow gets to the point in this episode where she is willing to risk someone’s life to preserve a legend that has been proven false.

This episode is all about the Niagara legend of the first woman to go over the falls in a barrel. The episode starts at Wonderfalls, where Alec is basically telling Jaye that if the buckles down and works hard, she will have a bright future at Wonderfalls. He also tells Jaye that he’s been covering for her sub-standard behavior with “upper management” (aka store manager Peggy). Jaye kind of takes this for the really bizarre, condescending conversation it is and tries to pretend it didn’t happen. While she’s trying to ignore the horror, Jaye sees an older woman in rather fancy dress toss a quarter in the fountain. The Muses start telling Jaye to “give it back to her,” so Jaye’s obvious first interpretation is to retrieve the quarter. This is a good example of how the meaning of what the Muses are saying builds and changes throughout each episode of “Wonderfalls.” Jaye starts by trying to give back a quarter, then she ends up trying to give two women their livelihoods back. The imagery of the quarter in the fountain is a little too reminiscent of the pilot for my taste, though. It’s like they’re trying to play the same trick twice.

Anyway, Jaye does eventually get to meet the mysterious coin tosser, and Mahandra informs Jaye that this woman is Millie Marcus. Mahandra is a serious Millie fangirl, and she tells Jaye all about how Millie was the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live. Millie, by the way, is played by the wonderfully sassy Rue McClanahan. Jaye decides that the Muses are trying to tell her that she needs to give Millie her fame back (Millie’s kind of washed up now). Karen’s not interested in co-authoring a book about Niagara with Millie, so it falls to another member of the Tyler family, Sharon, to help Jaye fulfill the Muses’ command. Sharon is part of an organization called Concerned Ladies of America West (CLAW), and Millie is going to speak at their next meeting.

The CLAW meeting has a very unwelcome crasher, though. Her name is Vivian Caldwell, and she claims that she was actually the first woman to go over the falls in the barrel. She and Millie were (unbeknownst to Vivian at the time) both dating the same sleazy manager, and he orchestrated it so that once Vivian made it over the falls, the more glamorous Millie would pop up and take all the credit. Millie admits that this is true, but she really, really doesn’t want the truth to get out. As previously mentioned, Mahandra is firmly on Millie’s side. She still sees Millie as a legend and doesn’t want to stop all over Niagara history. She drags poor, naïve Eric into the whole mess, too. The absurdity of the big feud just builds and builds until Mahandra, Millie, and Eric are stealing the “real” barrel from Vivian’s back yard and plotting their own over the falls stunt. Millie figures that she can ex post facto make the legend true by going over the falls now. It’s pretty obvious that going over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel with nothing for protection but a pillow is a very bad, likely fatal idea, but Millie is driven, Mahandra is egging her on, and Eric is powerless to do anything about it.

Jaye and Vivian head towards the water to try and stop the insanity, but when they see a smashed up barrel float by, they think they’re too late. Back at Vivian’s house, Jaye and Vivian realize that all was not as it seemed. Mahandra and Eric are sitting on the front porch, and Millie is in the kitchen. Millie starts apologizing to Vivian, but just as she’s getting into a nice speech about how there is still time left to make things right, she slumps in her chair, dead. I think that all of these events, particularly Jaye spending time with Vivian, helped Jaye to see where she could be in a few decades if she stayed on the same prickly, uber-cynical path. Deep down, I don’t think she really wants to be the angry lady who never got out of Niagara.

The end of the episode provides a rather creative resolution to the Muses’ command to “give it back to her.” We see a funeral just attended by Jaye, Mahandra, Eric, and Vivian, and we figure it must be for Millie. The pastor, however, gives a eulogy for Vivian. Vivian and Millie have essentially traded places, and Vivian is now going to go on a national over the falls in a barrel tour for CLAW using Millie’s name. Strangely, nobody who knows the truth seems to have much of a problem with this. It does, however, pretty well demonstrate Jaye going to more and more extreme lengths to placate the Muses. Now she’s willing to assist in a pretty major fraud. Jaye and Eric pouring the real Millie’s ashes into the water so she can finally actually go over the falls provided an appropriately bittersweet end to the episode.

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