I have to confess: I’m stupidly excited to be reviewing this back half of Bunheads’ first season. “The Astronaut and the Ballerina,” although it had me concerned at first, proved exactly why. Because even with its slow beginning and a cast list lacking three of my faves (SASHAAAAA.gif) - the emotional payoffs were meaningful, and ultimately the perfect progressions for this show and its gloriously flawless constructions. In case it hasn’t been clear, I’m a structure nerd, especially when it comes to character and arc design… and Bunheads is proving to be so stellar in this area that I’m afraid it might actually be breaking my brain.
The centerpiece of the episode was, indeed, the dynamic between the Astronaut and the Ballerina - or rather, between new character Scotty Simms and his little sister… our one and only Michelle. (If that sentence was confusing, blame the fact that the episode’s title starts with the Astronaut and not the Ballerina. I did the best I could.) I admit, I wasn’t terribly keen on Scotty’s introduction at first. Why do we need to meet Michelle’s brother - especially when Sasha, and Truly, and Fanny are nowhere to be seen? Their early scenes were cute, sure, in the Foster siblings’ charming kind of way, but… what was the point?
I was a fool to wonder. Because every scene with Michelle and Scotty was, in fact, slow-burn kindling for the episode-ending argument which blew up in their faces. And suddenly, it made perfect sense. Of course we have to meet Michelle’s brother - or at least, some blood relative from her life past. Bunheads 1.2 has endeavored to put Michelle on a new path, to anchor this lost soul with purpose and meaning and a new family to call home. (Seriously. She wandered the desert [of Nevada] for an entire episode.) And what better way to test that conviction than to bring someone from Michelle’s Life 1.0 and let them confront her new choices?
All of Michelle’s scenes with Scotty were designed, sneakily, to show Scotty that Michelle’s circumstances have changed. Michelle has even changed, maybe. She has students, and responsibilities, and she knows every Paradise resident drinking at the Oyster Bar. Michelle is a part of Paradise now, and so the argument of course has to end with Scotty calling into question Michelle’s change. There are a few things that are great about this. First: we get a glimpse into Michelle’s family life. The title of the episode, “The Astronaut and the Ballerina” alludes to Scotty and Michelle’s grand plans for their lives - except their lives didn’t exactly turn out to that expectation. Both share an aura of unfulfilled potential and wandering irresponsibility, even down to similarity in reckless marriages. Except Michelle isn’t really like that anymore, now that she has a home in Paradise, and so the next great thing about this whole exchange is Michelle’s reaction to Scotty inadvertently attacking her new way of life.
Remember how 1x11 showed Michelle wandering in the desert and brought her home, 1x12 tangled Michelle up in Truly’s life, and 1x13 tangled her up in Sasha’s? Well, 1x14 shows Michelle standing up and defending those choices. In related news, this beautiful construction makes me want to die. Because Michelle, in her place as the show's central figure, has gone from a passive character whose one dumb choice spirals her life out of control, and is becoming a character who actively fights for the pieces of her life, no matter how wacky or unplanned. Growth! Development! Arc! Swoon.
The mind boggles that this concept could even be any more perfectly incorporated in “The Astronaut and the Ballerina” - and yet, there’s icing on the already-delicious cake. Because it’s not as though Talia came to town and questioned Michelle’s new life. It’s of particular importance that this role belonged to Michelle’s brother, because it underscores the notion that Bunheads is building an ensemble of found family dynamics. And it’s embracing that! Michelle flat-out says that she can make her family just as she can make her own destiny - and Fanny, her new family, is the one that taught her that. Michelle rejects her brother barging into her new life and deflating the purpose she’s found there. It doesn’t matter that it's her blood brother, and it doesn't matter that she stumbled drunkenly into this life. It’s her new life, her new family, and she’s working hard to keep it now. She can do this. And Baryshnikov help me, I am so delighted to see Michelle on this journey.
The other emotional power-punch of "The Astronaut and the Ballerina" came in Mel and Ginny’s storyline. Melanie has been ditching ballet for roller derby as per the suggestion of Cozette, and Ginny is under maximum stress as her father’s wedding to Fay Mendelson marches ever closer. This is classic BFF drama: interests are changing, new friends emerging, and the weight of that redirection can harm a worn-in relationship. But Bunheads, by virtue of strong writing as well as the performances of Emma Dumont and Bailey Buntain, made it something more than the basics. By showing us Melanie and Ginny’s mixed-family dinner, and the familiarity between the two parents, we got a glimpse behind the simple idea that these two were originally a packaged comedic pair to support Sasha and Boo’s main teen characters status. Melanie and Ginny really are best friends - to the point where their operation as a partnership is genuinely something real for them.
Naturally, the conflict escalated to Melanie forgetting to show up and support Ginny through Fay Mendelson’s photoshoot madhouse, and Ginny discovering Melanie’s roller derby secret - the one that’s pulled them apart. I won’t deny that both girls’ reactions pretty much broke my heart, and in that moment I was so happy that these two now get conflict like this instead of Charlie drama. Melanie has every right to a new interest, especially in that it’s a relief from the pressure of applying to colleges; and Ginny has every right to be upset that her best friend isn’t there for her when she really needs her - and would ordinarily have her emotional support. But before we could feel too heartbroken, the material flipped quickly to comedy - I laughed hysterically when Ginny shrieked “I’M NORWEGIAN!” at Frankie before she stomped away. Last week's episode really showed off Melanie coming into her own as a character, and this episode served the same for Ginny. Mostly, I’m just so pleased that this storyline was taken seriously - and emotionally - as a real issue for two girls who have long been attached at the hip.
Rounding out the episode was the continuation of Godot and Michelle’s flirtation (after her apology via Finding Nemo DVD, natch) as well as the introduction of Ballet Generalissimo Jordan. But my favorite background bit of the hour, by far, was Boo and Carl comedically falling into a harried marriage storyline. I know I ragged on the show for devoting time to the prospect of these two getting married young, but this was a hilarious way to extend (and invert) that notion - by basically showing that Boo and Carl already ARE married. Plus, it furthers the delightful notion that these teenagers are really just mini-sized adults, AND, allows for Boo to have some comedic moments. How great was her spiral into mother-speak, as she valiantly tackled Ginny’s problems with the promise of a juicebox, and the Jordan Problem with a threat for timeout? I also genuinely laughed at her repeating the name “Beaver” over and over again as she tried to get the kid’s attention during ballet. It seems that while Julia Goldani Telles and Emma Dumont have the corner on pitch-perfect sarcasm and flippant remarks, tonight’s episode proved that Bailey Buntain and Kaitlyn Jenkins round out the square with great delivery of frenzied neuroticism. Well done.
So even without three of the show's 1.2 heavyhitters, “The Astronaut and the Ballerina” built its way to strong emotional payoffs that honored both perfectly-constructed character arcs and well-developed relationships. I don’t think I could ask anything more from a show, especially one that keeps me entertained along the way with jokes like “Scary Skate and Crashley Olson.” There are loose ends from tonight’s episode that will surely continue, from Sasha’s apartment hunt to Melanie’s relationship with Roller Derby and/or Cozette (intrigued set of question marks???) and I can’t wait to see how Bunheads handles them.
The Report Card:
Joke of the Night: "I'M NORWEGIAN!!!"
Scene of the Night: Michelle and Scotty's argument
Episode MVP: Michelle (Ginny's a close second)