Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film, or in this case, TV. Each installment intends to examine movies and shows that involve significant musical subject content, distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene.
This is a special series devoted to the first and only season of Freaks and Geeks, one of my favorite TV shows for many reasons (outlined in more detail here), especially because it used music very well. For 18 weeks I will write about the music in each episode. I’m also going to share some stories about my high school experiences. For more detailed recaps, be sure to check out the ongoing write ups by Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club, or the 2007 posts by Alan Sepinwall.
This episode finds the show seeming to embrace a common television trope – the Halloween episode timed to air around the actual day (10/30 for F&G – close!) – only to go in a fairly depressing direction, despite being one of the sunniest Halloweens I’ve ever seen on screen. The reason why it’s a downer is because it’s more about how a family deals with the inevitable fracturing that comes as kids grow up than, say, the kookiness of the holiday.
Musically, the innovation of “Tricks and Treats” is using one song, “Gonna Raise Hell” by Cheap Trick, at three different points of the episode. On each play, we hear a different part and see a certain arc progressing that conveys a theme of this show about growing up more saliently than we’ve yet seen: being caught between parents and friends. Adolescents figuring out who they are “supposed to be" in this context is another manifestation of the identity development concept I find so interesting, which we've already experienced in the first two episodes. Todd's write up at the AV Club really breaks this down masterfully. My analysis definitely builds on his.
I could only find an example clip of the first time it plays. It's a hilarious scene of the geeks putting on their costumes: Sam becoming Gort, Neal reaching Groucho Marx by way of Charlie Chaplin, Hitler, and Tom Selleck, and, most memorably, Bill as the Bionic Woman. I don’t want to get too sidetracked, but Martin Starr is so impressive as Bill (his little mirror role plays are great!), partially because I have not seen him play another character as sweet and unguarded. I never dressed as a woman for Halloween, but I have worn costumes and been oblivious to how much differently (i.e. strangely, to be generous) they’d be received by everyone versus how they seem in my head. When we hear the song at this point, it feels ironic. The geeks are not going to do anything close to cool or rebellious. It illustrates that maybe at age 15, one ought to rethink the desire to wear a weird costume and go ask for candy. Sam initially didn’t even want to trick or treat. When Mrs. Weir proposed the idea, it seemed childish to him (leading to some great identity contradictions of him coming down hard on Neal’s subsequent questioning of the idea when he floats it at the lunch table, just like Lindsay’s airs about the party last week).
On the other hand, Lindsay initially had no issues with the plan to hand out candy with her mom. She even tells the rest of the freaks she can’t go out with them for this very reason. Oof! But after she sees Millie and her secret boyfriend, doubt sets in. The show perfectly captures the conflict between familial obligation and adolescent desire in the moment when Lindsay is going to tell her Mom she has changed her mind, but the sight of an overjoyed, costumed Mrs. Weir is too much. Lindsay doesn’t have the heart to tell her mom that she now has to break their plans, even if her face says it all. Lindsay's lack of words, a choice made out of guilt or compassion (probably both), conveys the challenge of handling this type of situation. It's easier to not deal with it.
We next hear Cheap Trick when Lindsay rides around in the car with the freaks, a much more literal depiction of the song’s meaning. Lindsay keeps offering up plans, which Nick defends since he likes her, but Daniel, Kim, and Ken all want to drive aimlessly and have a little fun vandalizing. Lindsay is put off by this at first, wrestling with the good kid she is supposed to be based on her upbringing and the regular kid she is supposed to be – the idea that one’s teenage years are allowed to be reckless. The mounting glee Lindsay experiences as she first witnesses then participates in pumpkin smashing and mailbox bashing reinforces the latter, but Lindsay's devastation upon realizing she has egged her brother demonstrates the former cannot easily be shaken. When that happened, the luster of raising hell was lost.
In the aftermath of Sam’s egging, “Gonna Raise Hell” comes on again, only it’s harder to recognize the slow middle portion where the sole word heard is “Mother" that plays. It's a very interesting choice because, most directly, this passage provides a more somber tone as Sam makes his way home and Mrs. Weir contemplates her night’s sad turn of events – and her kids have not even returned. The use of “mother” and the emotion of its delivery heighten the poignancy of the visuals. It’s like the song has revealed its true center, that all the bravado belied anguish underneath. Or, it's the melancholy aftermath of hell raising. Though Lindsay wasn’t the onscreen focus for the last Cheap Trick segment, it seems most representative of her perspective. We saw the two people she disappointed most. Lindsay goes home and Sam does a masterful job of telling her off using veiled language so their parents don’t learn the truth, (second straight episode where Sam doesn’t sell Lindsay out despite his urge to) but when they are alone he unleashes, telling her “No one thinks you’re cool, you know.” Lindsay does know. By assuming the identity of a hell-raiser, she put the final and most humiliating touch on Sam’s miserable night. She capsized in the turbulent water of trying to please both family and friends, ultimately pleasing no one. In the end, she gets into costume and gives out candy. Fittingly, the costume is wrong, suggesting that some things have to change, not matter how much as a parent and even the child may not want them to. The end of the episode, ostensibly a nice moment, feels a bit hollow; two minutes like this can’t quite wash away the other forty. The consequences of Lindsay grappling with her identity do not make for the most uplifting viewing, but as a depiction of the moment when the transition of becoming an adult irrevocably begins – an occurrence in every single person’s life – it is remarkable.
The other musical uses and references in the episode:
-April Wine’s “Roller” and Ted Nugent’s “Free For All” play over scenes in the car as the freaks drive around and create some light mayhem.
-Mrs. Weir has plenty of awkwardly naive moments in the show. The most musical in this episode is her dinner table performance of the “Monster Mash.” Mr. Weir’s look of horror is masterful. This moment occurs when Sam has flipped to wanting to trick or treat and he joins in. Lindsay on the other hand knows she will be skipping out despite her earlier promise, so this display makes her feel bad.
-Nick continues to have music characterize him. He wears a Zidjian (a drum cymbal maker) T-Shirt. It is also revealed that he’s in a band with Daniel when the two discuss Santana. Nick has a traditional viewpoint of band dynamics, as his mind is blown that the namesake of the band is not the singer but a guitarist. “How did he get them to name the band after him?” he wonders. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a big deal to the typically unperturbed Daniel, who remarks “Maybe he’s just a badass.”
-Ken ends up being the fifth wheel on the Halloween double date, but he was supposed to be seeing Ted Nugent.
I have to admit, I’m not readily coming up with any story that relates well to this episode from my high school days. I did go to school for Halloween junior year as Waldo as a ten year anniversary reprisal of my first grade costume. I make a kick ass Waldo and it was pretty well-received. Not much of a story there. I always was close to my family and often felt torn about some obligation that conflicted with hanging out with my friends, so the Weir family dynamic and Lindsay's arc of this episode were all too familiar. I am absolutely certain that I would get into arguments with my mom about not wanting to do whatever was planned so I could be with my friends, who would put on the pressure in that sly way “Oh, you really have to do family stuff?”, only to get there and have us end up doing next to nothing. That's not a specific story, though.
More concrete than the “caught between two worlds” concept, was recognizing my friends and I in the action of driving around for something to do. I’m sure it’s universal in most places where there are limited options growing up, so basically everywhere. For me, it often felt like a car was another room in which to hang out, only it was on wheels and moved around. My hometown Erie, PA has a defined downtown urban area, a peninsula, and in about 15 minutes, you can clear the city limits and be in the rural counties. That meant a variety of options when it came to hitting the road. The drive we held most dear was a winding route out to the famed Gudgeonville Bridge, one of the few remaining wooden covered bridges in the state – until it was burned down by some heartless assholes a few years ago. It was ideal because it felt far enough away that you were going somewhere. That allowed for time to talk, crack jokes, listen to music, etc. en route. The Bridge had a special otherworldly quality to it, a loose connection to the spookiness of Halloween, if you will. We all knew it wasn’t haunted, but it was the kind of place that made urban legends understandable. For me, the palpable history was cool, and the remoteness of the area was always more unsettling than any possible spirit. Who were the people that lived out there? It was easy to get in your own head and imagine some sort of horror film premise, that they were all hillbilly killers just waiting for our car to break down and strand us. The mood was heightened by a small cemetery with Civil War-era headstones nearby, as well as something we only ever have referred to as the Satanic Church. It’s a mysterious compound that always has faint lights on, but windows covered, cars parked on site, and no exterior identification or signage of any sort. None of us have ever figured out what happens there. It’s probably benign. But maybe it isn’t. That kind of imagining was part of the fun. It became so much a part of what we did that even now when I'm back in Erie, my friends and I are likely to go for a drive. Just happened last month, in fact.
Did you spend a lot of time driving around during your high school days? Any memorable Halloween stories? How did you balance family and friends?
Other installments in the series:
- The Pilot + Styx "Come Sail Away"
- Beers and Weirs + "Jesus Is Just Alright" as performed by Nick and Millie
- Tricks and Treats
- Kim Kelly Is My Friend + Van Halen "Ice Cream Man"
- Tests and Breasts + Love Unlimited Orchestra "Love's Theme"
- I'm With the Band + Cream and Rush
Listen to the songs in the show on this Spotify playlist: