How to write romance without insulting half of humanity

The third season of Wings came out on DVD recently and I’ve just had a chance to re-watch some of what I’ve written about before, from memory. It’s even better than I remembered – hilarious and often poignant. But it also features one of the best, least stereotyped breakup stories I’ve ever seen. It’s layered and complex as hell for a sitcom – just like relationships in real life tend to be. I’m afraid this is more of a summary than an analysis, because if you’re familiar with the shallow tripe that usually passes for TV romance, this story speaks for itself. It’s not ship: it’s a story about people.

At the end of season 2, Helen abruptly leaves Nantucket to pursue her dream of becoming a concert cellist in New York. This means she’s also leaving Joe – her best friend of twenty years, and boyfriend of one year. They don’t establish any ground rules about whether it’s a breakup, or what. At the beginning of Season 3 we learn she’s been in New York ten months without so much as phoning Joe. We also learn he’s found a new girlfriend – Gail. When Joe and Brian go to New York to check on her, she’s working as a cocktail waitress and living in a hellhole of an apartment, with no music career in sight. They convince her to come back home.

When they get home, Helen finds out about Gail, and she’s livid. Not that Joe found someone else – she takes responsibility for the fact that she left him high and dry and he had no idea where they stood. But because he didn’t tell her about Gail. So now she’s back in Nantucket with no career, no relationship, no money, no life. In such a small town, everyone knows both that she failed at her music career and lost all her savings in New York and that Joe has dumped her for another woman, so her humiliation is public. Helen doesn’t handle humiliation well.

She copes with her frustration by driving her jeep through Joe’s office and destroying it, then cackling about it. Typical raging harpy? At first you might think so, if you’re not already familiar with Helen’s violent temper – but wait until the next episode. Joe sues her for the damage to his office. He wins; she pays her first installment; he needles her incessantly while she’s sitting in the jeep parked next to his rebuilt office; she drives through the office again. It’s after this that Brian and the others realize she may really have a problem. They do an intervention to get her to go to a self-help group for dealing with loss. During a roleplay, Helen nearly ends up throttling the little old man playing Joe. She apologizes and tells the group leader it’s just not going to work for her, and the leader says if Helen can’t continue with them, she must find someone to talk to about her feelings. Doesn’t she have anyone?

“Of course I do,” Helen says. “I always talk to…” And then she gets it, and goes to tell Joe: whenever something rotten has happened in her life, she’s always turned to Joe. Only this time the rotten thing that happened was Joe, so there was nowhere for her anger to turn. He responds by telling her the same thing he told her in high school when some guy mistreated her: any guy who would mistreat a girl like her must be a real jerk. And they gradually get back to being friends.

It gets even better. A while later, Helen and Gail are still awkward around each other – one time they even have a good old-fashioned verbal catfight. But it’s not a fight over who gets Joe: Gail thinks Helen is insane (given the jeep through the office thing, who can blame her?) and Helen is jealous of Gail more for having a romantic relationship than that she’s having it with Joe. Joe convinces the two of them to go to lunch and get to know each other, and to his dismay they not only form a truce – they become instant best friends. They compare notes on his sexual fantasies and laugh about his eccentricities. Then one evening, Joe starts needling Helen again, suggesting that she’s only hanging out with Gail to come between them because she’s not over him. The argument escalates until they wind up kissing passionately. Of course, that’s when Gail comes in. Both Helen and Joe apologize to her sincerely and profusely, but after some calm discussion about the unresolved feelings between Joe and Helen, she dumps Joe and leaves “while we can still be friends.” He says he hopes they can be, and Gail says, “Oh, I was talking about Helen and me.”

After that, Joe turns to Helen, ready to finish what they’d started before Gail walked in. But Helen says she’s just got her life back together, and she can’t get into this again. And so she leaves, and that’s the end of the breakup story.

It’s natural that Helen and Gail were uncomfortable with each other at first. It’s also natural that they quickly moved on: Joe isn’t the only thing they have in common. And Helen’s apology to Gail for being caught kissing Joe is heartfelt, without a hint of smugness: she’s betrayed a friend. Gail’s response – to analyze the situation and determine there isn’t enough worth saving – is incredibly sensible. Her comment to Joe is a classic: “What you and I have is kind of special. What you and Helen have is kind of special. What Helen and I have is kind of special. What the three of us have is kind of sick!”

This is the classic story of boy dumps girl for new girl, old girl gets jealous, gets revenge, gets boy back. But because there’s so much more going on here, and the writers confront it relentlessly to show us just what the age-old emotions of betrayal, jealousy and revenge mean in this moment, in this fictional Nantucket, to these three unimportant people, there’s no question of it being a statement about all men and women. It’s not stereotype – it’s story.


  1. says

    The thing that always bothered me about the break-up was that it was based largely on Helen’s anger that Joe felt it was okay to ask her to give up her dream (cello playing) but not to ask Joe to give up his (running, and piloting for, his airline).

    Yet, in fact Joe had made it clear to Helen that he didn’t feel that it would be fair to ask her to do so – she’s the one who offered to give up her new job as a cellist (which, as it turns out, she didn’t get hired for anyway).

    Of course, one can read more stuff going on between the lines, but I wish at one point Joe had actually brought this fact up.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    The thing that always bothered me about the break-up was that it was based largely on Helen’s anger that Joe felt it was okay to ask her to give up her dream (cello playing) but not to ask Joe to give up his (running, and piloting for, his airline).

    I read it differently. In that final fight, she does seize briefly on the job comparison issue, but it falls flat because it’s really not really the problem, and then she figures out what is the problem: the fact that he can’t bring himself to ask her to stay because that would mean commitment. The job thing is just her first stab at sorting out what’s really bugging her – and that’s the commitment issue.

    Then she loses the job, rendering that issue a moot point. And he still can’t ask her to stay.

    Why she leaves for NY the next morning isn’t clearly explained, but my take was always that she realized during the night: here she was expecting him to commit to her when she wasn’t willing to commit to her lifelong dream. So she commits to the dream. Then, at the last minute, in a bit of a panic, Joe manages to ask her to stay, and she’s grateful… but she doesn’t break the commitment she’s already made to her career.

    The job issue is never mentioned again after the early stages of that fight. Her music career is certainly an issue for her, but I don’t think either of them believe it’s the real issue between them. Ultimately, I think it’s just what she says: she’s put her whole life on hold for this career dream, and she’s got to sink or swim now, so she can move forward in one direction or another.

    In the end, the question of blame seems less important to either of them than how they can move forward from here. I think there’s a lot that could be said about who done who wrong, but given their 20 year history the chain of consequence/action would probably backtrack all the way to when they were kids and still not be resolved.

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