After a solid outing in Who Do You Think You Are, Degrassi continues to be strong overall in Barely Breathing. This episode represents Degrassi’s willingness to occasionally step outside of predictable and cliché storytelling. One of the show’s strengths since its rebranding in season 10 has been the ability to create stories and have characters behave in the “gray area.” Both Maya and Alli’s storylines swim freely in that realm, while Dallas’ plot is s sneaky brilliant continuity play.
MAYA PLOT REVIEW: When you see storylines that involve bullying on TV, it’s usually one sided. There’s a clear victim, who suffers embarrassment at the hands of an antagonist. Degrassi does one better here, having the bullied retaliate (in a way that isn’t extreme, i.e. Rick Murray in Time Stands Still). It begs the question, do two wrongs make a right?
Maya still finds herself being harassed by people because of the defamatory Facerange page. Miles comes to her rescue after some guy attempts to grope Maya in an empty classroom. Though obvious to viewers (because there’s only one main character who hates Maya), Matlin learns that Zoë was the one behind the hate page. This leads to a physical fight between the two, which lands them in Simpson’s office. Maya and Zoë receive two weeks detention for fighting, but Simpson says can’t punish Zoë for cyberbullying because school computers weren’t used in the process. There is the option for Maya to press charges against Zoë, but neither her mom nor Ms. Rivas think it’s necessary.
Maya’s furious that Zoë basically received a slap on the wrist, and retaliates by performing a song for her class with lyrics that talk about how she wants to kill Zoë. Maya gets suspended, and though she feels as if her mom isn’t in her corner Mrs. Matlin agrees to back Maya if she does want to press charges against Zoë. After a brief house visit from Miles that ends with a kiss Maya decides not to press charges, opting to move on instead.
Barely Breathing is an appropriate title for this plot, given that there’s so many moving parts in the episode it’s almost overwhelming. The big thing is that there’s multiple routes this story could’ve taken, and choosing one direction means abandoning what could’ve been an even more (or less) interesting perspective. By the end of this episode the effects of cyberbullying specifically feels oddly enough like a wasted storyline idea. As prevalent and aggressive as cyberbullying today, there’s a disconnect between the gut-wrenching feeling of helplessness associated with cyberbullying and Maya’s pleas for action if one watches this as a standalone episode, primarily because the only instance of harassment in this episode is a weak effort by a guy listed in the ending credits as “Maya’s Harasser.”
However, the strength of this leg of the story lies in how someone being bullied from a generic standpoint reacts. Maya takes an aggressive approach with her song, which crosses the line. It’s a weird, yet enjoyable feeling being split over Maya’s actions versus her intentions. Maya’s frustration is understandable, highlighted by a moment in Simpson’s office where Zoë shoots Maya a smug look as she leaves. We want to see her exact revenge on Zoë, but we must acknowledge that she went too far and that the punishment she received was warranted. Zoë remains virtually unscathed in the episode, serving as a constant reminder to Maya that life isn’t always fair, and those who wrong us don’t always receive the karma we think they deserve.
A throwaway line in an episode winds up being a centerpiece of Dallas’ character nearly a year later. Drew wakes up one morning to find Dallas missing and his room completely empty. As the Ice Hounds load up the team bus, Drew spots the hockey team’s new captain, Luke Baker. Drew learns that Dallas was cut from the team, and none of the other players have seen or talked to him in weeks.
Dallas shows up for class with a hangover, and gets sick during his presentation with Drew. Later, Dallas tells Drew that he’s moving back home because he doesn’t know who he is without hockey. Drew tells Dallas that he considers him to be a brother, and doesn’t want to lose him too after having lost Adam. In the end, Dallas decides to stay in Toronto.
In the episode season 12 episode Never Ever, Dallas told Katie that his window of opportunity in hockey was closing because he’s “just not NHL material.” He said that an injury forcing him to quit the game would be easier on his ego than not getting into the NHL because he’s not good enough. He finally comes face-to-face with the reality of the latter, which explains his recent erratic behavior. Hockey was Dallas’ life, so it’s understandable he’d be lost without it. There’s a sad irony given his statement in Never Ever, though he knew his chances were slim, his conversation with drew outside of the Media Immersion room in Barely Breathing indicated that he always hopeful anyway. Drew and Dallas are the best bromance (and probably friendship in general) on Degrassi at the moment, as the two share a couple of endearing moments. Dallas’ future might be uncertain, but he and Drew are certainly highlights in Degrassi Season 13.
ALLI PLOT REVIEW: Alli finds herself covering up the bruise on her face after being hit by Leo in order to hide it from Clare and Jenna. Leo sends Alli balloons and an “I’m sorry” card, but she throws them away as she chooses to focus on her SATs. After Alli ignores all of Leo’s calls, he shows up at Degrassi to talk to her. Leo tells her that he loves her, and admits that he has rage issues and is “broken.” He says that he needs her help, but Alli just walks away.
The next day Alli tells Leo that she loves him, and that if they’re going to be together he will have to go to therapy. He agrees, and Alli tells him it’s his last chance; if he hits her again, she’s gone for good.
Everything about this storyline to date has been awkward in one way or another. The show initially tried to pitch Alli and Leo as an epic romance, something only the two of them seemed to believe. We’ve seen them transition into something not even close to that; Leo’s temper has caused him to be physically abusive toward Alli not once, but twice. At one point watching Alli and Leo was unbearable in a “this relationship is pointless” way. Now I find myself feeling uncomfortable because of the current circumstances, as one watching this storyline should.
Degrassi could’ve followed the predictable path, and have Alli be resolute in her decision to stay away from Leo after he slapped her in Who Do You Think You Are. It would follow a formula similar to Kathleen Mead’s abusive relationship in Degrassi High. Her boyfriend, Scott, was physically aggressive multiple times, each instance becoming more violent until she reached her breaking point and walked away.
Kathleen’s storyline was scary because of how quickly Scott flew into a blind rage, a mentality so reckless that at one point he abused her in the middle of Degrassi’s hallways in plain sight. With Alli the vibe is more sadness than fear, watching a girl with a bright future continually getting sucked into a toxic situation. The discomfort watching this storyline is based on the show’s willingness to extend this plot longer expected. Viewers are looking at it with the “fool me once…” mentality, while Degrassi takes it one step further…a reality that’s difficult to swallow.
But as some question what message this plot sends, believing that it implies that it’s okay for a guy to abuse you, I think of it this way: is it better to show that it’s never okay for someone to abuse you and that you should leave an abusive relationship immediately, or show the heartbreaking consequences of what happens when one chooses to stay in said relationship? Alli may have forgiven Leo for now, but I still can’t imagine a scenario where Degrassi would, in good conscience, allow this to end “happily ever after.”