us vs theme

The Biggest Clue is in the Pilot, Part Three: Theme vs Plot in ‘The Beard’

(Part One)(Part Two)

Before we get any further into BMW ‘The Beard’ as it relates to “the story” of Girl Meets World, we’ve got to pause the parallel parade to lay out an important technical distinction. I apologize in advance if you already understand the concept of theme vs plot, but bear with me.

Part One covered how parallels between BMW/GMW are important in terms of giving us a CLUE as to what’s going on, but those parallels don’t play out in the exact same way because the characters aren’t the same people. They have different motivations, different personalities, and different dynamics with each other. So even when a situation is similar (in terms of dialogue, visuals, etc), the way it spools out is never an exact carbon copy. Part Two covered a major example of this with the false parallel to ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ in GM First Date, which is actually a parallel to 'The Beard.’

This point brings us to THEME vs PLOT. The plot is what happens. The course of events. The plot of 'The Beard’ is that Shawn gets asked out by two girls, he can’t choose between them, he gets Cory to “babysit” one of them to keep her off the market while he goes out with “the other one”…(we’ll get to the rest of the episode later). But…so what?

What’s the point? Who cares? Why is any of this happening? What’s this whole thing ABOUT? Why even tell this story? Well, that’s where theme comes in. So what’s the theme of ‘The Beard’?

  • Amy & Alan’s subplot deals with Amy choosing between a minivan or a sports car.
  • Turner’s lesson is about Hamlet, a character wracked by indecision.
  • Feeny’s lesson is about JFK during the Cold War/Cuban Missile Crisis and the weight of the choices he had to make.
  • Shawn is caught between two girls…
  • …and Cory? Well, he ends up torn between his best friend and his girlfriend (no, not Topanga).

And that’s our “so what?” 'The Beard’ deals with choices and decision-making, or more accurately, with avoiding decisions, or with making decisions for other people. Amy can’t choose which car to get, so Alan runs out and buys the practical minivan for her without talking to her about it. Amy gets upset because while she understands that the minivan is the sensible choice, it’s not what she wanted and Alan didn’t consult her. Shawn is so wracked by indecision that he cooks up a scheme which objectifies the two girls he’s torn between, who are given no say in the matter at all (there’s the “lesson” for the boys). After Shawn ropes Cory into the scheme, Cory finds himself staring down a choice that no one ever wants to make for the first time (or ever, really). There’s also a secondary thematic idea involved in ‘The Beard’ which relates directly to Farkle and Cory, but we’re gonna get to that later.

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(not pictured: Shawn’s dilemma, because we covered that in Parts One & Two)
(gifs courtesy of @kacie-ville)

The purpose of these conflicts centered around choices and indecision is to explore the theme. These conflicts make the characters real and compelling and relate-able, because indecision over difficult choices is something everyone has struggled with (or will struggle with) at some point or another. The theme is what makes the plot feel “real” and worth watching. The plot is just how we get the pieces into place and explore the theme. The theme, along with the motivations and personalities of each of the main characters, drives the plot.

So, how does this all tie back to Girl Meets World? You can probably see how the indecision theme relates to Lucas and Farkle, our two boys who both have feelings for two girls—three girls in Farkle’s case. (And I’m going to lay out a strong proof for Lucas having feelings for both girls all along later on, don’t worry). But of course the boys don’t drive the plot of GMW. They aren’t in the driver’s seat because GMW doesn’t revolve around them. While they are major players, they aren’t the main characters like Cory & Shawn were on BMW. In Lucas’s case, he takes 100% self-motivated direct action so rarely that we even get a crack about how he “never DOES anything” in GM Rules, not to mention the “whatever way you’ll eventually tell me…” line in GM Bay Window.  The Hamlet reference in ‘The Beard’ is especially interesting given the two big Hamlet-related costuming cues for Lucas (delivered via Maya) in two episodes that go one right after the other. Both of those episodes (GM New World and GM Secret of Life) deal with Lucas facing some pretty difficult choices. More on Lucas + Hamlet over here with @its-austen-anon-scholar​.

Riley and Maya are the primary drivers of the plot on Girl Meets World, especially as relates to the triangle-not-triangle. We can also see how ‘The Beard’ relates to them: just like Alan up and buying a car for Amy without consulting her, and just like Shawn and Cory shuffling the girls around without giving them a say, they’ve been making decisions for Lucas (and indirectly, Farkle). First Maya makes the decision for Lucas by constantly pushing him towards Riley while hiding her own feelings, and then Riley makes it for him by removing herself from the equation with a bold-faced lie instead of open and honest communication. In neither case did Lucas make a fully informed choice between Riley & Maya all on his own. 

Riley & Maya, not the boys, are the ones whose choices are driving the most of the major plot points of this non-triangle, and their biggest decisions on the matter (Maya pushing Lucas at Riley in the first place and later Riley’s failed attempt to “step back”) are largely based on protecting their friendship and doing what they think is right by each other rather than on what they want from Lucas, or how they feel about him, or whatever he may feel/want. Until, GMNY, when Maya decides (after much thought and a talk with Corpanga) to put herself and her feelings for Lucas ahead of her friendship with Riley, at least for this one important night. And Maya’s “for who?” on the roof is the first and only time so far anyone involved in the situation has even remotely asked Lucas what he wants in the first place!

However, Riley & Maya aren’t purposefully objectifying Lucas the way Shawn (& Cory) did with Linda & Stacy. They aren’t scheming here at all. Again, both girls are just trying to do right by each other, first and foremost, and that determination to do what’s best for each other and their friendship has been the primary driving force of the triangle-not-triangle plot so far, in which the boys mostly just float along in the wake of the girls’ decisions. Until GM Texas, of course, when Lucas finally starts to take some action entirely and unequivocally of his own volition, even if it’s under the shadow of Riley’s lie. And then in GM New Year, Farkle gets involved and directs the plot by blabbing. The boys are finally starting to take some real action, entirely on their own, to influence the direction of the plot—and that’s going to shake things up more and more as we get into S3, I’m sure.

Now obviously Girl Meets World isn’t a series all about indecision, or tough choices, or having things decided for you even though those ideas do play a role in all this. Girl Meets World is an entire series rather than a single episode, so the long-reaching story arcs deal with more than one theme. The triangle-not-triangle arc is a big centerpiece of the show in terms of exploring a few specific themes—it’s not just about romance/romantic love, and it’s definitely not about cheap romantic drama for the sake of ratings or “fanservice.” This is bigger and better than that. 

The primary romantic theme on Boy Meets World, introduced in its pilot, was that love is the most important thing in the world, and that love is worth every ounce of heartache and struggle required to earn it and make it last. We saw Cory explore this theme in a lot of different ways over the course of seven years, culminating in his marriage to Topanga and then continuing with their early marital struggles. The presence of the “love is worth everything” theme explored so deeply on BMW looms large over GMW because the new show stands on the shoulders of the old one. But Girl Meets World is exploring love (among other things) a bit differently than its parent show did, with a different primary romantic theme which expands upon the original rather than simply repeating it.

Next up: Part Four, where we get into the nitty gritty of the broad thematic foundations for Girl Meets World, after which we’ll get back to the parallel parade.