The recurring theme in “The Wonder Years” is on dealing with change. Change in both the broader societal context- civil rights, politics, and space- as well as in life stages – from being a child with no care in world to being a teenager hopped on hormones and confusion.
Most episodes thus far have focused on how Kevin copes with various changes in his life, but this episode looks at how change impacts Norma and Jack Arnold.
I absolutely loved this episode for two reasons. First, we get additional insights into Norma and Jack Arnold as individuals and not just as Kevin’s parents (Kevin visiting his father’s office in Season 1 was another fave for the same reason). Secondly, the episode highlights the important concept of how marriages change over time, and uses a simple plot device to demonstrate an often overlooked point: often times it is a small, not big, change that leads to the shift in the marriage dynamics. In the case of Norma and Jack’s marriage, the small change is Norma taking pottery lessons.
The episode begins with Kevin’s explanation of Norma and Jack Arnold’s marriage:
“… they knew a lot about marriage. Like how to make a joint-decision. Mom would choose what she liked… Dad would choose what he liked…then they’d settle on something no one of our species could like. They could completely disagree about something, without directly contradicting each other.”
In essence, the Arnolds had established specific roles and familiar pattern of interactions. This routine is disrupted when Norma one day showcases a bowl she made at dinner, and announces to the family she has been taking pottery lessons. Suddenly, Norma is no longer just “Norma the housewife”, but is also “Norma, the pot and bowl maker.” While the whole family compliments Norma’s bowl, Jack says nothing.
Jack’s dislike of Norma’s hobby is further evidenced the next day, when he looks for the mug he loves, and Norma tells him that she made him a new mug to use instead. Jack clearly doesn’t like the new mug and initially resists, and Norma says he doesn’t have to use it. However, Jack angrily takes it from her after an argument. Later, Jack accidently knocks over the cup while at the dining table and the cup breaks into pieces. Neither Jack nor Norma directly addresses the incident, but there is a gloom over the meal, as Norma sits disappointedly, while Jack is silent and grumpy.
As Jack Arnold is a man tied to doing things the conventional and known ways, Norma’s hobby is as shattering to his world as an earthquake, as it changes Norma’s relationship to the family. For the first time, Norma has an interest that is not directly connected to Jack or the family. Norma, in essence, develops an independent identity, and that threatens how Jack and Norma have operated in the past.
I liked that the episode uses Norma’s hobby to not only show how people can change within a marriage, but also highlights the issues that do actually need to change for the marriage to grow and to be healthy. For the Arnolds, the issue for them is how they handle disagreements, with no actual outright disagreeing or expressing of differences in opinions. Instead, the anger festers underneath.
At the end of the episode, the Arnolds finally do come to blows over the lessons, when Norma tells Jack he is making her feel bad, and Jack gets angry at Norma raising her voice at him. The two remain angry with one another until the next day, when both are awkwardly in each other’s company in the kitchen. Norma hurts herself through ironing and breaks down crying, and Jack comforts her. The scene is touching, not only in how Jack comforts Norma, but in how it resolves the problem at hand, showing that despite this change, despite the differences, these two ultimately love each other, and that will help them navigate the changes their marriages will inevitably encounter.