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Girl Meets World - Girl Meets Sweet Sixteen - Review

At last, we know the truth. It’s been weeks, months, but finally, we’re here, at the grand reveal, and the long national nightmare is over.

Lucas and Riley are dating, guys.

Okay, okay, I know that’s just one of many tidbits in last night’s typical Girl Meets World. It’s not even really the important beat, and in a more conventional review, I might gloss over it. (Although it’s not really any more important than the surprise sweet sixteen the show promises and doesn’t, at least yet, deliver.) But the show is ending, our characters might be splitting up, and in a penultimate episode all about relationships and endurance even when life splits us apart, it feels like a crucial one to discuss as we head into the series finale. Not because it is vital in itself—“Girl Meets Sweet Sixteen” makes explicit what’s always (well, mostly always) been clear in the show’s structure: Maya/Riley is more important than Maya or Riley/Everyone Else. Nor is it because, I think anyway, the show is saying Lucas is but a chapter in Riley’s life, or a misstep—he’s being respectful, as he always, and their quiet support of one another even in the face of an uncertain future is directly what inspires the Farkle/Smackle subplot after all, as they worry they don’t know how to clearly communicate their feelings to one another the same way.

It simply stands out because, in a penultimate episode all about relationships, I should not be floored by information we technically, theoretically, already know. Because Girl Meets World’s handling of this tidbit, I feel, accurately reflects why this is a penultimate episode, and why I think this show might have been doomed from the start of the season, however true and legitimate the bandied about money reasons on the internet may be. I’m not a Disney executive, I can’t say what numbers they’re looking at, but I do know what I’m watching, and it’s all here. In Lucas casually asking Riley whether she thinks they’ll last. In her saying, with a pause, she hopes so. In him, after some chitter chatter, agreeing and them holding hands, small smiles. Riley and Lucas are dating, and within the internal world of GMW, I am sure this moment makes sense. It’s been a while since “Meets Ski Lodge.” There’s a structure to be made here, a story, from the episodes GMW has given us as well. Riley and Lucas tried dating before they were ready. Then, Riley realized she might lose Lucas, if they dated, and thought him being a friend might mean she won’t ever lose him. With time though, Riley realized they can’t be just friends, and while the uncertainty lingers, she’s trying to focus on the present with them, and stop worrying about it lasting. That’s all well and good as a plot, all reasonable. I would even argue that’s what we’ve been told.

Half a season into this new-but-old order though, I ask: is this really what we’ve been shown? Off the top of my head, I think we’ve had exactly one episode make any clear mention of the fact Lucas and Riley are dating—and even that was half told to us. It was Zay promising us it will happen, probably, eventually. It was alongside Riley and Lucas having a quiet moment while looking for her bear, but that could just as easily been a friend moment without the greater context. It is not dating, not anything particularly distinct from what happened before “Meets Ski Lodge,” and I’ve looked. Read these reviews, and you will see me slowly, begrudgingly accept with every passing episode that my desire for clarity on this subject was not going to be met—that by the show’s estimation, I should be either clear on this subject, or not think about it, because the show’s not a romance.

But while that’s true—the show is not a romance, and is rightly more about Riley and Maya as a pair than either of them in their love lives—that’s not really the kicker to me. It’s not that I care about seeing Riley and Lucas date. (History will in fact show that I don’t particularly want to see them date.)

The kicker instead is two-fold: I need to see proof that it’s happening so that I care that it’s happening; and I need to see it so I understand why it’s happening.

Right now, I can’t do either. I don’t care, when Riley and Lucas have their moment of hope in this episode, and it’s not a matter of them being less than Riley and Maya, as they fret over what they’ll do with their conflicting career goals. It’s not a matter of Riley and Maya being the main focus, in an episode that is mostly a long preamble into the reveal Topanga may have to move the family to London after a work promotion, and Riley and Lucas being mostly a side note.

It’s that the show thinks it can be a sidenote. It’s that, in that very second of their holding hands, the moment only works if I feel good about how far they’ve come that they can have such a mature attitude about it. If I know they are dating, and I know where they’re at—something which is impossible to do, because I never see them together. I don’t see Riley and Lucas talking one on one together, I don’t see them flirting or looking or kissing or touching. Riley and Lucas never engage with their relationship in any way unless it comes with a Tell, a lesson sketched around whatever lesson is the episode’s theme this week; and while there’s some investment to come from early moments in the series, from our good will to the performers and characters, that’s all leftover. That has nothing to do with who they are now, as a couple—because I don’t really know who they are now, as a couple.

And that’s, narratively speaking, rather dangerous. That is how, if I were another kind of person, I could decide that the fact I don’t care is itself a sign that the relationship is meant to be wrong. There’s a way to view this show believing the children are being naive, that they don’t realize their relationship is false and that they’ve made the wrong choice, way back in “Ski Lodge”—because even when the show shows nothing, the audience is still looking. We’re still watching, and if we don’t know what we’re supposed to be seeing it’s only natural to try and fill in the gaps. When this episode starts, even for me, there is a tiny moment where I wondered, what with Riley’s uncertainty, what with Farkle saying if Smackle liked Lucas he’d stand down, whether this episode was going down a path of investigating why Riley is uncertain about her relationship with Lucas. If we were going to end the season with another twist in the love triangle, just when the show was flipping over into a new season. And even when the episode quickly changes gears, I don't feel confident saying that could never happen, in another universe with a fourth season. Not because I actually believe it will, or because I think I'm seeing clues of it, but because however much all of the above Riley/Lucas beats of their story played out, with the worry and the friendship and the break-up, I’m still making up completely the fact that was the plot. I’m speculating that to be the story, barring the show telling me otherwise.

That’s mind-boggling to me, even knowing week to week that it was true. I have talked before, about the difference between a lie and a twist, and this show’s inability to articulate the difference. But knowing it doesn’t make it any more dismaying, this sense that the show may at all times be lying to us. This handholding, positioned as it is, comes too late to do anything but be uncertain, even when I do mostly think the show doesn’t mean it to be anything but certain. And while there’s something to be said for subtle writing, this isn’t subtle. This isn’t even writing. This is absurdist poker, with GMW playing every hand of this game so close to the vest, I’m always half expecting it to put down a Pokemon card, a credit card, a napkin with a winking Queen of Hearts drawn on it. This is me, even knowing it might play anything but a real card, and still getting twisted again when it does because it might tell me no, I’m wrong, that’s not a Charizard, that’s so clearly an Ace.

It’s to a point that I question whether we ever really get shown anything in Girl Meets World, when it comes to the relationships. Maya and Riley, perhaps. Again, Maya/Riley, bigger than Maya or Riley/Everybody Else. But really, do we see them, or do just get told more about them? Are they just more central to the lessons in such a way that it feels like we know them? Let us never forget that time that Maya was supposedly turning into Riley, and they could prove it because look at her clothes, but also wait she pretty much still wears very nice clothes Riley would wear all the time (including in last night’s—A+ outfit, Maya).

The show knows its place in the world as a collective sitcom parent, ushering generations into the world. Last week’s special was essentially a testament to how essential it feels in the moral upbringing of its viewers, in bringing them step by step to the world. But it’s not enough to be a lesson peddler. Disney created the show to be a show.

Maybe, if it had remembered to actually be that, to do that, we wouldn’t be here right now.