Greatest Series Finales: My So-Called Life’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is high school at its most honest

The cast of My So Called Life

The cast of My So Called Life

My So-Called Life (1994), Season 1, Episode 19, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”
Written by Winnie Holzman
Directed by Elodie Keene
Aired January 26th, 1995 on ABC

My So-Called Life celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, marking two decades of its influence as a cultural touchstone. It’s a small show, one that was canceled after one season by ABC, but the power of My So-Called Life continued on way past its initial airing to become a part of the way television tells stories about teenage life. Creator Winnie Holzman, armed with a cast of young newcomers led by the expressive, lip-quivering Claire Danes, made something timeless (apart from the ’90s fashion choices). My So-Called Life endures thanks to Holzman’s vision for the show, one that dared to treat its teenagers like people.

My So-Called Life is high school at its most brutal, and most arresting. The show follows Angela Chase, a 15 year-old girl slowly starting to discover independence and maturity, moving through childhood right into the beautiful brokenness of teenage life. Her mother and father, Patty and Graham, are supportive, nurturing and infuriating, as all parents are. Angela’s little sister Danielle annoys her to no end but also deeply wants to be like her big sister. Angela’s friendships fall into two categories: the friends she’s had all her life, that are safe and comfortable, and more recent friends who dare her to be brave and aid her in her exploration of a new identity as a teenager. Sharon and Brian, the safe, comfortable friends, fade in and out of her life as the series progresses, and Rickie and Rayanne, the newer friends, introduce her to danger and expand her world beyond her parents’ house. And in the background of everything there’s Jordan Catalano, object of Angela’s high school crush and the template upon which all other mysterious high school bad boys are based. Jordan Catalano, he of flannel, piercing eyes, and an expert locker lean, is the biggest part of Angela’s transition into teenage life as the pair navigate their relationship with one another.

“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” was never meant to serve as a series finale for My So-Called Life, but is a fitting final entry for a show that dealt with high school so candidly. Storylines aren’t tied neatly with bows and ribbons; relationships are still messy (or get messier). The whole cast doesn’t skip off into the sunset, singing an inspirational anthem. There’s a palpable sense of confusion and doubt: what will happen after this moment? What will happen tomorrow now that things are different? “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” avoids easy answers, and allows viewers and the characters to sit in the uncomfortable, vulnerable space of uncertainty that all teenagers know well.

The connecting thread of the series finale deals with truth and identity. The teenage characters of My So-Called Life are right in the midst of discovering who they are, and yet they are oblivious to the importance of this time. Rather than feeling excited about who they are becoming, they feel like every shift in identity threatens to break them. The insecurity is palpable on screen, as every character is struggling with the push-pull between conformity and honesty. Rickie, who is coming to terms with his identity as a gay man, learns about a crush Delia has on him and sees the crush as his chance to be straight, to blend in and be “normal.” Sharon and Rayanne discover the depth of their friendship after avoiding each other because of their well-established reputations. Brian is overcome by his feelings for Angela, too afraid to act on them and yet paralyzed by them all the same. He tutors Jordan, who himself is trying to win Angela back, and reluctantly agrees to help Jordan by feeding him the perfect words.

My So-Called Life is Angela’s show, but “In Dreams Begins Responsibilities” belongs fully to Brian Krakow. His crush on Angela is well-documented and well-worn territory for My So-Called Life, and yet the series finale brings it to a poignant head. Brian writes Angela a letter, the kind of letter that practically bleeds it’s so personal, and gives it to Jordan to pass it off as his own.

Dear Angela, I know in the past I’ve caused you pain and I’m sorry. And I’ll always be sorry ‘til the day I die.
And I hate this pen I’m holding because I should be holding you. I hate this paper under my hand because it isn’t you. I even hate this letter because it’s not the whole truth. Because the whole truth is so much more than a letter can even say.
If you want to hate me, go ahead. If you want to burn this letter, do it. You could burn the whole world down; you could tell me to go to hell. I’d go, if you wanted me to. And I’d send you a letter from there. 

Angela is blown away by the letter, and runs swiftly into Jordan’s arms, this being the exact gesture she needed from him to rekindle their relationship. She mentions to all her friends how different Jordan is than she thought, how he’s deeper and truer than she expected. All the while, Brian stands off to the side, his heart breaking. He confesses to Rickie that he’s the author of the letter, and Rickie lets it slip to Angela, who feels betrayed.

Angela and Brian in My So-Called Life's series finale

In the last scene of the episode, Angela confronts Brian about the letter. Brian evades like a champ, fluttering from lie to lie, so on edge about Angela discovering the truth. Angela moves from anger to the disappointed sense that Brian and Jordan have been playing a cruel trick on her, messing with her emotions just to see how she’ll react. “I can’t believe I fell for it! It’s obviously a total lie,” she says. “No, I meant every word,” Brian almost whispers, then immediately realizes what he’s done and begins to backtrack, but Angela has heard him.

“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” doesn’t end with Brian Krakow and Angela Chase riding off into the sunset together. Angela still gets in the car with Jordan, and Brian is left in the dark street by himself, but a profound shift has happened. This huge secret between them has become common knowledge, and that’s not something either of them can brush off easily the following Monday morning. Their relationship will never be the same, and the gravitas of that change hangs in the air between them as they go their separate ways. It’s a deeply powerful ending, an ending that feels like a conclusion of sorts but also leaves the show wide-open for infinite stories that stretch far into the future, as the characters of My So-Called Life continue to learn and mature.

Pieces of My So-Called Life exist in every single person’s high school experience, from the triumphs to the tragedies, heightened by hormones and how immediate everything seems, how each heartbreak magnifies, how each mistake is a betrayal. It’s a show that acts as a time machine, catapulting viewers back to the 15 year-old version of themselves, because it so honestly captures the essence of being in high school.

We are Jordan, detached yet so desperate to be liked. We are Brian, insecure and brilliant, pining over our best friends. We are Rayanne, in pain and every day working on forgiving others and ourselves. We are Rickie, afraid of rejection, finding support in unlikely places. We are Sharon, polished and put-together and terrified of admitting we’re not perfect. And we are Angela, thinking and over-thinking, trying to understand the world around us and find our own voices.

My So-Called Life may have only lasted for 19 episodes, but it is a profound meditation on youth and adulthood and the messy, beautiful in-between stages. Every unanswered question, every moment of vulnerability, every atom of teenage existence is documented in My So-Called Life, and “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is a worthy series finale for a little show that still has so much to say about growing up.

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