The penultimate episode of John From Cincinnati was marked more by absence than actual presence: namely, the absence of the titular character and Shaun Yost, He Of The Incredibly Healing Spine. Most shows wouldn’t have the instincts nor the narrative guts to pull its two central characters off this late in the season, but then again, most shows aren’t John From Cincinnati. I’m pretty sure there was never one single episode of Sanford and Son that featured the omission of both Sanford and son, for instance.
In lieu of the two characters, the show added approximately one hundred more, in the form of the now ubiquitous stick figures that have gradually appeared throughout the landscape of Imperial Beach. What was once confined to the mental subconscious (what John would call "my Father’s words") has increasingly appeared in the physical landscape of the surf town and in the conscious minds of its inhabitants. Indeed, this figure may be a form of heralding on the part of John (or John’s Father) that will reveal its message only in the season finale.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. I come not to predict next week’s finale, but to recap this week’s installment, in which Shaun’s disappearance rendered everyone virtually unable to act, only to contemplate, and prepare for what most of them realize is something "big" or "huge." That’s right: in a stunning reversal, the language of John is now being parroted by others. Until now, it’s been the other way around, but "big" and "huge" are both adjectives within John’s vocabulary, words he felt were important, words his Father felt were important.
The reasons for such portent? The stunning, rapid, almost viral spread of the stick figure John drew with his foot in the very first episode of the series. At the time, no one knew what he was drawing with his foot. Only one person knew, and that person, Shaun, is now missing as well. I’m pretty sure we can connect the dots here and state once and for all that this enigmatic encounter between John and Shaun received its payoff with their absence tonight. The stick figures in essence became their stand ins; a doubling of John’s lines and circles and Cass’ ones and zeros, uniting both images into one larger flourish. Also worth noting is that John’s specific figure had a new curve on it: almost as if a hand reaching out to Shaun. In that curve, some saw hope; others saw treachery.
After this initial doubling of the figure, its appearance grew almost exponentially: in another web posting, in an Avon catalogue, along the beam of the dilapidated bar inside the Snug Harbor Hotel. Their multiplication in a way represents the gradual hearing of John’s Father’s words: what was once incomprehensible approaches something along the lines of revelation. For now, it’s too "big" and "huge" for them to fully comprehend, and would be as futile as looking directly at the sun. But they feel the heat, and it’s been burning ever brighter since John’s epic, psychic sermon a few weeks back.
And it was the individual reactions to this heat of each person involved, however tangentially, to Shaun’s life that marked the overall "action" of this episode. Many could complain that "nothing happened" in this episode, but that would be missing the point: plenty did happen, but on an internal playing space. What Shaun’s disappearance did more than anything was allow each character to come to terms with his absence and figure out exactly what it meant to them. With few exceptions, the main characters turned to their own form of prayer. And I don’t mean simply the literal type of prayer, as evidenced by Tina in Linc’s car. Freddie spoke to "the man [he] ran away from in the volcano twenty-five years ago;" Dwayne stays after-hours at the internet café to check for more postings; Cass returns behind the lens of her camera; Butchie turns to surfing; Kai turns to Butchie as she watches him on the water. Each character fell back on primal positions, instinctual positions, and in doing so, got to the heart of both their strengths and fears.
The stick figures, among other things, were left in order to achieve this sort of primacy. Its simplistic structure, consisting of the basic building blocks of stick and line, allow the viewer to draw anything from the object that one wishes. It functions almost like a Rorschach inkblot test, in which the viewer’s determination of what they see informs their emotional and psychological composition. Butchie and Dwayne look upon it as affirmation of Shaun being safe; Cissy sees it and sees her worst fear (Shaun’s demise) reflected on-screen. Same object. Same line. Same circle. Different responses. The difference is big. The difference is huge.
One person who has yet to see this symbol is Mitch Yost, the other missing father on this show, although his is with a small "f," not a large one like John’s Father. Mitch has been "finding himself" in Mexico, much in the way that say Tina Yothers went "finding herself" after the cancellation of Family Ties. Incredibly, his search for self yields "The Chemist," aka Howard Hesseman, aka "Dr. Fever" from WKRP in Cincinnati. (Coincidence? I think not. OK, maybe I think a little. After all, the first time he appeared onscreen, I had a Head of the Class flashback and shouted, "Mr. Moore!" and prayed that he would somehow tie in his drug-dealing ways into a roundabout lesson in how to ask Robin Givens to the prom. But I digress.)
Mitch returned with The Chemist to Casa de Cissy and found his man-room of an attic space cleared out, blaming it (unconvincingly) on "neighborhood punks". He then got caught up on everything in his absence by Cissy, to which he basically replies with the same retort anyone to whom I try to explain this show gives me: "The hell?" In an effort to avoiding winning the prestigious "Worst Father Ever" award for the eighteenth year in a row, he offers to talk to the press in order to alert them to Shaun’s absence (something he loathes doing) in order to take the "weight" from her. (I guess Mitch listened to The Band on his iPod while in Mexico.)
Could Mitch’s return to Imperial Beach at the precise time Shaun disappears be connected, or coincidence? (And let’s not forget the disappearance of Zippy, the Holy Ghost of this Imperial Triumverate.) Is Mitch’s press conference the first step to "get back in the game", John’s first words of the show? Will the return of the father mark the return of the Father? Is that John’s ultimate endgame? We’ll have to wait until next week and see.
What did you make of the sudden proliferation of stick figures? Where did John and Shaun actually go? What else did you find "big" and "huge" this week?