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'Camping' Recap: Empathy for the Devil?

By Dustin Rowles | TV | October 23, 2018 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | October 23, 2018 |


Can you hate every character on a show and still like it? Can you dislike the writer of a show, but still like the writing?

I … think that might be happening with Camping. I mean, I don’t hate everyone. Walt (David Tennant) is too pathetic to hate, but I really, really want him to stop being so pathetic. I don’t hate Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) because she hasn’t yet been given enough personality to hate. I don’t hate Brett Gelman’s George, either, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with him and his rage. From a distance, however, his rage is hilarious, and maybe the funniest about this show, and “I boom opped the Robert Downey Jr. episodes of Ally McBeal, so I’m pretty sure I know what drug withdrawal looks like!” is a spectacularly funny line. I strongly dislike Joe and his casual racism, but I can’t help but to enjoy his passion for drinking and substance abuse (“I know plenty of people in the program who have a drink once in a while.”) Ione Skye’s Carleen also falls under the category of too pathetic to hate, but I seriously question her judgment for marrying Joe. Jandice (Juliette Lewis) is also awful, but she’s funny awful, and I think Arturo Del Puerto’s Miguel may fall into the pathetic camp, too.

Jennifer Garner’s Kathryn, on the other hand, is completely irredeemable. Last week, Lena Dunham took issue with some of the critics who insisted on calling her character “unlikable,” claiming that she thinks Kathryn is “unbelievably empathetic,” which may be true at some point in the series, but there is absolutely no hint of that through the first two episodes. In this episode, her 11ish-year-old son, Orvis, gets lightly knocked down during a flag football game, and though Orvis insists that he’s fine, Kathryn frantically rushes him to the E.R., carrying a kid way to big to be carried in her arms. When the doctor confirms Orvis’ diagnosis (“he’s fine”), Kathryn demands an MRI or a “full body scan,” while Walt tries to placate his wife without further upsetting her only to get repeatedly shushed. Kathryn catastrophizes everything because I think she wants a catastrophe because she believes it will somehow prove her worth.

Of course, Orvis’ non-injury is not about Orvis. It was never about Orvis. It’s about Kathryn, who refuses to discharge Orvis and eventually pushes him aside in the hospital bed and claims an injury of her own owed to the stress of her son’s non-injury. “I’m plummeting. Now that I’ve taken care of my son. My body is shutting down … any kind of stress can lead to inflammation, which affects my tissue issues and also my general mood.” And when Walt tries to comfort her, she lashes out.

I am trying here to find something redeeming about Kathryn and her hypochondria, her Munchausen by proxy, her controlling issues, her general disdain for her husband, and her overall unpleasantness, but I’m not there yet. But I get a kick out of the mystery. Lena Dunham says she’s “empathetic.” Let’s find the clues that suggest as much! I think maybe that Kathryn hates herself. And other people. And she doesn’t know how to be a better person, or how not to hate other people so much, and maybe there is something in there that is empathetic? I get it. We all have those feelings from time to time, but Kathryn has seemingly been living that way her entire life, and she believes that if she can control everything, and that if everything happens exactly the way that she has mapped it all out in her head, that other people will appreciate her, and that she may appreciate herself through their eyes, and she may get to experience a few fleeting moments of happiness.

Holy shit. I think I did feel a tinge of empathy.

I also think I want Walt to figure this out. I want Walt to realize that placating his wife, and trying to say what he thinks she wants him to say hasn’t worked for the entirety of their marriage, and that he has to try something new. Anything new. Because this isn’t working. Because she’s miserable. And her misery is making him miserable, and he’s not a miserable guy. But he doesn’t know how to dig himself out of this hole, and the more he tries, the deeper he digs.

This marriage is a disaster. How are they going to fix this on a camping trip?

They’re not going to get much help from their “friends,” who decide to go to a bar and get shitfaced rather than the hospital to suffer the oppressive unpleasantness that is being with Kathryn. But the alcohol just brings out the worst in them. Joe has completely checked out of life, and his wife, Carleen, just seems to be in a waiting pattern. Waiting for him to want to be a better person. Or clean his act up. Or anything, but Joe is completely indifferent to the world and to himself. George, meanwhile, is good-natured, until Joe calls his wife “Lil’ Chocolate,” which brings out his rage. But it’s not productive rage. It’s just raving lunacy.

Meanwhile, Jandice? She just wants to get shitfaced and have a good time, and she has no regard for the consequences of that. That’s what her boyfriend Miguel is for. When they make a horrible scene by having sex in the dressing room of a boutique (pulling down the curtain in the process), they slink out, but Miguel accidentally leaves his wallet. Jandice makes him return to the store to retrieve it alone, and after the store owner complains that he had to clean up his semen off the floor, Miguel is guilted into buying a $5,000 ring for his girlfriend. But hey! John Cusack gave it to Liz Phair in the 80s, so it’s totally worth it. Except that Miguel — who is going through a divorce — is clearly flinging himself into this new relationship as a means to avoid processing his own divorce, and Jandice clearly only cares about him for as long as she can ride his wave of manic energy. The minute he stops and gets real, Jandice is going to bolt on him.

I don’t know. Maybe these people aren’t awful? Maybe they’re all just making awful choices, and they’ve made so many awful choices that those choices define them, and they’re caught in their own circular hell. I will say this, anyway: For people I strongly dislike, I find myself weirdly invested in their outcomes. Will they be affected by this camping trip, or will they return home in a few days as unhappy and unpleasant as they were when they came? I don’t know, but I find myself weirdly curious.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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