Each week Joe and Terry discuss the most recent episodes of HBO Max’s Genera+ion, alternating between our respective sites.
Spoilers follow for Episodes 6-7: “The Wheels on the Bussy”, and “Desert Island”
Miss a review? Episodes 1-3 / 4-5
Jump ahead: Episode 8
Hop on the Bussy, Terry, because we are taking a field trip to San Francisco, baby!
In hindsight, HBO Max’s strategy of releasing these Genera+ion episodes in batches makes perfect sense, particularly for this pairing, as the two episodes cover the GSA field trip.
Episode 6 is all about the journey. While the narrative development of the episode is a bit slight, we’re starting to see the individual conflicts for different characters come to a head. This is particularly true of the rivalry between twins Nathan (Uly Schlesinger) and Naomi (Chloe East), as well as Greta (Haley Sanchez)’s closeted relationship with her mom and Chester (Justice Smith)’s burgeoning crush on guidance teacher Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett).
In a lot of ways “The Wheels on the Bussy” reminded me of episode 3 “Toasted” which follows the group for a few hours of a mostly low-key day. There are amusing bits (Mary Birdsong’s Mrs. Culpepper getting her hand bitten by an emu at the rest stop), several intimate moments (Chester’s reaction to Sam’s physical touch when the tire blows; Greta and Chase Sui Wonders’ Riley sharing earbuds) and awkward cringe moments (when Nathan and Naomi play their escalating game of “Never Have I Ever” for an audience).
What’s different, however, is that this is the back half of the season for Genera+ion and while the episode isn’t a write-off, it feels like the wheels on the show are going a little round and round. We’ve hit these beats before – and possibly hit them better – and while the show is never less than watchable, “The Wheels on the Bussy” doesn’t feel like it’s adding anything new to advance either the story or these characters.
Take Chester and Greta, the two characters that we have responded to most strongly, Terry. They’re kind of the emotional lynchpin of the series, and while they each have some great moments in the episode, there’s no new information here.
That’s not to say that the actors themselves aren’t offering up top notch performances. Smith’s delivery of every iconic queer catchphrase is spot-on because it’s every gay brunch I’ve ever attended, but it’s also incredibly performative because we know Chester is putting on airs. And Greta’s withdrawal – away from Riley and into herself – in the first half of the episode before Riley sends her that candid photo snapped during lunch, is painful because Sanchez is doing such a good job of making Greta vulnerable.
Overall, I didn’t hate the episode, but I am looking forward to how things really develop when the field trip reaches its destination and the kids inevitably try to use their “white name” fake IDs to sneak out and party.
Over to you, Terry: are you still feeling awkward about Chester gaslighting Sam? Did you love the moment when the teacher dressed down the assholes in the restaurant for snapping pics of the kids? And did you chuckle when Naomi got her mother Megan (Martha Plimpton) to admit she’s a hypocrite for wanting her gay son to date a girl but not be too affectionate?
I’ll be honest, Joe. I’m typically not a fan of bottle episodes and while “The Wheels on the Bussy” does feature a few locations as it travels to a roadside diner and an emu farm, it’s still mostly a one (moving) location episode. It’s the second one of the season, after the same GSA gang were stuck together during the school lockdown (1.02).
As you’ve pointed out, we do get some great moments, such as Mrs. Culpepper asking what a bussy is or getting bit by a hangry Emu and the resulting “cocksucker!” curse she shrieks. It also feels emblematic of an actual bus trip; it brought me back to being a Junior in high school, traveling to Washington DC as a band nerd, and the shenanigans that would result from bored kids stuck together.
You said it’s spinning its wheels and I agree. “The Wheels on the Bussy” feels like a filler episode because it doesn’t explore the characters and their rivalries in any meaningful way. We already know Naomi and Nathan are at each other’s throat and outside of a couple surprising digs with the “Never Have I Ever” game, nothing comes from it. We already know Chester is pining after Sam something fierce.
The best scene is the opening as Greta struggles with two parentings styles: one present in Aunt Ana (Nava Mau) and the other – her mother – geographically removed. Greta’s realization that her sexuality and her relative freedoms might be taken away when her mother returns is a heartbreaking scene that casts a pall over the entire episode.
Without saying a word, Haley Sanchez shows how conflicted and guilty Greta feels about maybe not wanting her mother to come back to the states. She assuages her guilt by giving her lunch to a group of Chicanx field workers. It also comes with an understanding of how lucky she probably is; a point her mother suggests in the beginning of the episode. It’s a quiet moment and continues Sanchez’s nuanced portrayal of a Chicanx teen living in the United States.
Ultimately, “The Wheels on the Bussy” is a cute and minor episode whose only intention is to lead us directly into “Desert Island,” which brings a lot of the drama to a head. After the tire blows out at the end of episode 7, “Desert Island” begins with the GSA teens and chaperones checking in at a roadside hotel. Obviously defeated, Sam tries to give an inspirational speech to the group about queerness and resilience…”some might even argue that’s all it’s about.” And after pairing the group off for their room assignments, the teens let loose their pent-up bus-ride energy in various ways.
“Desert Island” felt poorly constructed as it continued, even though the highs and the resolutions were superb. For most of the episode, we follow the group as they have a pool party, play truth or dare, or giggle together in their rooms (followed by the obviously fed up Sam interrupting them when they get too loud). It follows the main group through most of the night before breaking when an alarm is pulled and then doubling back to follow two separate groups leading up to the alarm. It brought back to mind (again) the pilot episode…but it felt more disorganized and, ultimately, ineffective this time.
But it did give us climaxes of three different season-long conflicts. Up first: Arianna’s relationship with Nathan is tested after a three-way kiss between them and Chester puts doubt in her mind. Naomi, of course, eggs this on by encouraging Arianna to focus on the kiss between Chester and Nathan. It’s obviously vindictive on Naomi’s part: she tries to put an end to Nathan and Arianna’s relationship much like Nathan did with Naomi and Jack earlier in the season.
I’m not sure if the decision she reaches (“You were right. Fuck guys”) is the truth, though. At least, I would hope it’s not because Genera+ion has done an excellent job of exploring the nuance in sexuality. Reaffirming Arianna’s dads’ thoughts that he is gay…he just hasn’t realized it feels reductive.
But this is just the tip of the conflict iceberg because Greta and Riley get some alone time together and it doesn’t go as planned. I’m curious what you thought of this scene, Joe, because I’m conflicted…and it might be because of Sanchez’s typically nuanced performance and Greta’s well-written character.
In “The Wheels on the Bussy,” Chester sidles up to Greta and tells her he’s “wet thinking of you sharing a bed with her tonight” and pressures her about “getting pussy.” She responds with a “no pressure” and an arched eyebrow, which I took as a continuation of her fears about her mother’s conservative view of sexuality.
But no. After spending a few moments making out and caressing each other’s hands and feet, Riley starts taking off her clothes and Greta freaks. “Stop!” she shouts. “I don’t want this. I’m not like you. I don’t hook up.” It’s the first time Greta has really stood up for herself and it was a realization that no one has really bothered to ask what Greta wants.
But she hurls it in such an insulting and uncharacteristically mean way.
It’s moments like this that I’m glad the episodes are paired together because they create these setup/payoff moments that I don’t think would resonate so clearly if they were separated by a week. I’m just confused at the vehemence of her response. It was mean and Greta doesn’t strike me as a mean person.
So I’m curious how you took this scene, Joe. Were you as surprised as I was by her response? What did you think about the way this episode was structured? And, boy oh boy do I want to hear your thoughts about the intense final scene between Chester and Sam.
Whew, what a loaded second ep, Terry! It truly does feel like a two-parter, doesn’t it?
Yes, I was surprised, shocked and a little disappointed in Greta’s reaction to Riley. It’s particularly uncomfortable in large part because of the framing: Riley is literally stuck in the middle of removing her bra, so there’s a huge amount of vulnerability as she stands there, incapacitated in a state of undress.
While I don’t disagree with your reading, I interpreted this primarily as a gut reaction that Greta will deeply regret. Whether this is the result of both her mother and Chester getting in her head, or the uncertainty about what will happen to her freedom when her mother returns, it’s clear that Greta doesn’t know how to live her life with so much uncertainty.
It’s worth remembering that (from what we know) she’s also a virgin who has never dated, so the escalation from her first kiss with Riley to potential sex in a single encounter was undoubtedly a lot to process (Am I projecting based on my own experience? Yes, why do you ask?).
Sadly this does lead into the trope where Riley storms out and immediately finds solace in the arms of another girl, Lucia (Marisela Zumbado). And while she’s undoubtedly experiencing a level of physical intimacy with Lucia, it’s clear from the tears streaming down her face that Riley is just as pained by Greta’s words as you, Terry.
Which brings us to the big set-piece: the Sam and Chester stuff. Genera+ion is really great at making its audience yearn for connection and romance, even when it involves characters like this who absolutely should not be together.
The scene is set as Chester wanders the pool deck, drinking from the wine bottle Greta hastily tossed in the water before her aborted hook-up with Riley. Chester is listening to a moody rendition of “Mr. Sandman” by SYML, which has been cued to perfection: “Sandman. I’m so alone. Don’t have no one to call my own.” It’s a line that Chester will later hurl at Sam after the guidance counselor finally discovers that Chester has been gaslighting him on Grindr.
It’s a rough scene to watch, in no small part because these actors actually have great chemistry. Their witty repartee has been on display since the first episode, and Sam’s confession about being in love with someone like Chester who later died by suicide establishes two dangerous precedents: Sam could fall in love with Chester, and Chester could self-harm if he, too, runs out of that indomitable energy.
That’s the fear – and the energy – that these two actors bring to their scenes, particularly (as you noted offline) when Stewart-Jarrett physically recoil as Sam desperately backs away from Chester’s yearning.
Justice Smith is just so damn good in this scene; he makes Chester’s ache palpable as he demands Sam tell him what he wants to hear. And when Sam refuses to say that he would choose Chester, the lovesick teenager repeats the lyrics from Mr Sandman. “I don’t want to be alone anymore” he pleads as Sam shuts the door, retreating away from the whirlwind of dangerous, volatile emotions.
Just as Chester yearns for acceptance with the only person who has ever truly listened and respected him, it’s clear that Sam does want to succumb. It’s evident in his body language and the force of his reaction. Thankfully Sam’s sense of responsibility about his job and his status as an adult prevails, which is commendable considering it is the less sensational – and therefore harder – storytelling option for Genera+ion to make (after all, the student/teacher relationship is an unfortunate cornerstone of YA).
And so, in frustration, rage and despair, Chester pulls the fire alarm and screams. It’s truly a great moment, a sensational emotional outpouring that befits the scene that came before it. It’s also horrifying because there is enough pathos in Chester that it’s entirely possible that he could self-harm in this moment.
These scenes once again confirm what an exceptional talent Smith is. Even when Genera+ion wobbles in its execution, its talented cast elevates the material and engenders audience sympathy. We wouldn’t nitpick if we didn’t care so much about these characters!
Can’t wait to see where we go from here, Terry. We’ll find out when we hop back over to Gayly Dreadful to wrap up S1 with the finale, episode 8.
Genera+ion airs Thursdays on HBO Max