themighty logo

'Atypical' Season 2, Episode 4 Recap: 'Pants on Fire'

The Mighty’s autism community reviews the second season of Netflix’s “Atypical.”


Editor's Note

The following is a review of the fourth episode of the second season of “Atypical,” and contains spoilers.

Episode four of “Atypical” deals with lying. Many on the autism spectrum have trouble with lying and Sam (Keir Gilchrist) is no exception. The episode opens with the guidance counselor reading Sam’s college application essay in which he describes seeing a girl’s boobs as his greatest accomplishment. His guidance counselor tells him that essay isn’t going to work. He replies that it’s true and she says that in this case appropriateness is more important than truth. She then suggests that he write about his autism. She points out that he gets good grades and has had the same job for over a year. She says that’s something many neurotypicals can’t manage and that he will be seen as a success story.

Sam balks at the idea of writing about his autism. He says it’s something he was born with, not an accomplishment and compares it to the guidance counselor writing an essay about having ten fingers and ten toes. This is a valid perspective and one that neurotypical people would do well to take into account. They mean well when they compliment autistic people on living a good, productive life while having autism but too often it comes across to the autistic person as weird or condescending.

When Sam brings his essay to Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) she tells him it’s garbage and he needs to learn to lie. Sam says he can’t lie, and Casey says she learned about lying from “the dark lord herself,” meaning their mother and referring mainly to the fact that she cheated on their father. Sam then decides to go visit his mother who has been banished from the family home and ask her how to lie.

The ways in which Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is treated by her family as a result of her cheating have some rather cringe-worthy misogynistic undertones and are a bit too reminiscent of “The Scarlet Letter.” Things can be doubly hard for females on the spectrum because of misogyny and gender stereotypes surrounding autism. I have little hope that this show can do anything to alleviate those gender stereotypes and misogyny for girls on the spectrum since it’s so bogged down in gender stereotypes and misogyny towards the general population (more about that later). When Sam asks his mother for advice on lying she refuses and tells him it’s never okay to lie.

The conception of what constitutes a lie in this episode is off. There may be times in life when it’s a good idea to lie, but your college application is not one of those times. Putting yourself in a positive light, putting a positive spin on things, telling things from a certain perspective, choosing not to share certain information with certain people at certain times, not uttering every thought that comes into your head — none of that constitutes lying. Yet the tone of this episode suggests that it’s all the same unless we draw off of what the guidance counselor said at the beginning of the episode: Writing a college application is about sharing the appropriate information with the appropriate people at the appropriate time.

Since his mother won’t help him with lying Sam turns to his friend and co-worker Zahid (Nik Dodani), who is all too willing to be of assistance. Before this, we are treated to a scene in which Zahid makes a comment to a female customer that borders on sexual harassment and it’s passed off as though it’s just a funny quirk of his. Zahid teaches Sam a strategy for lying he dubs the Pants on Fire (POF) technique. First, you praise the person, then you respond with obviously or obvi to everything they say, then you flee the scene. Sam is initially skeptical, but then Zahid successfully demonstrates the technique on his boss to get an extra day off.

Sam decides to try out the technique on Paige (Jenna Boyd). As she’s using a paper cutter to prepare the yearbook he compliments her on her oversized hair bow. When she asks him if he’s seeing someone else, he replies that obviously he is and then leaves the room. She is so distressed by this revelation that she ends up cutting her hand on the paper cutter. She screams, blood flows everywhere and a girl who runs into the room remarks that Paige has chopped off her finger.

In the next scene, Sam is discussing Paige’s severed finger with Zahid in a rather indifferent manner. This attempt at dark humor falls flat and just ends up being disturbing. To suggest that callous indifference to the obvious physical pain and injury of others is a common symptom of autism is inaccurate and dangerous.

Sam tells his first big whopper when his and Zahid’s boss catches Zahid with marijuana on company property. Since this is the third time Zahid has been caught with marijuana, his boss decides he has no choice but to fire him. Sam then claims that the marijuana is his and when the boss incredulously asks if it’s for his autism. Sam replies that obvi(ously) it is and starts to walk away. After the boss lets them both off the hook, Zahid rejoices and hugs Sam. Their tender moment is interrupted by Sam pointing out that Zahid’s pants are literally on fire. This scene works a little better than the severed finger scene did.

The scene cuts to a voiceover by Sam about his friendship with Zahid as Zahid talks to him about macaroni and cheese in the computer store. Sam says that people often lie to him because they think his autism means he can’t handle the truth, but Zahid is someone he can always rely on to tell him the truth. The implication is that Sam appreciates it when people are honest with him and this is another insight neurotypical people would do well to take into account when dealing with those on the spectrum. Sam goes on to say that Zahid has a theory that autistic people are the normal ones because they see things as they really are while neurotypicals add an extra layer of meaning on to things. Sam’s voice than melds into the voice of his guidance counselor reading Sam’s college essay. Sam writes that he doesn’t see his friendship with Zahid strictly as a friendship between a neurotypical guy and an autistic guy. They’re just two friends, and that is his greatest accomplishment. His guidance counselor tells him the essay is really good. Presumably, Sam was judicious enough to leave out the part about covering for his friend smoking pot on the job. Lack of judiciousness was really his problem, more so than his lack of lying.

After Sam’s questioning of her, Elsa engages in some self-reflection. She makes a decision to be more honest in her life. She tells a woman at the autism parent support that she burnt the brownies. She also tells a woman that her son’s haircut is awful, which results in her being hired to cut his hair herself. When she tells her husband that Casey is grounded (for being drunk) but that she has to keep the reason private and he’s just going to have to trust her on this one, he replies that after she cheated on him he has no reason to trust her. Shortly afterward, he has a muscle spasm that results in him dropping milk all over the floor. Casey asks if he’s okay and he assures her he is.

Later, Elsa extends her honesty further by sharing the details of her relationship with the guy she cheated on Doug (Michael Rappaport) with when he asks her about it. It’s hard for him to know that she initiated the relationship, that the guy was handsome and that she still thinks about him.

Casey is dealing with the aftermath of her drunken episode. In her drunkenness, she took some embarrassing selfies and videos on Evan’s phone and as a consequence she avoids Evan. Evan decides to even the score by coming over to Casey’s house with some embarrassing childhood videos of him performing karate. As they are sitting on the porch laughing at the videos, Casey’s father steps out and collapses on the driveway. Casey screams to call 911 and the episode ends on an ominous note, a sharp contrast to the reaction to a girl severing her finger

The episode also delves further into Julia’s (Amy Okuda) life. As she gets an ultrasound she stares at her phone and snaps at the ultrasound tech when she asks if she wants to know the sex. The tech asks if she’s been feeling emotional lately and she starts crying. The tech explains that hormones can do that to you. She puts the ultrasound picture along with the sex in an envelope and tells Julia that she can open it later if she decides she wants to get to know her kid.

Later, Elsa encounters Julia at a speech therapy clinic along with Julia’s brother Jesse, who we know from season one is autistic. Julia asks Jesse if he would like to say hello to Elsa. In the blunt, honest fashion characteristic of those on the spectrum, Jesse replies “No, I would not” and walks away. Julia blurts out to Elsa that she’s pregnant and says she thinks that she snapped at Sam because of pregnancy hormones. It’s cringeworthy and downright insulting to make an intelligent, accomplished woman’s moment of self -revelation be that she can’t control her emotional outbursts because of those darn female hormones! (It’s even more insulting than the show’s portrayal of the dad as being unable to cope with cooking or laundry.) Elsa congratulates Julia on her pregnancy and tells her that being a mom is wonderful. While this scene may technically pass the Bechdel test, it’s not doing feminism any favors.

The next scene shows Julia opening the ultrasound envelope to reveal that her baby is a boy and calling her parents to reveal that she’s pregnant.

Kira’s Rating:  two out of five stars

Previous Episode

Episode 3 Review: ‘Atypical’ Casts Actors on the Autism Spectrum for Season Two

Next Episode

Episode 5 Review: ‘Atypical’ Teaches an Important Lesson About Financial Literacy for Those on the Spectrum