Monday, February 17, 2014

Arrested Flight: Icarus, Daedalus, and Buster in Arrested Development 1.3

          By Cassie Ball with contributions by RTM
Arrested Development (Fox TV, 2003 – 2006, 2013; created by M. Hurwitz) has attained cult-status for its maniacal devotion to one-off jokes, site gags, and obscure references. These jokes are extremely easy to miss, but often foreshadow important plot points or hint at crucial information. A classic — and classical — example is episode 1. 3 “Bringing Up Buster.” A fleeting reference to the Icarus/Daedalus myth throws the episode’s unifying theme into sharp relief.

Justin Bateman (r) plays Michael Bluth, Michael Cera
plays his son George Michael in "Bringing Up Buster"
At first glance, “Bringing Up Buster” appears to follow three disparate storylines with no real relationship to each other beyond the characters they feature. First, Michael Bluth is surprised and hurt when his teenage son, George Michael prefers to not spend his Saturday with Dad. Michael attempts to bridge the widening gap between them by taking time off from the family business and buying George Michael a new bicycle. Unfortunately for Michael, George Michael is more interested in pursuing a certain off-limits girl than in a paternal bike-hike.

Tobias Funke, meanwhile, becomes the director of his daughter Maeby's high-school play
Tobias Fünke is played by David Cross
because he, an ex-psychiatrist and aspiring actor, believes that she's using a shared interest in theater to get closer to her father. Tobias has surmised this incorrectly; but the issue becomes moot as he soon becomes distracted by the promise of acclaim and forgets all about paternal bonding with Maeby.
Finally, Lucille Bluth, tired of her youngest son Buster’s shenanigans, tries to push him onto Michael. Although Buster is thirty-two years old, he and his mother had, up to that point, enjoyed a creepily co-dependent relationship. Michael, because he dislikes his mother and finds her relationship with Buster disturbing, takes full advantage of the opportunity to create some distance between them. During his day with Buster, Michael finds many opportunities to malign their awful mother. Buster joins in with (apparent) enthusiasm, using long strings of words far too filthy for network television. This naturally leads Michael to believe that Buster is ready for a more independent adulthood.

Because he has no real marketable skills, Buster contributes nothing to the family business. Instead, Buster occupies his time with Michael building a new bike, ostensibly for George Michael. When George Michael doesn’t want the bike, Buster is invited to go on a ride with Michael in his place.  It is then revealed that while Buster built the bike for speed, he had neglected to build the brakes. This shortcoming emerges during the bike-ride, as Buster careens brakeless down a hill and into an off-camera obstacle.

Jessica Walters plays Lucille Bluth
When Lucille hears about Buster’s lengthy potty-mouth rant, she is shocked and horrified  — although weirdly, she seems utterly unfazed by news about the bike accident. She demands that Buster return to her penthouse with her, but Michael angrily stands up for him, telling Lucille that Buster is his own man and should make his own decisions.  Buster surprises Michael by saying that he would like to go with Lucille. Their exchange ends with the following: 

Michael: "You were flying today, buddy." 

Buster: "Yes I was flying today. But a little too close to the sun."

To understand this reference, we first have to understand the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. On its surface, it’s a myth about a child’s hubris dooming him to death. As they flee from the Cretan labyrinth using wings made of feathers and wax, Icarus defies Daedalus’ famous
Tony Hale plays Buster
urging: fly neither too near the sun nor too close to the waves. Icarus’ disobedience causes the wax to melt, and effects his mythic fall. The arrogance of filial disobedience causes Daedalus to lose him forever. While it seems like a simple story, the true meaning of this myth extends far beyond a tale of a fatally disobedient child. A deeper reading shows that the myth is, in truth, about a paternal fears of filial independence. Icarus fall symbolizes the death of his childhood. And Daedalus’ loss is what every parent experiences when his child grows up and doesn’t need him anymore.

With this in mind, the brief conversation between Buster and Michael re-contextualizes the entire episode. Just like that, the theme becomes clear. Instead of a simple chronicle of the disjointed misadventures of a dysfunctional family, the episode’s tripartite tale becomes a unified examination of the different ways in which parents deal with their children’s burgeoning independence. 

— CB