Maggie McMuffin watches Waitress for the umpteenth time and considers the courage it takes to be happy.
Waitress is a movie I have seen a million times, often in rapid bursts. I first picked it up on the discount rack at a Hastings while staying with my mother’s family. I got it because it involved pie, which I love. I took it to college and would watch it while laid up with cramps. I would put in headphones and fall asleep to it.
I watched it a few times again after my first breakup, thinking about abuse and affairs and how I couldn’t eat.
And most recently, nearly a year ago, I went through my worst breakup ever. I had come home from a trip and found my borrowed wifi turned off. My DVDs were on a shelf and getting on a chair to grab something sounded hard. I dug through my computer files and found a pirated copy and for the next few weeks I played the film on a loop, falling asleep to it because silence was killing me.
It took a bit to get my internet back and move on to other comfort things, so I watched Waitress A LOT. Something like 30-50 times.
Because of this, I don’t really need to think of where I am with the film in terms of ten years ago to now. Ten years ago, I was mopey. A year ago, I was so depressed that friends had me on secret suicide watch. (Thanks, friends!)
More importantly, I had been released from an abusive partner who I was codependent with and who frequently used outbursts about how much he loved me to keep me with him. The film should have been triggering but for the most part it wasn’t. It was noise that would carry me to sleep. It was familiar, comfortable. In retrospect, that may not just have been because the film itself was a standby but because many things we see about Jenna’s life echoed my own. And even if the life that’s been shattered was unhealthy, when it’s taken from you, you still want to cling to it for comfort until you realize that being comfortable is not the same as being safe and is definitely not the same as being happy.
The film had always been and continues to be a story about striving toward happiness. About standing still to get by and making small steps towards a larger goal.
But that’s my interpretation.
Ten years ago, there was a handful of pregnancy movies that came out. Many pro-choice people posited that we needed an abortion film. But these films all hinged on the period of the main character being pregnant. Waitress was no different. There are two mentions of abortion: once when Jenna is congratulated by Dr. Pomatter and corrects him, saying she respects the baby’s right to thrive but is not thrilled about it. She doesn’t want people to make a fuss. Considering the baby was the result of marital rape, this could have been a scene out of a Lifetime movie. Instead, it is yet another things Jenna’s husband Earl has done to her. She’s accustomed to things not working out and does not yet quite have enough self-drive to get herself out of her marriage. The other is when Earl finds out and says he would tell Jenna to get rid of it. “I want to be in the same place as you in the hereafter.”
To me, it makes perfect sense that these two people wouldn’t consider abortion even though neither of them want the baby. Even outside of the fact that there wouldn’t be a story without Jenna’s pregnancy, it says something about each character that they are choosing to have an unwanted child.
Since this film and Juno and other films I can’t remember came out, we’ve have films and TV shows that have touched on abortion. BoJack Horseman had a touching episode about the subject. Obvious Child was a light-hearted comedy featuring a lead who has the procedure.
Does Waitress being ten years old date it in terms of its seemingly blasé attitude towards abortion?
I don’t think so.
Because the pregnancy is a vehicle for the plot. It’s an inciting incident, a frame. But it’s not really what the film is about.
The film is about codependency. It is about a very sad woman who needs a few chance things to give her the courage to take steps towards happiness.
So here I am rewatching this film not because I’m sad or sick or suicidal but because I’m just going to watch it. I went into this wondering how I would interact with it in a better place. Because while I’m now on meds and dealing with PTSD, my anxiety attacks are only a few times a month instead of every day. I am genuinely happy, not just comfortable. I am realizing how unafraid I now am in my daily life.
Much like how Jenna’s outside relationships affect how she deals with changing her life, how will my changed life affect how I feel about a movie I have always counted among my favorites?
The answer is that I definitely give Jenna a lot more credit for getting through her days. And maybe codependency isn’t the right word. For years, I’ve focused on Jenna making her world about one person and how a child isn’t a substitute for the love affair. On this viewing I noticed how often every character discusses the concept of love as a two-sided thing. That you can get stuck with people or grow bored with them. Becky’s husband is an invalid that she won’t divorce because that would be worse than an affair. Dawn marries Ogie because he’s nice and all but, really, “No one else will have me.” Earl says he loves Jenna even when she’s clearly not interested in him and is probably dissociating. Jenna’s affair with Dr. Pomatter is not based in love, but first in sex and then in “being listened to.”
Lulu’s birth at the end is not a tidy escape from everything. It is the first time in the film that we see someone loving another person who loves them back. It is also the first time we see Jenna giving her love to someone who isn’t demanding things of her. Sure, babies are full of needs and rely on us, but they’re far more neutral than your coworkers who are like, “Oh hey, sorry your abusive husband can’t pick you up. I can’t drive you because of my secret affair,” or said abusive husband making you swear not to love your baby more than him. Babies, while not something you can reason with, at least make reasonable requests. And because Jenna is caring for someone truly out of love and not being a good person who feels obligated, she flourishes. Her energy is given back to her.
And Jenna does like helping people! Becky and Dawn asking her for things is insensitive of them, but Jenna doesn’t seem to view it as a burden. And they ask. Earl and Dr. Pomatter don’t. Earl straight out demands, often telling Jenna word for word what she should say to make him feel better. Dr. Pomatter either gives chivalrous declarations or frames his wants in a softer way such as, “I thought that maybe you could…” His last word to Jenna are, “That’s it. I don’t get a say in this,” and it speaks to him being less of a selfless guy than he and Jenna thinks he is, even if his twenty-minute hug is a beautiful moment “without an ounce of selfishness” in it.
That’s another great thing about the movie: the choice to be with Dr. Pomatter is not a choice Jenna is making to be saved (though they nearly run off together) or to be able to choose someone over Earl. Dr. Pomatter is someone she is choosing to be with in the short term so that she can have fleeting moments of happiness. For while they are there, Jenna still doesn’t describe herself as a happy woman. And the script and Keri Russell’s performance shows us just how multi-faceted unhappiness can be. How many different forms it can take day to day. Because if you have a husband who is super into marital rape, you may not be happy the nights he’s not doing it but you’re still relieved.
The film’s world-building also offers hints that Jenna has not always been so unhappy. She knows how to apply makeup, which means she probably used to wear it. And she mentions that Earl changed after they got married. She’s obviously liked even though she’s not chipper. But she also mentions she’s never had a real best friend except for her Mama, and this points to Jenna being someone who hasn’t been looking to be loved so much as to share love with others. She calls Dr. Pomatter her best friend, but she doesn’t say she loves him or let him say it to her.
(I just want to take a slight detour to talk about Old Joe. Old Joe is CLEARLY Jenna’s real best friend. And while she is the only one who seems to like him, he isn’t settling for her company. He genuinely likes her and wishes her well. The two of them are friendly and share negative stuff but they also comfortably joke about it. Old Joe may be a difficult customer, but he is also the first person to take a real interest in Jenna’s life and also actively stands up to Earl. Also, he’s the only person to give her a gift without expecting anything in return. He even has her wait until after his surgery/her birth to open the card he leaves her. Handing someone a large check and then dying is the ultimate “no need to thank me.”)
Okay back to the fake best friend.
Jenna also doesn’t wish to hear if he is unhappy or happy with his very nice wife. “Are you happy” is a question she frequently poses to people, but she takes it back when she asks him. Dr. Pomatter however, who we know almost nothing about, constantly commands Jenna to stay near him and doesn’t seem at all disturbed by the fact that he’s not being the most secretive about this affair. It primarily takes place in his office after all. Dr. Pomatter isn’t a bad guy, but like most people in Jenna’s life he’s selfish and preoccupied with his own happiness. Jenna gets swept up in this, continuing the affair after she initially feels it is wrong, but in the end she cuts it off.
“We could have a big drama that gets drawn out for a couple of years. Makes everyone miserable. Or we could just end it right here, you know? No body count. Just say bye bye. I’m saying bye bye.”
It’s not just that she’s choosing to end things, it’s that she’s choosing to leave them happy. Her relationship with Dr. Pomatter won’t dissolve like her marriage. Dr. Pomatter’s very lovely wife (she’s in one scene but she is clearly SO NICE) won’t be hurt. By leaving the affair, she is saying that she values the relationship they’ve had so much she wants to keep it a positive memory and force. Again: choices.
And it makes sense for a film that deals so much with choice and happiness to revolve around a pregnancy. This movie is, in a metaphorical sense, very pro-choice. It’s like, hey, take initiative! Go for what you want! Bake that weird pie! But it says that you must live with those choices. The choice between comfort or joy, partnered or single, banana or without. Big choices aren’t the only important ones, though clearly they can matter the most in the end. But it’s not just Jenna’s early decision to keep her pregnancy that gives her happiness in the end. It’s every choice made within that time frame.
Choosing to be happy doesn’t mean you flip a switch and bam you’re happy. It means you decide you’re tired of feeling sad and you take steps to change things even if they don’t work. Jenna is only happy when she’s making pies because it’s the only time we see her making direct choices on her own that have immediate positive results. Many of her larger choices are shot down by Earl and it’s not until the end of the film that we see Jenna taking control of her life the way she takes control of a kitchen. Sure, some of her eventual good fortune is based on luck, but let’s consider that a reward for making the choices that led to that luck being possible.
Like Old Joe says, life is a series of choices. Make the right one. Start fresh.
And a lesson like that is still relevant 10 years later.
— Earl is an intensely real abuser. He only hits Jenna once, but he throws things, disregards her, and flat out says that she doesn’t have the option of saying no to him. He cries and clings to her, telling her to make him feel better. He guilts her and controls her cash flow. Really, it’s the sort of insidious abuse that we’re more likely to see in real life.
Right after my breakup this didn’t feel so bad to me, it felt like just part of my routine. Turns out that’s because it was and boy oh boy is watching those two scenes hard now!
— Adrienne Shelly is so cute and Cheryl Hines is kind of awful but still great and she wears leopard print to Dawn’s wedding.
— Pie truly is the best thing ever.
— The “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” sequence where Jenna smiles all day is still one of the most uplifting things I have ever seen in film.
— Did you know that Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion also played romantic interests in the animated Wonder Woman movie that came out a few years later? And that Jeremy Sisto has played Batman in similar animated titles? I just think that’s interesting and am putting it in here for Jake Farley.
— This script has a lot of people just making prophetic statements and, while that should read as bad writing, it is done in such a way that just feels like how small town people talk. “Going in for surgery. Maybe I’ll die,” is not an uncommon phrase I’ve heard around my mom’s family.
— When she breaks up with him, Jenna hands Dr. Pomatter a store-bought moon pie and it is a tiny metaphor that I am here for.
— “Dear baby, I hope someday, somebody wants to hold you for twenty minutes straight and that’s all they do. They don’t pull away. They don’t look at your face. They don’t try to kiss you. All they do is wrap you up in their arms and hold on tight without an ounce of selfishness in it.” GETS ME EVERY TIME.
— Oh hey, there’s also a musical now. Our editor said I should go see it during my recent trip [Ed. Because it’s amazing] but I went to Coney Island that day instead. I did however stop at every subway ad I saw and took a photo. So kind of the same, right?