Here’s the thing about potential. We’re all encouraged from a young age to live up to our potential, and what we all realize as we get older is, you can’t. It’s impossible.
Except for Dusty Hubbard. In the first episode, a mysterious machine named Morpho appears and tells everyone what their hidden potential is, and after avoiding the machine, at episode’s end, Dusty learns that he has none. His card reads “teacher/whistler,” the two things he’s identified as his only talents.
But now we jump back a few days, to his wife Cass. She visits the machine and is reluctant to talk about what it told her. Her card says “royalty.” What that could possibly mean for an American is this week’s mystery, and although we don’t get much in the way of an explanation, it’s enough that it pushes Cass to rethink a whole lot of things.
Dusty has managed to put a brave face on his own revelation — he tells himself (and Cass) it’s validating that he’s already reached his full potential. We’re getting a sense that this is what Dusty is like, just smoothing over every problem before he and Cass can examine their lives or whether they’re actually happy. Which is obviously a recipe for a healthy relationship in the long run. But the staggering gap in potential between the two is just one more strain on the well-maintained placid facade of a happy marriage they’ve both been maintaining.
At least Cass has one relationship she can at least pretend is happy. This week we meet her demanding, passive-aggressive mother, Izzy (Crystal Fox). She’s Deerfield’s mayor, and also runs a shop that sells deer-themed knick knacks and other gift items — including, reluctantly, things Cass makes, which are largely t-shirts with lazy jokes on them. Her card from Morpho read “dancer,” and she was already quite a successful one, years ago, which she’s quick to remind everyone.
But while the episode’s named for Cass, it’s still largely about Dusty. He interrupts his class’ lesson to talk about Morpho, which is the only thing on his mind these days. While he’s ostensibly entreating his students not to take their predictions too seriously, it’s actually him who wants reassurance that his own potential, or lack thereof, doesn’t mean anything.
Finally Jacob — who we learned last week recently lost his brother, who was dating Dusty and Cass’ daughter Trina — speaks up and suggests that potential isn’t destiny, and that a prediction so vague doesn’t necessarily portent good things. Good advice, but when pressed as to what his own card says, he walks out of the classroom and the school.
Outside, he finds Principal Pat, injured in a motorcycle accident after a card from Morpho reading “biker” convinced her to take up the dangerous pastime last week, hammering home Jacob’s point that living up to your potential isn’t automatically a good thing.
We wrap up with a Hubbard family dinner, where Dusty’s parents happily announce they’re getting a divorce, thanks to Morpho. His mom is a doctor but takes her card “healer” to tell her she needs self care, which involves traveling around Europe on her own. His dad gets “male model,” and pushes off retirement to start a second career with a modeling agency that specializes in regional commercials and “Handsome Santas.”
Dusty is shocked, but his parents seem delighted to have upended their lives, and Cass, who’s generally supportive, starts thinking about her own roads not taken. Which it turns out are numerous, given she’s got a box in the basement for each of them. A trip to France she never took. An interest in wine tasting she never went very far with. She starts off being nostalgic for roads not taken, but that quickly escalates to getting angry with Dusty for being so unwilling to break out of his rut or try anything new.
She brings up his question from last week: is she happy? She still doesn’t answer, but poses the question back to him. He’s never thought about it, and never wanted to until Morpho upended their lives. Self-reflection can be painful, and sometimes that pain leads to a greater understanding of one’s self… but sometimes that understanding is painful too. Dustin’s clearly afraid that even a scratch beneath the surface of his contented life will expose that he isn’t actually all that content.
Whereas Cass wants to start scratching. Trina reminds her, “it’s only important if you want it to be important.” But she does. She wants the fact that her potential is so high to mean something. Her mother’s dance career came to an end decades ago, and she still takes out her disappointment on everyone around her. Cass never wanted to be like that, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have disappointments of her own.
The problem with potential is that it’s impossible to live up to. We might all want to travel the world, and write the Great American Novel, and get into shape, and learn to ride a motorcycle, and settle down and raise a family. We pine for the one that got away, while still loving the one who didn’t. And maybe still pine for the one we haven’t met yet. But we can’t do everything we want to. At a certain point, we have to make choices. You can open your own restaurant and you can tour the country in a punk band, but you can’t do both at once. Our potential is all the choices we didn’t make, but that doesn’t mean the choices we did make were the wrong ones.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean they were the right ones either. It’s impossible to truly know, but you can drive yourself crazy wondering what if. The Big Door Prize’s open question is, will Cass and Dusty drive themselves crazy (and drive each other away), or make their peace with the choices they’ve made?
And will the show give us a more meaningful denouement than “the boring guy who’s set in his ways needs to shake things up a bit!” message we’ve gotten from so many uninspired movies over the years? Based on what we’ve seen so far, we’re hopeful, and at the absolute worst, it won’t be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who teaches Dusty to embrace life, so score one for Morpho.
• Trina doesn’t get a lot of time this week, but Djouliet Amara is terrific in the role. She avoids the cliché of the teenager rolling her eyes at her embarrassing parents, and instead marks Tri feel like she’s lived with her parents’ nonsense for so long she’s comfortable cheerfully ignoring them. She talks back, and sneaks sips of wine, knowing they’re too wrapped up in their own bullshit to care for more than a moment. But then she also effortlessly slips into a serious talk with her mother at episode’s end, when it’s impossible to hide the strain Morpho’s revelations are putting on their marriage.
• Trina herself gets the unassuming “potter” from the machine. “You mean like Harry Potter?” “Yes, Dad. That’s what that means.”
• Handsome Santas would make a great band name.
• Roy’s a pretty good whistler. Morpho doesn’t lie.
• We end the episode with the reveal of Jacob’s potential, and sure enough, the next episode is titled “Jacob.”