EPISODE REVIEW: Ben 10 Ultimate Alien: “It’s Not Easy Being Gwen” (Season 2, Episode 9)

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Team Ben fights Dr. Animo and his giant mutant frog thing. He gets away, and rather than follow the team as a whole, we just follow Gwen as she goes home, collapses fully-dressed on her bed around 3 AM, and then wakes up when the alarm goes off at 5: 30.

Roll credits!

Basically we follow Gwen around for a day in the life of a sidekick: her mom makes her address party invitations by hand, and refuses to invite Ben, Grandpa, or anyone from the Tennyson side of the family. Gwen’s mom is basically a jerk. I don’t think we’re supposed to take her that way, but that’s the way she comes off. Gwen attempts to do this by magic, but ends up setting things on fire. She skips breakfast, goes for a jog, gets cleaned up, and goes to school, where her best friend gives her a bagel.

We follow her around her busy life, trying to balance school, superheroing, her home life, Kevin, and her non-superhero-related friends. All this comes to a head when she has a falling out with her best friend, who wants her to come to her piano recital, rather than go fight Animo.

In the end, she’s able to do both, albeit only barely.

OBSERVATIONS

Very good episode.

Here’s the thing: I’ve made no secret over the last year that I’ve grown bored with Ben 10. My kids - save one - have aged out of the target audience, and as I largely see things through their eyes, well, my interest has drifted. My interest has also drifted from Generator Rex, which wowed me in its first few emotionally raw episodes, but has since fallen into a safe, dumb format. We can compare and contrast them, though: If there was ever a show that really just gave up caring about its audience, it’s Rex. If there’s ever a show that’s solidly concerned with holding on to its audience, it’s Ben 10. Even though ennui set in like a year ago, I find it impossible to just write the series off and ignore it (Sometimes annoyingly so), because they just try so darn hard. It’s impossible not to like the show, even if its feeling a little shopworn. I love any series that tries to reinvent itself, and this one has never really stopped that.

I really like these format-breakers, particularly the ones in which Ben is little more than a cameo. In fact, the whole Animo plot takes place mostly offscreen, which was kind of neat. We just get word of what’s going on, but Gwen is largely out of the loop. It’s never clear why Animo’s latest hair-braned scheme is actually working this time out.

I like that Gwen’s best friend is handicapped, but they never actually mention it. It’s not an issue. She’s not “Gwen’s crippled friend,” she’s just “Gwen’s friend.” It’s a nice touch. I also like that she can’t stand Ben, and Ben is typically kind of a jerk about it. (“You couldn’t have fallen, I webbed you to it!”)

I also liked the whole bit about Kevin being a dropout, (“After all those years in the null void, I didn’t feel like fifth grade really had much to offer me.”) and how self-conscious of the fact Kevin was. He’s kept it secret for more than a year now, but Gwen figured it out on her own. She immediately starts stressing how smart he is, how much he already knows, and pushes him towards getting a GED. She mostly sells him on the idea. I really hope they develop this more later on in the season, since stressing the importance of education is, well, important. Having had one serious learning disability myself growing up (Dyscalculia), I can vouch for the need to show positive examples of kids for whom everything doesn’t come easy. A kid who has to fight to get what everyone else already has is both tragic and heroic in a way that someone like Ben - for whom everything comes easy - isn’t. It can only be a positive influence on kids to see someone like Kevin, who really wants to be more than he is, and is willing to work towards it.

Good job to Matt Wayne, who wrote this episode, and God Bless him for doing it.

I thought it was interesting how much everyone depends on Gwen - Kevin and Ben, obviously, but also her mom and teachers - and how she herself doesn’t really have anyone to depend on. She’s obviously stretched really thin, and I find myself wondering if this is the start of a more subtle character arc, similar to Kevin’s descent into madness last year. There basically is no “Team Ben” without her, after all. It’s hard to come out of this story without feeling a bit sorry for her. And in the end, her only friend is apparently more-or-less lost, going to a new school. Gwen is even more alone, even though she did everything right.

The final fight sequence is beautiful. It’s a typical fight, but it’s done without sound effects, and set to a classical piano piece that Gwen’s best friend is playing at her recital. There’s a deliberate disconnect between the action and the sound, which is really, really neat.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Sure, why not? Good kids doing good things in a good story that tells ‘em to stay in school and keep slugging no matter the odds. What’s there not to like?

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