It’s 2023, and you’re watching a teen drama in all its angsty, existential, emotionally nerve-wracking glory. And if you’re a 90s kid like me, you’re missing Keane’s soft notes reconciling two lovers. There’s no dreamlike hallway being walked by a goofy misfit who will go on to do great things in life. I guess what worked for the late-90s teen dramas, and of course, I can only speak for myself and the experiences of people around me, is that the high schools and colleges shown were places where we wished to imagine ourselves. The friendships formed and the hearts broken and mended were the greener grass for us to look at longingly. We wanted a slice of the world that these wonderfully flawed kids were a part of. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have wanted to go to East Highland High School or be friends with anyone from ‘Elite.’ And I guess that’s what draws me to “School Spirits” so much—the warm, earnestly growth-driven characters of the show that make me take a look back at some of my all-time favorites, and that too in a good way.
Remember Quentin’s scarring death in ‘One Tree Hill’? Sam didn’t get to know him. But when she was told to write her heart out on the piece of paper, we saw a whole new side of Quentin through the eyes of a stranger. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we get to know Maddie somewhat in the same way Sam gets to know Quentin—through the tears of everyone who loved him and would miss him until their time came to join him in death. There’s no better way to get to know someone than through the eyes of people who love them even in their absence. And that’s our first introduction to Maddie.
Her friends, Simon and Nicole, being complete wrecks in the aftermath of Maddie’s disappearance lets us know that Maddie was far from dispensable. She didn’t have to be a misfit, yet she was. But that doesn’t mean she was wary of the jocks either—one of whom she was even in love with. And then the Maddie we know, thanks to the peculiarly supernatural design of the show, is a spirit who’s just awoken to the realization that her life was snatched from her way too soon, and she’s bound to roam the halls of Split River High until the time comes for her to cross over.
It may be quite unfair to assign someone a personality based on their acts of service toward others, but sadly, that is primarily how Maddie is remembered. She was a long-suffering daughter to a supremely dysfunctional and abusive mom who chose booze over her every single day. She was blindly trusting of her boyfriend, Xavier, who was indulging in a rather inappropriate rendezvous with her ex-friend Claire. But a well-developed character wouldn’t only have their self-sacrificing benevolence as their predominant trait. And Maddie was, whether you notice it right off the bat or not, a lot more than that.
Maddie surprisingly excelled in her schoolwork despite being bogged down by the unfair responsibilities of taking care of a self-harming adult when she herself was only a teen. She cradled an ambitious dream of going off to a good college and kickstarting a life she’s always only dreamed of. And when that ship sailed with the sudden loss of her life, Maddie quickly found a new goal in solving the perplexing mystery of her own death. But old habits die hard. And in the case of Maddie, that’s not always such a bad thing. Even in the afterlife, Maddie has become the go-to person for the new friends she’s made. She, time and again, put her own afflictions aside to help out her spirit friends, who’ve not only found an understanding ear in the sweet girl but have also been shocked to discover a functional mode of communication with the world of the living. My only hope, especially in light of the hopeful revelation that was the season finale, is that Maddie gets back all that she’s lost, if not the world, because that’s what she deserves.
Ah, yes, the one lovelorn best friend every pretty girl has at some point in her life, if not always. But there’s a difference between Simon and the stereotypical male best friend, who waits for ages for the girl to like him back, only to end up disparaging her when his patience runs out. Despite being head over heels in love with Maddie, Simon has always made it a point not to let her get a whiff of how he feels for her. As hard as the poor guy tried, he could hardly hide his love. What redeemed him and his friendship with Maddie was that Simon never wanted anything in return for loving her and always being there for her. And that is something Maddie herself appreciates and deems important enough to be the most significant motif of her obituary. Simon’s wayward and sometimes rather problematic meltdowns were only the understandable outcome of just how hurt he was to have lost his best friend and the girl he was hopelessly in love with. It is most likely the surprising purity of his unconditional love that allows Simon the privilege of not only seeing Maddie’s spirit but also having full-blown conversations with her. Yet his feelings for Maddie aren’t entirely devoid of toxic possessiveness.
Simon is quite bitter toward any guy Maddie gets close to. Granted, Xavier did show some concerning indications of being guilty of the crime at first, but just the vehemence of Simon’s loathing for him can’t only be born out of his unbiased suspicion. That is further proved when Simon pretty problematically lashes out at Maddie’s spirit for going to prom with a sweet jock, Wally. Sure, he harbors no hope in his heart of ever being with Maddie in a romantic dynamic, especially when he thinks that Maddie is dead, but the stereotypically territorial behavior in Simon is quite noticeable and unforgivable. There’s also the lost puppy-dog syndrome ailing Simon, who’s practically given up on picturing a future now that his best friend won’t be a part of it. However, that isn’t something that can be held against him without considering the fact that, at the end of the day, he’s mourning the loss of his friend while ardently trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance.
If there’s one character who truly is quite enigmatic and hard to read at times, it would be Xavier. Burdened with wearing a Hannibal Lecter-Esque face that intrigues some and deters many, Xavier can’t help but come off as sketchy at times. And the morally questionable life choices he makes do little to help his case. You would think that cheating on Maddie was a characteristic transgression on his part. But the more we see of Xavier, we are made to sympathize with his actions and the ocean of reasons behind them. Although explored not very often, Xavier’s grim relationship with his abusive father can be telling of why he does what he does. He’s made to feel like a chump at home with a father who eats away at his self-esteem every chance he gets.
That is clearly not something Xavier felt comfortable burdening Maddie with, considering she had her own share of horrors to deal with at home. But Xavier isn’t necessarily a fighter like Maddie, either. In the face of abuse, the poor guy curls up into a ball of misery and can hardly speak up against a father who, I’m sure, doesn’t restrain himself from hitting his son. That may be exactly why he’s drawn to Claire, the cutthroat warrior of a girl who can face any storm hurled her way. What may have sealed the deal between Xavier and Claire was the way the fierce girl stood up to his bully of a dad. None of this is how Xavier justifies being deceptive to Maddie. In fact, he’s shown unprompted remorse for lying to Maddie and has even mended his problematic ways to take part in her friends’ investigation. It would be fascinating to see Xavier’s growth, with or without his romantic arc with Claire, flourish into something substantial.
The dead chemistry teacher who has been haunting the halls of Split River High for the last 60 years has come off as a bit too good to be true. I’ve often found myself wondering if he really is so selfless that he would rather wait and guide the other spirits through the staggering process of attaining absolution than find it himself. His insistent method of letting go of the circumstances of the deaths never really seemed to be the way for the spirits to get closure. And without closure, how can they ever hope to let go of what binds them to the school? It was only a matter of time until someone sniffed out the real motive Mr. Martin has for keeping the sullen spirits tethered to the school. Although we don’t really have a legitimate foundation to be certain as of now, it wouldn’t be a reach to assume that he might have been the pyromaniac who started the fire in the chemistry lab that took his life along with that of Janet. Since then, the sociopathic spirit has made lab rats out of the poor kids who have had to bid adieu to life before their time. Why he conducts the insanely freaky experimentation on the spirits remains to be known. But if there’s one character who cannot be trusted at all, that would be Mr. Martin.