Abbott Elementary Recap: Barbara Didn’t Start the Fire – Vulture

I couldn’t help but name this recap after one of Billy Joel’s most famous songs, but we need to get one thing straight: Barbara didn’t start the fire — her shawl did! After lighting her stained-glass Jesus candle, Abbott’s “spiritually tenured” employee answered a phone call and a gust of wind caused her shawl to graze the flame, creating what Barbara calls the Devil’s fresh air, a.k.a. fire and smoke.

When the fire alarm sounds, the teachers herd their students out of the building while Ava sprints through the door, leaving the school in the dust clouds of her wheels as she drives off. Gregory rises to the occasion and appoints himself interim principal, eager to use the skills he picked up from a series of catastrophe modules in his principal training. Equipped with his most professional cardigan, Gregory puts himself on the front lines, facilitating the aftermath of the incident once the firefighters arrive at the school. Janet, a trauma counselor, also arrives, moving from classroom to classroom to ensure everyone is coping after the ordeal.

Janet declares everyone, students and teachers alike, to be pretty well adjusted … except for Barbara. During their meeting, Barbara is overly defensive about her part in the fire while trying too hard to make it seem as if she’s fine. She even wears the burned, tattered shawl to prove exactly how fine she is, which, as Janet puts it, is Mary J. Blige-level just fine. Appalled to see the woman they both revere adjusting so poorly to the fire, Gregory and Janine intervene. Barbara declines Gregory’s offer of support but breaks down at the fire-safety meeting when the fire captain bans open flames. She explodes, condemning the candle ban before storming out. Melissa is the only one who can get through to Barbara, connecting with her over their shared generational differences from the younger adults who prioritize openly sharing their feelings. Barbara admits she lit the candle for her husband, who recently had a health scare. He’s fine, but the event shook Barbara up, and she had only her faith and her candles to turn to. Melissa comforts her friend, reminding Barbara that it’s okay to be upset. Perhaps the younger generation is rubbing off on them.

Among all the other great things about this show, Abbott Elementary’s strong ensemble cast provides a solid foundation that produces amazing episodes back-to-back. It reminds me of Parks and Recreation in that each character pulls enough of their own weight that no matter who’s central to the story line, you’ll get a lot of laughs (except Ann, but that may just be my dislike for her). This episode reflects the cast’s strength even without the usual dose of Janine. Since the show has seriously blown up, I’m sure scheduling all the cast members to both film and handle the press makes it hard for everyone to be on set at the same time, but episodes like this make clear that it’s not a problem. This cast is like a well-oiled machine, supporting one another when necessary and eagerly jumping in when it’s their time to carry the story.

Now Lisa Ann Walter steps up to the plate with a Melissa-focused story line after being a supporting character last week. It turns out Melissa comes from a long line of firefighters (and arsonists). After the firefighters and their tractor-drawn aerial truck, whatever that is, arrive, Melissa beams with excitement. According to one of them, she’s a “certified truckie” because instead of swooning over the firemen, she drools over the truck. She takes her whole class out to play with it, but she’s having more fun than the shivering, bored students are. She hops around the truck, honking the horn and wielding one of the hatchets. She knows the names of all the truck’s bells and whistles and serves up anecdotes from her extensive secondhand experience in the field. During the meeting, she says she had wanted to be a firefighter but was told girls weren’t allowed to be such things. This, of course, activates something in Jacob, who “accidentally” throws his Frisbee up on the roof. He informs the firefighters about Melissa’s family’s legacy, and they let her climb the ladder to retrieve the Frisbee, a moment she will surely remember forever.

At the end of the day, Janet checks in with Barbara one last time. Though Barbara is more levelheaded after confiding in Melissa and she admits to Janet that her issues at home had influenced her reaction, Janet offers Barbara a mental-health day — not that she phrased it that way, or else Barbara would never have accepted it. Barbara has taken a day off only for sickness, vacation, or to get her hair done (a valid reason!), and at first she guffaws at the idea but then realizes she deserves it. The next day, Barbara takes time off to spend with her husband.

Teacher’s Notes

• We get another great guest star this week with Shalita Grant as Janet, the trauma counselor. I know her as Joe’s neighbor in the last season of You and a lawyer in Search Party (though this was another character with a highly professional job, she played it way differently from her character in Abbott. I suggest everyone check it out). I’m still waiting for some more Leslie Odom Jr. and Ayo Edebiri.

• Okay, now I’m demanding Abbott give us some sort of supplemental miniseries or even a one-time Instagram Reel or TikTok featuring Ava’s survivalist doomsday prepping. Her “What’s in My Go Bag” video was hilarious.

• The little boy who gives an amazing deadpan to the camera as Ava leaves the school in the dust is giving Gregory a run for his money! Also great to see my hotep baby back in this episode encouraging his peers to act like kings and queens.

What a funny episode! There are many lines to choose from, but here are my favorites narrowed down:

• Janet, after Gregory assumes Mr. Johnson is the one not coping well: “That is the single most well-adjusted man I’ve ever met.”

• Mr. Johnson: “It’s always arson. Ask any of my exes. I blame Waiting to Exhale.”

• Ava: “I am one minor inconvenience from putting this day in rice.”

• Barbara: “Mandates are nothing more than fervent suggestions.”

• Gregory: “I’m also prepared for tidal waves, Facebook crashing — that’s for the older teachers — and a lice outbreak … for the white teachers.”

• Barbara: “I never listen to Chaka Khan’s ‘Through the Fire’ when it comes up on my Pandora. I’m every woman, not a pyromaniac.”

• Mr. Johnson, on the No. 1 cause of fires in schools: “The CIA … too close to the truth, huh?”

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