Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault.
In Grand Army’s pilot, there’s a bomb — that is, a literal one. An explosion from a few blocks over sends the students of Grand Army High School into lockdown, and if you think the show might get a little less intense from there on out, you’re going to be in for a shock. Netflix’s newest teen drama, Grand Army, is unflinching in its depiction of harsh, often unjust, and occasionally hopeful realities of contemporary high schoolers. But although there’s pain, there’s also hope, community, and an unforgettable lineup of students unafraid to fight back against the bullshit.
Like its genre predecessors Degrassi and Skins, Grand Army follows an ensemble cast of teenagers each dealing with their own trauma, issues, and fears. The characters are all students at the same competitive public high school in Brooklyn, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. There’s Sid (Amir Bageria), a star student-athlete with Harvard aspirations and a secret that could upend his reputation at school. Then there’s Dominique (Odley Jean), a focused and hardworking basketball star with dreams of becoming a psychologist and troubles at home. Rounding out the main cast is insecure freshman Leila (Amalia Yoo), talented musician Jayson (Maliq Johnson), and feminist provocateur Joey (Odessa A’zion).
Although there are a ton of characters, stories, and themes packed into just nine episodes, many of them start to overlap, especially as the show progresses — which is why this recap, tracing every turn, twist, and introduction, might come in handy. Ready to head back to high school? Let’s go.
Episode 1: “Brooklyn, 2020”
Grand Army’s first few images immediately set the mood for the show. A rusty trash can; a balled-up nest of hair. Vandalism on the locker room wall asks, “Ladies, what’s better: a good fuck or a good shit? VOTE!” (A good shit is winning.) Evident cool girl Joey Del Marco (Odessa A’zion) walks into a stall, gives her teary-eyed friend Gracie (Keara Graves) a quick pep talk, and proceeds to dislodge a condom from inside her vagina. The entire time, she’s completely unphased, as if this is just another weekday. Already, we can tell this is a no-holds-barred teen drama in the vein of Euphoria — but maybe without the glitter and the Southern California glamour.
As Joey and Grace do their thing, we’re introduced to three more members of Grand Army’s ensemble cast: Dominique, aka Dom (Odley Jean), and her friends Tamika (Brittany Adebumola) and Sonia (Naiya Ortiz). We learn several facts in succession: Dom’s friends pay her to do their hair, Dom has a crush who barely knows she exists, and, from the trio’s station outside the stall, it really sounds like Joey and Gracie are hooking up. Joey retrieves the condom, proudly flails it around the locker room, and tosses it… where it lands right by Leila Kwan Zimmer’s (Amalia Yoo) Doc Martens. Leila scuttles away, Joey threatens anyone who might want to “talk shit” about her friend, and Dom asks Gracie, who understandably begins to panic, if she took a Plan B.
As Dom and Joey walk into the gym side by side, it’s clear that they’re not at all friends but they do respect each other, somewhat. Joey also catches Dom eyeing John Ellis (Alphonso Romero Jones II) and suggests she approach him. This is the kind of thing Joey — and maybe Dom’s friends — would be bold enough to do, but Dom seems comfortable pining away. For now.
If I’ve learned anything from my favorite grittier teen dramas, it’s that I should downright fear the moment Grand Army pivots to its alpha male leads. My intuition is correct: instead of meeting Dom’s crush, we’re thrown into a squad of obnoxious swim team guys. They unapologetically walk right into Leila, causing her to drop her phone, and then leer at her as she walks away. As if to cement the fact that this is a Nate Jacobs kind of friend group, they then immediately turn on Sid Pakam (Amir Bageria) and start harassing him about whether he’s slept with his girlfriend yet.
After the boys, we move to Leila, who’s mid-presentation about Judaism in China. Some nearby Chinese students snicker; one calls her a “whore” in Mandarin. As she did after Joey tossed a condom in her direction, Leila copes by sending her friend some generic “I’m miserable here, wish we were watching The Walking Dead right now” texts. This moment, more than anything we’ve seen so far, reminds me of my own high school experience.
Still following? Good — because we have even more new characters. Friends Jayson (Maliq Johnson) and Owen (Jaden Jordan) are already a much nicer alternative to Sid’s circle of friends. They’re riding the high of a successful music audition, and after they grab some lunch from a nearby halal guy, they thank him by name. Maybe I’m making snap judgements, but I just know the swim team boys would never.
Cut to Jayson and Owen, now back at Grand Army. When a bomb goes off a few blocks away, the stories of all the students we’ve just met — from Jayson and Owen to Joey to Leila — begin to converge. A teacher snaps at Jayson and Owen for goofing around, and meanwhile, the swim team guys are hard at work on an Instagram account devoted to Grand Army girls with “bomb pussy.” (Did I mention I hate them?) They start pestering Sid, asking for him to fork over a name for the account, but he shakes them off, busy texting his sister and girlfriend and making sure they’re both okay. In response, they threaten to put his younger sister on the list.
Sid ditches his friends to go find his sister, but instead, he runs into Leila, who begins lamenting about how miserable both her day and overall freshman year have been. The main takeaway here is that Leila’s adopted, and although she loves her parents, she feels isolated and confused. The other takeaway is that Sid is a great listener and needs to be saved from the bastion of toxic masculinity that is his friend group. Unfortunately, just minutes later, swim team ringleader George (Anthony Ippolito) texts him again and demands a name. With a sigh, Sid sends Leila’s.
Back in the other room, Dom and her friends are chatting about whether or not to head to a massive party (for John-related purposes) later that night. Jayson interrupts to ask Sonia for money, and when she explains she already gave her cash to Dom earlier in the locker room, he swipes Dom’s bag. Owen, snickering next to Jayson, grabs the wallet, and Dom is pissed. Joey, who’s sitting nearby and fielding texts from her emotionally estranged dad, tries to step in, and Jayson and Owen toss the bag back and forth until Ms. Wilder — the same teacher from before — reprimands them, then chastises Joey for wearing gym shorts.
In the moments that follow, both Joey and Leila learn that they made it onto the Instagram account. Leila, for her part, is thrilled just to be noticed, but Joey finds out from her soft-spoken, clearly smitten friend Tim (Thelonius Serrell-Freed) and her bravado fades for a moment of genuine discomfort. Dom is upset for a completely different reason: Jayson dropped her wallet down the stairwell, and by the time she finds it, $200 is missing.
After all the drama and trauma of the day, almost all the students head to a party. Joey’s there with her posse: Tim, Tim’s wholesome sister Anna (Sydney Meyer), and swim team jerks Luke (Brian Altemus) and George. Leila’s mom drops her off out front. Sid’s making out with his girlfriend, Flora (Marcela Avelina), but he clearly has other things on his mind. The only student who’s nowhere to be found? Dom, who has to stay home and look after her siblings.
In a move that’s predictable but still upsetting to watch, Leila and George get together. But there’s a kicker. Remember Gracie, Joey’s friend from the show’s opening scene? Turns out, that condom mishap was the result of a hookup with George, and she’s not too happy to see him kiss Leila in front of hordes of people. Gracie promptly throws a drink at her, which sends her staggering backwards, knocking Luke down the stairs. It’s a fun, frothy sequence amid all the heavier issues and teases we’ve already seen in episode 1.
Speaking of heavy: “I’m going to teach you things you’ll never forget,” someone types. We can’t tell who it is, or what this means. But before that, a stunning closing shot shows Tim and Joey escaping the party and jumping on the back of a subway car. When Joey screams, Tim screams, too. And then, whether it’s because of her dad, her altercation with Ms. Wilder, the bomb, or just the day’s emotional ramifications, she cries.
More to come. Check back for the full season recap on Oct. 20.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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