Spoilers ahead! Turn back now!
Degrassi: Next Class is unique in that instead of focusing on issues teens face like the other seasons of Degrassi, it discusses larger cultural issues. For instance, last season focused on cyber-bullying and feminism whereas this season focuses almost exclusively on Black Lives Matter.
Shay is the character who is the most developed throughout the season. She wants to believe that her friends and the larger Degrassi community are all good people, but she sees the institutionalized racism. Shay, like the audience, is forced to see the inequalities that not even Degrassi is immune to. When Frankie paints the captain of the opposing volleyball team as a gorilla, she is perpetuating racism even though she claims to not understand what she did. What is most bothersome about this though is that Frankie is singled out as the only problem. While Frankie may have been the one to design the poster, the show completely ignores that it was the entire team (sans Shay) who made the poster. The show also ignores Lola’s comment about the other team “looking like criminals.” She clearly knows that this is racist (she says “no offense” to Shay immediately after), yet she is never isolated or punished for these microaggressions and outright racism. Instead, she’s hailed as a hero and put in charge of a diversity committee.
Everyone at Degrassi wants to take the moral high ground while changing their behavior as little as possible. The entire team gets to say they didn’t paint the gorilla even though they participated in the poster, and Frankie is the scapegoat. I’m not trying to argue that what Frankie did wasn’t racist or that her following actions weren’t at the very least problematic, but it ignores the larger system that allowed Frankie to execute this plan. The characters on the team in the last season were focused on being inclusive feminists, but they seem to have forgotten that this season. Perhaps this is meant to be a commentary on white feminism, but it seems to be praising the system rather than dismantling it. The characters are made aware of the racial inequalities in their own privileged community after the Frankie incident, but still do nothing to atone or learn from the situation. Rather, they isolate Frankie while keeping their own involvement to themselves. This works for the characters, and they end up winning the volleyball championship while also getting to be champions of racial equality.
I actually think the ending of this arc somewhat works, however. I’m a firm believer that allies will make mistakes and there needs to be a way for people to reform their beliefs. Frankie, as we’re lead to believe, has learned her lesson. By the end, she has accepted that she may not be forgiven, but she still gives her apologies. This doesn’t mean that the Northern Tech girls’ will have no longer been hurt by her actions or even that they they have to forgive and/or forget what she did, but it gives her the chance to learn by being a part of the community without facing outright hostility. Basically everyone knows to be racist is to be bad, yet people still do racist things and get upset when race or their own prejudices are brought up. No one likes to think of themselves as the villain. However, when we accept our mistakes, that is when we can learn from them. It’s an extremely complicated issue, however, and very difficult to read when people are truly being sincere versus wanting to simply save face.
The main issue with the ending, however, is the circumstances under which Frankie is let back onto the team. I think it undermines Frankie’s acceptance back into the community. We have seen athletic privilege time and time again in the news. Is the show trying to do this as well? Why wait until the very end of the arc to do this when there is no chance for follow up? Shay wants to be friends with Frankie and believe that she simply didn’t understand the implications of what she did, but this comes at a very odd time. She’s approaching her simply because she is the other best player on the team and will therefore increase their chances of winning the championship. Shay had already earlier in the season refused to compromise her morals to further her volleyball career, yet she approaches Frankie hoping that she has learned her lesson and she can add her back onto the team without guilt. Frankie gets immediately accepted back into the group, they defeat the opposing underprivileged school that Frankie and the team had “pranked” in the first place, and, just like that, they move onto the next plotline. In a school so adamant that students are free to explore their gender and sexual identities, they have a tendency to simply end plots discussing race without fully exploring the ideas.
Another big issue I have with this season is their inability to say Miles is bi. They can say he likes boys and girls, but, like many shows, they won’t say the word.
Finally, this show suffers from having a lot of characters and not spreading the plot around enough. It seems that a few characters get every major plot which makes the show messy. Sometimes, these plots are complementary and it works (e.g. Zoe cannot admit to being gay and is also self-harming). Most of the time, however, it just means one character is doing a lot while others do almost nothing (e.g. Tristan wants Miles and be an equal partner in their relationship AND is worried about being a virgin AND is trying to organize the Degrassi Alumni Event AND might be in critical condition while Baaz… likes Grace I guess?). If they spread this around a bit more, it would feel more natural, but this is an issue Degrassi has always had.
Overall, the show has the same issues it has always had. My predictions for next season, of course, regard the bus crash that may have claimed the lives of some of the students. My best guess is that, if a character is going to die, it will be Jonah or Tiny. Both have everything going right, and it is not is not in Degrassi’s character to let that keep happening. More than that, however, it is process of elimination.
It wouldn’t be the best move to build up Grace being sick only to have her die in a bus crash. With her other hospital experience this season, I doubt she will be terribly injured. Maya may have an impact on the Degrassi community if she dies, and she’s seen relative success for her age, but this season especially we see that Maya is a big fish in a small pond. Plus they need her to write songs about the crash. She’ll be on the show a while longer, I think. Jonah might die. That might make Maya feel guilty about surviving the crash, which would be an interesting dynamic on the show, but he isn’t nearly as interesting as Tristan who would have Miles mourning his loss. It would have a smaller impact on the viewers, but then they would get to keep Tristan on the show rather than Jonah, whose plot outside of Maya has largely stagnated. Tristan may die, but he’s also a fan favorite and one of the most developed characters on the show. I could see him falling into a coma, but dying is unlikely.
Like Tristan, I think Tiny may be in a coma. He has his future ahead of him, but he also has a lot of loose ends. Shay just got permission from Lola to date him. However, we also don’t know for certain that he was on the bus at all. He isn’t answering her calls and texts, but perhaps he is just ignoring her. If he was on the bus, however, the outlook is grim. He may wake up from a coma for a while and reconcile with Shay only to die shortly after. This would have an impact on many characters because Tiny has the largest friend group in Degrassi. Others may have many casual connections, but he has deep relationships with most of the characters.