"Olivia Parker and Zoe Grant are excited when money mysteriously shows up for a ski trip, but Jason Whittaker and Wilson Knox worry that the trip to be connected to a premonition of danger." - AIO
“Higher than Our Ways” is the highly anticipated follow-up to “The Christmas Bells” in which it is finally revealed which of three principal characters -- Olivia, Emily or Zoe -- would “fall”. The answer to this question probably surprised many fans who had assumed that this storyline would be related to the Rydell Saga, and who, therefore, erroneously concluded that it would be Emily Jones -- and not Olivia -- that would be the one to fall. I myself initially thought it’d be Emily. After all, out of the three characters listed, Emily Jones was the only one going through a situation that might test someone's faith. Although, if I had all actually spent more time thinking about it, I probably would have noticed that “The Rydell Revelations” never seems to have any interest in showing the effects of one’s actions on other people’s personal and spiritual well-being. But enough about that storyline.
Not only is today’s reveal a little surprising, the storyline itself has some real, and interesting, ramifications for future albums. First, the episode guarantees that the entire Parker family isn’t actually being phased out of the show (as many thought they would be). Secondly, it ensures a portion of episodes going forward will have a more serious and contemplative tone. Thirdly, it allows us to assume that fan-favourites Jason and Wilson will be heavily involved (it’s always nice when these two characters are given more to do). And, finally, it promises a topic that the show hasn’t really delved into that much on AIO; in a time where it seems quite trendy for younger people to post “spiritual deconstruction videos”, here we have the privilege of following someone losing their faith and will learn how exactly Christians should respond to them.
Although it’s one of the better episodes of the year, not everything about it totally worked for me. I wonder, for instance, if there were one too many instances that robbed it of some authenticity. As referenced in my review of “The Christmas Bells”, the fact that this entire storyline is based on Wilson hearing the somewhat mystical-sounding phrase “One of Three will fall” -- the sort of ominous words that a Wizard in a fantasy novel might say -- makes every event in this storyline feel a little less rooted in believability (simple “she will fall” would have worked fine). There is also a strange mixture of tones here. Having Wilson bumbling around and goofily trying to prevent characters from falling in the first half, followed by a couple of rather unnecessarily morbid scenes where, in one case, the dead teacher’s son tries to go talk to his own father lying in a casket, just didn’t seem to fit together in the same episode. Because of its inconsistent tones, the episode didn’t end up resonating with me as much as it could have.
Robbing it also, I think, of some authenticity is the fact that the AIO team decided that the “inciting incident” would be the death of a teacher the audience never even saw Olivia interact with. I’m not sure if this was the right decision. On the one hand, the fact that the audience has never heard of this teacher keeps the audience less emotionally invested in as they otherwise might have been. On the other hand, I understand that “killing off” a character that had appeared on the show before, then putting all of the focus on Olivia, would have probably felt tonally off as well. We’ve seen the former situation work well in “A Lesson From Mike”, and we’ve also heard the latter work well in episodes like “Karen” or “The Very Best of Friends”. In my mind, what they settled on works well-enough, but I can’t help but wonder if the latter option might have helped me feel the impact of his death a little more. To reiterate, I don’t know what the best decision would have been, but I think simply including the teacher’s voice in one of the early classroom scenes might have humanized him a little more.
After finishing the episode, I sorta wished Olivia’s struggles had happened after her experiences in “The Ties that Bind”. In those episodes, if you’ll remember, she was questioning the teachings of the Bible and was shown to be confused as to why Mr. Whittaker wasn’t being “tolerant” or “loving” enough in those episodes. While people commonly fall away from the faith after witnessing a tragedy, I wonder if I’m witnessing the younger generation rejecting Christianity much more because it’s seen as “hateful” and “intolerant”, and less because they wonder “why does God let bad things happen?” (although, mind you, this is still a common question that people have). Her scenes in “The Ties that Bind” might have seemed like a more organic and fitting jumping-off point than the overly-tragic event in this album. Alas, AIO doesn’t have a time machine and can’t place this particular storyline after that album, but it’s certainly interesting to reflect on those episodes in light of this new storyline.
I’ll say this: after listening to “Higher than Our Ways”, I already find myself much more intrigued by this new storyline than I am with the Rydell Saga. The difference between the sagas, of course, is clear: instead of trying to keep listeners invested with a vague “what is going on?” question, this saga reveals its central question right away: “Will Olivia reject Christianity, or won't she?”. We can be sure that it won’t be a storyline that will cop out halfway with a “Surprise! -- it was actually the mysterious nanny who rejected Christianity!” Oh wait, how did I get back to talking about the Rydell saga, again? Oh well. Despite its imperfections, “Higher than Our Ways” is a very solid episode that makes me excited to hear more episodes.
Writer: Marshal Younger
Director: Marshal Younger
Executive Producer: Dave Arnold
Post-Production: Nathan Jones
Music: John Campbell
Original Release Date: 07.27.2021
Episode Review Date: 07.06.2021