“Young Ned concluded that new beginnings only lead to painful ends.”
– The Narrator
It makes sense for an episode called “Circus Circus” to be built around the motif of running away; after all, running away to join the circus is a common dream that many children have. Running away brings freedom and adventure. But it can also bring disappointment, as Young Ned discovered.
When he was young, Ned tried to run away from the Longborough School for Boys, seeking a fresh start. But when his decision to bring a nest of birds back to life for a group of schoolchildren resulted in the death of the woodpeckers the kids had been raising, Ned lost faith in his journey and returned to the school.
The memory of that experience lingers in Ned’s mind, and it’s part of the reason he’s suspicious of the idea of new beginnings. He’s still not happy with Chuck’s decision to move out, and he thinks it’s indicative of deeper problems in their relationship. He actually makes a good point:
Chuck: What is so terrible about starting fresh?
Ned: Because starting fresh means something else is ending stale.
To Ned’s credit, he’s not being hypocritical here. He started the episode metaphorically running away from his feelings on Chuck’s moving out, but now he’s being open with his feelings; instead of “starting fresh” and attempting to ignore his problems, he’s tackling them head-on.
Ned: I know you think I made Chuck stay behind because I’m upset she moved out, but I’m not.
Emerson: I know. You’re upset she’s not upset she moved out.
But Ned’s wrong about Chuck’s motives for moving out. She’s not running away from Ned; she’s running towards a new, independent future, where she can experience life to the fullest. In this manner, “Circus Circus” contrasts running away with running towards something. The former is about ignoring current problems; the latter is about working towards goals. The episode comes out pretty strongly in favour of running towards things.
As if to reinforce the point, by the end of the episode, Sweet Nicky Heaps is reunited with her mother, and Lily has returned to her sister. Whatever issues Nicky had with her mother are probably unresolved, and Lily hasn’t come clean to Vivian yet about her dalliance with Charles. But at least both of them are confronting their problems instead of running away from them.
The only runaway who hasn’t yet returned home is Olive, who ends the episode at the nunnery. But now she’s there not because she’s running away from the secrets she was forced to keep, but because she has decided to embrace life at the nunnery, at least to the extent that she can. This will give her time to figure out how to reconfigure her life now that she knows the piemaker will never feel the same way about her that she does about him. She’s running towards a new life, and for the first time in a while, she feels content.
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