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The Impact of the "One Tree Hill" School Shooting Episode 15 Years Later
On March 1, 2006, “One Tree Hill” did something stunning: It aired a devastating episode about a school shooting. Fifteen years later, I believe this is one of the most important hours of television in the teen drama genre — and even beyond.
For most fans, episode 3.16, “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept,” is most remembered for its shocking ending: Dan (Paul Johansson) picks up the now-deceased school shooter’s gun and uses it to kill his own brother, Keith (Craig Sheffer). It was a plot twist no one saw coming and a dividing line: You could separate “One Tree Hill” into everything that happened before Dan killed Keith and everything that happened after. It was the first time a main character on a teen drama had murdered another main character.
But even if you remove that gasp-inducing final moment, the episode would still be groundbreaking because of its realistic depiction of a school shooting. To briefly summarize the storyline is a disservice, but I am going to do it anyway: Jimmy (Colin Fickes), feeling increasingly alienated amid brutal bullying, fires a gun in a crowded hallway at Tree Hill High. Peyton (Hilarie Burton) is struck in her leg, hundreds of students run out of the building, and others are stuck hiding inside as the school goes into lockdown.
Jimmy was introduced in the series’ pilot as a friend of Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) and Mouth (Lee Norris), who at that point are on the outside of the “in” crowd. After also appearing in episode 1.02, we don’t see Jimmy again until episode 3.15, “Just Watch the Fireworks,” which sets the stage for what happens in the following hour by focusing on Jimmy’s feelings of isolation and inferiority, as well as his apparent hatred for his fellow classmates who either ignore him or torment him.
When Jimmy opens fire in 3.16, he seems to almost immediately regret doing so and even looks taken back by the forceful power of the gun. He and other students, including some of the core characters, take shelter in a classroom amidst the chaos, with Jimmy revealing to them that he is the culprit. He panics about his actions and where to go from there as those trapped with him fear for their lives.
With the school surrounded by law enforcement, Jimmy eventually leaves the classroom seemingly to face his fate. He encounters Lucas carrying the injured Peyton, which nearly sets him off again. At this point, Keith intervenes and attempts to talk Jimmy off the metaphorical ledge. “That pain in your stomach, that pain in your heart, it goes away,” he tells Jimmy. “That voice in your head that’s saying there’s no way out, it’s wrong, Jimmy. Would you please, please, just believe me? It gets better.”
Jimmy, almost in a state of psychological delusion at this point, tearfully exclaims, “It won’t! Not after this. I can’t take this back! I can’t erase this!” He goes on, “I just... I wanted... I wanted them to leave me alone. I just... I wanted them to like me.” Despite Keith’s efforts to get Jimmy to put down the gun, the teen instead turns the weapon on himself and fires into his chest.
The reason why this synopsis does the episode a disservice is because of all that it leaves out: every nuance, every poignant line of dialogue, every close-up on faces full of emotion, every powerful lesson it imparts. School shootings are something no one ever wants to experience, but bearing witness to a depiction of one is something I believe could actually be educational. While it could be argued that exposing someone to something like this can plant a seed in one’s head and drive or inspire copycat behaviors, I would argue that this episode could actually be a deterent. You watch it and you see the devastating consequences of school shootings and you can’t imagine anyone afterward ever following Jimmy’s twisted path. Truly, I often wonder the difference it could make if this hour of television was required viewing in middle schools and high schools.
As seen in the video above, a “making of” featurette was included on the season 3 DVD, providing valuable insight into the creation of the episode. Additionally, a while back, I had the honor of speaking to several cast members about it, like Amber Wallace, who played Glenda.
When I interviewed Norris for the original TeenDramaWhore in 2009, he told this is his “favorite episode” of the series. “It was really controversial and [now-disgraced creator Mark Schwahn] had to fight really hard to get the episode made, but it was definitely worth it,” he said, noting, “I’m really proud of the work we did, and I think it really set us apart from some other teen shows in that it had a lot of heart.”
I also spoke with Fickes himself around the same time, with the actor (who also appeared on “Dawson’s Creek”) telling me, “The fact that there are people who feel the way Jimmy must of felt made me strive to be as authentic and honest as possible. My hope was that if people could see themselves mirrored in the character, they would also see the hope and optimism in there too. That they could see they weren’t alone and that it would, or could, all be okay.”
And I also did an interview with Allison Scagliotti, whose character Abby is originally one of the hostages but is let go by Jimmy when she starts to go into diabetic shock. We as viewers don’t know it at the time, but when she makes her escape, she ends up being the only witness to Keith’s murder, something that reverberates across the following season. Reflecting on first receiving the script for the school shooting episode, the actress told me, “I was extremely moved by what I read, mostly because the Jimmy character was someone that could be very real. Who knows how many Jimmys there have been and still are in schools everywhere? The tragedy of what becomes of him is enough to wake people up, I think.”
This episode is never far from my mind, and it was especially stuck in my head following the Parkland school shooting just over three years ago. In the wake of that 2018 massacre in Florida, I posted the text of Lucas’ end-of-episode voiceover on my Facebook page.
“Does this darkness have a name? This cruelty, this hatred? How did it find us? Did it steal into our lives or did we seek it out and embrace it? What happened to us, that we now send our children out into the world like we send young men to war, hoping for their safe return but knowing that some will be lost along the way? When did we lose our way? Consumed by the shadows, swallowed whole by the darkness. Does this darkness have a name? Is it your name?”
The U.S. is still reconciling with these questions. The number of school shootings dropped precipitously in 2020 only because nearly all schools were closed amidst the pandemic. There still remains a gun epidemic in this country, far too many stigmas surrounding mental health, and a problem with school bullying that is only going to return once students are back in classrooms full time. It all adds up to a powder keg that is destined to explode. And once again we’ll be asking ourselves how we got here. How we got to this point.
I believe this “One Tree Hill” episode holds some of the answers. By offering different perspectives — that of the shooter, the victim, the hostages, the escapees, etc. — we see how tragedies like this unfold from different angles and how the various elements of school shootings play out. Yes, this is a television show. Yes, it’s fiction. Yes, merely watching this is incomparable to actually living it. Yes, not everything is done “right” or “well.” But it is a way into something that needs to be better understood.
And I wish the teen drama genre wasn’t so often dismissed as a guilty pleasure or meaningless fluff or ridiculous melodrama. This episode shows how the genre can be so much more than that. As TV critic Daniel Fienberg wrote later in 2006, the show provided a “surprisingly earnest and reflective depiction of a school shooting.” In 2009, the StarNews in Wilmington, where “One Tree Hill” was filmed, declared the hour “a clear favorite among fans” and noted it “really was a turning point for the series.”
In a 2016 Huffington Post feature on the relevancy of school shooting episodes, the authors wrote about how Jimmy’s anger “resonated deeply with Tree Hill’s residents and the audience.” And the following year, Vulture observed, “It’s strange now to applaud a high-school show tackling the issue of a school shooting — but at the time it aired in 2006, and we hadn’t yet been inundated with shows tackling the same subject matter in exploitative ways. This episode spoke to the broad feelings around gun violence while also staying deeply personal to the show and its characters.” Added the author, “It’s hard to watch, but completely moving, even over a decade later.”
Well, now it’s exactly 15 years later and it’s still hard to watch. And it’s still completely moving. If you haven’t watched it, I hope you will. If you have already, I hope you’ll recommend it to someone else. The impact is undeniable.
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