“Daaaaad!” screams a horrified Dylan McKay, the bright glow of flames reflected in his face as he watches his father incinerated by car-bomb. “No!” I shouted at the TV, watching season three of Beverly Hills 90210 as a 12-year-old boy in Iowa. Dylan had only just reconnected with his father, who’d been a neglectful, abusive, manipulative asshole his whole life, instilling in his son a crippling sense of self-doubt that he soothed with drugs, booze and women.
I’d been rooting for Dylan to experience some healing in reconnecting with his father (recently released from prison for white-collar crimes), and it seemed like the two were finally reaching each other. But now he’s dead, and Dylan is desperate for a drink.
As he navigates the funeral, FBI investigation, and well-meaning-but-nosy friends, Dylan is followed by a ghostly apparition of himself, a surly, antisocial version of Dylan which constantly demands that he drink. Dylan’s a year sober, but feels helpless in resisting this evil version of himself, which follows him everywhere. Exasperated with tears in his eyes, Dylan shouts to himself, “We are going to get through this, and I do not want a drink!” Suddenly, evil Dylan transforms into ten-year-old Dylan, no longer arrogant and brooding, but wide-eyed with fear, hurt and need. Dylan comforts his younger-self, the two of them weeping as they mourn their lost childhood.
Over three decades later, news this morning of the death of Luke Perry at 52 (the Morrissey quiff-sporting, heart-throb actor that played Dylan) takes me back to that Wednesday night in 1993, watching 90210 alone in a giant, dark house.
Having your worldview shaped by the characters, stories and lessons of TV dramas is usually a bad idea. But like Dylan, my parents were largely absent during my formative years, and I latched onto the glowing teet of television with the same urgency that Dylan did the bottle. This was problematic in many ways, though I think the lessons I gleaned from Dylan McKay have, for the most part, served me well.
To be clear, Dylan was a profoundly flawed character.
When his girlfriend, Brenda, travels to Paris during the summer of their senior year, Dylan uses the opportunity to hookup with Brenda’s best friend, Kelly Taylor (though to be fair, Brenda was doing the same thing in Paris with Dean Cain of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman fame).
Two seasons after comforting his child-self and refusing to drink, Dylan slips into a massive coke, booze, weed and heroin binge after his step-mom embezzles his entire inheritance, leaving him broke and forced to steal from The Peach Pit. He publicly destroys every one of his friendships and slips into the drunken arms of Valerie Malone (played by Saved By The Bell’s Tiffani Thiessen), a truly horrible person for reasons we won’t get into today.
Proud, moody, and unpredictably distant, the scars of Dylan being abandoned by his parents at age 16 turns him into a profoundly difficult person to deal with. But this experience also gives him a strong sense of self-reliance, and a moral code all his own.
The first time we meet Dylan he’s standing up to some bullies that have cornered computer geek Scott Hanlon (who would later accidentally shoot himself at his own birthday party, the poor sod). In this moment he’s witty and intimidating, but never violent. Profoundly well-read, Dylan uses language instead of muscle, or even his wealth, to best the villains.
During his first date with Brenda, Dylan receives an unexpected visit from his estranged father, who quarrels with him. Furious, Dylan smashes a flower pot on the sidewalk, causing Brenda to run in fear. When he catches up with her, Dylan is in tears and endlessly apologetic. “It’s just that he gets to me, he always gets to me!” he weeps, peeling back the layers of his anger to expose a deeply rooted fear of abandonment. Uncharacteristically, he opens up to Brenda and she comforts him.
Throughout his high school years, Dylan lives alone, first in the Belage Hotel, then in a cozy bungalow near the beach. To me, this was both romantic and tragic. As someone who was reluctantly isolated throughout my 90210-watching years (where I was a good six years younger than the characters on the show), I knew what it was like to long for the consistent security of a loving family. At the same time, I was desperate for the freedom of adulthood, where sex, employment, and my own home would grant me the power to shape my own destiny (and as naive as this may sound, I still maintain that being an adult trumps childhood any day).
For the most part, Dylan develops mature coping skills for the emotional turbulence rattling inside him. Throughout the series he’s constantly disappearing to Mexico or Europe, basking in the silent company of Rimbaud and black coffee, or the nourishing isolation of camping, surfing, or his motorcycle. You could say this is the irresponsible behavior of a spoiled rich-kid who can’t handle the real world, but considering the alternative of sticking around and drunkenly sabotaging his every relationship, it’s actually quite healthy behavior.
Dylan is damaged but not broken. He has an endless amount of love for his friends and lovers, but is aware of his limitations. He has moments of levity and affection, but behind his eyes is a weighty sadness that reveals the inner turmoil he wrestles with every day.
And it’s that constant battle that is the crux of the Dylan McKay character. Luke Perry’s arresting portrayal of a complex anti-hero taught me that life is an unending series of internal clashes. He not only conveyed this with wit and wisdom, but a kind of melancholy beauty. He helped me to peer into the screaming chaos of my own mind, accept the anarchic nature of myself and the universe that birthed me. More than accept the nightmarish state of my childhood self, Dylan McKay (with some help from Luke Perry) taught me to look that child square in the eyes, and tell him he’s not alone, even when he’s by himself.