Ooohkay, I have a lot of thoughts on this show, which is funny because I have a lot of issues with it but I also have a lot of meta about it. Who knows how many parts to this there will be. Whichever part comes first will have a hint of some other parts of my analysis, because no piece is complete without the rest, but I’d have to publish a novel to do it all at once. To start, here’s my analysis of one of the most crucial relationships in the show – Evan and his mom, Heidi.
When the world sees Evan’s “Dear Evan Hansen” note*, thinking it was Connor’s suicide note, they’re horrified by how badly it implies Connor’s parents treated him. But those were Evan’s words. What does that say about Heidi? Heidi is the only one, besides the Murphys, who knows it was Evan. And it makes her realize how distant she’s been. She has the same reaction that the rest of the world had towards Connor’s family, but towards herself. As the “you are not alone” line from You Will Be Found plays after Alana shares the note, images of the letter and people’s reactions to it swirl around, and Heidi is briefly in the center of it, looking up at the images. We’re seeing her react to it, really seeing her son for the first time since his father left. She’s being confronted with how far she’s wandered from being the parent she’d intended to be, and how much that’s hurt Evan.
A person’s childhood and parenting shape who they are. Examining Evan’s mother and father, it’s clear how he ended up with the issues he has. Heidi is so exhausted and overextended from working hard just to keep herself and her son afloat and trying to get them a better life by going to school that she doesn’t have anything left for Evan emotionally. Understandably, she needs him to be okay so that she can focus on work and school. In many ways, he is her whole world. Everything she does, from spending so much time at work, to going to school, to looking for ways to get Evan into college, is for him. She is trying. When she hears about Connor’s suicide, she’s concerned about Evan’s reaction to it and tries to reach out to him. She asks him regularly if he still has enough pills and reminds him and encourages him to do the assignments his therapist gives him. She loves him dearly and is doing the best she can, and it’s not her fault that she’s only human and can’t be everything Evan needs.
That said, she also isn’t doing as well as she could. She hasn’t set aside a regular night, perhaps every Saturday or Sunday night, for them to have dinner together. Instead, as Evan points out, she randomly takes nights off without asking him or letting him know about it beforehand and expects him to drop everything and spend time with her.
I’ve known mothers like Heidi, with very little money and kids whose fathers ran off, who work hard and go to school to try to give themselves and their children a better life. In my experience, they typically set aside regular times to spend with their children. But she doesn’t do that. So there are ways in which she could try to be there for Evan more. Maybe she can’t emotionally handle being faced with his depression and crippling social anxiety long enough to spend quality time with him. Maybe she needs to keep some amount of distance to keep from going insane from guilt and sadness about the life she’s given her child. She seems to be in denial about his mental state, so badly wanting him to be okay that she accepts any sign of improvement as certain improvement. When she hears that he stopped taking his medications, she doesn’t inquire further. She doesn’t wonder if he might have stopped taking them because he’s angry and resentful of them. She just assumes it’s for a good reason and moves on, which is not a safe or smart thing to do with a teenager like Evan, depressed and isolated. Whatever the reason, it’s been horrible for Evan not to have anyone there for him, not even the only person who has ever truly cared about him.
Rather than being understanding, she is usually frustrated and annoyed with him for still having such intense social anxiety. In the first scene, she comes into his room with an accusatory attitude, almost mad that he didn’t order dinner the night before. When he tells her that ordering dinner is too much for him because there’s social interaction involved, she sternly tells him that this is what he’s supposed to be working on, like she expects him to just be better. She doesn’t ask how it’s going with his therapist, she chastises him for not improving and then tells him that he needs to write those letters. She tells him in a parent-ordering voice that she doesn’t want another year of him sitting at home on his computer every Friday night saying he has no friends, as if he’s misbehaving rather than having legitimate mental health issues. He responds with an annoyed “neither do I,” probably thinking that she thinks he wants this, that he’s happy being the way he is. She tells him that they should try to be optimistic and buck up, again, as if he doesn’t have legitimate mental health issues.
In other words, she tells him to stop being so depressed and anxious, as if he has a choice. Hence Evan feeling like she thinks there’s something wrong with him that needs to be fixed. It also probably contributes to Evan’s low self-esteem and self-loathing. He’s felt broken since his father left, and his mother is unintentionally making that worse. She essentially talks like this is his fault, and if he would just “buck up,” things would be better. He both knows this isn’t true and has the self-doubt that is characteristic of depression, anxiety, and children whose parents leave them or tell them their issues are their fault.
She sings that she’s stumbling, searching for the right thing to say, but she can’t know what Evan needs to hear when she doesn’t listen to him (Anybody Have a Map?). She doesn’t ask him how she can help, what he needs, what’s going on in his head. The map she’s looking for is who her son is and what he needs.
Heidi is convinced that Evan will benefit from going to college and having a chance to start over. She encourages him to try to get a scholarship and goes on endlessly about the importance of it, but she never asks what he wants to do, if he thinks he can handle going to college. She wishes she could start over, so she thinks that must be what he needs, but in fact he needs to find a way to work around his anxiety and depression. They will follow him wherever he goes, and will probably get worse in a new environment with new people.
Heidi’s shortcomings in her attempts to understand Evan or focus on their relationship continue as the show goes on. As far as we know, she never makes up for forgetting about their scheduled Taco Tuesday. Instead, the first scene she’s in after that is when she walks into Evan’s room, angry that he’s doing so many things she has no idea about. Rather than asking why he didn’t tell her or offering sympathy for his best friend killing himself, she’s accusatory again. She’s mad that she’s not involved in his life even though she doesn’t make time to be in it. She seems oblivious to just how much she’s gone and how difficult it is for him.
She tells him she’s proud of him for not needing to take his pills anymore – again, as if his illness is a choice. As if there isn’t a real chemical imbalance in his brain and if he would just try harder, then he wouldn’t need them.
Heidi’s reaction to the Murphys’ offer of paying for Evan to go to college is very reasonable. She just met these people, Evan’s been spending all his time there and lying to her about it, and they act like they’re his family now and she is just a legal guardian. From her perspective, they are strangers trying to replace her by buying her son away.
It’s also not Evan’s fault that he needs more than she can provide, either, as he says towards the end of the show. He desperately, desperately needs someone to be there for him, and while she does support him financially, that’s about all she does. If she made him feel secure in her devotion to him, I believe he would be more open with her. But she doesn’t seem to realize this. Nothing she does seems to help him get better, so you would think she would try to figure out other ways to help him. Evan feeling like no one can hear him is probably largely because his mother doesn’t.
And here is where the theme “if you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around, do you ever really crash or even make a sound?” from Waving Through a Window comes from. To him, there probably seems to be no point in opening up to her, in addition to feeling like she’ll reject him if he does. Evan is overflowing with insecurities, self-loathing, fear, and loneliness. His mother has done little to truly understand him and when he has the opportunity for someone to finally, finally spend time with him, give him people to care about who care about him, of course he can’t easily walk away from that. With Heidi working all the time, he had no family in many ways. She wasn’t even home often enough to realize he was essentially living with someone else.
This is not to say that I hate Heidi or think she’s a terrible mother by any means. It’s very difficult for anyone to singlehandedly meet all of another person’s needs. Her situation was incredibly difficult, a single parent barely scraping by financially, about as isolated as her son, and dealing with a depressed teenager. She makes attempts to talk to Evan, she just doesn’t try as hard as Evan needed her to, probably not wanting to become a helicopter parent. I don’t blame her for reacting the way she does when she first finds out that Evan has been spending so much time with the Murphy’s, but I’m glad that she later realizes the situation she’s been putting Evan in.
It’s the “Dear Evan Hansen” note* that brings to light the issues in Evan and Heidi’s relationship and finally wakes her up to what Evan really needs, which is not more money or medication or mental exercises, but her.
“How did I not know?” “Because I never told you.” “You shouldn’t have had to.” She truly realizes just how distant she’s been, which suggests that she’ll be more attentive and present with him in the future. Once she’s finally in his head and seeing where his mind is, she understands and is gentle with him, rather than being accusatory and blaming as she has been for so much of the show. As we’ve seen throughout the show, she wants to be a good mother to him, but apathy and exhaustion pushed her into a rut where she forgot how to do that. Seeing this fear and self-loathing in him reminds her of when his father left, and pulls her out of that rut.
Despite its shortcomings, their relationship is central to the show. She tells him he’s supposed to be working on not running away from people, while he runs from her more than anyone. In many ways, the show’s arc is that of Evan and Heidi repairing their relationship and moving forward from the damage that Evan’s father’s abandonment did to both of them. The conflict at the center of the show is the distance between the two of them, and the hopeful resolution to the show comes with them reconnecting to each other. The show is very pro-parent-child closeness. It rejects the “parents and children should hate each other” mentality of our modern world and instead shows the value of them being closer than anyone else.
“I already know you. And I love you.” She knows him, the true Evan, not the idealized Evan Hansen persona he’s been playing with the Connor Project and for the Murphys, not his depression making him feel worthless, not his anxiety.
She takes him back to the root of his loneliness, self-loathing, fear of rejection. She was so committed to him when his dad first left. Evan said something to her that made her realize how afraid and hurt he was by his father’s abandonment: “Is there another truck coming to take Mommy away?” And she promised him and herself in that moment that she would always be there for him, no matter what. But, over the years, it was so difficult for her to support them financially that she simply wasn’t able to be around enough to parent him properly. They both fell into the rut of self-preservation. She was simply going through the motions, working and doing the basics of parenting. It was so hard and all she could do was run on autopilot. Without realizing it, she stopped seeing Evan the way she did on that day when his dad left.
When she reads his “Dear Evan Hansen” note*, she has that moment again. She sees his words revealing just how afraid and depressed and lonely he was, and it wakes her up. It rekindles that commitment, attentiveness, and devotion she’d felt that February day. She remembers why she’s been doing what she’s done all these years. It’s not just to keep Evan alive, but to give him the best life she possibly can, the best possible future. The whole show, she wants Evan to talk to her, but can’t truly open herself up enough for him to feel like his words would mean anything. This time, she gets the message. Where words failed (heh heh, I’m sorry, here’s that one) with the Murphys, they finally bring healing to him and his mother.
Evan begins to regain his confidence when he finally feels secure in his relationship with his mother again because now he knows that there is someone to catch him when he falls (heh). He doesn’t have to be stuck in pure self-preservation anymore. He can branch out (stop me from these puns) and know that if he makes a mistake it won’t be the end of the world, because he’s found who he can trust. The show is the process of Evan learning who he can trust.
For all the messages about people having experiences similar to Evan’s and relating to him, Heidi is the only one (with the possible exceptions of Connor and Zoe) who truly understands his experience. Evan’s father left her too, and she was there with Evan through that first traumatic experience. The sentiment of the house feeling so big and her feeling so small is the same one Evan expresses throughout the show. She feels overwhelmed by the world around her, feeling insignificant and incapable of navigating it. This is exactly what Evan describes in Waving Through A Window and Disappear. The screens all over the stage are huge and loom over Evan for the whole show, and he looks small compared to them. (At the end, the trees are small compared to him. The world is far less overwhelming, and it’s promising now, since the trees represent the journey to fulfillment. These trees aren’t big enough to fall from, but they are growing toward the sun, which represents fulfillment itself.) She admits the ways she’s come up short, which not only provides relief to Evan’s anger towards her, but lets him know that he’s not the only one who feels bad about himself. Before this point, no one had let him see how self-loathing they were, including Heidi. He had no way to know that those feelings weren’t an abnormality in him. He realizes that it’s okay.
“I don’t want Evan to get the idea that it’s okay to rely on other people for favors […] You can’t expect things from strangers.” This is the true thesis of the show. Even when Evan has forgotten it, Heidi recognizes that the Murphys don’t truly know him or love him for himself. And she was right. When the connection between him and Connor is revealed to be false, they aren’t his family anymore. But Heidi still is. She sticks with him, and by surviving even after Evan’s father abandoned them and keeping going despite all the struggles she faces, she does set that example, as she says she needs to do. She doesn’t rely on anyone else since there’s no one else to rely on, and she speaks the truth about what the show tells us. She reminds Evan in So Big/So Small that she’s been there for him all along, even when he felt distant from her. No matter how difficult things got, she never abandoned him the way his father and now the Murphys have done. With their relationship repaired, Evan is freed to make his own way in the world, using his own resources to prepare to pay for college and knowing his mother has his back.
Dear Evan Hansen,
Turns out this wasn’t an amazing day after all. This isn’t gonna be an amazing week or an amazing year, cause why would it be? Oh, I know, because there’s Zoe, and all my hope is pinned on Zoe, who I don’t even know and who doesn’t know me. But you know, maybe if I could just talk to her, then maybe. . .maybe nothing would be different at all. I wish I was part of something. I wish that anything I said mattered to anyone. I mean face it, would anyone even notice if I just disappeared tomorrow?
Sincerely your best and most dearest friend, me