Last night, I decided to re-watch Video Game High School again for the umpteenth time, and as well as the show still holds up, one thing stuck out to me above all of the jokes and impeccable effects: the phenomenal character progression of one Jenny Matrix. You see, as well documented as the renewed focus on characters like Ted Wong and Ki Swan as the series progressed is, I feel as though Jenny’s transition from love interest to arguably the best developed character on the cast doesn’t get enough love.
Although her presentation in the first couple of episodes very much seems to be just to exist in a weird Betty and Veronica situation with our plucky hero, Brian and After School Special Bully, The Law, that’s actually the point where one can begin to accurately assess the character of everyone’s favorite sniper.
You see, while Brian is objectively the protagonist of the entire series, his character from the very beginning is driven by other characters. In season one, it’s driven by The Law and his need to surpass him, and also his desire to be with Jenny. When he gets expelled in the ante-penultimate episode, it’s due to his attacking The Law because of the latter’s mistreatment of her. In season two, despite having so much going on (being broke, having to room with The Law, etc.), Brian’s larger story and character are driven by Jenny, and having to hide his relationship with her from everyone, including Ted, which spills into his character in the third season being largely defined by his (largely one-sided) feud with his former best friend. Matrix, on the other hand is consistently driven by herself for the most part.
In the first season, Jenny is the captain of Junior Varsity, trying desperately to earn her spot on Varsity, a spot that most other characters believe will be just handed to her, not because she’s in the top ten of players in the school, but due to her relationship with The Law; a belief that is later proven to be false — and that’s just fine by her. During the scrimmage, in which she sets Brian up to be publicly humiliated by The Law, she still gets in his face for not following her orders, which would have helped them win the game, or at the very least given them a fighting chance because Law or no Law, Jenny Matrix is a winner, damn it. She wants to prove that she deserves her spot, both as JV Captain and as a potential member of Varsity. Her most prominent trait, ambition, shines through above her relationship with The Law and any affection she may have for Brian at the time.
Around the same time, another one of Jenny’s more admirable qualities begins to rear it’s head: Pride. Remember that fight I mentioned earlier? Despite Brian getting into the fight in her defense, literally screaming “She’s too good for you, Law” at the antagonist while punching him in the face, the target of the captain’s anger is her friend and would-be teammate, not at her boyfriend, the instigator, and not because of that relationship, because she doesn’t want Brian to defend her against The Law. She knows what the deal is and can handle it on her own terms and on her own accord, which she does. When Law offers her the out during the final showdown, in which she would have won the match and secured her spot on the Varsity squad at the cost of Brian’s enrollment at VGHS, she practically spits in his face, and not for Brian’s sake. Jenny’s decision to sacrifice her shot in that moment has nothing to do with saving Brian’s spot at the school and everything to do with the fact that she would much rather stay as the JV captain than spend a single moment working under The Law on Varsity. Jenny is the poster child for what it means for a character to be independent, especially a young female character. She stands out against her archetype and defines herself without ever verbally proclaiming that, letting her actions and demeanor speak for her, and that’s just in the nine episodes.
In season two, Jenny officially makes the switch from supporting character to secondary protagonist, JV becomes Varsity and we’re introduced to the new coach, her mom. As much as that effects the story as it pertains to the FPS team, particularly Jenny and Brian, it doesn’t serve to push her character as much as other characters’ arcs are pushed by the outside. Her mom’s influence on her general presentation is almost antagonistic; Mary provides a clear line to why Jenny is the way she is and why she works so hard, as opposed to being a crutch for her character or who defines her. Jenny doesn’t want to be her mom, but she also doesn’t want to not be her, if that makes sense. Mary essentially plays the part of a goal for Jenny to chase and eventually surpass, a la Zero of the Mega Man X games. The core theme of the show is growth, and no one does this better than Jenny. Sure, Brian grows and learns from the mistakes that he makes (see: the fight, trying to get himself expelled by losing to Games Dean, etc.), but he is at his core a different type of character than his counterpart. Brian is an underdog. His character exists to get beat on by life and have the odds stacked against him, whereas Jenny is the Ace. She excels at everything she puts her mind to, largely due to her fanatic dedication and commitment to being the best, which is expanded upon further in the third and final act of the show.
The third season sees Jenny thrust into the role of eSports superstar, and offered a spot on her favorite team. Sounds like a good deal, right? The hyper-ambitious captain finally gets to accomplish her dream while also taking her team into the playoffs in her first season, although with a bit of a hitch. As much as Jenny has stood on her own and defined herself, keeping her nose to the proverbial grindstone, she hit the speed bump known as an emotional connection to another person and is now faced with the challenge of dealing with the possibility of having to abandon that. During all this, Jenny shows the viewer a new side of herself that couldn’t have been expected back in her first appearance, which saw her practically applaud Brian for getting another student expelled. In a fever dream, Jenny comes to a crossroads, wherein she has to shoot her childhood imaginary unicorn (it’s literally a fever dream, stay with me) in order to seal her spot on the Paris Panthers, only to find that it’s actually Brian! And the worst part of it all is that in the dream she’s okay with it. As much as she has proven to actually love our dear hero, Jenny is more than willing to leave him behind to chase her dream (which she should be, in all honesty), and that scares her. She can’t handle the guilt of that decision despite it being what she wants and probably the right move for her in the long term, going as far as to refer to herself as “a sociopath that cares more about video games than people”.
This entire part of Jenny’s character arc is a subversion of a trope that we’ve seen time and time again in television and movies: successful young woman foolishly giving up her future and her dreams for a guy. Jenny’s inner turmoil and guilt on the matter and eventual decision to go to Paris and play are refreshing to see, and stays consistent with her character as it was established back in the first season. As much as she cares about Brian, she refuses to let that supersede her ambitions, and refuses to let it define her at the end of the day.
VGHS is one of the more interesting series I’ve ever watched, from the way the tone shifts naturally and gradually, to how superb the casting is and of course how brilliantly consistent the writing is. Jenny Matrix’s arc is just one testament to that; but then again, I might just be over analyzing things.