Big Pete can be kind of a bitch. He spends almost the entirety of “Tool and Die,” this week’s adventure , whining about how the power tools involved in a shop class could kill him. However, it’s obviously apparent that his real reason for hating being involuntarily enrolled in shop is the “socketheads” for which he holds nothing but disdain. Granted, Big Pete nemesis Endless Pete is a sockethead, and Mike even gets a monologue establishing himself as a leader amongst shop class newbies. But, all in all, Big Pete largely comes off as a bitter whiner.
Ellen is able to adapt herself just fine to Mr. Slurm’s class, finding a deeper philosophical meaning to metallurgy. She is outright adorable as she espouses her theory that she is setting the metal free through her welding. And more importantly (as far as the plot is concerned), she serves as a foil to suggest just how much of a party pooper Big Pete is when he complains endlessly on how dangerous and stupid shop class is.
Even Little Pete gets in on the fun, selling insurance to students of the class and even Mr. Slurm (played by Jude Ciccolella, AKA 24’s Mike Novick). Yet, Big Pete tries his damnedest to slack his way to a C. His attempt to build what is by his approximation a halfway decent project (“It’s Danish modern!”) is hilarious for those of us who have tried to pass of obviously subpar work as worthy of passing grades. But Mr. Slurm, he of the improbable extensions to his artificial arm, can see straight through Big Pete, and assigns our humble narrator to work on his “secret project,” which is normally reserved to socketheads or students who have shown particular noteworthiness. Thus, Ellen’s dismay when Big Pete receives his fateful assignment carries a noterworthy irony.
That isn’t to say that Big Pete’s distaste for shop class isn’t entirely unfounded. There’s a wonderfully subtle gag where Mr. Slurm describes a student whose hair got caught in a machine, tearing his scalp clean off. For the rest of the episode, Big Pete’s friend Teddy wears a hairnet, obviously taking that cautionary tale to heart. But again, Big Pete’s worrying is misplaced. Nobody in this episode suffers any real injury, no matter what Mr. Slurm’s stories or Little Pete’s schemes might portend. Largely, Big Pete is a stubborn animal, convinced that shop class is dangerous and for the foolish, and it is not until the end of the episode, where he is revealed for the slacker he is, that he makes any effort in the class.
“Tool and Die” is one of the wonkier Pete & Pete epidodes, as if the 2x4 wipe that begins it weren’t enough to let you know. Even as students conspire about how Mr. Slurm’s secret project might be a cryogenic chamber or ballistic missle, you know that they are wrong. But when the episode reveals that the secret project is an air conditioner for Mr. Slurm’s office, there’s an untold insidiousness that comes with a teacher forcing children to make him a luxury on the school’s budget.
When Big Pete comes to an understanding towards shop class, it isn’t that shop class is an underrated art form (like Ellen discovers it to be) or an opportunity for the marginal parts of civilization to be heroic (as Endless Mike seems to take to it), but a simple way to prove that one isn’t the asshole that one appears to be there is a unique compromise that’s somewhere between the heroics of a typical climax and reality – where Big Pete discovers that delivering on an expertly-made spice rack doesn’t make him a sockethead, but proves that he doesn’t take life for granted. His conclusion isn’t exactly Chariots of Fire or Rocky, but he reaches something like a happy ending on his own terms, terms that can please the Mr. Slurms, the Ellens, the Endless Mikes and the Big Petes alike.