If there’s anything Degrassi (recently named one of the best high school shows of all time by Paste) loves more than toying with its audience, it’s subjecting its teenage characters to repeated hardships. Now in its 15th season, Degrassi has become cyclical with its plots, perhaps for story power, resonance within the audience or an existentialist interpretation of adolescence.
In 15 years, Degrassi’s characters have overcome more than a usual share of disasters, ranging anywhere from starting your first period, or getting a boner in class, to suicide and murder. Between those extremes arise a myriad of plots that a member of the audience can relate to at any time, whether it’s self-injury, a dangerous relationship with a parent or even sexual assault. The matter at fact is that, whether we’re adolescents or adults, we sympathize and identify with the stories on Degrassi, because it doesn’t hide from the universality of suffering and shows us how to make it through.
Reminisce on Degrassi’s 10 most difficult and devastating story lines of the entire series.
No matter the vehicle, self-injury usually stems from a desire for control, and Ellie Nash’s (Stacey Farber) home life warrants it. Ellie’s father has just left for Afghanistan with the Canadian Army, leaving her to take care of her mother Caroline (Kirsten Kieferle), a severe alcoholic.
Despite beating her rival Paige Michalchuk (Lauren Collins) for a co-op with Degrassi alum Caitlin Ryan in “Whisper to a Scream,” Ellie feels desperate for control and continues cutting. Paige finds Ellie in the bathroom and sees droplets of her blood in the sink and confronts her, insisting that she visit the school counselor Ms. Sauvé (Jennifer Podemski). Paige and Ellie aren’t exactly friends at this point, but Paige’s own painful experiences (see below) help her realize that Ellie needs help.
By Season Four’s “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” Caroline’s drinking has gotten significantly worse—on one such bender, she passes out, and her negligence results in a house fire. Ellie’s boyfriend Sean Cameron (Daniel Clark) senses that she may be cutting again and invites her to move in with him as a solution. One night, Caroline, enraged that she’s been lied to, shows up at Sean’s apartment and slaps him. When the Nashes return home, Ellie admits that she inures herself to cope with her drinking—”This is what it cost! Your drinking made me cut myself!”
Devastated at the impact she’s made on her daughter, Caroline allows Ellie to move in with Sean. In “Queen of Hearts,” Ellie agrees to move back in with her mother, who is finally safe to live with again.
Right when we meet Craig Manning (Jake Epstein) in “When Doves Cry,” we learn that his family life is tense and dysfunctional.. Years before, his mother, Julia, left his father, Allen (Hugh Dillon) for Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni) and had another child, Angela (Alex Steele). Our first glimpse of Albert, who takes out his anger on Craig, is scary — he bangs on the table and gets angry because Craig is late to dinner, showing his violent undertones. When he’s not adjusting to his first few days at Degrassi, Craig secretly spends time with Angie against Albert, and later, Joey’s wishes. Albert resents the Jeremiah family as a result of Julia’s actions, and beats Craig for meeting Angie.
Craig poorly attempts to run away to British Columbia with Angie, and then jumps in front of a train after Sean denies the same offer. Later that night, Joey and Sean find Craig at his mother’s grave, where he admits that Albert beats him. “When Doves Cry” culminates with Craig telling his father he has to leave and moving in with the Jeremiah family.
At the end of season 2, Craig and Albert start to rekindle their relationship, but the two get into a fight over Craig returning home. Albert swipes at Craig, knocking him to the ground:
Albert: “Craig, I’m so sorry. It’ll never…”
Craig: It’ll never happen again? Huh?! Is that what you were gonna say? ‘Cause that’s what you’ve always said!!”
Albert: “Because you always screw up.”
Craig: “No, Dad, you’re the one who screws up. It won’t change! Ever!”
Unfortunately, Albert never gets the chance to redeem himself — the next morning, police come to Joey’s door to let him know Albert has died in an accident.
Despite her level of celebrity, Zoë Rivas (Ana Golja), has trouble fitting in at Degrassi after exiting her stint as an actress on West Drive. With the exception of Tristan, her friends act more like minions and she manipulates her way into relationships. In “Basket Case,” after one such failed relationship, Zoë gets drunk and passes out at a party, where Miles and Winston relocate her to the pool house. The following episode begins with Zoë waking up naked and discovering that she’s the subject of a viral video involving two teenage boys assaulting her after she’s blacked out.
To this day, Zoë experiments with dangerous behavior as a cry for attention and approval. However, that’s no precursor for her assault or for her classmates and a swarm of media personalities asking if she wanted to be raped. Meanwhile, Becky Baker (Sarah Fischer) connects a trail of clues from the party to identify the assaulters and discovers that the ringleader is her brother, Luke (Craig Arnold). Zoë confronts Luke at “Unbelievable’s” close, and he tells her nobody will believe her.
Zoë’s road to press charges against Luke is all too familiar among headlines showing rapists being pardoned or facing minimal consequences. Luke’s reputation—a good, Christian athlete with his entire life ahead of him—echoes the defenses that are built around contemporary rapists. Zoë is vulnerable because she’s a public figure, and when she tries to set her record straight, the media uses her words against her. In the end, Luke is convicted, but only because Becky reveals he acted without consent in her testimonial, but Zoë still never escaped the “you were asking for it” judgment.
Manny Santos (Cassie Steele) is a romantic, but instead of working towards a relationship built on trust and love, she uses what she’s got: a thong, super low-rise jeans and a determination for affection that knows no moral boundaries. After her metamorphosis in “U Got the Look,” Manny has attention, but it doesn’t equate with love—rather, she wants the kind of love that breaks out of Craig when he gets in a fight with Ashley Kerwin (Melissa McIntyre).
Before Ashley and Craig make up, Manny takes advantage of Craig’s depression and has sex with him, starting a furtive relationship of her own. Eventually, Craig’s two-timing blows up in his face, but the consequences of his relationship with Manny are still to come. In “Accidents Will Happen,” Manny realizes she’s pregnant with Craig’s baby. To make matters worse, Ashley broadcasts her dilemma to the entire school.
After a disastrous attempt at babysitting, Manny decides to get an abortion, and Craig, who’s grasping for a family of his own, becomes enraged. Despite her personal stance on the issue (Emma’s mother, Spike, got pregnant with her at the same age), Emma offers Manny some of the strongest support she receives all season:
Emma: I agree with you, okay? If she was just some stranger I’d be furious with her but, she’s my friend and it’s her choice.
Craig: But it’s my baby!
Emma: And it’s Manny’s body! What about her?
Liberty Van Zandt (Sarah Barrable-Tishauer) always seems to have the answers—that is, until she and J.T. Yorke (Ryan Cooley) use an oversized condom and become pregnant. Liberty doesn’t want to abort the baby, and perhaps because his family is already so small, J.T. becomes determined to make the situation work. The two temporarily rekindle their relationship and end up in over their heads, especially once J.T. steals Oxycodone from his job at the pharmacy so he can sell it through Jay—and when that backfires, he swallows the bag of pills in a suicide attempt.
Liberty feels she has no choice but to give the baby away, and relinquishes him shortly after giving birth. Her regret becomes self-destructive after she finds out her baby’s adoptive parents are relocating to Seattle—”My baby is gone, he’s gone across the country and I abandoned him!”
It takes someone who has been in her baby’s position—Derek (Marc Donato), who was also put up for adoption—to help Liberty realize she can still be a part of her child’s life. Like Derek’s birthmother, Liberty and J.T. compile a memory box to accompany their baby to his new home.
In “Shout,” Paige cancels a date with Spinner Mason (Shane Kippel) after her crush from Degrassi rival Bardell, Dean Walton (Shawn Roberts), invites her to a party. She goes upstairs with Dean, who forces himself upon her. The next day, Paige slaps Spinner when he says she lets “every other guy touch her” and escapes to the bathroom, where she tells Hazel Aden (Andrea Lewis) that Dean raped her.
Paige attempts to put the rape behind her, and she, Hazel and Terri MacGregor (Christina Schmidt) reform their band PMS for a battle of the bands competition. The girls enlist Ashley, a budding songwriter, to strengthen their chances of winning, but Paige becomes triggered when she hears Ashley’s lyrics to “Poor Thing,” a song about rape. She later breaks down to Ashley, who promises to use another song. While PMS is setting up for the contest, however, Paige sees Dean in the audience and decided to sing “Poor Thing,” directing Ashley’s lyrics to her rapist:
You took my body, tore it in half
You took my childhood my heart and my laugh
You took everything I kept for myself
And then you’re gone
I’m not your poor thing
Paige’s trial against Dean approaches in Season 4, and ultimately a lack of evidence deems Dean not guilty. While visiting her brother Dylan at Toronto University, Paige crashes a party and outs Dean as a rapist to the fraternity he’s rushing and confronts him:
“What you did to me changed my life. I still can’t sleep without my light on. Sometimes I even look under the bed to make sure you’re not there. I made a mistake going upstairs with you, but you made more than a mistake: you made a choice.”
What’s worse is that Dean knows, and he tells her that she should call him if she ever wants to hook up again—”you were good.” Paige, drunk and furious, retaliates by crashing Spinner’s new car into Dean’s, and Spinner gets arrested the next day. However, unlike Dean, Paige confesses her crime to the police and finally has the strength to move past her rape.
The first block of episodes in season 13 were some of the worst in Degrassi’s history (as a rule, summer settings work for made-for-tv movies, but not a string of episodes), and much of that outrage is directed toward the death of Adam Torres (Jordy Todosey). As Degrassi’s first transgender character, Adam meant a lot to the audience and endured more than most in the Degrassi canon—bullying and hate speech in Season 10, a gunshot wound in Season 11 and discrimination when it came to his relationship with Becky in Season 12.
Then, Adam sends a text while behind the wheel, crashes into a tree and dies. To be fair, Todosey’s departure was unexpected, which meant Adam had to be written off quickly, and at least the love triangle with Becky and Imogen (Christine Prosperi) gave him a degree of attention before his exit.
Distracted driving is a serious and fatal issue, but for a character as strong as Adam, that kind of exit is criminal… especially when it’s followed by his brother getting with the girl he loved.
Campbell Saunders’ death wasn’t unexpected; Dylan Everett’s contract was only set to last for a year, and early on in his Season 12 debut, his mental illness and self-injuring are made clear. Cam, a talented hockey player, relocated to Degrassi to play for the Toronto Ice Hounds, leaving behind his family and sense of security. Despite his talents, he hated the pressure of being the Ice Hounds’ star player, and begins injuring himself to escape hockey—in “Rusty Cage,” cutting his hand with an ice skate escalates to jumping off a balcony and breaking his arm.
Cam has one outlet for happiness, his relationship with Maya Matlin (Olivia Scriven). However, the two briefly break up because Cam isn’t especially affectionate (mental illness will preoccupy you, kids) and Maya kisses Zig Novak (Ricardo Hoyos) before Cam wins her back. Zig continues to pursue Maya, and in “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” he calls Cam a psycho and tells him to get out of Maya’s life—these are possibly the last words he ever hears. He sends Maya a text saying “it’s over,” and the next morning Eli Goldsworthy (Munro Chambers) finds Cam’s body in Degrassi’s greenhouse.
When the news hits Degrassi, students are overcome with guilt and grief that lasts until the season’s close—those hit hardest are Mike Dallas (Demetrius Joyette), Cam’s Ice Hounds captain, Zig, who believes he’s the reason Cam kills himself, Eli, who is traumatized by discovering a dead body and Maya, who finally cracks in the finale (“He broke up with me by killing himself!”)
The tragedy of Rick Murray (Ephraim Ellis) is deeply layered and begins in Season 3, when his relationship with Terri becomes abusive. After putting Terri in a coma, Rick flees, but he returns to Degrassi in “Mercy Street” (Season 4) in hopes of a second chance. Apology and redemption are still resonant themes in Degrassi—in fact, they play out in a big way in the latest Netflix installment.
“I like it at Degrassi—or I used to. I was horrible, but I’ve changed,” Rick tells Emma when she asks why he came back. “All those people who hate me, I wanna show them who I really am—show them how wrong they are.” Based on Rick’s history, the apology seems suspect, but that doesn’t warrant the treatment he endures. Even being friends with him is poisonous, as J.T. tells Toby Issacs. And so Rick is bullied nearly every time he interacts with a Degrassian.
This all culminates in “Time Stands Still,” when Rick’s humiliation reaches its apex—and his measures turn drastic and deathly. His moment of redemption in the “Whack-Your-Brain” contest becomes an outlet for a cruel prank, which Spinner and Jay Hogart (Mike Lobel) plant on Jimmy Brooks (Aubrey Graham), who recently identified himself as a friend and vowed to stop bullying Rick. What results is the most iconic scene in Degrassi history: Rick pointing a gun at Jimmy, closing his eyes, and pulling the trigger, with Jimmy falling to the floor. Next, he becomes entangled with Sean while trying to shoot Emma, and ends up with the bullet inside his body.
After the events of “Time Stands Still,” the preventability of Rick’s tragedy is still denied, especially by school authorities like Mr. Raditch (Dan Woods). Despite the kind and concerned intentions of a select few, nobody did the right thing here and got Rick adequate help, leaving one student dead and another irreversibly injured.
J.T. was universally liked among the Degrassi community, both in the show and among the audience. Since his days as a middle schooler, J.T. has carried the reputation of someone who’s going places with comedic and stage talent.
J.T. and Liberty broke up at the end of “Turned Out” but are still harboring feelings for one another, even though J.T. has started dating newcomer Mia Jones (Nina Dobrev), a teen mom who recently transferred from Lakehurst. A fight surrounding Mia breaks out in “Can’t Hardly Wait,” setting the hostility that continues between the two schools.
In “Rock This Town,” Manny decides to throw a party at Emma’s. J.T. overhears the conversation and suggests Manny dedicate the party to Liberty, because it’s her birthday and he wants to give her “something to smile about.” Manny invites a few Lakehurst students to the party during Liberty’s “Increase the Peace” meeting between the rival schools, and soon every teenager in town is showing up at Emma’s door.
At the height of the party, Liberty can’t find herself holding a conversation with anybody but J.T., and she confesses that she still has feelings for him. He denies that he reciprocates—he’s lying—and the two get into an argument. Confused, J.T. confides in Toby, realizes he still loves Liberty (“I’m gonna go out there and get myself a big bowl of Liberty!”) and sets out to find her. He directs a joke at a Lakehurst student who is peeing on his car, and Drake Lempkey (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett) responds by driving a knife into his back. Liberty finds J.T. slumped against his car. The scene cuts to the hospital, where J.T.’s closest friends and grandmother learn he was stabbed in the aorta, and didn’t survive.
It’s impossible to discuss J.T.’s death without noting Liberty’s role, especially since her feelings for him preside over the following episode: J.T., the father of her child and her true love as far as high school relationships go, is casually murdered on her birthday, right after she confessed she still had feelings for him—what’s more, Liberty doesn’t learn her feelings are requited until after J.T. dies, because Toby has kept those last words a secret.
J.T.’s death was senseless and “random,” as Jimmy tells Ellie in “The Bitterest Pill.” Those looking for someone to blame direct their anger at Lakehurst—and this tension boils into the following season, when Lakehurst students are integrated into Degrassi after a fire. Degrassi students, who were embittered with Lakehurst long before J.T.’s death, use him as a martyr for their resentment.
Sarra Sedghi is Paste Food’s Assistant Editor. She can usually be found arguing about mayonnaise on Twitter.