In The Road Less Traveled, Shane was very much hiding something from Oliver, Rita and Norman. A contact on her phone for a majority of the film, the end reveal that Alex Brighton was Shane’s sister with a gambling problem who “tore [her] family apart,” placed all of Shane’s actions leading up to the reveal in a new light. Determined to keep the bonds of family intact, Shane went to extreme, and even uncharacteristic, lengths to keep the revelation of her sister from coming to light. But it wasn't long before the cost of coverup began to outweigh the cost of coming clean.
A Priceless Portrait
This strong bond of family---unbreakable at its core---was forged as the result of a significant amount of work and incremental building, bonds which we’ve witness develop over the course of the series. But as Shane’s avoidant behavior throughout The Road Less Traveled revealed, in the face of fear, even the unbreakable bonds of family became all too fragile, requiring preservation at all costs.
A Big Little Lie
Rita was truly only asking of Shane the thing we had been asking ourselves since we saw that first text message: Who is Alex Brighton? But Shane was clearly taken aback by Rita’s inquiry. Likely part of Shane’s reaction came from hearing Alex’s full name spoke aloud. By placing both Alex’s first and last name in her phone as a contact, Shane had distanced her sister in the most extreme way possible, only rivaled by her decision to actively ignore her text messages. To hear Rita say Alex’s name made Alex a real person who needed explained, especially when Rita directly asked that of Shane.
Shane, unable, and maybe even unwilling, to dignify and address Alex at all, did something she had NEVER done throughout the course of the entire series up until that moment---she blatantly lied.
First, when Rita commented, “it seems like he really wants to talk to you,” Shane failed to correct that Alex was a “she,” not a “he,” as Rita assumed. The fact Shane didn’t correct the gender shows just how close to the chest Shane was determined to keep the truth. She didn’t even correct that key detail, and allowed Rita to be misled. Second, Shane claimed she “had been getting a lot of wrong numbers recently.” Last time I checked, wrong numbers come up wrong numbers, not wrong contact names. And I think Rita knew that---and that Shane knew, that Rita knew, that she wasn’t telling the whole truth---but Rita simply chose not to pursue it.
As you can see, Shane and Rita’s short exchange in the RV provided a critical lens through which to begin piecing together the picture of Shane’s complicated emotional journey in The Road Less Traveled. Clearly hiding something, Shane’s uncharacteristic behavior signaled the cost of divulging her secret initially outweighed the cost of keeping it.
When we lie, there’s something about the truth that extracts a cost---real or perceived--- which we are unwilling to pay. So there’s something we must understand about the truth as Shane perceived it---the elements that totaled the cost she was unwilling to pay---which led her to act so uncharacteristically.
To begin understanding where Shane was coming from, we have to start by skipping to the end of the story.
When Shane finally connected the dots for Oliver in front of Minnie’s Diner, she expressed a significant amount of unforgiveness born of a lot of pain towards her sister, Alex. At the beginning of the film, Shane was nowhere near ready to come to terms with that pain, let alone in a position to articulate it. The cost of forgiving Alex---paid by confronting the deep-seated pain associated with her as expressed at the end of the film---was far too complicated, and came at much too high a cost, for Shane on that first day of the RV trip. Therefore, Shane chose the path of least resistance---avoidance---as her coping mechanism.
The Cost of Family
If we consider Shane as employing coping mechanisms to avoid the reality of Alex, then perhaps there is an even more critical, ever-present coping mechanism which, until the revelation of Alex, went completely undetected.
We know Shane’s father left when she was ten, an event which caused a lot of pain not only for her mother, but likely Alex as well. Add to that Alex’s gambling problem, and it’s clear the picture of a perfect family was shattered for Shane very early on. With that in mind, Shane’s coping mechanism for the pain inflicted by her blood family was to immerse herself in the building and maintenance of her chosen family of Rita, Norman and Oliver. She craved the stability and unconditional love their bond provided, and it’s not unreasonable to conjecture that, even on a subconscious level, she would be attracted to, and fiercely protective of, that bond. As Shane herself commented, Alex and her gambling problem, “tore [their] family apart.” So it’s reasonable Shane would keep Alex as distant as possible to give her, and the circumstances, no chance of tearing apart this new family.
Alex’s appearance also potentially complicated Shane’s relationship with Rita. In many ways Shane has been the older sister to Rita that Shane sort of lost in Alex. In Shane’s mind, maybe keeping the revelation of a blood-sister to herself protected Rita from feeling displaced, while at the same time prevented Shane from having to account for Alex at all. At the outset, it was easier to pretend she’s a “wrong number” than to reconcile a blood-sister and the sister Shane chose for herself.
The cost of disrupting or complicating their picture-perfect family, or facilitating an altered perception of herself within that family, came at much too high a cost for Shane at that early juncture. Consequently, self- & familial- preservation were of the highest order where her “dinging” phone was concerned. While an imperfect solution, to ignore the phone and avoid addressing it were the most viable strategies for preservation.
The only other option would have been to leave the phone at home. Which begs the question---why bring it on the trip to begin with?
A Curious Case of Cost-Shifting
It was a question I didn’t even think to ask until I considered all the ways Shane could have avoided outright lying to Rita. Besides choosing to come clean, the only other option, however, was to simply not have the phone at all.
The reality, of course, was that the phone did make the trip. Even then, there were steps Shane could have taken to ensure the primary function of the phone remained navigation. It would have been easy for Shane to block Alex’s number, or at the very least disable her ringer. But she didn’t choose either option. And, aside from the dramatic value it added to the story, I think I know why she not only brought the phone, but allowed it to “ding.”
I think there was some part of Shane that wanted to do something about the situation with Alex, but didn’t know where to begin, especially given the fact she still harbored a considerable amount of pain in that area. In a way, the “dinging” phone introduced Rita, and eventually Oliver, to a potential issue with which Shane was contending, despite her initial refusal to outright address it. It allowed attention to be drawn to Shane’s issue without her having to be the one to bring it up. In fact, it shifted the cost of breaching the subject onto whomever dared address it---and poor Rita paid first by being lied to.
Rita, of course, wasn’t the last to pay. Oliver’s discovery of Alex’s messages on Shane’s phone was perhaps Shane’s worst-case scenario. Unlike the immediate and obvious outcome of Rita being lied to, however, the consequences of Oliver discovering the phone was aloofness at the campsite, which evolved into passive aggressive behavior, and eventually resulted in Oliver “overheating.” Shane, of course, was on the receiving end of his frustration, illustrating the reality that no matter where the cost of breaching the subject of Alex was shifted, the bill would always come due. Though it became clearer and clearer the only one capable of paying that bill was Shane.
Not ready to deal with the pain, and determined to not only maintain the priceless picture of her new family, but her place and perception within it, Shane went to extreme, and even uncharacteristic, lengths to prevent the deep issues of her past from coming to light. In doing so, Shane signaled that the cost of coming clean was much higher than the cost of coverup, even as she unwittingly facilitated discovery of that secret by those around her through the mere presence of her “dinging” cell phone.
Unable to sustain her own self-preservation and familial harmony, however, it became more and more apparent that the cost of coverup was rapidly becoming too high not only for Shane, but for Oliver, too.
If there was one person to whom Shane was incapable of lying, it was Oliver. Even at the campsite, as Oliver attempted to breach the subject of the “dinging” phone and, by extension, Alex, Shane shifted the focus of the conversation such that she wouldn’t have to lie, but wouldn’t have to address it, either.
But when Oliver directly confronted Shane, calling Alex Brighton out by name, and leaving no doubt that Oliver saw her phone, Oliver made it impossible for Shane to skirt or avoid the subject any longer---at least with him. With that action, Oliver assumed the full cost of breaching the subject directly, and Shane had a choice to make.
A single moment of honesty with the person with whom Shane had the most to lose, actually gained her something here. Once concerned that her burden could potentially jeopardize her relationship with Oliver, Oliver’s response allowed Shane to have a personal issue, without that issue causing him to physically or emotionally withdraw from their relationship. Consequently, Oliver removed that concern, which began to lower the overall cost of telling the complete truth, a process which continued the next day as Shane encountered Rachel for the first time.
Shane & Rachel
Shane and Rachel’s encounter at Minnie’s provided the women a rare and unique opportunity. Complete strangers in almost identical situations, they possessed the ability to empathize with each other in a way that brought the cost of directly addressing their issues to zero. Because they were never going to see each other again, neither woman had an image or public perception to maintain, and therefore had nothing to lose by being transparent with each other.
Realizing her encounter with Rachel wasn’t a coincidence, Shane summoned the courage to entertain the possibility of finally facing Alex, and committed to doing so if Rachel agreed to reach out to her husband. Not only had Shane begun working through her past pain in real-time, she even discerned the next step toward healing.
The cost of transparency with Rachel made the transaction worthwhile. As a result, Shane took significant steps towards “working things out” where Alex was concerned, made easier in the company of someone who could identify with her struggle. But to keep her promise to Rachel and reach out to “[her] sister,” Shane still had some emotional work to do in order to “be able to [truly] face” Alex, work of which Oliver was a critical component.
Shane & Oliver
In order for Shane to truly be prepared to contact Alex, she had to pay “the cost to forgive,” which required Shane to completely confront the anger and unforgiveness she harbored towards Alex, which occurred outside the diner:
Shane’s encounter with Rachel was a critical turning point in her emotional journey. Coming face-to-face with someone whom Shane could empathize at a core level provided her the opportunity to begin “working things out” where Alex was concerned. At the same time, it provided the path for Shane to finally “be ready to talk” to Oliver about the secret she was keeping. Her transparency not only gained her an ally, but also began to re-establish the family harmony temporarily disrupted by her secret.
Ties That Bind
Fulfilling her end of the bargain, Shane made the phone call to Alex, with Oliver by her side. His insistence that Shane tell Alex she “had a boyfriend,” did something very important. Where Shane was once concerned that revelation of Alex would cost her the important relationships around her, Oliver increased his level of commitment to her from “in a relationship” to “boyfriend.” A subtle distinction, it signaled that Shane had not lost, but, in fact, gained, in terms of relationship with Oliver as a result of her transparency.
We don’t know if Shane ever came clean with Rita about Alex in an effort to correct her lie from days before. If she didn’t, that made Rita’s explanation for choosing Shane as her Maid of Honor in terms of a sisterly bond even more striking.
Rita told Shane she was “the sister she never had,” and that even if she did have a sister, she would still choose Shane as her Maid of Honor. For Rita, sisterhood was based on more than blood. It was based on not being able to “imagine getting married, being married, or raising children without [Shane].” That also meant that Rita had every intention of keeping Shane as a key part of her life for the long-haul.
The hypothetical sister whom Rita “had nothing against,” also gave Shane permission to “have nothing against” Alex, but still consider Rita a sister without the consequence of Shane and Rita’s relationship being complicated in some way. Once a key concern, Shane once more had her fear of broken or complicated relationship relieved, and even made it easier for Shane to tell Rita about Alex in the future, if she hadn’t already.
The cost of coverup is high, but as Shane's journey in The Road Less Traveled revealed, it's a bill that will always come due. Still harboring a considerable amount of past pain and unforgiveness towards her sister, Alex, Shane was determined to shut Alex out of her current life completely. This found Shane lying, and avoiding a subject which she had unwittingly created ample opportunity to be addressed through her "dinging" phone, all in an attempt to preserve her POstables family and her place within it.
Finally confronted by the one person to whom she couldn't lie, Shane, with Oliver's support, found the courage to begin "working things out." This allowed her to empathize and be transparent with Rachel, a road which ultimately led to Shane forgiving Alex. Once concerned the revelation of Alex would jeopardize the most important relationships in her life, Shane discovered not only were those bonds intact, but made stronger than ever before.