#7. Topanga Lawrence
Played By: Danielle Fishel, (1993-2000, 2014-2017)
Episode Count: 213 (143- BMW, 70- GMW)
Role: Cory's long term girlfriend and wife, Riley's mother, the voice of reason
Signature Episodes: Cory's Alternative Friends, Wake Up Little Cory, Hair Today Goon Tomorrow, A Long Walk to Pittsburgh 1&2, A Very Topanga Christmas, Torn Between Two Lovers, Starry Night, Graduation, Resurrection, It's About Time, The Provider, (Girl Meets) Popular, Her Monster, Goodbye
What's always impressed me about Topanga is the balance of her character. It would have been easy to write Topanga as a wacky caricature in season one, but she consistently balances her weirdness with intelligent level headedness. Cory's Alternative Friends is the obvious example, but I want to look at one line in particular. After performing Donut In The Sky, Cory asks Topanga if she's going to be "one of those girls that doesn't shave her legs." The easy caricature answer is some throwaway line about why she won't shave her legs, but instead she says "I haven't decided yet." I love that line. In a great scene in a great episode, that is my favorite line. Because remember, this is Topanga's first episode. We're not sure what to make of her yet. And that line tells us hey, she's not a cut and paste archetype. She's not making her decisions based on some subscribed ideology. She thinks things through, in contrast with Cory and Shawn, but we also see how well she works with them in episodes like Model Family and Boy Meets Girl.
Season one Topanga worked way better than it had any right to. A big part of that was that balance, but also the small dose size. She's in most of the episodes, but only contributes to the story in a handful of them. The "trio" isn't really a thing yet. So for season 2, I imagine it was similar to dealing with Minkus, where they knew they couldn't keep it up, and resolved to make her more normal to integrate with Shawn and Cory. Still though, season 2 has her in a strange place. Cory wants to be a player like Shawn, and there's valuable character development in Cory spending time with all these different kinds of girls. At the same time, the writers knew they wanted to pair the two eventually, so we end up with an interesting division of episodes. The majority are about Cory dealing with the ins and outs of dating, like The Beard, Wendy's episodes, etc, there's some other girl. But when it's actually about a real emotional connection, that is, Wake Up Little Cory and Fear Strikes Out, we get Topanga. And that was really smart, because neither of those episodes would work with a one-off girl, so it was good to have this static role of someone Cory is becoming attached to. Turnaround actually managed to do both of those. Cory wanted to go with Topanga, but she not only thinks that a turnaround dance is "destructive gender biased thinking," she's also going to New York for Christmas shopping (another BRILLIANT display of her character's balance), so Cory ends up with a one-off girl dealing with dating stuff. I have to pay special mention to Wake Up Little Cory real quick, in which Topanga displays an IMPRESSIVE amount of strength and really showcases her commanding personality. (For further reading, I recommend my review of that episode here) By the time of Girl Meets World, that commanding side of her is mostly a punchline, and that's endlessly frustrating.
In season 3 she's Cory's girlfriend. She's a reason to tell stories where Cory doesn't have to worry about girls so much. That's about it, but the "trio" is becoming more solid with Topanga as the smart one, the safety net, and the voice of reason. Season 4 has a lot of "being Cory's girlfriend," but there's plenty more to love. Early season 4 has the fantastic Hair Today Goon Tomorrow, another INCREDIBLE showcase of her balance. "Looks don't matter, Cory. Except oh crap, they also totally do matter." Then again in Quiz Show, when she starts off as a brainy academic and ultimately finds herself twirling her hair for the camera. It's so great, like, pick a girl on television. Most of the time she'll either check the box on all of "don't have to shave legs, turnaround is stupid, looks don't matter, I want to answer challenging academic questions" or "shave legs, omg Christmas shopping, I want to be pretty, yay I'm on tv." But Topanga skillfully walks the tightrope between these two tired and awful representations of women, and we end up with an awesome, balanced, believable character. Long Walk to Pittsburgh is far from my favorite for her character, but it's a cataclysmic event for the overall story, once again fueled by her own independent decision. So that's good.
It slows down after that. In Season 5 her relationship with Cory is something for Shawn and Angela to look at from the outside, and Angela doesn't give Topanga much to play off of as a friend. Then A Very Topanga Christmas paints her commanding personality as an annoyance instead of a strength, and yeah, I see the value in looking at that trait from both sides. But the episode's only function is to make me frustrated with a main character, and not in a meaningful way like when I'm frustrated with Shawn, because there's no growth. Then the breakup arc makes things worse because Lauren is so likeable and Topanga is made to look like the bad guy even though she's really not, and her big resolution episode in Starry Night just isn't any good. She gets into Yale, which presents a compelling conflict for our heroes, but then she... proposes during the graduating ceremony... That's always been the most unrealistic moment of her relationship with Cory, I don't like it. Prom-ises Prom-ises is great for her though. This is a respectable teenage girl who enthusiastically wants to get freaky with her boyfriend. In the 90's! You'd almost think that wasn't allowed on TV back then. It's another moment on the long list of standout progressivism on this show, and it's an especially nice memory with what's to come.
The last two seasons aren't good for Topanga. She wants to get married, then she doesn't. Thanks for wasting my time. And suddenly, she's adamantly abstinent. She and Cory were a layer of fabric away from sex in Prom-ises, what the hell happened? It doesn't match up with anything we've ever seen from her. And look, I could live with it in the background, but it's a relentless, un-funny punchline, and I don't think any single viewer appreciated it. At the very least, we get a dose of balance when Cory convinces her of the tradeoffs between sharing their lives and physical intimacy in The Truth About Honesty. And that's a good lesson, I just don't like how we got there. She revives weird Topanga in Resurrection, and that's great, but we never see it again before Girl Meets World. Then State of the Unions lights a powder keg under everything. We have to deal with another breakup arc, and this one is even more unbearable. Topanga's completely unreasonable, it's so annoying and we have zero empathy for her nonsense reasoning, unlike in the Lauren arc, where she had a good reason to be upset. They get married, they go on a honeymoon, where Topanga mentions she "wore out" Cory the night before, which, refreshingly, does sound like the awesome Topanga of earlier seasons. But that's about it for season 7, other than her internship moving them to New York and effectively ending the series.
Girl Meets World is not impressive for Topanga, but it's better than seasons 6 and 7 of BMW. Meets Popular was good and did a lot of things right for Topanga that are pretty much never done again (I'll defer you to my recent revisit post for that episode). After that episode she's mostly the babysitter for Auggie and Ava, which is a tragic disappointment. Her main contribution to the show's humor is to glare at Cory so Cory can say "Golly isn't your mom scary and stuff" and then the audience laughs. It's seriously depressing. Her strength shouldn't be a punchline. I can't stress that enough. We got a second big Topanga episode in Meets Her Monster, which was a fantastic episode where we finally see her as a real mother and not Auggie's babysitter, but at episode 3.16 it's pretty late in the game for me start caring about her relationship with Riley. And of course she once again has the honors of kicking off the series-ending story, but that was, sadly, always more about Riley and Maya than Topanga.
It's an honest shame what they did to Topanga. After seasons 6 and 7, I just did not care about Topanga going into Girl Meets World, and seeing her relegated to boring B and C stories almost every episode did not help. But then Meets Her Monster happened, and I started to remember. I remembered all the good things. I suspect that happened to a lot of people, honestly. The absolute worst arc in Boy Meets World happened because Topanga got sad at her parents divorcing and started being an idiot. It's hard not to get locked into that. But after Meets Her Monster I broke free, and when Christian and I started deciding who would write which post, I knew I had to write for Topanga. She was written brilliantly in seasons one through five. She's in the trio! She's the third to Shawn and Cory! Their safety net, and their voice of reason. If she'd had better treatment in the later seasons and in GMW, I would absolutely see her higher on this list.