There's been plenty of weight to this season, in retrospect. Marshall and Lily's life together has gone downhill fast, snowballing as it went. First Marshall took a job defending corporate polluters, instead of dedicating his legal knowledge to save the environment. Then Lily's massive credit card debt and shopping addiction was revealed. Then they finally closed on their apartment, only to find out it was slanty.
The way Marshall put it in the bar tonight -- toiling away at a job that violates his principles to pay the note on a flawed apartment and dig their way out of the red -- might be the most visceral despair I've felt from a sitcom character in years. Because we've watched them slide into this hole over the entire season, Marshall's anger and fear at being verbally abused by his boss seemed entirely earned.
In fact, the most interesting facet of this episode was the heft of Marshall's emasculation. His boss, Artillery Arthur (Bob Oedenkirk from Mr. Show), humiliates him and other employees regularly. But because Marshall already feels his manhood at risk -- from failure to live up to his own standards, from the pressure of providing for Lily, from the perfect future that's already fracturing before their eyes -- he can't shrug off the assault. He's wounded and frightened.
I don't want to oversell the serious side of what turned out to be a pretty funny episode -- but I fear I can't help it. I believed Marshall's reactions throughout the plotline in a way that's rare for sitcoms, which by nature tend to undercook fear, despair, and emotional pain. The whole thing worked because there was no other choice for Marshall but succumb or fight back -- he was at the end of his rope, and we've been prepping for this moment all season.
Barney had it all wrong. It's not about a circle of life where everybody screams and is screamed at, and our job is just to find our place in the hierarchy. Such an attitude is summed up in the breathtaking injustice of his suggestion that Marshall scream at the waiter under the pretext that he was brought the wrong food. That's the kind of pragmatic fatalism that's, in the end, foreign to Marshall's idealistic nature. When Marshall screams at Barney about his self-delusion and realizes, in the middle of screaming, that he doesn't want to become like Barney -- that's his epiphany. Being true to his own nature means not just working at a job he believes in, but relating to himself and to others in a way he believes in.
At the end of the episode, my husband was somewhat skeptical. Both of us have appreciated the way the show hasn't made light of Marshall's compromises and problems throughout the season. Now, he thought, the show had let him off the hook by having him quit his job and take charity from Ted. But I disagree; Marshall's problems aren't over yet. He's just on the way to solving them, and it's because he was driven, quite believably, to the breaking point.
- Oh, yeah, there was some comedy in this episode, too. Like:
- The parade of role-playing friends coming into Arthur's office in Marshall's suit, performing their solutions for his problem. Robin: gun threats. Lily: kindergarten moral lessons. Best of all: Ted, with Lincolnesque oratory. "There are certain justices ... that cannot or will not ... be inalienable ... for the future!"
- In a ramp-up for next week's all-Robin episode (the return of Robin Sparkles, folks!), Cobie had the two best reactions of the night: Her smile of satisfaction after describing an imaginary vigilante encounter with Marshall's tormentor, and her response to Marshall's confession that he cried like a "little boy" -- "Is boy the right word?"
- And I don't expect to see a better-timed comic setpiece this year than the friends piling into Ted's new car, one by one, with their ketchup-dripping burgers, melting giant softserve ice cream cones, and smoky cigars. Like a sunny-side-up, safe version of Marshall's angst, Ted's inability to pay attention to anything other than impending doom for his upholstery was perfect and unforced.