The finale of The Middle’s fifth season is, appropriately enough, a lot like a family vacation: It’s not perfect, and there are some moments here and there that make you cringe a bit, but in the end, you end up remembering the fun bits way more than the duff stuff.
Given that Sue Heck has had a Disney-fund jar on her bedroom shelf for quite some time, it’s hardly a surprise that she’s shot way past excited and has entered into heretofore-uncharted levels of exhilaration this week: Not only is she giddily offering a countdown of how many days are left ’til the family’s departure to the Magic Kingdom, but she’s got an 800-page, glitter-filled binder bursting with every possible tidbit she’s been able to accumulate about how to best approach a trip to Disney World. And, by God, she can’t wait to use it.
Frankie and Mike aren’t quite as keyed up as their daughter. It’s not as if anyone could be, of course, but they’re just not really vacation people… or, more specifically, they’re not vacation-in-car-with-three-kids people, but you can’t really blame them for that, either, especially not since history has such a tendency of repeating itself with their family road trips. To try and avoid falling into the same rut, Frankie makes a point of packing everything early, and then she politely lectures the rest of the family on what they can do to avoid making the same mistakes that’ve tainted the rest of their vacations.
This one’s got an extra wrinkle, though, since Brick’s putting a lot of pressure on his parents to swing through North Carolina—because given today’s gas prices, what’s a couple of hundred miles, really?—so that he can meet his “girlfriend” face to face. I’m sure Brick would be horribly offended if he knew I’d used those quotation marks in referring to Tanya, but I’ve done the meeting-a-girl-you’ve-fallen-for-online thing, and when it comes to those sort of relationships, I’m like Mike: Whoever this person may be, she’s not his girlfriend. Brick disagrees, however, and continues his campaign to sell Frankie and Mike on stopping, which he eventually does, if only because Frankie can’t help but see the merit in Brick managing to maintain any sort of successful interpersonal relationship—even if it’s only via the Internet—for more than a week or two without them deciding that he’s weird.
While all this is going on, Axl is fretting over the fact that he doesn’t know how his grades are going to turn out, and he’s suddenly come to the realization that, after all of these years of not trying and failing, what happens if, now that he actually is trying, he still comes up short academically? He tries to find out from Sue what it’s like to fail at something, just to prepare himself for the worst, but her upbeat nature just annoys him into stalking back to his room. As it turns out, though, his concerns have been for naught: somehow or other—and I’m not going to question how, so you probably shouldn’t, either—he managed to pull his grades out of their tailspin and get Bs in all of his classes, thereby winning a bet with his parents that requires them to not talk to him all summer. It’s an absurd bet, one which there was never any chance that they’d make good on, but it leads to a couple of laughs before it’s dismissed in favor of an even more absurd—yet ultimately funnier—demand: that they refer to him as Sir Axl, Duke of Awesomeness.
Eventually, all five Hecks finally make it out of the house, into the car, and on the road, and it starts out to be just as excruciating a ride as expected, due almost entirely to Sue’s boundless enthusiasm for all things Disney. Sue made some impressive strides toward adulthood this season, but it all vanishes like dust in the wind in the face of a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth®… until, that is, she realizes that she’s been left out of the driving rotation. That’s when the scene shifts gears, and suddenly it’s a classic Heck family car conversation, complete with a reference to the infamous death napkin, which in turn leads to Sue getting her shot behind the wheel. I’ve taken a shift at the wheel during a family vacation (as my mother reminded me after experiencing her own flashbacks during the episode), and that really was a perfect encapsulation of what highway driving is like for both the teenage driver and the passengers. I can’t say as I ever had a drive-thru issue like the one Sue had, but that didn’t make it any less painful/hilarious to watch.
Upon making their stop in North Carolina, it wasn’t exactly a surprising turn of events that
- Brick had broken up with Tanya the night before, and
- he’d forgotten to tell his parents that they didn’t need to drive hundreds of miles out their way after all.
At least it results in another great car scene as they work out how they’re going to handle the situation. Once they get inside, however, the execution falters somewhat, with the whole thing feeling more like a retread of an encounter with Rita Glossner than anything else. There’s redemption at the very end, though, with Tanya—who seems like a real sweet gal—giving Brick his first kiss. Who’s the Duke of Awesomeness now?
And with that, the Hecks are back on the road and, in short order, arrive at Disney World, only to realize that—wait for it—their tickets are actually for Disneyland. If these two episodes had run on two separate weeks, as the producers had originally anticipated they would, that moment would’ve gone down as one of my favorite sitcom cliffhangers ever. As it is, it’s still a fantastic moment, one made all the better by the fact that the ticket taker doesn’t suddenly say, “Ah, I’m just kidding you folks. Welcome to Disney World! Come on in!” The Hecks actually have to go to guest relations and get things worked out, which, thankfully, they’re able to do and then some.
The Hecks’ first day at Disney ends up being a wash, more or less, with the family spending so much time on Brick’s hat shenanigans, making sure Sue hasn’t permanently damaged herself, and trying to follow the instructions in her Disney binder that they don’t actually end up riding a single ride. It’s a bit ridiculous, but there are so many nice little character moments—like Brick trying to pick the right font for his Mickey ears, only to lose the hat, except not really—that it’s still entertaining. What hews closer to reality, however, is the Hecks’ giddy reaction when they discover that they’ve gotten an upgrade at the hotel to a downright palatial suite. I mean, I still act like that when I luck into an extra-fancy hotel room. The accidental oversleep on vacation was a familiar moment, too, setting up the start of another frantic day at Disney.
Frantic or not, day two of the Hecks’ Disney visit turns out to be the best, even though it starts with Frankie screaming outright, “Our family sucks! We suck!” The tide starts to turn when Mike’s obsession with getting to Epcot is revealed to be a sweet gesture of wanting to have a romantic dinner with Frankie there because he knows he’ll never be able to afford to take her to the real Paris. In turn, the kids end up being left to fend for themselves, but after considering the possibilities available to them independently, they decide to stick together and finally ride some rides. Meanwhile, Mike and Frankie have their alone time, and we get to see their romantic side that’s so rarely glimpsed on the show, leading to a happy ending for all, with fireworks to boot.
- Did anyone see ABC’s promo for the season finale that gave away the Disney World/Disneyland gag? Thankfully, I’d already had a chance to watch the advance screener of the episodes before I saw it, but my jaw hit the floor. Are you kidding me, ABC? From a “if it wasn’t for bad luck” comedy standpoint, that was the goddamned money shot… and you throw it away in the commercial? Ugh. Just… ugh.
- Nice callback to the blue bag.
- “Is it ventriloquism? Is it yoga? Is it trying to get a butterfly to land on your finger?” Sue has such wonderfully diverse pastimes.
- “Mom’s moving out! I knew it! I knew she didn’t have the stomach to go the distance!”
- “I got all Bs! You can’t get any better than that!” Well, yeah, you can, but given Frankie’s legitimate shock when Axl announces his grades, it’s clear that Bs will do just fine.
- As annoying as Sue was in the car, the look on her face and the motion of her head as she listened to the Main Street Electrical Parade was basically the cutest thing ever.
- Sue’s epiphany: “I can’t have all of you yelling at me at once!” A beat. “Okay, Mom, I can see how that’s annoying.”
- The start of Sue’s prayer for mercy: “Dear God, I know you have war and famine, and Justin Bieber’s gone off the rails…”
- Axl’s reaction to Sue passing out at the park: “Okay, so we’ll hit some rides and meet back at Sue’s body later?”
- So much for asking a random passerby to take a Heck family picture. “I tried to get a good one, but you were all screaming at that little boy…”
- Well, that’s it for season five, folks. I know this is a small group—far smaller than the series deserves—but it’s a dedicated one, and I appreciate everyone who keeps coming back episode after episode, season after season. May we all meet back hear for season six… and may there be more advance screeners in the future, so I don’t have to stay up quite so late writing these things. (I know I probably take way more time than is absolutely necessary, but I just want to make sure I’m giving it my all, y’know?)