When Max stepped up to deliver his speech in his bid to become student president at Cedar Knoll Middle School, I took a deep breath. Unwilling to tell his mother what he intended to say, and unwilling to turn to Haddie for assistance, Max was going up there with only the words in his head. While not the loose cannon one might see in high-profile serialized dramas, Max is nonetheless an unpredictable person in an unprecedented situation. This is about as close as Parenthood comes to using “suspense” in its purest form, and it turns out that it was all for naught: Max’s simple promise for vending machines combined with his honest discussion of his Asperger’s wins him the vote over the goody-two-shoes overachiever running against him.
However, the rest of “I’ll Be Right Here”—which I’m covering for Todd while he's in New York—lived in a different emotional space. Suspense may be a rush of uncertainty, but this show is mostly about people unable to find stable footing in their own lives. Although there is a real-life-and-death component to Kristina’s illness, in the moment, it manifests less as suspense and more as the natural, yet terrifying, uncertainty of life. Just when you think you have time before you have to move onto the next stage of your life, or just when you think you have moved onto the next stage of your life, something changes, and you’re forced to realign yourself. While mostly focused on Kristina coping with her final days before surgery, “I’ll Be Right Here” also shows how difficult it is to keep the eponymous promise when the ground is constantly shifting beneath you.
As someone who is living halfway across the continent from my family, Haddie’s role in Kristina’s storyline has resonated strongly, even if I’ve never gone through something similar (by which I mean it has given me intense anxiety about something similar happening in the future). She felt a responsibility to come home, to return to her role in the family and restore the stability she had displaced with her absence. The scene when Kristina and Adam try to work out who will attend Max’s election and Haddie volunteers shows that her instinct was correct: After getting used to having to handle things on their own, her presence gives Kristina and Adam the peace of mind they needed. Someone was there for Max, someone who could give him a pep talk and help him focus on his most presidential qualities. Although perhaps overstated through her opening of the peanut butter jar, it is easy to imagine Haddie leaving college and returning to her rightful place in the family’s ecosystem (and the show’s ecosystem).
However, Parenthood does not abide stability. Not unlike Friday Night Lights, Parenthood has shown there’s little room for people to settle down and fall into familiar patterns in the Braverman family. Now, this isn’t to say that the show manufactures drama in order to create instability (although we’ll get to Ray Romano’s Hank in a moment); rather, it means that the show constantly pushes its characters forward into new challenges and new periods in their lives, and in doing so, it ensures that uncertainty is always at the heart of the series’ narrative. It’s one of the reasons why Sam Jaeger is often ignored by the show, and why Joel doesn’t appear in “I’ll Be Right Here”: With Adam and Sarah’s families bearing the brunt of the episode’s storytelling, Joel’s time making a crafty card for Kristina, and then having Sydney and Viktor sign it as though they made it is too stable to warrant any further expansion. While Julia quitting her job brings future uncertainty, for the moment, it brings a chance to breathe, and therefore a chance to be largely marginalized in this week’s episode.
Admittedly, as noted, there are times when this allergic reaction to stability can make the show seem more contrived than one would desire. While Todd made a compelling argument for Hank’s romantic advances on Sarah as a case of workplace sexual harassment, I never shook the sense that this was the series’ drawn-out way of writing off Jason Ritter. Mark was too stable a choice for Sarah, and instead of adding new dynamics to their relationship that could build on their characters, it felt like the writers were adding an explosive element into the mixture to artificially “stir things up.” As though to prove my point for me, Sarah tells Adam about the kiss while waiting for Kristina to come out of surgery, and suggests “it stirred something up.”
However, while I remain apprehensive about the storyline, what worked about that moment was that it became less about Sarah’s relationships and more about Sarah. Her choice to move in with Mark was sudden, but “I’ll Be Right Here” blows right by the reasoning to the ramifications for Sarah as a mother and as a woman who is starting a new chapter in her life. Drew’s sudden removal from his comfortable—read: stable—existence at his grandparents’ brings Miles Heizer off the bench for some sensitive teenage angst (best captured in his sarcastic suggestion he was going to read a book), but it also lets Sarah reshape her decision as a transitional moment in her life. Faced with concern over her future, she doesn’t commit to something crazy or something she hadn’t planned on doing, but rather commits sooner to something she has wanted to do all along. While perhaps she is naïve to believe this, Sarah suggests in conversation with Adam—forming a pair with his earlier conversation with Julia and her decision to quit her job—that this wasn’t the action of an uncertain woman but rather the awakening of a certain one. Time will tell whether this is correct, but I’ve enjoyed Ray Romano’s performance a great deal, and would be pleased if we could move on with Hank as a complicated catalyst rather than a creeper.
However, while the pervasive uncertainty within Kristina and Adam’s family and the sudden uncertainty with Sarah may be most prominent in the episode, the most effective is perhaps Amber. While highlighted in a few episodes this season, Amber’s uncertainty has manifested in different ways from her family members. She slept with a singer who was in a long term relationship, but that wasn’t self-destructive in a way that we might categorize some of Amber’s teenage—or Bob Little-related—indiscretions. She’s holding down a decent job (albeit one she got through her family connections), playing a supporting role to Adam as he works through a difficult situation, and readily available to shepherd the younglings away when Kristina needs to deliver some heavy news.
In an episode where Adam’s siblings all rally around him and Christina during this difficult time, however, we’re reminded that Amber isn’t yet that adult. Or, perhaps to put it more effectively, she’s not yet convinced she can be that adult. When Matt Lauria’s Ryan returns to woo her at the Luncheonette and initiate some impossibly charming—and charmingly awkward—banter, it starts a sequence that reveals how mature someone can be without realizing it. There’s a moment in the date when she starts talking about her time working with Bob Little, and it seemed at first like she was becoming self-conscious thinking about her decision to sleep with him and the complicated mess she found herself in. But in truth, she was thinking about Kristina, whose uncertain future hangs over much of the episode. And then the date becomes a chance for her to talk about her aunt, someone she loves, instead of being about the weather, or ex-boyfriends, or any of that. But when the date ends, Amber invites him in out of habit, and she takes his refusal as a rejection as opposed to a desire to take it slow. She’s mature enough to be in a mature relationship, and to be the caring and emotional adult she’s becoming, but she’s still not able to shift into that gear in certain ways. It’s not a showy performance from Whitman, but it’s a damn good one, and her chemistry with Lauria is perfectly suited for this storyline.
With Ryan, Amber has an opportunity to have someone help her shift gears, time to settle into a new rhythm and a new kind of relationship. While Kristina has plenty of people around her to help her navigate her own difficult path, she doesn’t have the same kind of time. Within seconds during her follow-up appointment, a positive is followed by a negative: The cancerous tumor was removed, but there was cancer in her lymph nodes, and it’s even more aggressive than they imagined. For a moment, stability is promised with the thought of the cancer being gone; in the next moment, a whole new bout of uncertainty emerges, sending Kristina and the show farther down the path of the fight against cancer. While the scene is based on science, Parenthood communicates the meaning of the diagnosis with hands held and glances met. It’s no surprise when Adam and Kristina lie about the diagnosis to Haddie, committing to a charade of stability that ensures her uncertain—but potential-filled—path at Cornell is allowed to continue while their own uncertainty marches forward.
Watching “I’ll Be Right Here,” I was reminded of the show’s early seasons when episodes tended to end with the family all coming together as though that in some way resolves everyone’s problems. “There’s Something I Need To Tell You” ended with one of those moments, but it was never allowed to offer stability given Kristina’s news. While each member of the family finds a way to pitch in to help Kristina and Adam in their time of need, at no point is their assistance allowed to make this feel like it could all go away. While this level of tragedy could feel maudlin or manipulative on another show, and even on the earlier version of this show, we now know this family well enough that their support for one another can be implied rather than demonstrated, resonant without being dominant. They can’t defeat uncertainty, but they can be standing in the wings to offer a thumbs up or loitering in the lobby because they’re unable to leave the hospital until they know Kristina is safely out of surgery. By allowing this episode to explore how we respond to uncertainty as opposed to trying to snuff it out at every turn, “I’ll Be Right Here” is as inviting as any episode that ends with that kind of gut-punch could possibly be, and continues a string of emotional and resonant episodes for the series.
- Belated Braverman of the Week: I’m going to give it to Otis, who is forced to suffer the cone of shame in service of Crosby’s inattentiveness at the dog park. Way to take one for the team, Otis.
- In an episode largely focused on more serious matters, Crosby gets most of the comic relief (the back rub, the dog fight), but he also gets the brief prayer with Jabbar at the end to offer a nice coda (and one that nicely ties into their discussion of religion).
- Monica Potter deserves incredible recognition for her work in this storyline, but Peter Krause and Sarah Ramos were equally as good tonight. None of their performances ever feels showy, and that is a tremendous accomplishment.
- On a less serious—but also gravely serious—note, Haddie’s peanut butter sandwich technique was appalling to me. The notion of haphazardly piling peanut butter onto one side and just popping them together is just poor form: evenly spread across both pieces provided a far more consistent food experience. Pro tip: Add some chocolate chips.
- There is no greater slight you can make against a character on television than turning them into one of those people who doesn’t have cable because they want to read books instead.
- Do you know what’s a nifty word? “Nifty.”
- My new life goal is to work “I promise to re-burrito you” into casual conversation. It may have to involve buying someone a burrito, and then purposefully knocking it onto the ground. It will be worth it.