Parenthood: “The Offer”
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Parenthood: “The Offer”

Let’s talk about Max

“The Offer” is some solid, vintage Parenthooding. Though many of the stories connect to the season’s larger plots, they’re small-scale enough that they can mostly be contained by the episode proper, and it doesn’t feel, for once, like the season is endlessly repeating itself. Even Drew moves toward some sort of catharsis over his endless storyline with Amy and Natalie and whatever is going on there. (Remember how Amy showing up was the cliffhanger we left on back before the holidays? This shit has been going on for months!) Increasingly, I feel like the show was built to tell stories in 15-episode increments, and it just isn’t quite sure what to do with all the extra time it’s been handed this season. That’s led to a lot of wheel spinning, but now that the end of the season is in sight, “The Offer” gets things going again, and not a moment too soon. (Not coincidentally, it’s written by Sarah Watson and directed by Lawrence Trilling, both of whom have been with the show since its earliest days.)

Before we dive into everything else, though, let’s talk about Max.

There’s been a solid discussion these last few weeks over Max’s Asperger’s and how the show chooses to portray Max’s position on the spectrum. Obviously, there have been episodes—even this season—where the show nails every aspect of this, both from the point-of-view of Max and from the point-of-view of Adam and Kristina, who are racing to keep up with how they understand Asperger’s from their neurotypical perspective. But there have also been weeks when the character is basically just a giant asshole, and it seems as if everybody in the world is supposed to walk on eggshells around him, because that’s just how it has to be.

Now, some of this is just obviously the conflict the show wants to raise between the very self-involved Adam and Kristina and everybody else around them. From its handling of Hank, who’s realized late in life that he’s probably on the spectrum, Parenthood has revealed that it can do a good job of showing how the world can be frustrating to someone like that, while they don’t go in for the full extent of seeming like they don’t give two shits about the people around them. (In my admittedly limited experience, people with Asperger’s, just like anybody else on Earth, care very much about their friends and loved ones and just have to learn how to express that sometimes. It’s not having the feelings themselves that is difficult, but, rather, the care and maintenance of those feelings. But correct me if I’m wrong!)

But Max is different, at least in the way the show handles him. Much of this discussion was tipped off by last week’s episode, which seemed to many of you to suggest that Sarah should have simply stood aside for Max when he wanted to use the printer, even though she was on a tight deadline and didn’t have time for that. I thought the show’s portrayal of that was more nuanced than many of you did—in that I thought it completely understood why Sarah would react the way she did and would find her justified in doing so—but I can see why so many of you increasingly feel this way. Adam and Kristina seem to pretty much just give Max whatever he wants, and they expect the world to do the same. It would be one thing if this were a “what not to do” manual for raising a child—any child!—but I think it’s clear we’re supposed to find Adam and Kristina at least identifiable, if not downright admirable. It all boils down to what Sarah accused her brother and sister-in-law of last week: Do Adam and Kristina need to tell their son “no” more often? Or are they doing, for the most part, a pretty good job?

Where I guess I differ from many of you is that I think the show is doing a fine job of splitting the difference and always has. My friend and podcast cohost Amy Whipple has pointed out to me on numerous occasions that outside of his Asperger’s, Max is pretty much just a carbon copy of his dad, who’s similarly stubborn and unwilling to compromise when somebody gives him news he doesn’t like. And that’s true of Kristina, to a degree, as well. When Haddie was around, the show had a way of calling these characters on the moments when they were uncaring or pushed too much to get their own way, but now that she’s out of the picture, it just doesn’t. If Sarah or somebody calls them on anything, they get defensive in a way they wouldn’t with their own daughter. And that’s realistic! If my sister tries to call me on something, I tend to get huffy. But it also makes it seem as if the show is constantly taking the side of Adam and Kristina when I don’t think it really is.

Plus, Parenthood is capable of scenes like the one on the car ride back from Sacramento in tonight’s episode, in which via bits and pieces, Max’s story of why he threw a tantrum in the middle of the class trip to Sutter’s Mill came out. One of the other kids started to make fun of him and told him he was a freak, and everybody else laughed at him. Instead of brushing it off, as Mr. Knight says he usually does, he had the very understandable reaction of, y’know, not wanting everybody to laugh at him and freaked out. But what rang true here wasn’t just Max’s reaction to the kids making fun of him; it was Adam and Kristina’s powerlessness to do anything about it. At one point, Adam calls the kid who made fun of Max an “asshole,” and he’s right about that, but he’s also talking about a 14-year-old boy. If Adam actually tried to do anything about it, he’d get thrown in jail.

This is where the show is on much firmer ground handling Max’s Asperger’s: When he gets into a situation he doesn’t know how to handle, he can sometimes shut down. That’s happened less and less as the show has gone on (as Adam says to Mr. Knight), but where other kids might throw a punch or come up with some sort of forced, witty retort or even just retreat entirely and try to avoid the bully, Max is just as likely to unleash his emotions seemingly at random, in a way that’s scary to those who aren’t used to it, like Mr. Knight. Jason Katims has based at least some of Max on his own son, and while fiction and reality will necessarily diverge, it’s in scenes like this one or the scenes featuring Max from “Let’s Be Mad Together” where the show does some of its finest work. So long as these stories are about Adam, Kristina, and Max all working together to navigate daily life, as opposed to, like, Adam and Kristina starting a charter school, this is still one of the more effective portrayals of parenting a child on the spectrum on TV (and maybe the only one).

Having talked about Max so much, I’ve surely bored all of you, so we’ll keep the rest of this brief. My second favorite storyline of the episode involved the interminable Joel and Julia split, which at least has moved toward Julia finally raising her voice to her husband, so we’re getting in the vague proximity of the big argument we know will clear everything up. (Joel, however, does everything he can to keep the argument from happening, which is how I fight too, Joel. It’s very frustrating! Good work!) The storyline worked, I think, because it finally tied in some of the tensions that have been running between Joel and Julia even before the Ed thing happened, with Sydney blaming everything that’s happened on her brother. (In the version of the show I’ve constructed for myself in my mind, where it’s all about Sydney’s plot to tear her family apart from the inside after her parents demoted her to younger sister all the way from only child, this was Sydney’s full Heisenberg moment, and “The Offer” was Parenthood’s “Ozymandias.”) Joel and Julia’s split has been weirdly free of ramifications so far, but it felt like—with Victor’s abandonment issues rearing their head again, and Joel trying to solve it with a phone that he didn’t clear with Julia—the show was finally looking at some of these things straight on, instead of at an angle.

We also had some stuff going on with Sarah and Drew, and both storylines were retreads of things the season has already done, except both moved closer to resolution, instead of repeating things we already knew. Drew and Natalie finally had it out over her sleeping with Berto (whom I still wish was named Birdo), then Drew wrote a sad song about it, and Amber sang it along with him. As resolutions go, this was by far the “Hey, Miles Heizer can play the guitar and write songs, so why don’t we work that into an episode”-iest resolution of them all, but at least we seem to be moving forward in Drew’s downward spiral. Meanwhile, I thought the episode nicely captured just how frustrated Hank was with Sarah’s constant presence in his life, when what he wants is to not be her friend. I’m in no way looking forward to yet another love triangle storyline popping up, but at least Hank finally told her how he felt, and it seemed especially torturous of Sarah to keep pushing things when he’d already told her how he was over that. Unless, of course, that last scene was meant to show Sarah combining the good news about her shoot with some good news for Hank by pulling him into that embrace. But I’m thinking that was just Sarah.

Finally, we have Zeek and Camille, playing out the real estate version of Nicholas Brody’s suicide vest from the first season finale of Homeland. When a guy comes in with an offer on their house that’s close to their asking price, they ultimately opt not to sell, instead agreeing to wait the three or four months they were going to wait to get everything ready, then put the thing on the market in the shape they want it to be in. Thus, we get to see how they really aren’t quite ready to sell—especially to someone who will tear up so much of their beloved old manse—just in time for the prospective buyer to come back with an offer that’s above their asking price, leaving them with a big decision to make in the weeks to come. If I know this show (and at this point, I think I do), we’re looking at a season finale built around moving day. I can’t wait.

Stray observations:

  • Braverman of the week: I love the little moments when we see how the kids on this show are so clearly their parents’ children, so watching Amber basically morph into Sarah when trying to get Drew up and out the door for school secured her position as number one for the week.
  • Bonnie Bedelia spends her time: I want the flashback to Zeek killing Camille’s favorite tree, then coming up with a lie to tell her about how it had to be done.
  • Good news, everybody. We can say “asshole” on TV now. I hope you’re all prepared for the shitstorm that will surely be unleashed upon the United States now that this has happened.
  • Crosby and Jasmine’s only appearance this week is to be there when the real estate agent shows up, so they can react to Zeek not wearing any pants and then tell Jabbar he has to wear pants. Just how long does it take to clean up this mold?
  • The chemistry between Mae Whitman and Miles Heizer is starting to get super weird, like “early season one of Suburgatory” weird. At the end of that scene where he played the song and she sang along, I briefly forgot what I was watching and expected them to kiss.
  • Did anyone mention Haddie or Piecat even tangentially?: No. But we will never say die, true believers. (New theory for Haddie’s whereabouts: She’s making artisan tea in Seville, Spain, with her lover, Rona, who is 30 years her senior but has taught her so much about love.)
  • Two random Hank quotes I liked a lot: “If you ramble, I’m gonna punch a bird.” “They’re like Starbucks, the Bravermans.” See you next week!

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