Parenthood: “Small Victories”
B+

Parenthood: “Small Victories”

B+

Parenthood

“Small Victories”

Season 4, Episode 13

Drew was always going to end up on that porch. It’s the Braverman way: No matter how much avoidance they practice in the middle of whatever traumatic event they’re dealing with, they always end up turning to the people who know them best for comfort in the end. The beauty of Parenthood is that although we know the ending to Drew’s story, it’s still told in a way that makes this moment feel like a punch to the gut.

This is a fine line to walk, and Parenthood somehow manages to consistently balance it with grace and ease. NBC’s promos for this episode were the worst sort of after school special schlock—leaning hard on the melodrama in promising sappy life lessons and very special episode feelings—but the execution of the story within the episode was pretty much exactly the opposite. Drew is solidly a background Braverman, but the great thing about his character (and Miles Heizer as an actor) is that when they do call on him to be front and center, he always delivers. In facing the most serious issue his character has ever been saddled with in Amy’s unexpected pregnancy, he fully steps up to the plate and delivers a pretty knockout performance.

The story itself isn’t unfamiliar—teen gets girlfriend pregnant, teens decide together what to do about the situation, teens are then traumatized over their decision—but it’s powerful here because of the weight the decision is given. Drew and Amy’s rekindled relationship happily bubbled in the background for most of this season until it implodes here (although that scene of Mark discovering them in bed together now feels like the Chekov’s gun of teen pregnancy in retrospect), with the reality of the consequences of this relationship reverberating until their teenage love just isn’t enough to withstand the pressure. It’s always impressive to see a network television show fully embrace a character getting an abortion, which is still rare enough to feel a bit groundbreaking, especially in the matter-of-fact way it’s presented here. It’s also compelling to see the abortion issue from a teenage boy perspective, which isn’t something well represented in pop culture at all. (The other recent network drama to feature a character getting an abortion was Friday Night Lights—also helmed by Jason Katims—which interestingly also featured a young woman getting an abortion when the teenage boy was against it.) But beyond the actual issue, beyond the specifics of anything, this was a story about Drew’s first real heartbreak and how his sister and mother helped support him through it.  

Not everything about the story works, though. We haven’t seen much of Amy since she broke Drew’s heart the first time, so to immediately give them a story which naturally alienates her from him again doesn’t do her any favors. It almost seems cold. Every emotion Amy feels is completely understandable, but the only viewpoint we get is Drew’s: Drew who wants to keep the baby but is more concerned with supporting what Amy wants, the same Drew who gets rejected again because of Amy’s trauma over this situation. This is a show about the Bravermans and their experiences, but I can’t help but be much more interested in how Amy is doing at this moment. Framed as it was, she appears to be a bit less than sympathetic, but it’s obviously more complicated than that. Still, the biggest take away from this story has to be the image of a numb Drew and Amy sitting in Planned Parenthood waiting for her name to be called, like statues of emotional horror. It’s a far cry from Teen Mom, that’s for sure.

Drew wasn’t the only Braverman having a bad week. The tenuous relationship between Julia and Victor devolved to practically nonexistent after the baseball bat incident last week, and shows no signs of an upswing any time soon. This is another story that’s been heading toward an obvious conclusion for quite a while and yet, like Drew and the porch, still feels not at all rote. It’s as if slowly Victor is realizing this fun fancy house he’s living in isn’t just some upper middle class vacation until his mother comes back—this is real life, and life is forever. There was just no way a kid with Victor’s background was going to slide into this vastly different universe without trouble, but hunger strikes, false claims of child abuse to the police, and constant backtalk finally breaks Julia until she admits she might not want to go through with the adoption. This story is really a great test for Julia’s character, whose rigidity is diametrically opposed to everything she’s attempting to do with Victor, but it might turn out to be an even better story for Joel. As a Braverman-by-association, Joel consistently gets the story shaft even though Sam Jaeger is more than capable of anything they throw at him. A showdown between Joel and Julia over the fate of Victor is exactly the kind of thing this show can nail, and I’m looking forward to the potential here.

Stressful but less potentially life-altering was Crosby’s reaction to having his mother-in-law living under his roof. When I think of all the reasons I like Parenthood, it’s this sort of simple story—not the overly dramatic threads, although those are great, too—that comes to mind. Here is just a basic tale of a man frustrated with what he deems to be his mother-in-law taking advantage of her family, and that story is completely sympathetic to his point of view right up until it flips the switch. Sure, Crosby is being inconvenienced by having his mother-in-law taking over his bathroom, rejecting jobs in a tough economy while sponging off his hospitality, but Renee isn’t just portrayed as a cartoon. She’s a woman with her own disappointments and sadness over losing a job she loved. Part of this is presented to make Crosby ashamed, yes, but it’s the show’s willingness to even give their boors a fair shake that makes it special.

There’s a lot of heavy hitting happening in the other stories, so the show wisely lightens things up with Max entering the big, scary world of puberty. Parenthood mines a lot of pathos out of Max’s Aspberger’s, but it also knows when to use it for humor and that was well deployed here. From Max’s horrifying conversation with Zeek and Camille about ejaculation to his request to use Adam’s deodorant at the end of the episode, this was pretty much a perfect runner to break up the tension in short little bursts throughout the episode. It even managed to sneak some profundity in there with Max’s sobering confession to his dad that he’s simply not ready for the sex stuff yet. But hey, as heartbreaking as it is for them to realize their child is going to have a harder time with puberty than everyone else, Adam and Kristina are just happy the kid is showering regularly now.

For an episode titled “Small Victories,” really the only people happy about anything at the end are Adam and Kristina, and they’re just happy their son doesn’t stink anymore. That’s a mighty small victory in the face of a whole lot of pain. But the Bravermans have to be comfortable with pain at this point, right?

Stray observations:

  • Braverman of the Week: It has to be Drew, because Drew never gets anything to do. But here! So many things to do here! Honorable mention: Amber, of course.
  • “The following program contains mature themes. Viewer discretion is advised.” Who else was expecting severe violence when they saw this warning? But nope! Just puberty and abortion talk! Ah, America.
  • I was simultaneously yelling at Victor for all the horrible things he’s doing and feeling sympathy for him in what has to be a genuinely confusing situation. But mostly the yelling part.
  • I thought Julia and Joel had already fully adopted Victor, so it came as a surprise to hear that was still yet to happen.
  • Honestly, I’m choosing to ignore the Sarah/Mark/Hank triangle until it’s over. Just make up your mind, Sarah. I can’t deal with you until then.
  •  “Hi, Grandpa. I have pubic hair.” Max is delightful.
  • I got through this whole thing and didn’t make a “Brick” joke once. I HAVE RESTRAINT.