Parenthood is great at heart-tugging, and it’s great at heart-wrenching. This is to say that it’s great at the moments that make you go, “Aw!” and it’s great at the moments that make you go, “Oh God, please not that!” The “Kristina has cancer” arc has been one long study in how the show alternates between the two (and mostly masterfully so), and I’m sure you can come up with any number of examples in both categories. Yet I don’t know that the show has ever truly done a scene as brutal as Sarah and Mark’s argument the night he unexpectedly arrives in Los Angeles and sees her drunk and leaning on Hank for support. It’s completely innocent. She’s even able to convince him it’s completely innocent, eventually. But in the moment, it’s the last thing he wants to see, and the two erupt in an absolutely terrifying argument. This isn’t just a relationship ender; it’s a sign that things have been rotten in this relationship for a long time, and nobody’s talked about them.
I may not like all of the plot developments that got us to this point, but I have to be impressed with the end of Sarah and Mark’s relationship (assuming she doesn’t go and find him next week and the two get back together yet again). The show did such an excellent job of delineating why the two weren’t right for each other last season that his existence in this season has always felt like a bit of a vestigial organ from last year, the one element that’s felt completely unnecessary at times. Now I see that was part of a larger plan. By emphasizing how unwilling Mark was to get into conflict with his fiancée or her kids and by emphasizing how he was less and less a part of her life, the show was trying to depict how the two getting engaged was a bad idea from the start. There’s a world in which this relationship works, but it would need to involve radically different versions of these two people.
Yet there’s something appealing to me about this relationship being like something out of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, two people endlessly drawn together because they’re just close enough to being the perfect couple that they’re never going to sit down and work on their real issues. My wife noticed this earlier in the season than I did. “You notice how they never argue?” she asked, and I had to admit she had a point. When you put off the conflict like these two have, it’s that much more likely to explode. Not fighting always seems like an option to couples—particularly young ones—because not fighting is so much nicer than actually fighting. But then, by the time the bad stuff actually comes out, it may be too late. Bottle something up for long enough, and it’s bound to just get more combustible.
What I also like about this breakup is that it doesn’t send Sarah rushing into the arms of Hank. Instead, she seems even more irritated with the guy than she was before. When he’s trying to get her to talk about his personal problems the next morning at breakfast, the face she makes is one perched halfway between disgust and pity: Why won’t this guy figure out that her job isn’t to handle his every personal problem? Maybe Sarah’s an easy mark for a dad who’s trying to do right by his kid because of her own situation. Maybe she really does have a fear of happiness like Mark suggests. Or maybe she just briefly let herself get sucked in by the notion of being with Hank, then realized just who the guy really was. This doesn’t make Hank a bad guy—far from it. He’s just not close enough, not yet, and she seems to be slowly realizing this. When the two head back to San Francisco together at episode’s end, it doesn’t seem like the start of something new. It seems like a weary resignation that Sarah’s trapped herself in a life she doesn’t really want anymore.
While the Sarah part of this episode was deftly handled, the other stuff occasionally left something to be desired. In particular, I’m thinking of the inexplicable end of the Marlize storyline, in which Crosby pulls a Miracle On 34th Street, as if preparing to get rid of this storyline as quickly as it first appeared. It’s as if all involved looked at the footage from last week’s episode, realized they wanted to work with Pamela Adlon but not like this, and pulled the plug immediately. Granted, Crosby’s been the character the show has had the hardest time giving storylines this season, because he doesn’t have the natural story hook of his other three siblings, but there should have been far richer material to mine in Crosby having to step up and run the Luncheonette by himself than this. Marlize isn’t a character; she’s an obstacle. And on a show like this, which prides itself on giving even the smallest of guest stars a suggestion of their own inner lives, a show that devoted a substantial portion of tonight’s episode to the family travails of Hank, of all people, that’s too bad. Yes, we got Glen Hansard out of all of this, and that might be a sort of win. But it still doesn’t really work as a storyline.
Meanwhile, the continuing travails of Joel Graham intersect ever-so-briefly with the Amber and Ryan storyline, as she sets upon her uncle to, hey, maybe hook her boyfriend up with a job. Mae Whitman is so winning in this role that you want to believe this whole Ryan-and-Amber thing is going to work out, but I’m afraid we’ve reached the point where it’s all too obvious where this is headed. Amber can’t stick by this guy forever, and he’s going to be another sad casualty in the Braverman dating history, a guy whose problems are too big for Amber to even wrap her mind around. We’re headed for some sort of tragedy with this kid, though I hope Zeek is there to make sure he gets the help he needs. I don’t know that Amber’s going to be capable of it, good as she is at everything else, like smiling at Glen Hansard.
Julia, meanwhile, can’t figure out how to get Victor to accept that he’s a little behind in his studies, and he’s going to need to buckle down if he wants to catch up. Falling behind the other kids at school—to say nothing of his younger sister—has been emotionally devastating for him, and he continues to believe he’s not capable of doing this. He’s not just behind; he’s stupid. Julia, of course, decides to fix this, which involves her going to Kristina, who’s high, and asking how her brother and his wife deal with Max when they need to get him to learn. Bribery, Kristina says, and it’s a surprisingly hilarious moment. After reducing Monica Potter to someone vomiting on a bathroom floor just two weeks ago, Parenthood is now letting her play a little light comedy, and the combination of a baked Kristina trying to advise her sister-in-law somehow makes for solid laughs.
All in all, this was a nice course correction from last week, though not one of the season’s finest episodes or anything. On the other hand, that fight between Sarah and Mark is going to stick in my mind for a long time after this season is done, to the point where it might be one of my primary memories of the show. Parenthood is great at the visceral reaction, at making you instantly feel something for its characters. And in that moment, I remembered the times I’ve been in arguments like that, pushed to the brink of the abyss, not sure what comes after the next step. Sometimes, you have to free fall (out into nothing, as the kids say) to figure out what happens next. For Sarah, though, it’s been a life of free falls. Something better has to come eventually. Right?
- “Trouble In Candyland” is an episode of great guest casting. It somehow seems appropriate that Hank’s ex-wife is Betsy Brandt from Breaking Bad, since now I can just imagine that this is an alternate universe where Ray Romano landed the role of Hank from that other show, and things just gradually evolved in a much more cuddly direction.
- I’m not usually one to fall for musical montages anymore, but the one at the end of this episode was great, probably because Hansard was actually performing the song on camera. (And is it me, or has the show gradually decreased its reliance on indie folk this season?)
- We’re getting a Parenthood Christmas episode?! Finally I know why I’m alive!
- Braverman of the week: Glen Hansard, who will surely pen a duet with Amber, then they’ll fall in love, and then he’ll have to go be with his former girlfriend, and she’ll have to make another go of it with Ryan, and it will be so sad, you guys.
- I need a GIF of Monica Potter eating candy to explain the concept of bribery to Julia, then smiling like she’s getting away with something.