The Middle: “Halloween III: The Driving”
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The Middle: “Halloween III: The Driving”

The Middle has a history of finding some of its greatest inspiration via holiday-themed episodes, but this year’s Halloween installment may well be the first episode of the series, holiday or otherwise, that almost never went where I expected it to go. Not that the writers aren’t consistently creative, and, sure, there were still a couple of occasions where a storyline finished approximately where I anticipated—for instance, it always seemed inevitable that Sue would eventually make it out of the driveway and onto the highway—but even in those instances, the paths this episode took from Point A to Point B invariably left me thinking, “Uh, wow, it would never have occurred to me to that they’d go that route...”

Sue’s excitement about getting her learner’s permit is, let’s face it, pretty much on par with Sue’s excitement about everything else, which is to say that it’s pretty much off the charts. There’s one big difference, though: As excited as she is about the idea of driving, the prospect of actually driving scares the living hell out of her. Mike has no intention of becoming a One Direction fan, so he’s not so gently nudging her to give it a shot, but he makes her so nervous that she has a freak-out and refuses to go driving with him ever again. Unfortunately, Frankie’s attempts to provide a calmer parental alternative also result in Sue losing her mind, putting her back at square one again. Finally, she decides to give it one more shot, once again with Frankie as her co-pilot, but this time with both Mike and Axl hounding her from the front yard to put the car in gear and get going already. The end result? Sue gets so nervous that she does as has been demanded of her and promptly runs over Axl’s toe.

Up to this point in the episode, Axl’s predominant storyline had been about how, as an 18-year-old, he’s ecstatic about the fact that he can now participate in the democratic process. Naturally, his first action after familiarizing himself with the candidates (and, in the process, shaming his parents for their utter lack of interest in local races) is to throw his support behind a candidate named Harry Butts. This joke brought out my own inner 18-year-old, to the point where I laughed yet again when I typed it a moment ago. “Harry Butts.” Hee hee hee…

Okay, sorry, back to business. After his injury, Axl’s political leanings fall by the wayside for a bit, with the results of his injury taking center stage: With what appears to be a sprained toe, he’s benched, leaving the football team in the lurch and causing both players and cheerleaders alike to bemoan what an awful person Axl’s sister is to have committed such a heinous act. This leaves Sue feel guiltier than she already was to begin with, of course, but it also results in a truly hilarious sequence that paints Sue as the single greatest sad sack in all of Indiana. First she’s sulking her way through the town, strolling past a “Get Well, Axl!” poster tacked to a nearby wall, then as R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” continues to play in the background, the scene shifts to a neighborhood street, where a streetlamp burns out as she walks underneath it and a car drives by and splashes her with puddle water. All of this, of course, occurs as she’s wearing her mascot costume. If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it now: Charlie Brown ain’t got nothin’ on Sue Heck.

As noted up-front, Sue does finally end up getting behind the wheel, an action that also serves to help the unable-to-drive Axl get to the polls and cast his vote for Harry Butts (“Democracy rules! Gimme my sticker!”), thereby helping heal the brother/sister rift… at least for the duration of the episode, anyway. But more on that in a moment. By the way, before we leave this storyline, it was great to see Aunt Edie again (“Where’s the girl with the bathing suits I wanted to try on?”), but, uh, if Sue’s supposed to have an adult in the car when she’s driving, then how exactly did she pick up Aunt Edie in the first place?

Okay, it’s about time we got around to discussing the only actual Halloween-related storyline of the episode. After things got started with Brick volunteering Frankie to help out at the Halloween fair, reasonably presuming that her long-standing excuse about being unavailable because of her long hours at the car dealership was no longer valid, it seemed like the episode was going to spend most of her storyline at the fair. Nope, that was just a red herring… or goldfish, if you will. Being drafted for the fair led Frankie to cross paths with Nancy Donahue, who volunteered to take Brick trick-or-treating, thereby providing Frankie with the opportunity to spend Halloween sitting on the couch and passing out leftover goldfish to costumed kids between swigs from her box of wine. At this point, it seemed like, “Okay, this is about Frankie being a bad mother.” But it wasn’t, really… or at least no more so than every episode of The Middle is about Frankie is being a bad mother. In fact, if anything, it went in a direction that suggested that sometimes Frankie’s questionable parenting choices actually—if more or less accidentally—result in things turning out better for her kids than she could ever have anticipated.

First of all, by Nancy taking Brick trick-or-treating, he ended up going to a better class of neighborhood, thereby resulting in a huge haul of candy. Surely that’s one in the “win” column for box-wine parenting. Granted, her effort to trick Brick into eating so much candy that he’d get sick and not want to eat anymore didn’t exactly go the way she’d planned, but it’s hard to call it anything other than another win when the end result of mainlining a year-and-a-half’s worth of sugar (“He’s more sugar than boy!”) was a well-mannered and sociable child who’s a pleasure for both his parents and his teacher to be around. Alas, this Stepford version of Brick, while turning the Heck’s mealtime conversation into the Orson equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table, proves so utterly bizarre compared to the original version that when the Halloween sugar finally departs his system, Frankie and Mike decide to let him lapse back into normalcy… well, you know, except for special occasions like the SATs and school dances.

So everything’s back to the status quo by the closing credits, right? Not so fast. At the last second, we get a potential game-changing play lobbed at us, with Frankie getting the news that Axl’s supposedly sprained toe is actually broken. Goodbye, scholarship? We’ll see. Either way, for parents on a fixed income, it’s some pretty heavy stuff. Happy Halloween, everybody!

Stray observations:

  • “Mike, don’t answer the phone!” “Never do!”
  • Nice callback to Sue’s “near-death experience driving the Donahue’s car” last season.
  • Given how concerned she is about what people think of her, I feel like Frankie probably would have noticed the precise delivery of Nancy’s response to her question about whether her wanting to stay home and drink a box of wine makes her a bad mom (“I don’t think that does, no”), but that didn’t make it any less funny.
  • Mike’s reaction to Frankie bringing home the un-won goldfish made that quick detour completely worthwhile. (“Take ’em down the hall to the porcelain pond!”)
  • Obligatory no-one’s-that-naïve Sue line that was still funny, anyway: “‘Goin’ Commando’: I don’t really get it… but I do support the military!”
  • If The Big Bang Theory can make Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock into a thing, we really should start a campaign to get Frankie’s Rock, Paper, Bye-Bye thing popularized.
  • Small but economically realistic moment: When Sue turns on the wipers, if you weren’t too busy laughing at the way her eyes tracked them, you may have noticed that they didn’t actually go all the way down.
  • Any parent who says they haven’t swiped their favorite candy out of their kid’s trick-or-treat loot bag is lying, but I particularly appreciated the subtlety of Frankie’s foot-sliding maneuver. On a related note, I could’ve watched several more scenes of Brick’s methods of maximizing his consumption time to meet Frankie’s “challenge.”
  • “Don’t you say that! We’re already in the system!”
  • It’s obvious from the shot that Mike didn’t actually throw Sue out of the car as much as he shoved his way past her in order to move the car off of Axl’s toe as quickly as possible, but give Eden Sher full credit for diving into the next shot as if she actually had been launched by Neil Flynn.
  • It probably would’ve been too meta to have Flynn and guest star Sam Lloyd in the same scene, but Lloyd was typically hilarious nonetheless. “Let me tell you a little about myself: I am the type of person who likes things a certain way. I have no use for outside-the-box thinking. Needless to say, I have not been a big fan of Brick.”
  • Bonus points for likening the sugar-equals-normalcy phenomenon to Lorenzo’s oil.
  • “I just love America so much!” Of course you do, Sue.
  • “If people are allergic to people, can bees be allergic to people? Whoop!” Ah, there’s the Brick we know and love...but, dammit, what was the permission slip for?!?

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