That a series would find its greatest creative successes in holiday-centric episodes is hardly surprising—no TV writer has ever complained about having a year’s notice to take a premise and create an A story, a B story, and a C story centered around it—but after a few seasons, even a substantial amount of lead time isn’t enough to make up for the fact that there are only so many stories that can be told about a particular holiday before it starts to feel like repetition is setting in. (Ironically, I've just realized that I'm more or less recycling the opening from my review of last year's Halloween episode... but it's too late to turn back now!)
Thankfully, that sort of repetition has yet to become a problem for The Middle, mostly because each of the series’ four Halloween episodes to date (the series didn’t offer one in the first season) has focused a little less specifically on the holiday than the one that preceded it, to the point where only one of the storylines of last year’s effort actually had anything to do with Halloween. This year’s offering is certainly more on topic, to the point where every storyline ties into the holiday in some fashion or other, but when all’s said and done, the big takeaways have nothing to do with All Hallows Eve and everything to do with who these characters are all year ‘round.
For some reason, Halloween really brings out the protective father in Mike. A few years ago, Sue asked Mike what boys want, a question which earned her one of the great pieces of advice ever offered up by a TV dad: “Some boys like some things about some girls, but then there are other girls who have other things… and the thing is, what you want to do—not now, but at some point in the future—is find the person that likes the things that you have that are good.” This year, she hasn’t actually asked for advice, but he’s giving it to her, anyway, based on how she’s responding to something she saw during a séance.
Yes, that’s right: After Sue demands that the Wrestlerettes participate in a team-bonding sleepover and the decision to try doing trust falls fails miserably, Weird Ashley sells the group on the idea of having a séance, the perfect activity for Halloween week. Sue being Sue, the coolest dead person she can come up with is Christopher Columbus (“He discovered America, you guys… and I just love America so much!”), but darned if she isn’t convinced that she’s succeeded in conjuring him up, swearing that she’s actually seen the Santa Maria sailing across the wood paneling of the Hecks’ living room. At first, both Frankie and Mike are more or less amused, with Mike teasing, “Check the liquor cabinet!” and then asking Sue if she’s quite sure it was the Santa Maria and not “the Nina, the Pinta, or the Never-Happened-a.” The more public Sue goes with her discussion of what she’s seen, however, the more concerned Mike gets about how people are going to react.
Sue’s seeming immaturity has been a recurring topic of conversation amongst fans of The Middle, with an increasing number of folks grumbling about how she’s too old to be as naïve as she is and wondering when she’s going to start growing up. Finally, Mike’s echoing those sentiments in the awkward way that most dads would, trying to explain that it’s not that he wants Sue to be anyone other than the person she is, but, as a protective father, he just thinks it’d just be better for her if she “dialed down the Sue” a bit when she’s in public. But in the midst of her conversation with Mike, as Frankie and Brick look on, Sue offers an explanation about how she sees the world, which, although it bears no resemblance to the way her father sees things, comes across not as immature but, indeed, as a fully fleshed-out philosophy. Yeah, it’s still a pretty naïve way of looking at the universe at large, filled with more references to stardust than CSN&Y's "Woodstock," but you can’t say she hasn’t seriously considered this topic at length.
The whole conversation in Sue’s room is phenomenal, really, but the best bit is the way Mike tries to offer a moment from his own past to sell Sue on his way of thinking, only to have everyone else gradually pull more information out of him until he’s accidentally succeeded in doing the exact opposite of what he intended. Even after that, though, it's notable that there’s no sudden epiphany for happy-ending purposes: He stays true to his character, maintaining his same position all the way to the bitter end. Sure, as the closing credits roll, he sees what Sue’s seen and has a look in his eyes and an expression on his face that echoes Frankie’s narration (“Who knows? Anything is possible!”), but let’s not forget that this is Mike we’re talking about: He might’ve seen it, but nobody else knows he did, and he doesn’t like to be wrong, so odds are he’ll be taking what he saw to the grave.
Interestingly, for all his opinions on what Sue should do, Mike is far less willing to go out on a limb when it comes to how Brick should go about wooing Harper, the girl in his class who’s suddenly on his radar after getting her boobs over the summer. Most of Mike’s material involves assuring Brick of things he shouldn’t do, like, say, use the words “gleaned” and “apropos.” Frankie, however, has no shortage of ideas on how Brick should handle the situation, so many of them, in fact, that it’s a little overwhelming, especially when coupled with additional suggestions from the rest of the family. Basically, the only thing that everyone agrees on is that Brick definitely shouldn’t let the poor girl know the real him. Well, that and the fact that he really shouldn’t have said that the reason he didn’t reply to her email for five days was because he had diarrhea.
Nevertheless, between Frankie, Axl, Sue, and even a little bit from Mike, Brick manages to get a date to the Halloween dance. Naturally, the evening proves to be a complete disaster, more disastrous than anyone could possibly have imagined, starting with Brick’s hands shaking from nervousness and ending with paramedics giving him oxygen and telling him to make sure he sleeps upright and to have his parents check his pupils on an hourly basis. “Clearly,” says Brick, “I am not ready for a real relationship.” This is a significant understatement. It also manages to stave off any future Brick’s-in-love storylines until the writers have really got one that’s worth doing, which can only be a good thing in the long run.
Axl’s storyline is almost entirely independent from the rest of the family, minus the scene where he returns home to do laundry for virtually the entire football team, thereby putting him in position to use his dating expertise to help out his little brother. Otherwise, he’s actually at college, believe it or not, where he bonds with a fellow freshman on the football team—played by Alphonso McAuley, late of FOX’s Breaking In—who’s also dealing with the transition from being one of the coolest kids in his high school to being, as Frankie describes him in the opening narration, “a small man on a bigger campus.” Even though there’s always a little fun to be had with Axl getting his comeuppance, it’s still the weakest storyline of the episode by far, but the back-and-forth between McAuley and Charlie McDermott is pretty great (particularly when they’re duct-taped to the goal posts, though special mention must be made of their discussion of Tooth Fairy), leaving you hoping and praying that the show will quickly kick Kenny to the curb and have these two new buds move in together.
- The idea of licorice menorahs was pretty goofy, but I’m sure everyone can relate to battling the desire to eat all the Halloween candy before Halloween night (there’s a reason we still haven’t bought ours yet), just as they can commiserate with not having candy and having to pretend they’re not home to avoid the wrath of the trick-or-treaters.
- I loved the fact that Mike’s ideas about flirting all seemed to involve bikes for some reason.
- “Why are we hopping? How much hopping did I miss?”
- Another reference to KickingItTeenStyle.com, another reason to bemoan the fact that it continues to not exist for real.
- Not that it matters, but I really thought they’d leave us in suspense about Harper’s response until after the commercial break.
- “You know what we should do?” “Go back to high school and pretend we’re still seniors?”
- I was distracted by the fact that Sue was dressed as a princess with no explanation as to why. I mean, sure, it was Halloween, but she didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so did she just dress up for the heck of it, or what?
- I’m pretty sure Sue’s headline-writing tendencies are right about where mine were in high school, except she might be a bit more succinct than I was.
- Someday, after many more seasons have come and gone and the series eventually concludes, I really hope we get a reunion movie which shows that, yes, Sue and Brick really did end up living in the basement.