Whether you agree or disagree with the premise that this has been the strongest season of The Middle to date, it seems more or less inarguable that it’s at least been the most rewarding for regular viewers in terms of ongoing storylines. Granted, some ultimately worked better than others—Frankie’s departure from Ehlert Motors was effective as far as getting her out of Chris Kattan’s clutches, but going back to school and starting a new career as a dental hygienist has yielded mixed comedic returns—but when viewers become invested in the various aspects of the characters’ lives over the course of a season, there’s more of an emotional impact when those stories come to their conclusion.
Be it because she’s taken it so many times or simply because she can’t help herself, Sue is optimistic to a fault that she’s absolutely, positively going to pass her driver’s test, and in preparation for that fateful day, she decides to treat the final days of the school year as a final farewell to her days of riding that rolling yellow memory-making machine known as the school bus. Unsurprisingly, she has over-romanticized the experience to an absurd degree, which means that no matter how much she fawns over her fellow riders, rhapsodizes about the memories they’ve shared, and even bakes them cookies, for God’s sake, the best they can offer is to chant, “Pass that test!”
The next time we see her, she’s embarking on her quest to pass once more, having grown so familiar to the employees of the DMV that they play a quick round of Rock-Paper-Scissors to determine who takes her out. Amazingly, everything goes brilliantly, but Sue being Sue, things begin to fall apart just as they’re in the home stretch. Despite the numerous obstacles that cross her path, however, she manages to successfully make it through them all, and with her tester so impressed by her defensive driving that he doesn’t dock her points for pulling into the parking spot in an uneven fashion, she finally passes. Cue the Sue Heck Dance of Joy.
After being informed by Frankie that she wants back all of the stuff she paid for but which he promptly abandoned at school without a thought, Brick heads to the office to dig through the school’s overflowing lost-and-found box. While there, he discovers—apparently for the first time, based on his reaction—that he’s supposed to have been pulling together a slideshow for his class for the past four years. Following his usual path of desperation, he first goes to Frankie, who basically tells him he’s on his own. In response, Brick takes what he perceives as the easy way out, cheerily throwing himself on the mercy of the court. I know it’s just because it plays against the squeaky cleanness of her past characters, but watching Marion Ross tear into that kid sure was fun, though at least as much of it can be attributed to Atticus Shaffer’s facial expressions. (The face he made to finally stop himself from whispering was so funny that it necessitated no less than three replays.)
It’s a testament to Brick’s creativity as well as his unbridled desire to avoid doing much in the way of work that, even under threat of having his upcoming middle-school experience tainted, he doesn’t even try to take pictures for his slideshow. Instead, he goes the minimalistic route, offering a blank screen while asking his peers to close their eyes and imagine all the things they did over the last four years he didn’t document. (The decision to have him click the slide projector from one absent slide to the next was pretty great.) It goes just about as poorly as you’d expect, but on the upside, it looks like we might see Ross again next season.
In an effort to give all the kids a storyline revolving around transition, there are a few bits and pieces throughout the episode that don’t entirely work, although they are at least based on established personality quirks. For instance, unless I missed it, I don’t think Brick’s position as class historian is a gag from the first season the creators have been waiting four long years to bring to fruition, but either way, it’s difficult to accept that a kid who’s that young and who’s on the faculty’s radar as much as Brick has been in his academic career would be entrusted with a gig as important as that one, especially (apparently) without a reminder about it at any point in the intervening four years. Then again, if we can accept that Mrs. C…uh, I mean Vice Principal Dunlap…has been at the school all this time without us ever seeing her, then we can at least tolerate the suggestion that someone in one of our public schools might have made a poor decision and then never bothered to worry about its ramifications until it was far too late.
(UPDATE: I stand corrected...and series co-creator Eileen Heisler is the one who has done the correcting: "In season one, Brick was elected Class Historian because he gave a funny speech (same as my son) and it was acknowledged in the episode that he was utterly unqualified for the job. Episode 13 - I think... 'The Interview.'" I should've known better than to think this show wouldn't have pulled that deep a callback. I stand chagrined.)
Similarly, while it stands to reason that Sue, who sentimentalizes more or less everything she’s ever experienced in her time on this planet, would feel a sense of loss at the realization that getting her license could well mean she’s never going to be riding the bus again, it feels both exaggerated and rather out of character for her to actually go trolling for a round of “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in conjunction with her last ride.
One storyline, however, files 100% on all thrusters, and since it’s the only one we haven’t tackled yet, you’ve probably already deduced which one I’m talking about.
When we first see Frankie, she’s musing to Mike that Axl’s being a bigger jerk to her than usual (Mike doesn’t perceive the jerkiness levels as being particularly abnormal), which she finds particularly annoying since she thinks it's because she’s trying to get as many specifics as possible about the guest roster for his graduation party. Given a title like “The Graduation,” it’s mostly unsurprising that Axl successfully wrapped up his high school career by the end of the episode, but given the series’ occasional tendency to zig just when you it’s going to zag and his pointed refusal to commit to who was going to be attending the celebratory event being held in his honor, there is initially a sense of unease hovering over the proceedings. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the reason he’s not offering any answers is because he doesn’t want a graduation party. He just wants to hang out with his friends.
Not that Axl’s against partying. In fact, he’s just on the cusp of attending a rager when he has another war of words with Frankie over his uncommunicative ways. Frustrated and faced with no immediate alternative that won’t further alienate her from her son, Frankie opts to trust that Axl will be true to his word and be home at 11:30pm. (It's also worth noting that she apparently also trusts him enough to not get rip-roaring drunk even though there's going to be Jello "salad" at the party.) When he fails to make good on his promise, she extracts her revenge in a manner which is funny for everyone but may well result in full-on belly laughs from parents. For as over-the-top as Patricia Heaton can go and as unlikable as we’ve seen Frankie be, the way she handles the scene at Darren’s party is just right. The same goes for Charlie McDermott, who followed his horrified expression in reaction to Frankie’s appearance—by which I mean her arrival, but what she was wearing probably didn’t make things any easier—with the absolute perfect line for the moment: “Somebody in our family better be dead right now! And not some weird cousin I’ve never met: I’m talking Dad, Brick, or Sue!” And when he dares to suggest she’s committed the most embarrassing act in the history of teenagers, she ups the ante by getting her groove on and offering up her mama-pajama dance. Frankie for the win…and then some.
But it’s only one battle, not the whole war, and the conflict resumes the moment mother and son walk back through the front door, quickly reaching a volume which even Mike can’t ignore. Dismissing his son with the wisdom of a man who’s been married for more than two decades (“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I know I’ve got to side with her, so go”), Mike does his best to talk Frankie down, showing a surprising amount of insight on why tensions have been running so high lately, and assures her that Axl’s a bad kid and she’s a good mom. It does the trick in the short term, but come Graduation Day, it’s time for another skirmish, this one escalating to physical violence, and it’s over the color of his socks, of all things. This time, things do go over the top, but—and your mileage may vary on this—it works because there’s actually a reason for it this time. She knows her son’s growing up, she knows it’s inevitable, but she’s not ready for it. And, in his way, neither is Axl, and their mutual avoidance of dealing with the issue results in their growing increasingly angrier at each other. What an unfortunate time for “like mother, like son” to kick in.
After Axl fights off Frankie and makes a run for it everyone heads to graduation, with Frankie still refusing to back down from being pissed off…until they call his name. That’s when the wall breaks down, the tear ducts open, and Frankie finally admits what she’s been denying all this time: She’s not ready for her little boy to grow up. It’s a surprisingly moving moment, and the fact that Frankie’s tears go on for an embarrassingly lengthy period of time actually helps to bring back the laughter, but the sentimentality returns in short order as Axl asks for a photo with just him and his mom, and it continues into the next scene, when Axl gets what he told Frankie he wanted instead of a party: the best car $200 can buy. As her eldest son departs to hang with his friends and her only daughter rushes away to show off her driver’s license to Carly, Frankie is left clutching Brick, hissing, “Never leave me,” and with a whisper and a whoop, he assures her that he never will.
Yep, it’s been a pretty great season, with a little bit of growth from just about everyone over the course of the year. Well, except maybe Mike, but you know how that guy is. It’ll be interesting to see where things stand in the fall, with Axl heading off to college, Sue hitting the road, and Brick battling his way through middle school, and I’m also curious if Frankie will still be a dental hygienist when we next see her. ‘Til we meet again, be sure you catch the TV Club 10 on The Middle, and don’t dare miss the cast’s top-10 lists. It’s not the same as new episodes, but it’s the best I can do.
- I’m generally not one for gratuitous potty humor (“If it bugs you so much, why don’t you flush it?”), but I’m going to chalk this one up as a desperate subconscious cry for the kind of approval he received when he first mastered potty training. Also, it is not unheard of for teenage boys to be so proud of their bowel movements they pointedly leave them in the bowl, so that others might gaze upon them with awed wonder as well.
- I’d like to think that, somewhere amongst the deleted scenes from this or some previous season, there’s a clip of Frankie standing on the front step of the Donahue house, holding a jacket, saying, “Thanks, Nancy. I can’t believe Brick’s left every single jacket we own at school. Kids!”
- It’s a retread of a joke from last week, but I still got a laugh out of Brick trying to pass the lost-and-found search-and-rescue buck back to Frankie. (“You seem to have a pretty good handle on this…”)
- Maybe it’s just because this is Arrested Development week here at The A.V. Club, but I’d swear Patricia Heaton was channeling Ron Howard when she said, “He was.” Also, there seemed to be a touch of Lumberg in Atticus Shaffer’s delivery when Brick reeled off his slideshow instructions to Frankie.
- Speaking of the slideshow, Brick doing the math on how long he’d known about it was priceless. (“What’s today? Thursday…? About four years.”)
- Darren’s dance was sublime.
- “You are the worst mother ever!” “Oh, tell me something I don’t know!” If this wasn’t ripped straight from an old Roseanne script, it sure as hell could’ve been.
- “Now, remember, Sue: This is just like a car, only much bigger and harder to drive.” And it’s all downhill from there. Mike is the king of pep talks.
- “And, now, sit back and enjoy a musical montage of all your best memories—artfully put together in your own imagination—while I hum the tune to the appropriate, if not overused, graduation anthem, ‘We Are Young,’ by fun.”
- Sadly, we didn’t get any additional closure on the Axl/Cassidy situation, but based on the sweet look they shared at the end of her speech (and, by the way, whoever found that Shel Silverstein quote deserves a raise), they seem to at least be happy for each other. Guess that’ll have do for now.