Man, I hate it when I go out on a limb and suggest that a series has given us its best episode of the season, only for the next episode to rival it, but damned if that isn't what The Middle has done.
After weeks of wondering when the show would tackle the passing of actress Frances Bay, a.k.a. Aunt Ginny, we finally get an opportunity to bid farewell to both the character and the woman who played her. Although there's obviously more than a tinge of sadness to the opening scene, I have to agree with my fellow AV Club contributor Joel Keller, who said that he could've handled an entire bubble episode which offered nothing but the conversation between the Hecks on their way home from the funeral. Patricia Heaton was particularly strong in the scene, with Frankie trying to keep Aunt Ginny as the primary topic of conversation (“She was a nice lady who looked good and died in her sleep and lived a long life and is in a pretty place and met Patton and made a hell of a cheesecake”), despite Axl's obsession with freezing his head, Brick flip-flopping between fears of dying in his sleep and living with his cousin Lucy, and Sue trying to deny the existence of a future involving death in any capacity whatsoever. But even after all the laughter, the last lines of the scene really brought back the reason for the scene and instilled it with a surprising amount of emotion. RIP, Aunt Ginny...and Frances Bay, too.
Of course, with Ginny now gone, the question must be asked: what of Aunt Edie? Frankie does her niece-ly duty and pops by to check in on Edie and Doris (I never fail to laugh at that poor basset hound's oxygen mask), bringing the requisite shipment of vodka and cigarettes. As it happens, Frankie needs the vodka more than Edie does, as the latter can't seem to recall that Ginny has died, resulting in Frankie having to watch her poor aunt break down time and time again. It's played mostly for laughs, but, once again, Heaton manages to react to the situation with just enough emotion to remind you that, actually, that would be a pretty awful situation to be stuck in. Similarly, I can definitely feel her pain about that revelation that follows every relative's death, when you become aware of all the things you haven't done or aren't doing with your life. Why, I'm considering some right now...
I feel like there's probably an episode coming up where Mike and Frankie seriously consider the contents of their “death napkin,” but that probably would've been too much doom and gloom for one half-hour segment. Instead, the show goes in the opposite direction, giving us something we've been waiting to see happen for far too long: Sue's first...sorry, I mean second...boyfriend. It's been a long time coming, but the decision to team her with someone one on the wrestling team was inspired, as it also gives us the opportunity to keep seeing Brad turn up on occasion. More importantly, with Sue finally having found someone new, it sets up the stage for the poor boy to finally come out of the closet without completely breaking Sue's heart. Not only can we finally drop the running joke about her complete obliviousness to his sexuality – the gag about the precise punctuation of the sentence he uttered was pretty funny, but, really, how many more times can they go down that road? - but with a boyfriend, we don't have to see a sad and depressing episode where Sue obsesses about what it means that the only boyfriend she's ever had was gay all along.
I liked the very real discussion where Frankie reminds Sue that she doesn't automatically have to like this boy just because he likes her, and Sue's steadfast refusal to take her point was great, too. None of that, however, tops the moment when Matt makes his grand gesture to let her know that he's not willing to take “no” for an answer. How many viewers swooned and said something to the effect of, “I wish someone would do something like that for me?” And for all of her great moments, Eden Sher practically deserves an Emmy just for those few seconds where she tells Matt that she likes him back (a lot), then turns to Frankie and can barely turn down her smile enough to mouth the words, “I like him.” Clearly, Matt is, in his own way, as awkward as she is. I have no doubt that they'll be one of the cutest couples on TV.
If the Axl / Brick storyline about Brick's bake-a-state project and having to repeatedly come up with new versions of Indiana was the slightest of the bunch, it still kept giving throughout the episode, from the ever-shrinking brownie version to the downright perfect pizza version, plus the typical-Brick moment of realizing that he'd been assigned Texas all along. I'm with Axl: he needs his own cooking show...but only if Brick's going to be his co-host.
To be honest, I thought the all-purpose birthday party was one small step too far into schmaltz territory, but every episode's got to wrap up somehow. Really, though, I think what bothered me the most about that scene was that, by virtue of Matt's attendance at the gathering, we are apparently going to be denied ever seeing the scene where he and Mike meet for the first time. (As a father of a little girl, I'm always looking for new ideas on how to handle those moments for when I have to start dealing with them myself.)
Was this week's Middle better than last week's? You tell me. At the very least, though, I think we can agree that this continues to be the strongest season of the series to date.
Random quotes and comments:
- “Axl, promise you won't freeze your sister's head and put it on somebody else's body.” “I don't know that I can make that promise.”
- Brick reminisces about the good times with Aunt Ginny: “I remember she liked to smoke and drink and click her dentures real loud. And sometimes she'd let me play with the big vein on her neck.”
- “You're not supposed to cook when you're sad.” “Are you sad all the time, Mom?” “Yes.”
- Surely I'm not the only one who was hoping Axl was cool / stupid enough to think that the “Patton” Aunt Ginny met was Mr. Oswalt.
- I really wanted to see what kind of sandwich Aunt Edie would've made Frankie.
- “If you guys don't want me to eat stuff, you gotta say so. You should know my first impulse is always to eat things.”
- “Mom makes a lot of things harder than they need to be.” “You know, that could apply to anything. I don't really need the details.”
- I'm not to quote Frankie's entire CraigsList ad for a helper for Aunt Edie. I'll just note that it was hilarious, as was Mike's very apt capper: “You're lucky the economy's in the toilet.”
- Another quilt callback! I think it may have been on the show more than Chris Kattan this season.
- “That's Oprah deep.” “Oh, that was Oprah.”
- “C'mon, she's got to shoulder some of the blame. How hard is it to pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, I'm turning 100 next week?” (Just for the record, Frances Bay was not 100 years old. She did, however, make it to the still-impressive age of 92.)
- Man, Frankie tossed back a lot of alcohol this episode. Can't help but notice, however, that she never really hit shrill mode. Someone's listening, people. Keep on commenting.
- The Hecks have Celebrity Rehab. The Harrises have Celebrity Apprentice. When it comes to reality television, it's all about the celebrities.
- “Hey, keep TV out of this. We need TV. We got nothing else.”
One last note: thanks to Middle creators DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, who regularly read these reviews. I know this because they told me so at the TCA tour yesterday.