The Middle: “Wheel Of Pain”
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The Middle: “Wheel Of Pain”

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The Middle

“Wheel Of Pain”

Season 4, Episode 17

Frankie Heck in a prison jumpsuit? Has the world gone topsy-turvy?!?

Don’t be silly. Of course it hasn’t. And—spoiler alert!—Frankie isn’t really in jail, either, although I think you’d be hard pressed to find any viewer who thought for a single moment that she actually was. As opening gambits go, The Middle’s had better, but this is another one of those episodes where it’s easy to forgive the bookends because of all the great material contained between ’em.

In fact, as episodes of the show go, “Wheel Of Pain” really kind of stands out in the crowd, being one of those highly rare instances where everyone’s storyline is so directly tied to everyone else’s that there isn’t really a proper A-story/B-story/C-story division. Indeed, once you take Jane Kaczmarek and the Slapstick School of Dentistry out of the picture, which is really just there to frame things up, anyway, what’s left is a relatively straightforward story revolving around the eternal battle of parents vs. kids.

When we first check in on the family, Frankie’s stressing out about her impending dental exam, Sue’s psyched about her impending Sweet 16 party—sorry, that should read Sue-weet 16 party—and Axl is busy trying to squeeze a later curfew out of Mike. It’s a successful gambit, but not as successful as it could’ve been, as Axl discovers when Mike reveals that he actually would’ve been willing to make it even later than he did. (“What’s that you kids say again? ‘Boo-ya’?”)

It’s during the event-planning phase of the episode that things really begin to heat up, with Sue finding her suggestions for possible games to play at her party (“Charades… Celebrity Charades… Pictionary… Celebrity Pictionary…”) instantly dismissed by Axl in favor of the far more entertaining “Smell That Boot.” Tempers flare, boots are thrown, tennis rackets are used surprisingly effectively, and the next thing you know, there’s a broken window in the Heck’s living room. As Sue freaks out and latches onto what she sees as the obvious need to take responsibility, Axl offers another option: saying that the Glossners did it. Panicking, Sue agrees to give the lie a shot, and when Brick decides to go along for the ride as well, it’s time for Axl to enter his element.

Of course, Axl gets Sue and Brick to do the dirty work, having got a really good excuse for not wanting to touch the broken glass (“I got fingerprinted for the missing child program back when mom and dad still cared”), but as payback for the probable glass shards his sibling have undoubtedly incurred, he takes his best shot at teaching them how to look innocent, get their story straight, and lie their asses off. It seems to be a fool’s errand, however, as Brick can’t keep himself from whispering about his chicanery and Sue has a real problem when it comes to settling on fake details. But, dammit, Axl’s not backing down. He’ll make liars out of his brother and sister yet, by God!

Meanwhile, Frankie and Mike are on their way home from their favorite pizza place, enjoying the fringe benefits of still driving around in the borrowed church van, including a ton of semi-mistakenly donated pizza—I say only semi- because “we do work with troubled teens”—and the ability to commit various traffic violations. Frankie, sporadically conscious of the need to do the right thing, wonders aloud worriedly what would Jesus do if he had the van, but Mike assures her, “Same thing I’m doing: 50 in a 35.”

By the time their parents walk through the door, Axl, Sue, and Brick have gotten their story about as straight as they’re gonna get it and are ready to roll, starting with Axl’s mournful “thank heavens you’re home,” but plans to adhere strictly to the Glossner agenda fall by the wayside when Mike gets so pissed off that he decides he wants to walk over there. It’s at that point that it’s decided that “it could be any number of mischievous teens,” possibly even their neighbor’s weird cousin from Des Moines, and… well, you know how it goes. The kids disperse, each taking a pizza for dinner, but Frankie’s Castle sense is tingling, and she doesn’t like the look of this situation one bit. And when she realizes the next morning that they’re all getting along? Well, that’s just the last straw.

So begins a spectacular sequence of events, starting with Frankie going all Marathon Man on Axl and Mike taking the hilariously cruel tactic of claiming that they need to use the Disneyland fund to pay for the broken window, leading Eden Sher to turn in another great week as an emotionally-traumatized Sue. They don’t break, though, and Brick manages to hold his own through an ice-cream outing, leading Axl to rationalize, “Clearly, we’ve been playing it wrong all these years: together we are awesome…whereas alone only I am still awesome.” Growing brazen with the realization that there truly is strength in numbers, the trio is promptly blindsided when presented with the Wheel of Pain that Mike and Frankie have designed to punish them. With the spinning of the wheel, however, Frankie is forced into a sudden realization: she’s got to make good on the threat that she’s made—to deprive her only daughter of her only Sue-weet 16 party—even though she doesn’t really want to. (“Then why’d you make the threat?” asks an exasperated Mike. Frankie’s equally frustrated reply: “Because we’re not allowed to hit ’em!”)

It’s a hilarious back-and-forth between parents and children, with Frankie freaking out at the thought of Sue losing her party but not wanting to look like “a toothless old tiger” who’s “all threat, no follow-through,” and ultimately coming up with a way to make Mike look like the hero and raise her status as Queen Bitch, explaining, “If you let her have the party, supposedly against my wishes, it’s not really caving, because you didn’t make the threat.” Sure, that works. Except that when the party takes place, with Frankie and Mike trying to keep up their façade that they’re fighting with each other, Sue convinces herself that she’s the cause of the clearly inevitable divorce and spills her guts about the window. In turn, Frankie ’fesses up herself, Sue decides that she really is having the sweetest of all possible 16s, and everyone’s happy again… well, except for Frankie, because she’s having to examine the teeth of convicted felons.

Hey, you can’t win ’em all, right?

Stray observations:

  • First of all, for those of you who were wondering where Darrin was—and after last week’s episode, I’m guessing that’s probably everyone—let us all praise executive producer/series co-creator DeAnn Heline for checking her mail on a regular basis, because she provided me with an answer in time for me to include it in my review: “Originally there was a line where Sue explained that she and Darrin were going to celebrate her birthday privately, cause she didn’t want to shove Darrin in Brad’s face. But it got cut for time.” This last sentence was followed by a sad-face emoticon, as well it should have been. Time cuts suck.
  • Brick liked it better when Frankie worked at Ehlert’s and brought home doughnuts. Mike just liked it better when she had a salary. Point: Mike. 
  • If there was one truly redeeming aspect of the dental storyline, it was the reveal of the kids’ red teeth followed by Mike musing, “I don’t have your professional eye, Frankie: What’d they miss?”
  • Sue discusses her cake-decorating party, counting off a need for “seven cakes, or 10 if Dad, Axl, and Brick want to do it.” Mike’s instant reply: “So… seven?”
  • I can’t really say why I think it’s awesome that there’s another hole in the wall, but I do.
  • “Only in this house would broken glass on the floor be considered neat.”
  • “How come the Wheel of Pain always lands on me?” “Tonight or life in general?”
  • “Y’know, it just hit me: I own a lot of plaid.”
  • Be honest, parents: when it comes to following through on your threats, are you the Frankie in your relationship, or are you the Mike? Because I gotta admit, I’m definitely the Frankie.
  • I don’t think there was a single line from any of Sue’s party guests that didn’t make me laugh out loud, from Brad’s love of Sugar Babies on down the line, but special note must be made of Weird Ashley reminding Axl about prom. Mark my words: This story isn’t over yet.
  • Thanks, by the way, to Alasdair Wilkins for stepping in during Second Opinions Week. I just wish I’d been able to switch off and cover Arrowlast week in turn, but the timing didn’t work out, as I was out of town and not in a position to watch it live.
  • Lastly, although this might not be Newswire-worthy information unless you read these reviews every week, this particular audience will no doubt be pleased to learn that, per the fine folks at TVShowsOnDVD.com, DVD plans are finally in the works for The Middle: The Complete Third Season. Woo-hoo!