I really liked this episode of United States Of Tara, but what it mostly made me want to do was watch next week’s episode right away. I’ve seen enough TV to know that any time lots of good stuff is happening, lots of bad stuff is on the horizon, and I thought this episode was good at signaling just what that bad stuff would be. But this was pretty much a half hour of the characters at their most kooky and lovable, with occasional hints of the terrible, terrible stuff to come. That’s not to say that I hated the episode or anything (I didn’t), but this does tend to be a show where everything works better when it embraces the dark drama at the center of the show’s premise.
The event that pins all of the stories together is the upcoming birthday party for Max, which gets a baby shower for Charmaine pinned onto it. Tara spends most of the episode freaking out about being unable to pull this massive event off, but when we get to the party at the end, it looks pretty fun. Tara’s “won,” such as it is, and that means the “you will not win” alter needs to make an appearance and screw everything up, by taking Tara out into the parking lot and having her cut herself with a shattered beer bottle. It’s a fraught moment, one that really captures the danger Tara is in at all moments (even as her other alters try to protect her), but it’s also the very end of the episode. Tara is rarely at its best when it’s in pure comedy mode, and that was too much of this episode. Tara worried about the party. There was much discussion of Beaverlamp. Ted came over dressed up in the outfit he used to wear as a dancer. And so on.
But as mentioned, there are plenty of little clues here as to where all of this might be going. The first is Hattaras, who decides he can no longer treat Tara, a decision spurred by the fact that the subject of his book about the man who thought he was a kite returned to thinking he was a kite and dove off the top of a building with a string tied to himself, kite tail fluttering along behind him. It’s an arresting image to open the episode, the kind of thing that makes you wonder when the other shoe is going to drop (pun not intended), and I even liked the gimmicky edit from the guy diving off the building to the steak hitting the pan with a sizzle. Hattaras, so confident he had all the answers, doesn’t have all of them anymore, and he’s forced to admit to Max that he can maybe give Tara a few good years, but her condition—or her delusions, if you take Hattaras’ view of things—is so deeply planted in Tara’s subconscious that it will simply never go away. Max and Kate and Marshall are stuck with this condition until Tara dies, either naturally or through taking her own life.
It’s a pretty dark place for the show to go. Since the start of the series, one of the hopes the characters have held out for Tara is that she will get better someday, that everything will turn out just peachy when she gets to the root of what caused her DID. But Hattaras suggests she’s lived with this for so long that there’s no way it could possibly find something so easy as a “cure.” Even if she finds her long-lost, evil half-brother (who pops up in a photograph tonight, in one of those weird moments where you wonder how Tara could never have noticed that photo before now) and confronts him about what he did to her, it’s not like that’s going to suddenly reunite all of her fractured pieces in her head. She is who she is, and she’s probably too set in stone to change.
Another thing I liked about this episode’s portrayal of Tara was the way it played up the series’ constant fascination with how every person is already a multitude of people. Tara’s splits are just more distinct than mine or yours might be, but even here, Max points out how much more fun “college Tara” is when compared to “artist Tara.” (I also like the notion that “college Tara” is somehow a few steps closer to the damaging alter that pops up again at the end; it strikes me as accurate that her happiness would be right next to her self-destructiveness.) “College Tara” and “artist Tara” are ostensibly the same person, not like “Buck” and “Tara” are two separate people. But they’re also subtly different, in ways that are really only obvious to her family. But everybody in the show has multiple versions of themselves. The Max of Beaverlamp—that half-assed guitarist—sounds miles away from the Max that’s grown up into a good husband and dad. And the scene where Marshall questions his dad on camera and seems a bit angrier than he ever has before also does a good job of showing that supportive son Marshall is right next to the Marshall who’s sick of putting up with this shit.
Still, this episode gives over a lot of time to the two kids’ subplots, and I’m sort of convinced the writers are more enamored of Lionel and Evan than anyone in the audience is. I think it’s cool that Marshall is in his own love triangle, and I liked the moment where you realized that he liked Lionel and Noah for different reasons (and that he could be more open with Lionel now that the two were broken up). But at the same time, I’m not sure I completely buy Noah’s abrupt push into being the guy who wants Marshall to make a hyper-personal, potentially destructive film, one that could tear his family apart. Sure, it makes for good drama, but Noah always seemed a bit better at reading the temperature of his friends than that in weeks past. Maybe he just really wants to win the contest. (And I still haven't warmed to Lionel. Can't Marshall get some more interesting boyfriends? Right. It's Kansas.)
And after a half-season of defending the Kate storyline, I’m not sure I can take much more of it unless it ties into the main storyline a little more (as Marshall’s story is, at least). I do think Brie Larson and Keir O’Donnell have a breezy chemistry, and I like the idea that Kate’s family situation makes her a bit more attracted to a guy who has a kid and a job that took him away from his marriage too often. But there’s really not much to this other than getting to watch Larson issue cutesy dialogue and watching O’Donnell slowly fall for her. The flight attendant thing was supposed to be a nice metaphor for the way that Kate wants to escape but can never really get all that far, because Tara’s condition will always, eventually, bring her right back where she started. Instead, it’s turned into a weak romantic comedy. That’s not to say the kids’ stories can’t be turned around (and I suspect Tara’s suicide attempt will be a big event for the rest of the season), but right now, they kind of feel as if they’re off in their own spinoffs that simply air at the same time as the main show.
- Thanks to Phil Nugent for filling in last week. While I disagree with him most heartily, he explains the anti-Tara point-of-view as well as any article I’ve read on that idea before.
- I enjoyed Charmaine’s desire to have the baby shower be all about her, to the point where she would have only photos of herself displayed there. I also like that everybody’s calling the baby Wheels now.
- We need to give “you will not win” a name, so I have a handy way to refer to it until the show gives it a name. Suggestions in comments; I’ll pick the winner.