The thing about your own personal journey forward is that no one cares as much about it as you do. It was hard to think of anything but that during tonight’s Kate storyline on United States Of Tara, a storyline that was cringe-worthy for reasons entirely outside of the writers’ control. Kate’s headed off to Japan to teach English in Osaka, but right before she’s about to go, a massive earthquake hits the city, causing her plans to utterly fall apart. This leaves her scrambling to find something else, sending her off to Niigata instead, until she bumps into a flight attendant in an airport bathroom, who suggests that she may not find herself too happy in Niigata and, indeed, that she’ll end up on a bullet train back to Tokyo. And so Kate takes the words to heart and bails on her flight, allowing her to stay in Kansas for the duration of the season, presumably.
The cringing, of course, comes from the fact that the major turning point in the storyline is that earthquake (something that Diablo Cody has addressed on her blog). This, obviously, can’t be held against the show, and I still found the IDEA of Max and Marshall suggesting that Kate was just going to kill people in Niigata (because, of course, she took all of this to be all about her) pretty funny. But I can see where the show is doing damage control and why some may be up in arms about the show not figuring out a way to scuttle all of this. (Briefly, it would have been impossible.) I’m not so hyper-sensitive that I couldn’t watch this story, but it definitely had that sense of not being as light-hearted as the writers probably wanted it to be back when they were breaking it last year. But that cringing could also come from the way Kate tries to involve everyone around her in her own personal journey. Her family has to care; complete strangers don’t, and it’s obvious how little they really want to hear this small town girl babble about her bright future. Kate’s made some big steps, but it’s like the world is going out of its way not to notice.
My favorite thing in the episode was seeing Max’s mother for the first time. She was played, as all mothers of a certain age on television must be, by Frances Conroy, who’s very good at this kind of “kindly but crazy middle-aged woman” role. It should feel like a cliché to have cast her in this part, but Tara shares so much DNA with Six Feet Under that it feels weirdly inspired. Plus, while it’s a little easy to suggest that Max fell for Tara because he needed a little crazy (as his mom so elegantly puts it), it also makes complete sense. His mom is a completely different kind of mentally ill, of course, with what appears to be some odd combination of hoarding and agoraphobia, but it suggests that the need to have someone in his life to fix is something of a compulsion for Max, something he NEEDS. (And in a TV season crammed full of hoarding storylines, this is the first show I’ve seen to treat the character with the disorder with any kind of sympathy.)
I also like that scene where Max is tossing the stuff he got from his mom’s house in the trash, having helped her “make a little space” (under the false pretenses of just getting some of his stuff out of there). Marshall presents him with a Christmas present he found in the middle of his grandmother’s Christmas room, and when Max opens it, he finds another little rubber duck, shaking his head at the idea that his mother, for some reason, thought his dad liked the little ducks and wanted to get one for every birthday and Christmas. He says it’s no wonder his dad just up and left one day, and Marshall asks him if HE’S ever thought about leaving. And instead of giving the boilerplate “no” that he probably should to assuage his son’s fears, he just fixes him with a look, a look that lets Marshall know just how much these years married to Tara have worn on him. Kate’s escaping, Max is thinking of escape, and Marshall’s the glue trying to hold all of this together. This could end up in some pretty dark places.
Or maybe it’s already there. Though this was the episode this season I laughed the most at, it was also chock-full of moments that went to pretty bleak places, as when T emerged again to wreak havoc on those around her, in this case racing out of the supermarket where Tara and Charmaine had been buying things to prepare for Char’s baby shower, carrying a stolen case of beer. This all comes after a rough week where Tara’s been trying to balance school and shower preparations, even as Buck takes over to continue his search for Blaine (depriving her of sleep) and Alice takes over to help with the shower preparations (keeping her from class). I love the scene where Tara and Charmaine are meeting with the cupcake woman Michelle (formerly Mike, another indication of the show’s belief that EVERYbody’s identity is fluid, not just Tara’s) and Alice pops out to take charge. It’s another scene that indicates that Tara is perhaps triggering these shifts all by herself, that her professor has some basis in his idea that none of this is “real,” per se, since Alice is going to be the best person to help out Charmaine.
But it’s topped by that scene in the supermarket, where T races out of the store and gets in the car. Once again, we’re confronted with the fact that T could very well HURT someone, as Charmaine, eight months pregnant, tries to keep T from racing off with Tara’s body, even apologizing for putting too much stress on Tara and bringing T out (a very un-Charmaine-like thing to do). But T keeps nudging the car forward, causing Charmaine to have to take rapid steps back, and in the midst of this, you realize that T could really hurt this woman and, conceivably, her unborn baby. Of course, she doesn’t, but there’s something far more threatening and feral about some of the alters this season, as if Buck’s search for the truth is tipping off a struggle within Tara’s head.
And it all comes together in one horrifying image: T backs the car away from Charmaine rapidly, then finds herself T-boned by another car (I just now see what they did there), even as Charmaine’s water breaks. This is all framed from between Charmaine’s legs, so we get the full effect: the car wreck, followed by the glop falling to the ground, followed by that sharp cut to black. This season has had its amusing moments, but there’s always been that hint of real darkness and real pain lurking just beneath the laughs, as though the dam could burst and tons of horrifying things could spill out at any given moment. And I don’t think it’s a question of if. I think it’s a question of when.
- I loved the flight attendant’s little speech about how the girl in the bear dress needed to get out of Kansas before she immolated. I also loved the bear dress. (If I were any younger, I’d seriously be crushing on Brie Larson this season. We may have to start a “Straight Guys, Talkin’ ‘Bout United States Of Tara” feature.)
- That whole scene between Conroy and Keir Gilchrist in the Christmas room was so well done. I also hope Conroy comes back as the season goes on. Learning more about why she’s the way she is and, in particular, learning about the ducks could make for some interesting TV.
- We need to hear some Beaver Lamp tunes, stat.
- "I am sorry I won't be there to see you tear open your mom's junk."
- "There's a little churro inside!"
- "Two-hundred people died. This may not be about Kate."
- "I don't know. Batteries. Power of Christ."
- "Average beer band. Weird name."