For the people who love Tara Gregson, there are pretty much two choices: have a doped up mother who’s not really there all of the time or have a mother who could transition to a new personality at any given moment. For the most part, they’ve been able to live with the latter, even if it’s greatly irritating to them to find Alice when what they need is Tara. The first season of the show played this as a story about how this situation could be irritating, sure, but it was also a great excuse for quirky shenanigans. The story only edged into darkness as the season went on and you began to see just how much Tara’s condition had affected her, just how much she might want to be rid of it. Tara was truly the protagonist of that season, the focus of the story, and her attempts to get rid of her condition, to fight back from transitioning while, say, her parents were around, made the hidden spine of the season.
But this is a Showtime show, which means that things can never change. The great thing about United States Of Tara is that it’s turned itself into both a critique of that idea and an example of how that process can force the writers to evolve and come up with new ideas. Tara’s condition is a stagnant force. It can’t really change, outside of a new alter here or there. But the others around her can react and change, can find themselves pulled away from her, even as they know they should probably help her out. The show has used the irresistible pull of family to explain just why these people never give up on her, even when they should, but at this point in the series’ run, no one would be terribly surprised if Max just had his wife committed and he and the kids went off to a new life, sans her. They’re fighters, but how hard can they fight?
This also explains how the series has been, essentially, three different shows in its three different seasons (though the three different showrunners didn’t hurt). The first season was that quirky comedy with darker elements. The second season was a small-scale domestic drama with an odd edge. And this season has all but abandoned comedy in the back half in favor of a dark drama that has a sense of a horror film to it. Tara has all but ceased to exist, and now Toni Collette is playing the villain of the story, Bryce Crane, the 14-year-old boy who wants only to bring misery to everyone around him. It’s a gutsy choice, and it’s not really a surprise that the show has shed viewers with every season it’s been on the air. This isn’t a network known for all but daring people to keep watching. Sure, there are attempts at jokes in this episode, and some of them even land, but the few gags here feel like whistling in the dark, an attempt to stave off the pitch black that threatens to overwhelm everybody.
There’s not a whole lot that happens in “Train Wreck,” which is essentially all set-up for what might as well be a three-part finale. Lionel dies and sends Marshall adrift as he remembers a boy he might have loved more than he thought he did. Tara battles to keep Bryce at bay and finally abandons her pills in favor of mothering her son (a decision that leads to Bryce taking over full-time, as evidenced by how he cuts her hair at episode’s end). Max struggles to find an ally. Kate and Evan work to define their relationship, even as their own personal problems get in the way. And Neil comes home and learns from Bryce that he took little Wheels on the bus, leading to Neil and Charmaine vowing to leave behind Tara forever.
It’s a lot of plot action, but there’s very little resolution. (This isn’t a complaint; in a story like this, resolution would seem forced.) It’s a dark, despairing half hour, and it just keeps getting more and more dark and despairing. When Charmaine asks Neil what they’ll do if Tara’s not OK and he responds that they already know and she’s not, it really does feel like those two are going to leave Tara behind forever. And when Max asks Marshall to help him haul shit off with a bucket and Marshall, crying, says that his bucket’s almost full, it really does feel like this family has finally had more than it can bear. (The same goes for the scene where Kate races to Evan’s side to proclaim that she’s ready to be with him and leave her past behind.)
And it’s here where I think making this Tara’s final season (even if this happened because of the network unexpectedly canceling the show) works perfectly. I’m not going to spoil what’s coming, but even at this point, it’s simply hard to believe these people could take much more of what Tara’s alters have done to them. They’ve been battered around. Their emotions have been mocked by the cruel and malicious Bryce, and even if they tell themselves it’s not their mother/wife, there must be some part of them that fears it really is. They’ve heard about how their babies were put in danger. It’s all going to be too much, and the breaks here feel earned and real because the show has clearly pushed these people so far that there’s nowhere else to go. If Tara doesn’t show some sign of improvement soon, it’s incredibly possible that Marshall and Kate go their separate ways, Charmaine and Neil cut her out of their life, and Max is left in an empty house, clinging to a life he never really had.
That’s a remarkably bleak place to take the show, but it’s a place the series has prepared us well for. For all of the scenes where the characters try to break the tension by making jokes—like, say, the silly word game in the post-funeral scene—there’s a sense that they’re just as terrified as us by what might happen if Bryce stops in to ruin the party. Marshall complains that his mother always has to hog the problem spotlight, that he doesn’t get a chance to grieve because of her acting out. And he has sort of a point. When we see him watching that video of Lionel talking about how they’ll go to the two different Manhattans, he’s all alone, and when his dad comes to talk to him, it’s to help out with something else. There’s no escape, so long as these people are in this house with Tara, and Bryce is just underscoring that even more.
And that’s why further seasons of the show would almost certainly be diminishing returns. As it heads into its final two episodes, it’s clear that this season has had the most sustained and impressive arc in the show’s history, a slow-building march toward something horrifying and awful that started out a little slow but quickly grew into something impressive. Where do you go from here? How do you believably put these people through more shit? Watching television is, to some degree, seeing characters you like exposed to more and more bad stuff, but I’m not sure how much more I could take of this without believing that the Gregsons would leave forever, leaving Tara alone in a room, trapped with the people inside her head for all time.