“I’m fucking crazy.”—Tara Gregson
“Wheels,” despite containing some of the better comic bits of this season, is the episode that shows that Showtime should just throw up its hands on ever calling this a comedy and admit that while it ordered a dark comedy about the wacky complications of having dissociative identity disorder, it ended up with a drama filled with moments that edge right up against absolute despair about the price of mental illness on a family that otherwise seems well-adjusted. The end of “Wheels” might have been forced to feel cathartic on another show, where Tara’s admission that she’s a mess would be the first step on the road to getting all better. On this show, it feels like she’s hit bottom, finally, but the trap door just opened beneath her and she has even further to fall. In this season, rock bottom is the place you want to be. What’s really scary is what’s beneath it.
The fallout comes quickly this week. Tara’s riding with Charmaine in the ambulance to the hospital, trying to apologize for nearly running over her pregnant sister with the car while T was in control. The trauma induced premature labor, and even though the baby’s far enough along that it should be able to survive, it still means that Charmaine won’t get her baby shower or any of the other things she’d hoped for as an expectant mother. When the ambulance pulls up to the hospital, she desperately tries to keep Tara away from her, telling the paramedics that her sister is “fucking crazy,” an admission that cleverly bookends the episode (and has reverberations throughout). Tara spends much of the half-hour trying to get Charmaine to forgive her, trying to find a way to make all of this good. But she never finds it. And, honestly, would YOU trust Tara with your baby, especially after you’d known her as long as Charmaine has?
Meanwhile, Max isn’t too happy about what’s up with his wife either. He sees the way that her school work is driving her further and further into the hole, and he’s pretty unhappy about the fact that T wrecked the car. When he gets to the hospital to have it out with his wife, though, he gets Alice, and you can see, for just an instant, that same expression on his face from last week, the one where some part of him is just begging the piece that’s in charge to get the fuck out of Dodge and head off down the road. And yet he sticks around, even if Orgolawn makes him put a lawn-mowing ogre atop his truck and messes up his name on his new work uniform (making him “Greg Maxson,” in a pretty funny visual gag). Max is the kind of guy who saw what his father’s leaving did to his mother, and it seems like he’s vowed to stick with Tara through thick and thin for that very reason. But after years of putting up with this shit, it’s believable that he’d be on the edge of just throwing in the towel.
At the same time, both Kate and Marshall are dealing with their own versions of adolescent angst. Marshall’s trapped in a relationship where Lionel’s pushing him to do things he’s not comfortable with (this week trying to initiate a threesome with one of their other friends). Kate’s trying to figure out who she wants to be and what she wants to do with her life, after her freakout last week resulted in her staying at the airport and sleeping on the floor. (I really enjoyed her banter with the luggage guy, who proved a worthy foil for Brie Larson’s patter.) She, naturally enough, seizes on the idea of becoming a flight attendant after seeing how much her new flight attendant friend seems to have it all together. But this doesn’t seem to be the final destination for her, and she’s still just as clueless about what’s ahead for her as she’s always been.
The real news, of course, is that Neil and Charmaine have had their baby, named Cassandra “Wheels” Kowalski (though I suspect the middle and last names will change). The joy the two feel over the child is palpable, and Patton Oswalt gets one of his funniest moments on the series when he comes into the room where the Gregsons are waiting and launches into a triumphant monologue about how he has a “raisin monster” baby. But I also like the way that the baby pushes both Charmaine and Neil to make some big decisions. Charmaine, for one, has decided her sister can’t have any part in the baby’s upbringing (something that saddens Tara for obvious reasons), while Neil has discovered just how little of his life is his own anymore. Can Neil’s journey from slacker to responsible citizen be pushed along by his new little dependent? Have you ever seen a TV show or movie where a slacker gets a baby before?
And while, yes, there are some predictable moments throughout this episode and while the Marshall storyline, in particular, doesn’t seem to be going much of anywhere, this episode was worth it alone for the scenes where Tara struggles to regain control of her life. After Hatteras tells her that she needs to stop blaming things that don’t exist for her problems and start focusing on the things that do exist, she tries to assert her dominance over the alters, in a terrific scene where seven Toni Collettes all bounce off of each other around (and under) a giant conference table. (For those of you who are not Collette fans, this probably sounds like the ultimate in horrific TV.) Tara lets the alters know that she’s going to be giving them what they need and want from now on, and if they don’t like it, she’ll go back on the drugs and put them in the closet. Diligently, they all begin writing down what they want and handing it over to her, and she announces the beginning of her benevolent dictatorship, pounding her hand on the table…
… which transitions to the classroom, where she’s taken up all of her test-taking time by scrawling the alters demands all over herself, her notebook, and the desk itself. The logistics of this scene—involving just how Tara got from the Gregson house to the classroom without attracting attention, apparently, without any one personality in control—don’t make a lot of sense, but the overall effect is devastating. When she turns to Hatteras, his eyebrow raised in both amusement and concern, and says she’s “fucking crazy,” she’s all but begging for his help, for a way out of this endless hall of mirrors. And even with his help, there’s no guarantee she’ll find the path.
In many ways, Tara is at its best when it indulges its dark, dramatic side like this. When it tries to be overtly comedic, it can be a little too cutesy, but when it digs deeper and finds the horrors that haunt these characters still, the cutesy humor becomes a kind of defense mechanism the characters use, Diablo Cody dialogue as a way to ward off the monsters inside Tara’s head. Put another way: I laugh at United States of Tara about as much as I laugh at any given episode of Justified, but both shows are doing a fantastic job this season of examining the ways that people inside of families do real harm to each other, sometimes without even seeming to try. Why is one ghettoized as a quirky comedy, while the other gets to be a grimly realistic drama? Tara’s doing great work this season, and more people should be checking it out.
- I don’t care what any of you say. I love that bear dress.
- That said, I kind of keep waiting for this Kate storyline to find its wings (ha ha). I’m INTERESTED in it, and I thought the scenes where she talked about how she’s fucked another choice up with both parents were among the stronger scenes in the episode. But there’s not really a lot here beyond the usual angst, and I’m hoping the show goes somewhere interesting with all of this.
- In retrospect, it’s obvious that the scene two weeks ago where Kate told Marshall he was the glue was foreshadowing for what’s to come (if it gets as bad as I suspect it will). But I still think it’s darn good foreshadowing.
- Has the show ever used its own title before this? I can’t recall that it has, and if that’s the case, then I liked hearing it for the first time in that alter “board meeting.”
- You know you’re living in a dysfunctional drama when the only person with her shit together is a flight attendant.