Having explored the pangs that parents experience when their child goes away to college, it initially looked as though this week’s episode of The Middle was destined to delve into how absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s no surprise that Frankie’s quickly learned how much cleaner the Heck house tends to be when Axl isn’t around – although let’s not pretend Axl is the only obstacle to cleanliness the family is battling – but his suggestion that she should just suck it up because “this is your life” is met with a demand that he go clean his room. (Apparently, his comment is more upsetting than the fact that his version of cleaning up seems to simply involve stuffing his dirty clothes in the microwave.) When he subsequently suggests that she’s trying to get rid of any trace of his existence, she snaps back, “Now you’re getting it.”
Rather than simply take his punishment like a man, Axl instead opts to take it like an older brother and tries to sell his siblings on doing the heavy lifting. When efforts to sell Brick on the idea of a new game called “Extreme Room Makeover: Brick Edition” prove less inspiring than Debbie Reynolds’ Unsinkable, Axl instead resorts to an idle threat, which does the trick nicely. Meanwhile, all it takes to sucker Sue into assisting is the promise of a different new game, this one called “Memory Lane Adventure,” but boredom soon sets in, causing both Brick and Sue to lose interest pretty quickly. All that changes, however, when Brick discovers Sue’s mascot head in Axl’s closet, which had reportedly been stolen by the opposing football team. Turns out Axl‘s actually the one who stole it. Whoops.
Thus begins the titular “Battle of the Hecks,” wherein Sue, showing more righteous anger than we’ve ever really seen from her, rips into Axl in a big way, first pounding the hell out of him, then chasing him around the house, and finally entering into a good old fashioned prank war with her brother. She starts strong with the old baby-powder-in-the-hair-dryer trick, even filling his car with soapy water, but it isn’t long before he’s upped the ante so far that he’s gone around the neighborhood and posted flyers reading, “Have you seen this dork? No reward.” It’s at this point Sue realizes that she can’t beat Axl at his game, so she takes things in a different direction, instead holding his beloved jersey – signed by all the members of his team – over the barbeque grill and threatening to drop it. As anyone could’ve seen coming, she ends up getting flustered and unintentionally drops the jersey, not only losing her lone bargaining tool but also causing Axl to declare, “I have no sister.”
That’s where things get serious…like, as in “not entirely funny anymore,” but not necessarily in a bad way. For some, it might a slightly jarring tonal shift to go from the almost-slapstick prankery into a scenario where Sue is literally sobbing and destroying her own beloved childhood toy in order to win back her brother’s love, but that’s actually way closer to the real Sue than the side of her we saw earlier in the episode. Granted, her reactions felt a bit like those you might’ve seen from someone a trifle younger, but Sue’s never exactly been at the height of her emotional development, and we’ve always known that she’s got a soft spot for her brother no matter how much he abuses her. With that said, I feel like her speech to Axl might’ve been therapeutic to whoever wrote this episode, but either way, I expect it spoke directly to a lot of older brothers and younger sisters out there who started to lose touch after Big Brother went away to college. Probably the most telling line comes from Axl at the very end of the episode, when he tells Sue outright, “I don’t know why you love me so much, I’ve done nothing to deserve it.” You don’t have to do anything, Axl. You’re her big brother. That’s all you need to be.
Elsewhere in the episode, the story of Colin Firth – the furry one who’s been living in the Heck house for several weeks now – comes to a conclusion, but in a slightly surprising but mostly depressing way. It’s been a running joke that the dog doesn’t like Mike, a situation Frankie blames on his “hostile resting face,” but in an effort to be accommodating, he decides to actually try and forge a relationship with the creature. Inevitably, all of his attempts come to naught, but while sitting on the couch and watching sports, Mike’s enthusiasm for what’s happening on the TV and Colin Firth’s desire for attention results in a coming-together of the two, with Colin Firth curling up by Mike and accepting a heaping helping of scratching. As soon as Frankie gets home, however, it’s back to baring his teeth and growling, but it’s too late, a bond has been forged. Unfortunately, it’s really, really too late, because Frankie’s discovered…or at least she thinks she has…that Colin Firth is actually Dr. Goodwin’s dog. As it turns out, he isn’t - Goodwin’s dog only has three legs – but by then it’s clear that the dog loves the doc, and she can’t bring herself to separate them after the doc’s miserable efforts to fill the loneliness in his life with stand-up comedy, so that’s the end of the Hecks’ canine companion. But, man, did Mike look sad when the dog left. When he whispered to Colin Firth, “Take care of yourself,” I almost lost it.
Not a perfect episode – Frankie’s storyline with Dr. Goodwin was pretty weak – but the strength of the Axl and Sue stuff coupled with the goings-on between Mike and the dog lifted it into such emotional territory that it still ends up being a strong installment overall.
- “You always look like you’re just a little pissed off.” “Good. That’s what I’m going for.”
- Given how many books I read from the adult section of the library when I was Brick’s age, I loved his choice of reading material this week, even if it didn’t do much for him personally.
- I feel like the only reason Axl’s keeping the Mariah Carey Christmas CD is the cover. But maybe that’s just me.
- I very much enjoyed the casual mention of Brad being involved in another dance fight.
- Slapstick or not, I laughed when Sue clobbered Axl with the cutting board. I also loved the simple sight gag of Sue squeezing the tube of toothpaste that was glued to her hand.
- “This did not just happen.” “Yeah, it did!” Sue’s delivery right there may have been the best read of the night.
- “Catch me now before I’m on Jiminy Kimmel!”
- Sue’s earnestness while ripping Woofy Dog to shreds was downright painful to witness, but it was an acting tour de force by Eden Sher. Again.
- So here’s why I almost lost it during Mike’s last scene with Colin Firth. The biggest reason I even have a dog at the moment is because my father paid for ours, saying, “Every man should have a dog.” And when I think of him saying that, I think of when I was a kid and our family’s pet bulldog, who used to ride around in the passenger seat with my father when he ran errands, died while we were on vacation. Years later, my mother told me that the night he found out about the dog, he said something about going on his errands by himself now, and that his voice broke when he said, “How will they recognize me without my dog?” So when Frankie told Mike that the dog was going to be leaving and I saw the look on Mike’s face, I thought of my dad. Whew. Rough stuff. At least for me, anyway.