Weeds concludes its sixth season with “Theoretical Love is Not Dead,” tonight at 10 Eastern on Showtime.
Here at The A.V. Club, Weeds is “Inactive.” It’s a fascinating category, really, a graveyard of shows which fit into a number of scenarios: Some proved unworthy of further coverage from The A.V. Club (Gossip Girl), some were wrenched from our grasp by networks (in some cases far too soon, as in the case of Better Off Ted, Party Down, Huge, etc.), while others will forever live on in our hearts (The Wire, Lost).
When I look down the list, however, Weeds stands out for me. It remains fairly successful, drawing solid numbers for Showtime even in its sixth season, and—unlike Gossip Girl—it at one point embodied the kind of complex, rich qualities that warrant critical attention. If you were to flash back to 2006, when Weeds was novel and groundbreaking in its second season, it would be hard to imagine that it would end up in the A.V. Club graveyard for reasons beyond its cancellation (it would also be hard to imagine an A.V. Club graveyard, but work with me here).
Admittedly, this seems particularly strange when you consider that Entourage, a series without a shred of Weeds’ emotional or narrative complexity, remains “active.” However, despite my immense frustration with that HBO series, I understand why this is. Entourage is slight to the point of insult sometimes, and yet its core camaraderie allows the series to remain constant. Not unlike traditional sitcoms, there is something comforting to viewers about how the bond of friendship (or the insults of Ari Gold) are never truly threatened, and it results in a sort of inoffensive degradation—it has become worse, but it was never that great to begin with, so combined with its larger audience it earns its spot in the lineup.
By comparison, Weeds always wanted to be something more than just a comedy series. It was a high-concept comedy, verging on drama, placing Nancy Botwin at the heart of a complex situation merging sex, drugs and the value of family. However, in order to sustain those elements, the show felt the need to reinvent itself in its fourth season by abandoning its original suburban setting. Suddenly, innovation turned to formula, as the fictional Ren Mar proved to be simply another location for the writers to tell the same types of storylines. This shows what happens when high concepts run for six seasons, the fate that likely awaits shows like Hung or even the superlative Breaking Bad should they run for a comparable amount of time.
What happens, though, if this changes? It may seem impossible, especially considering that the show hasn’t had an outright great season since its second, but Weeds’ sixth season is kind of a masterpiece. The show has regained both the sense of purpose and the sense of history that it seemed to leave behind in its fourth season, but I doubt that many people have been paying attention. Weeds has been written off, critically speaking, and even the internet seems largely quiet about what it is that Jenji Kohan has been doing all season. To be clear, this is not a case of reduced expectations or an escalating case of Stockholm Syndrome from continuing to watch through the past two years: Weeds has been one of the best shows on television this fall, regardless of critical inactivity.
The reason is actually quite simple. Originally, Weeds was about something. It wasn’t just about Nancy Botwin; it was about the bizarre circumstances she found herself in. She was a widow supporting her family by dealing marijuana, creating larger questions about parenthood and family, as well as how all of this melded with the monotony of suburbia (the “little boxes” from the show’s original theme song). And yet, once the show abandoned its original setting, it largely abandoned these themes. Nancy’s life was independent of her family, who got their own storylines that rarely intersected with her further involvement in the drug trade; Celia and Doug had no purpose once separated from Agrestic, making them tangential to the narrative we actually cared about. And even when Nancy got pregnant and married the baby’s father, corrupt Mexican politician Esteban Reyes, the result was actually less interesting in that the show stopped all other storylines dead in order to make it work. The show simply stopped adding up to anything, rendering even Shane murdering Esteban’s campaign manager with a croquet mallet at the end of the fifth season an anti-climax.
In season six, the writers (and the characters) realized that the show (and their lives) had lost a sense of purpose. It began in a familiar place, Nancy scrambling to deal with a new crisis, but something was different: She ran away, as she did at the end of the third season, but this time she had no idea where she’s going. She ran to nowhere in particular, bringing Andy and her sons along for the ride without anything even resembling a plan. They drove to the Canadian border only to discover they need a birth certificate for young Stevie, and got new identities (as the Newman family) but had no idea what they wanted to do with them. They were nomads wandering the country in search of somewhere that feels like home, somewhere where they can escape the mess they left behind.
Into this crisis of identity came self-reflection. Silas, now an adult, had to ask himself whether he wanted to continue living this life when he could be in college having sex in resident bathrooms and playing Frisbee on the quad. Andy, having become more adult-like since his early incompetence, had to wonder whether his love for Nancy will forever remain unrequited, and whether a responsibility to his brother’s family is his true path in life.
For Nancy and Shane, meanwhile, a lack of self-reflection was itself meaningful. Nancy wanted to pretend that nothing has changed, to live her life as Natalie Newman as she would have lived as Nancy Botwin, but the season punished her for doing so at every turn. And while Shane may have become stone-faced and cynical following his homicidal turn, there was always the sense that it was a defense mechanism not unlike his hallucination of his father back in season three.
These questions remained prominent throughout the season because the Botwins are never allowed to settle. The show could have spent an entire season in Seattle, as all of the characters find a community (Nancy with drugs, Andy with cooking, Silas at college, and Shane with a group of local mothers) that could have spawned a wide range of storylines. However, Esteban’s men find them after only a few episodes, and all of the storylines go south in kind. It’s like previous seasons of Weeds done in miniature; they could have stayed in the small, eccentric town off the beaten path for a small arc for a while as well, and yet they’re gone in a single episode when Nancy sleeps with (or, if you prefer, has angry sex with) a married bartender (or, if you prefer, Zack Morris). And with every departure comes that sense of lost potential: a potential friend for Silas, a potential calling for Andy, or even a potential safe haven for Nancy.
At every turn they’re forced to pick up and move again, and every time they seem to ask what it would be like if they didn’t have to. What if they had never started running in the first place? By returning to Nancy’s hometown in Michigan, the show quite literally goes back to the beginning. We find the (fitting) absence of parents, and the presence of the math teacher with whom she had an affair during high school. As the season turns introspective, nicely facilitated through the journalist's interviews with various people in Nancy's life, it inspires us to do the same. We start to think about the other characters as the show is considering Nancy, and what moments in their lives might add up to who they will be 20 years down the line, and those are questions I hadn’t asked in a long time with this show.
While the season may have been at its strongest in moments of conflict, the moments of calm in Michigan were perhaps more meaningful. While there may no be no imminent threat in Dearborn, the moment of pause is almost more dangerous. Nancy knows how to deal with an FBI agent on her tail threatening her family, but a reporter wanting her to tell her story forces the self-reflection she spent the entire season running away from. Meanwhile, it gives Silas the opportunity to actually search into his past: sure, it was a stretch that his real birth father was within scootering distance, but it perfectly caps off his questions about what his life would be like without Nancy that have been lingering all season long. Even Andy, collecting a penis from a corpse in an attempt to get Icelandic passports to help them get to Copenhagen, reflects on his own mortality in ways which crystallize the season’s primary themes.
Of course, like all Weeds seasons, there is an escalation: Esteban caught up with Nancy in last week’s penultimate episode, and some part of me worried that the nuance would disappear. However, tonight’s finale confirms that this season has done more than craft a new kind of arc; by placing the past two seasons in the context of self-reflection and by asking us to consider how those seasons changed these characters, Nancy’s predicament has gained meaning it once lacked, meaning which is evident in this tense conclusion. Cryptic discussions of various plans, discussed between Nancy and Andy off-screen, come into effect after Nancy's abduction, and yet the return of “plot” does not derail the strong thematic and character work the season has offered. Instead of starting a new story, the sixth season used the absence of a new direction to give purpose and meaning to the Botwin family’s larger journey, including the much maligned fourth and fifth seasons, and “Theoretical Love is Not Dead” is a fitting, visceral, and fantastic close to this chapter.
Every serialized television show is a journey, but for two years Weeds didn’t feel like one. It was, to use Daniel Fienberg’s term, “transitioning” from one show into another, but in that transition it seemed to lose its connection to its past; while the characters would logically try to leave things behind, that the writers seemed to do the same turned many against the show (perhaps most strongly with the decision to abandon Conrad and Heylia). And yet, now that the transition has been completed and the show has returned to its former quality, those seasons feel like part of the journey. I feel like we can make connections between Shane’s early eccentricities and his awkward sexual awakening masturbating to his own mother now that we have been assured that the writers did not truly forget. There was perhaps no more satisfying moment this season than Silas responding to a deaf social worker in sign language, signaling back to his time with Megan (and even suggesting he has learned the language in more detail since that point); it was proof of memory, an understanding between viewer and creator that we weren’t watching for nothing.
This is not the funniest season of Weeds, if you still think that the show should be considered a comedy (I don’t), nor is it the most pleasant or likeable. However, I’m ready to argue that it is the most substantial, a complex journey through the series’ own history that manages to rescue the series from critical purgatory. While the novelty may be gone and nostalgia may make the first two seasons more groundbreaking and formative, season six proves that show as strong as Weeds is never truly dead.
Even if is it “inactive.”
Finale Grade: A
Season Grade: A
- It would be easy to say that the absence of Celia, and the limited role Doug played, are both key parts of the season’s success. The streamlining does help the return to basics, but I had no expectations that they would actually tie Doug into the season’s themes. And yet, last week’s visit back to what used to be Agrestic to see Dana was sort of heartbreaking, a perfect goodbye for a character who has lacked purpose since long before the characters left suburbia.
- I’ve been rewatching the series for another project, and it was a big shock to see how young Hunter Parrish and Alexander Gould looked in the early days of the series. Both did series-best work this season, culminating in two fantastic performances in the finale, so their evolution is really quite impressive.
- I really like Richard Dreyfuss, and I like just how pathetic his character is, but I also feel as if he played too large—and too convenient—a role in the conclusion
- In terms of a single standout half-hour for the season (excluding the finale, since you can’t contribute to that conversation yet), I’d say that the negotiation of “A Shoe for a Shoe” wins out, but I am somewhat partial to the microcosmic power of “Pinwheels and Whirligigs,” where Nancy tries to force upon Shane the childhood she feels she took away from him.