In a recent interview with Vulture about his various comedy projects, Jonathan Krisel credited the bulk of Portlandia’s success to the way it emphasizes character over sketch premise. “We love our characters and we always want to know more about them,” he said. “Always searching for the new ‘Put a Bird on It’ is so limiting.” That viewpoint has allowed Portlandia to sustain itself past its initial conceits and catchphrases, as the show has built a bench of characters—primarily built on two actors, o less—and the majority of them feel realized as opposed to simple archetypes. You know how Toni and Candace are going to react to a situation versus how Kath and Dave will react to it or how Fred and Carrie will react to it, allowing for multiple takes on the same scenario.
That success in character building is why Portlandia’s able to do “Breaking Up,” an episode that may well be its most atypical installment and yet still succeeds in a real way. This isn’t sketch comedy or even the quasi-sitcom that the show’s evolved into over time, this is a borderline drama that’s looking at the end of a relationship and treating it with legitimate feeling. Last season’s “The Fiancée” flirted with splitting one of the long-time couples, and now “Breaking Up” not only goes the distance in doing so but spends a lot of time on those ramifications as opposed to mining the situation for laughs.
Showing its character awareness, Portlandia selects for this story the couple who have the most viable reason to break up. Doug and Claire have long been the show’s most realistically dysfunctional pairing thanks to Doug’s unaware selfishness, with missteps that include buying a hot tub and Delorean with their joint checking account and confusing being an unemployed bum with being a feminist. Things finally build to a breaking point when Claire pleads with him to downsize some of his possessions, and he’s so childishly attached to them his only solution is to frame everything. (Also, he won’t stop nagging her for the iPad to watch Vikings. It’s a good show, but c’mon man.) With a few seasons of disappointment built up, it makes complete sense that she’d kick him to the curb.
At first, this pans out for Doug exactly as you’d expect: one month later he’s sleeping in a tent in a friend’s backyard, a friend with whom he miraculously hasn’t worn out his welcome. Yet “Breaking Up” steers away from having him make a series of bad mistakes for comedic purposes, as he decides to build his own treehouse—and wonder of wonders, despite initial ideas of just gluing on doorknobs, he succeeds at it via the miracle of montage. It’s an interesting subversion of what we’ve seen of the character, an indication that he’s capable of doing things beyond just hanging around and having bad ideas. Rather than competence, his issue with Claire may have been one of complacency, so used to being able to fall back on her he didn’t need to try.
Not only is Doug able to build a house, he’s able to build a new relationship with the cute girl who works at Urban Outfitters. Kendall, played by the approaching omnipresent Zoë Kravitz, is the perfect rebound: she’s unfamiliar with any of Doug’s more negative attributes, and he’s already got two positives lined up by knowing how to drive and play the guitar. And the fact that she and her friends are much younger than Doug means that his knowledge of scotch and his stories of landline phones become assets, all of which in theory adds up to a win-win situation—and a notably effective romantic moment when the two fall into each other’s arms.
However, come the next morning the glow starts to fade, as the camera reveals that all Kendall’s friends are crashing at Doug’s treehouse as well. Suddenly the flip side of being in a relationship with someone much younger than you reveals itself, as Doug needs to play the adult, trying to work out his gas bill over the phone while Kendall and her friends are excitedly adopting puppies. The beats of that rude awakening are solidly played by Fred Armisen, the increased awareness of his situation gradually lowering the allure of Kendall. This isn’t some wacky adventure or promising new beginning, just the realization that just because it’s different doesn’t mean that it’s perfect.
Claire, for her part, is indulging her cultural side by going to all the places Doug wouldn’t even think of taking her, and making some surprising new connections. As I’ve mentioned before, Portlandia’s bench of Armisen/Brownstein characters is deep enough that there’s a wealth of untapped potential in switching them up, and “Breaking Up” finally takes advantage of that by having Candace attend the same performance of Equus. Interestingly, once free from the confines of Women and Women First and Toni as enabler, Candace comes across as refreshingly sane—cultured even, as she talks about performances she attended in London decades ago where every part was played by horses. “These animals were thrusting and neighing. And I was just writhing right in the theater.”
Much like Doug and Kendall’s relationship, Claire and Candace’s newfound connection is based on finding something different than their previous partner, only this time it’s Claire who’s in the position of being the neophyte. Candace’s bearing at both the intermission and her dinner party is of someone who’s not only more worldly than her, but someone who knows exactly what they want out of life. Given Claire’s desire to have someone she can rely on, it makes sense she’d fall into Candace’s bed at the end of the evening, her forceful personality in stark contrast to the undependable Doug. (And with barely a beat spent on discussing both characters’ bisexual attitudes, fitting in with Portlandia’s fluid and accepting attitudes on sexuality.)
But for all the seeming stability that Candace offers, Portlandia remembers the mercurial and oft irrational framework that lies beneath. Clad in a vagina-covered robe the next morning—a callback to her penchant for embroidery in “Winter In Portlandia” and an early warning sign of her personality—Candace’s controlling instincts take over in the episode’s most broadly comedic beats. She tries to mold Claire, promising that she can fund all of her dreams, even if they’re not dreams she actually has: “You’re a gypsy, and I could be your female Quasimodo. A hunchback, but someone who stands up for you.” Yet all of those turn to be about Candace, as she enlists her new friend to paint her in the nude (“Get the grapes!”) and insists on bathing her to little cleaning effect. It’d be funnier if it wasn’t so tragic for Claire, realizing that her new friend/lover might be tougher than Doug but is also a lunatic.
All of this makes the episode’s final moment, where Doug winds up being Claire’s Lyft driver, all the more painful to witness. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the awkward running into an ex experience, where neither party expected it and neither one knows how to respond. And in the final argument for how well Portlandia knows its characters, it doesn’t push for any kind of reconciliation between the two or even a lighter moment where they share horror stories about their rebound relationships. No, the drive and the closing credits simply play out in silence. And why shouldn’t they? Sometimes when a relationship comes to an end, there’s just nothing left to say.
- This Week In Portland: Sauvie Island, where Kendall and her friends insist on going to take mushrooms, is located north of Portland about half an hour’s drive. I plead the Fifth on its merits as a place to take psychedelic drugs.
- There are no words for how much I agree with Doug’s blanket dismissal of Canadian whiskey.
- “Claire, I’m rich! I invested in feminism in the 70s.” Also, publishing in the 90s.
- “Every toothbrush from the last two years, framed!”
- “I thought it was interesting that the horse was female, but she was allowed a penis.”
- “We should make our own movies. Starring the puppies!”