That the warmest episode so far of F Is For Family includes a major betrayal, a savage beating, and the biggest rupture yet in the Murphys’ marriage is indicative of how creators Bill Burr and Michael Price have made insecurity and instability (and all the frayed nerves and explosive anger that go with them) the baseline of the Murphy family’s existence. “‘F’ Is For Halloween” is the best episode of the season so far, as it makes clearer the fact that we’re meeting the Murphys right when that insecurity has made them most vulnerable.
One of my complaints about the show has been that we’re being asked to get invested in crises of characters we’ve only just met, and that’s still a function of this very short season. Here, Frank and Sue have a major fight (based on something Frank’s done that, if not unforgivable, is certainly worth more of a resolution than a trip to the batting cages). But the show has done a canny job at backfilling details about seemingly traditional sitcom resolutions all season.
Kevin, promising to try harder in school after seeing the hell his father goes through every day at work, slacked off in the very next episode—but here, he’s actually making a go of it, desperately attempting to find out which President had the shortest term so he doesn’t flunk out. (Sure, he gets sidetracked with egg-tossing and pumpkin bong rips, but he comes through in the end.) Bill’s run-in with sadistic bully Jimmy comes back, too—Jimmy wet himself when Kevin came to Bill’s rescue with some vicious butt-punches, but a bully’s a bully, and Bill pays the price here, getting pummeled with brutal WWF moves while in a pickle costume. And, most central to the episode, Sue’s repeated breakdowns over her stifled existence have been affecting but isolated in the flow of the story, but here, after she finds out that the Plasti-Ware job offered by her condescending rep (“And we’d pay you—with money!”) has been turned down on her behalf by her husband, Sue’s decision to wordlessly drive off, leaving Frank alone on Halloween with the kids, has the threat of real finality behind it.
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In a six-episode season, things are going to feel rushed, especially on a sitcom, where, by definition, situations drive character. But what’s become clear now that we’re two-thirds of the way through, is that we’ve been dropped into the midst of the Murphy family’s story at a crisis point. And, sure, the cliché about ”crisis” and “opportunity” might apply, but at this point, each member of the family is at a juncture that could go either way. As the season’s gone on, Burr and Price have made it clear that we’re witnessing a family on the verge of major changes, a fact that serves to smooth out some of the character shorthand.
F Is For Family has done an excellent job at integrating its 1970s-setting into its story without being too winkingly “wasn’t it so crazy then?” about it—everything about the show just feel accurately matter-of-fact. So when the family gets one of those crazy new answering machines (thanks to Sue’s success as unpaid “liaison” in her suspiciously scam-like faux Tupperware business), all the subsequent jokes about it looked ready to be too obtrusive until the space-age technology played realistically and reasonably into the narrative. Anyone who mixed up the public and private messaging their first time on Facebook can sympathize with Frank’s royal screw-up in playing the incriminating recording he accidentally made of him selfishly turning down Sue’s job offer while showing off his cool new toy to his coworkers.
It’s a big deal, one born of Frank’s hidebound attitudes about working women, wives’ duties, and the fact that he is in no way equipped to parent his kids on his own. (“You’re gonna leave me alone with these animals?,” he bellows after a departing Sue.) And when Sue takes off in her car after finding out out what he’s done, leaving the genuinely rattled Frank to handle Halloween night (he scrapes her prepared ziti into kids candy bags when the Murphys’ candy is stolen), it feels more unstable than the usual sitcom fight. (“Whoever ruined my paint job is lucky my wife just left me!,” screams Frank at the teens—including Kevin—who’ve just egged his car.)
When, Maureen in tow (her Mr. Coconut costume on in anticipation of the rich neighborhood trick-or-treating her dad’s promised her), Frank tracks Sue down at the local batting cages, their fight does get resolved, but, in keeping with F Is For Family’s resolutely unsettled vibe, resolution doesn’t guarantee a happy outcome. Taking impressive cuts at the 300 pitches she’s bought, Sue lays down the law to the sincerely sheepish and apologetic Frank.
I just want you to know that this is definitely the worst thing I’ve ever done to you… I’m just really, really sorry, okay. Okay? Does that make it better? Are we good now?
No Frank, those are just words. They don’t mean anything unless you back them up… When Vivian mentioned that job, my first thought was what your reaction would be. I didn’t consider what I wanted. It made me think, how did I become this person? So I called her tonight and I took that job. I start next week. And you need to be okay with that.
It’s a great scene, especially in Dern and Burr’s hands (Burr matches the more experienced Dern all the way here). In making her stand, Sue’s statement of purpose doesn’t feel preachy or canned, the writing and the performances making it a real moment between two people that rings with impressive authenticity. As we see from Frank’s disastrous attempts to corral his children (syrup, syrup everywhere), and intuit from the sketchy things we’re led to imagine about the Plasti-Ware people—not to mention Frank’s looming, impossible choice at work—this isn’t the end of this decision. But it’s the truest intimation yet that the Murphy family has enough of a bond underneath all the yelling to stick it out.
- Speaking of making good use of era-specific details, I like the way the show slows down to watch Bill tremulously dial his friend to propose they go trick-or-treating despite Jimmy’s threats. Making a difficult phone call on a rotary phone required a lot of resolve in not just giving up midway through waiting for that dial to complete its impossibly slow return to zero.
- To emphasize Sue’s moment of triumph, she casually flips sides in the batting cage while standing up to Frank, showing easy power from both sides of the plate. Switch-hitting Sue, making it happen.
- The impeding strike at Mohican Airways gains steam, as a slowdown strike puts Frank in the middle of his former baggage handler coworkers and David Koechner’s belligerently gross manager. I like how the handlers, while pissed at Frank’s seeming abandonment, still gather round excitedly to watch him demonstrate the answering machine’s remote control function.
- Kevin Michael Richardson’s Rosie, leaving a message at Frank’s urging: “Hey there. You are a shit-eating scab turncoat.” Kevin, overhearing: “It’s for Dad!”
- “You have every right to be mad at me, so why don’t you take a few minutes to yourself before you start dinner.”
- “This is the worst thing I ever did to you. Except that thing in Harrisburg. Which I now realize I never told you about.”
- Frank, rejecting Maureen’s space Dracula costume: “Princess take that off now. There’s no girl astronauts. Or vampires.”
- Frank, hearing Maureen say “cocksucker.” “Where did you hear that word? Oh, right.”
- Even the resolution of Kevin’s homework problem is nicely laid-in, as the ubiquitous “White House Beer” that’s the cheap drink of choice in town has presidential trivia on every can. (It’s William Henry Harrison, by the way. 32 days in office. Thanks, beer!)
- Sam Rockwell’s Vic continues to steal a scene each episode, here casually resting his bulging cock on the picket fence while revealing that Sue’s Plasti-Ware rep and he had done it while she was his school lunch lady. (“Yeah, you ‘fucked the shit out of me’” is a wonderfully inappropriate use of finger-quotes.)
- There’s been some debate about where the show actually takes place. While I’ve been assuming Massachusetts, based mainly on Frank’s accent and Burr’s background, a commenter pointed out that the football team, the Rustys, suggests Pittsburgh, and Frank’s reference to Harrisburg tonight seems to lend some credence to the Pennsylvania idea. Although, he also makes a joke about Sue at the batting cages looking like Boog Powell, who, at this time, was a hulking power hitter for the Orioles. In the end, I suppose the working class milieu is the important part, but it’s interesting to try and spot the clues. (Maybe they live in one of the many Springfields.)
- In what may be the least-likely case of parallel thinking anywhere, the horror movie the kids are watching concerns The Waffler, a Frankenstein’s Monster-looking creature who turns people into waffles. There was a The Waffler as a minor character (a would-be superhero played by a pre-fame Dane Cook, of all people) in Mystery Men. This means something. (Update: No, it doesn’t.)