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United States Of Tara: "The Good Parts"

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If I didn’t know that “The Good Parts” wasn’t a planned series finale for United States Of Tara, I’d be very surprised. Yeah, the story is left open for what might have been a fourth season about Tara going to Boston to confront what happened to her head-on with a new therapist (who presumably would have been played by a big-name guest star), but everything is so… closed off at the end. Kate’s still with Evan, but she’s moving back into the Gregson home to take care of Marshall while Max and Tara are in Boston. Charmaine and Neil are headed off for the great state of Texas. Marshall’s resolving to tell everyone exactly what he thinks of them at all times. It’s a little loose and loopy for a finale—like the show itself—but inside of it, there’s some really great stuff, including a handful of the best scenes the show’s ever done. It’s also got the quiet, ruminative quality a lot of the best series finales have, a quality that benefits it in spades.

The best thing the finale does, I think, is restore Tara Gregson to the center of the show’s sympathies. I know that Tara’s always the center of the show, but in this season, it was easy to forget that Tara was at one time the show’s hero, so far down the rabbit hole did she drag her family. In the finale, which is almost completely free of alters (Bryce turns up at the very beginning, and we get the sense Alice, Buck, and T survived the carnage to make the trip to Boston), we once again see that she’s just a Kansas mom, trying to hang on to her mental capacities long enough to not disappoint her kids and be a good wife to her husband. Toni Collette has spent the last half-dozen episodes or so mostly showing us the terrible things about Tara’s condition, so it was nice to have an episode that reminded us why these people are always so quick to forgive her, even when her alters do awful, awful things.

The episode also turned its focus—as most of the season has—on Max, who found himself suppressing various violent outbursts that would have led to him, respectively, walking out the door (seemingly forever) and strangling Ted where he sat at the last family dinner. We’ve seen these “character says what he’s really thinking and then it’s actually a daydream” scenes enough times in other shows and movies to not find this particularly revolutionary (though it is nice to get a sense of just how deep Max’s rage runs), but the show uses this against us, having Max’s final outburst at the dinner table—which involves throwing a turducken against the wall (and those things don’t hold together all that well)—be something that really happens. In this case, though, Max directs his rage outward. He’s not mad at his wife. He’s not mad at Ted. He’s mad at the universe for making him put up with this shit. In a season that was just as much about the writers’ frustration with how Tara can never change, this is a scene that feels almost like a television character realizing who he is and raging at the writers controlling his life.

The kids also get some nice moments here. For a character who seemed so vapid when the series began, it’s amazing how quickly Kate has become the steady center of the family in this season. With her mother falling apart and her father unable to deal with it, Kate has become the voice of reason in many, many scenes, and when she tells Marshall—who’s all but ready to write off the family forever—that this is all he has, it feels surprisingly in character, perhaps a testament to the fact that Kate’s the character who’s changed the most over the course of the series. (If you watched the pilot immediately before this episode, you’d be hard pressed to recognize her, I have to think.) And Marshall’s the family member who most nurses his grudge at Tara. He has good reasons, I think, what with the way that Bryce stole focus from him in his time of need, but the scene where he finally comes to forgive her in his own way as the two sit by the curbside memorial to Lionel is very sweet. (I also liked the horrified reactions to the notion that he might go and live with his grandmother in lieu of staying in the house alone while Tara and Max are gone.)

Neil, meanwhile, persuades Charmaine that it’s time to move to Houston, where he has a good job and where he can provide for Wheels better. Of all of the character arcs this season, it’s Neil’s that feels most truncated (probably because he was offscreen for the middle portion of the season), but Charmaine’s proposal to him at the end is another very sweet moment. And I liked her questioning whether the fact that she, Tara, and Kate were all moving to various ends of the country to appease their men, in one way or another, meant that feminism was dead. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. What really matters in the end is that you find a group of people you belong with and hang on to them tightly. Tara has always believed that there are bonds stronger than anything, stronger, even, than Bryce Crane, either the real one or the alter version.

So as the run concludes, I’m not sure where to put United States Of Tara for future generations. I hope it does get watched because I think it had some fantastic characters and some unexpectedly wise moments. But at the same time, it’s essentially three different shows in one—quirky comedy in season one, domestic drama in season two, horror film in season three—and that lack of tonal cohesion may scare some people off. I will say that I think the show’s strongest legacy is its growing willingness to take its central character’s condition—the quirk that too often drove the show in season one—seriously. Its willingness to look at what the other Gregsons really had to put up with and how Tara was still important and dear to them became the show’s emotional heart, and it was what got me through three seasons that weren’t always as smoothly plotted as they might have been but always had consistent, terrific emotional throughlines.


Which brings us to that final shot, of Tara hanging her head out the window, feeling the Kansas breeze one last time before heading off to what will likely be the greatest battle of her life. Supertramp plays on the soundtrack. Buck, Alice, and T are in back, and the family is settling in just fine down the road behind her. I’ve talked before about the idea of where you want to leave TV characters, where you want to freeze them in time to remember them when you’re thinking back over your favorite shows. And for me, this works as a series finale because this is a perfect place to leave Tara, a moment of well-earned peace before the shit inevitably hits the fan yet again.

Finale grade: A

Season grade: A-

Series grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • I liked the look of the scene where Tara waterboards Bryce, trying to get him to just die already, even as he keeps singing Supertramp. And Max bursting through the door, the river behind him, was a cool touch.
  • One of the things the final moments—with the neighbor angrily castigating Max about playing his guitar at midnight—reminded me of was that I always wished the show had done more with how the neighbors in general reacted to having Tara around. It seemed like the series was skewing in this direction in early season two, but it mostly left it behind.
  • One last line of dialogue for the road: "Well, that sounds like our Moosh. A sun-speckled, cow-punching astronaut."