Sunday, April 20, 2014

Episode of the Week: Parenthood - "The Pontiac"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 5, Episode 22

After two seasons of relatively consistent greatness, Parenthood had a year full of ups and downs in season five.  Dealing with a 22 episode order for the first time since season two, Jason Katims and his crew of writers faced problems coming up with worthwhile, sustainable arcs for some of the characters, which resulted in often wobbly pacing and questionable story detours.  For the most part, it was a year that began to stray away from the show's small charms, getting swallowed up by the size of Kristina's mayoral campaign, or her and Adam's effort to start their own charter school.  The show never delivered any outright bad episodes -- in fact, it continued to be one of the most pleasant watching experiences on television -- but things certainly felt a bit off.

This week's finale, "The Pontiac," is so good that it simultaneously magnifies and makes up for the problems that plagued the majority of season five.  It puts into perspective how overly plotty this year has been by consciously being the opposite of that.  In having every character's life be so full of incident, season five forgot what truly makes Parenthood one of the best shows on television: the heart-to-heart conversations.  When I wrote about the show last year, I noted how it frequently wrung powerful and lovely moments out of something as simple as two characters having a brief moment of understanding, and this finale had a surplus of those moments.  Usually, when a show disregards the plot of the rest of the season in the finale, it's considered bad writing, but "The Pontiac" succeeds because it comes up with self-contained stories that approach this year's through lines in a diagonal manner.

The first (and most important) example of this is the return of Haddie Braverman after being away for 25 episodes.  When the previews for the finale showed that she'd be coming home from Cornell for the summer with a girlfriend in tow, it seemed like another example of the show reaching for something big to give a character for no reason, but the storyline turned out to merely be a vehicle for some high quality heart-to-heart conversations.  The moment where Haddie tentatively comes out to Kristina, who's fully supportive of her sexuality, is a wonderful bit of acting from both Sarah Ramos and Monica Potter.  Even better is the scene of quiet realization from Adam, where a few words Lauren says to him suddenly causes him to understand that Haddie was trying to allude to the fact that she was gay in an earlier scene.  Because Haddie's long absence has become somewhat of an internet meme, it's easy to forget that she's one of the best characters on the show, but her return fills the void that caused Kristina, Adam, and Max to become a monstrous triptych this season.  (And how do they underline the fact that she's the stabilizing force of the family?  By having her make a sandwich.  No seriously, she did it in a scene when she came back in the middle of season 4 and she does it again in "The Pontiac."  It's a weird but delightful bit of symbolism.)

Victor's essay being deemed the best in the 4th grade is another example of the slightly self-contained nature of the finale, standing on its own while also serving as a way to take baby steps towards Joel and Julia rekindling their marriage.  Their arc was reflective of season five as a whole, as its ups and downs carried over the course of 22 episodes.  When the idea of one of them having an affair was hinted at, it felt like an unnecessary wrench to throw in these characters' lives.  But as the season started laying the groundwork; setting up a structure made up of miscommunication, frustration, and individual dissatisfaction with their places in life; it became one of the show's most potent storylines.  Eventually, the length of this season began to get the better of their plot, dragging their separation out by hitting the same beats week after week and causing their lack of communication to reach frustrating levels.  However, things turned around once again with their gentle reconciliation starting in "I'm Still Here" and continuing in "The Pontiac," when they realize all they've built together after watching Victor read his essay in front of a large audience.  Their storyline ends with Joel telling Sydney the story of her birth while he and Julia are trying to put her to bed, and it's a beautiful middle ground to leave them on.

The one storyline of the season that reaches a direct, concrete conclusion is Zeek and Camille's, as they finally move out of a house that has chronicled generations of Braverman history.  For as much as this season has had frustrating storylines, some credit must be given to the writers for frequently zigging when viewers were expecting them to zag.  People dreaded the Kristina election arc because they thought the show was going to make her win, but then she didn't.  Likewise, much of Zeek and Camille's hand-wringing over whether they should sell house felt like a stalling tactic before they ultimately decided to keep it or give it to Adam and Kristina for their charter school.  Yet neither of those things happened.  It's a refreshing turn of events not only for its unpredictability, but also because it gave us an excuse to see everyone come together and get nostalgic, most notably Adam and Crosby, who quickly revert back to childish rough-housing while packing.

In many ways, this episode reminded me of season three's penultimate episode, "Remember Me, I'm the One Who Loves You," which is one of Parenthood's very best hours.  It's an episode that takes a storyline that didn't always work -- Julia and Joel's attempt to have another child using a surrogate mother -- and wraps it up beautifully.  Everything climaxes in the final moments, an 8-minute sequence set to Death Cab For Cutie's "Transatlanticism" that's deftly handled and devastating.  When Crosby and Jasmine kiss in the pouring rain after deciding to get back together, it's a moment that shouldn't work, but because it's riding the high of everything else in the sequence, it ends up sweeping you away.  Similarly, "The Pontiac" is full of storylines that shouldn't be as successful as they are.  Do I want Sarah and Hank to get together?  Am I invested in the fate of Amber and Ryan?  If Drew and Natalie were to pull a Haddie-esque disappearance, would I be upset?  The answer to all of those questions is "no."  But the rest of the episode is so moving that everything gets caught in the swirl, and by the time the montage set to Richie Haven's cover of "The Times They Are A-changin" kicks in at the end, I was willing to accept anything Parenthood wanted to throw at me.

This episode could be seen as a series finale -- after all, it's a Jason Katims show and he writes all of his season finales with the fear that he'll never write an episode again.  Unlike the show's other season closers, however, it works as a series finale not because it wraps up every storyline in a bow, but because it's representative of what the show is capable of at the peak of its powers.  It's fairly unconcerned about the future, forgetting about Adam and Kristina's school, or whether Hank and Sarah will work out, or Joel and Julia's official relationship status for the time being.  Instead, "The Pontiac" asks us and the characters alike to enjoy the beauty of being in the present.


  1. I enjoyed this too, I think it was the best season finale since Season 1 (really all the rest have either been terrible (Season 2) or lackluster (Season 4).

    Haddie really was by far the best part of the episode though, so much so that I kind of hope she just finds some way to graduate early or elope or something so that she can be a regular for what will probably be the final season of the show.

    Overall, my favorite storyline of the season was definitely Julia (it's weird to say that now since I'm dating a Julia...) and Joel, but I was really kind of on board with them actually staying apart and getting a divorce. It's nice to see Joel feel something for once and not just being completely standoffish like he has been most of the year, but their trials have brought out some of the far better moments of the season, and their rushed reconciliation is not grabbing me.

    1. I think I would've had more problems with the Joel and Julia stuff if I thought it was a complete reconciliation, but to me it seems like if we get a season 6 there'll still be some pieces to pick back up. The finale was a tacit agreement that they've both been kind of dumb and bad at communication, but season 6 is where the talking it out happens. I'd kill for a great marriage counseling storyline. Be still, my heart...