Parenthood's Season 4 Finale: Engineered for Your Sobbing Satisfaction
I feel okay talking about this since Parenthood has been doing so well in the ratings lately that I don't feel like I'm jinxing it. This isn't the last episode and, barring any kind of insanity from NBC, it's near certain to be renewed. But what would the last episode of this show have to be?
Most series would put a button on all their storylines to show that the current chapter of the characters' lives is over. But Parenthood is basically about the mundanity of life set to tears. So how does this show end spectacularly? How would the series finale bring it in a way that other episodes have not?
I think we've had a small taste of that in every season finale, but "Because You're My Sister" worked hard to create a perfect storm for your tears, even more so than "What to My Wondering Eyes" blending Christmas nostalgia with a mother almost dying from complications due to cancer. For tearmaking, Christmas was a crutch for that episode. This week, the show had to depend on its own guile to reduce you to a sobbing mess.
Even the sitcom storyline. Crosby, who's been wrestling with a plot that feels as old as television, played an equally classic gambit in the end. They writers had been milking what would've been a one- or two-off story for a few weeks, managing to delay the inevitable resolution so well that it didn't seem like it would ever come. Last week, Crosby was bolstered by being in the right for once and the self-righteousness born into him by virtue of being a Braverman. He wasn't going to apologize. The proud mother wasn't going to back down, either. Either concession would almost feel unearned since it would result from Jasmine's needling or some deus ex machina clarity to admit being wrong. They played the baby card. What family-drama season finale would be complete without someone getting pregnant?
Yes, I think that was a bit of manipulation. Though it wasn't entirely unfounded, and though I was happy to see a pregnancy not prefaced by tell-tale vomiting, it did come up suddenly and abruptly, almost like it wasn't planned but just came out of Joy Bryant's mouth during a bit of ad-lib. I'm not accusing anyone of anything (far be it from me to judge Jason Katims on the execution of the drama he basically owns right now) but it was almost jarring to hear the announcement. However, outside of a traumatic event, it was the only way Renee and Crosby could be brought together and for apologies to go around.
Still not bawling? How about some cancer? I've been going on and on about Monica Potter this season completely nailing the cancer gig all season long, Emmy bait for sure, and, even in an episode where her performance was comparatively low-key, she and Peter Krause managed to put a fine button on the story. There was enough to make you wonder about a cliffhanger "you're still dying" diagnosis throughout the episode, enough to justify Kristina's freakout about celebrating too early, but not so much that it lived up to the Planet Cancer moniker. As her cancer cleared from her body, so, too, did Planet Cancer's grip on the Braverman system relax. The relief they felt after being told that Kristina is free of cancer was palpable, even after the doctor essentially teed us up for the win in the beginning. Tears. And then there was also Kristina's farewell tour of nurses and patients who she met along the way. Tears. And then passing the blanket to Gwen. TEARS.
Still nothin'? Okay, okay. What about Amber and Ryan, who themselves cried in just about every scene they had this week? Unlikely a pair as they are (the height logistics alone are a formidable obstacle), Mae Whitman and Matt Lauria did their darnedest to make us understand how important their relationship was. We only had an episode to really get an idea of how hard Ryan is trying to get to a better place, so a lot hinged on their vocabulary this week. Whimpering "you're my best friend" and "I love you so much" is fine but cliche. For me, it wasn't until Amber went to Ryan's and demanded that he had to be responsible with her love and fragility because of how much she loves him that I felt the connection they were trying to establish. All the tears.
Not enough yet, you robot? Let's finally discuss the transformation of Victor. It's been a quick turnaround for him since the situation turned desperate and hopeless just a couple weeks hence. This week Sydney looked like the lone holdout to Victor being unanimously a Braverman and, sadly, the show glossed over the rebellion of the normally dutiful daughter. Clearly, it was merely a set-up for Victor's invitation to her (with titular reasoning), which was just a preamble to the warm fuzzies glowing in judge's chambers later when the boy was officially adopted.
The scene outside the courthouse with every Braverman reminded me a little of the end of Royal Tennenbaums, minus the tragic accident. One long take that swept across every family member and their small interactions, including Max's version of accepting Victor (giving him a training lizard—brilliant) and some Holt sibling love. For the same reasons the scene in the movie worked and the marketing for that panorama feature on the iPhone is appealing: Everyone is brought together despite the limits of our narrative viewing screen. It's one continuous happy, the large family for which our biology yearns. We see the vastness of the network just before we see them crammed into a small space together.
What I believe is merely a formality, the Bravermans make into an event, a spectacle even given all the interruptions by family members as they voiced their intention to also help bring up the child as Julia and Joel swore their own allegiance. Maybe I'm a little cynical but I figure a normal judge would be slightly peeved that self-important Bravermans kept piping up to delay his signature with pronouncements of acceptance, but maybe a judge would welcome some warmth after a day of banging the gavel at criminals. "Some family you got there." the judge mentioned to Zeek as they finally filed out. Aren't they something?
I know I've created a noticeable theme of emotional engineering when talking about this episode but that doesn't make it wrong or bad. Katims has finely crafted this family genre with carefully chosen tools, and to say that we're being goaded into an emotional response is merely recognizing I'm being shoved. It doesn't mean it doesn't work or is any less pretty. This is a machine that's built to make you feel something. It's fine if you don't; there's nothing wrong with you. You're just missing out, is all. Here's to hoping NBC doesn't go crazy and do something we'll all regret. Just renew the thing already.
– I didn't really talk about Sarah because I don't feel like her story really contributed to the overall emotional theme. Basically, it was the best of all outcomes, that she gets no one. Hank asking her to move to Minnesota was almost as ridiculous as Ruby being excited to move there in the first place and God help us if Mark takes her back. This is karma for Sarah being the Worst Braverman.
– Max was excellent. What a fool to give that boy a gavel! And the season comes full circle (this judge is like the fool who gave him a gavel when he became student body president).
– The Drew and Amy storyline was sweet. Goodbyes that don't actually use the word "goodbye" are precious. I'm now 80 percent sure she's not having a baby. So, like, pretty sure. Right?
– Possibly the best part of the episode (for me) was Hank bringing the camera for Max. You look down to look out so you don't have to look at people. Tears. Hank and Max: soulmates.
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