For an episode called "Small Victories," there sure were a lot of losses.
In fact, the only clear-cut victory to come out of this episode is that Max taking more showers. Everything about his story was an outright win. From Kristina shouting "Skittles!" in order to keep him from showing off his brand-new pubic hair to Zeek showing pride in ejaculations to the kid strutting his sweet-smelling self down the hallway, in slow motion, to "Feeling Good."
I missed this Max, the one who's not a prima donna jackass, the one who's just a non-prosodic boy trying to make it in a prosodic world. There was so much comedy with him in this go-round, even an emotional beat during the sex talk Adam struggled to have, that it almost made me forget all the times I wanted eat all of his Skittles right in front of him just to show him who's boss. The episodes where his Asperger syndrome is treated like a part of who Max is instead of the monster eating his family are the ones I appreciate.
So we got some chuckles from the boy and even a little bit of character development for him. "Small victories," Kristina said with a high five. A win in a household in need of a win. But everything else in the world of the Bravermans was either in a gray area or qualified as outright defeat.
This even applies to Crosby, who's been given so many sitcom storylines lately that I was almost expecting his scenes to be prefaced by Rhea Perlman telling us the episode was filmed before a live studio audience. The mother-in-law moves in and she won't leave! Crosby has to pee and Renee is in there doing her hair! And then Jabbar slips in when he's not looking so he has to pee outside! Hilarity ensues!
Each of his scenes were single-camera versions of multi-cam fare from the '80s and '90s: Jasmine's brother coming over so his mother could do his laundry, Renee changing the house to her whims, even Jasmine trying to convey her pity with meaningful looks and under-her-breath apologies. There was one distinct difference: After reaching his breaking point and registering his complaints with Renee (at least passive-aggressively), she turned it around (sort of) and switched on the guilt trip. And then walked away. That, of course, was classic sitcom. The difference is that there was no new act during which Crosby would apologize so they could come to a mutual understanding. It was left there to hang. Small victory here: Crosby gets this thing off his chest, but now no one in the house is happy about anything.
Then there's Drew. Poor, stupid Drew. The kid has put in enough appearances so we don't print his photo on the side of a milk carton, but he hasn't had a real story since Mark got cable. I guess the writers were saving his camera time for when he knocked a girl up. It's a lot of focus for a kid who, as of last week, was nothing more than a pawn in the sad chess game for Sarah's heart (as he reintroduced Mark by showing off his Facebook). And he went from 0 to 60 with the question of abortion.
When the disclaimer came on at the start of the episode to tell us that something within it required parental discretion—with Parenthood being a show that, beyond a short string of bawdy installments before Amber met Ryan, is relatively family-friendly for 10pm—we the audience knew immediately that this would be the question set before us. How will Drew make one of the universe's most awkward situations even more awkward? First, we'll have him make all his big decisions in the front seat of his car. Then, we'll make sure he's backed into a corner for the entire hour...
Actually, Drew was drawn up to be a very stand-up guy in this situation. I would picture him to be more of the type to curl up into a ball and rock until someone sent him to a psych ward, but he said the Drew version of all the right things and tried to be as supportive as humanly possible. He was rewarded with an abortion (I think?) and Amy breaking up with him. Again. In the front seat of his car. Small victory here: His life can continue on its previously scheduled trajectory except without the girl he loves. And he has a "waiting at the abortion clinic" story under his belt.
Somehow, to me, Julia and Joel's story was even more devastating than the (possible?) abortion storyline. It's the hopelessness of the situation that nags at me. Last week, we talked about how the build-up to Victor's emotional break may not have been obvious, but it's very clear now. And nothing about it is positive for the Grahams.
How do you corral a child who doesn't believe in your parental authority? How do you make a child obey you if you attempt to not only displace the person to whom he's sworn allegiance, but also to make him forget she ever existed, maintaining that his current situation is the only one he should recognize? How long do you continue to force a resistant individual who's constantly bucking the saddle of your life?
He's not even a real person but, with the stunts he pulled this week, I would look the other way if Julia punted him down the stairs. I understand Joel's position that Victor has done better, or at least I see it now that Joel mentioned it. Otherwise, I'd only see the escalating behavior. It was an interesting thing the show did in splitting Victor's accomplishments and failure to assimilate. They never seemed to happen around the same time, so it never felt like, "Yeah, he hit a homerun! But he also doesn't consider Julia to be his real mom." At least, not until that 93 on a test.
But the bad stuff happened last and that's why I think I understand Julia's position more easily. That's probably by design since, if Victor appeared well-adjusted, we'd just look at Julia like a monster for wanting to give him back. But after smashing the window, dropping curse words, and calling 911 for child abuse, we can completely understand Julia's qualms with regard to keeping a child who doesn't seem to want to be there.
What small victory do they have? Is Joel's perception that Victor's grades and his activity in sports are the small victories to be measured against the swollen, unchecked disrespect Victor has for Julia? Is the small victory that the social worker told them they were doing everything right despite the fact that Victor has so much disdain for Julia that he could push away homemade pancakes and actually request Burger King? I mean—Burger King. It's unconscionable.
Small victories. Everyone wins?
– I didn't mention Sarah's story with Mark and Hank but there are two things we should address: (1) Sarah looked really disappointed when Mark didn't come by the studio to talk about her. (2) Mark's line about not fighting hard enough for her might almost be the most heartbreaking scene of the episode—except that Amber comforting Drew when he had abortion on his mind is interesting for a couple reasons. This is one of the few times they've really been together in an emotional way for a long time (her driving him to drop off a basket at Amy's doesn't count). It's also one of the few outside-the-box sequences from director Peter Krause. There were a lot of swirling arms and hands, intertwining bodies. The shot composition for much of that scene, particularly the end of it, felt like two bodies as one mass while she comforted him. A very pretty scene. The other directorial choice I noticed was Victor standing at the top of the stairs, shadows and hair covering his face; it felt like a scene from a horror movie, sans horror context. He was like the little girl from The Ring except I wished more horrible things would happen to Victor than that girl. Sarah has been the title-bearer, the wearer of the belt of Worst Braverman, but this week Victor far exceeded that. There's no room for a rogue agent in the Braverman network.
– You may have noticed a few question marks around Amy's abortion in my review. That's only because I'm not entirely sure she had it. I mean, Drew's sobbing at the end of the episode should have clinched it for me, but the episode left a shadow of doubt as to whether it happened by (a) never mentioning that it happened and (b) Amy didn't seem all that much weaker from having part of her body removed through another part of her body. She didn't exhibit signs of having gone through an abortion and, as far as I can tell, that isn't exactly a laser procedure. If I'm wrong, I'm willing to learn—so tell me if Amy's reaction after undergoing such a procedure is normal or indicative to a twist ending for the season finale in two weeks.
– The waiting room of an abortion clinic is the last place I want to find solidarity with the other dudes around me. Keep your head nod to yourself, sir.
– It felt weird to me that Adam was having a hetero-normal sex talk with Max, given that the only animate things Max has ever shown interest in are reptiles and, to a certain extent, that puppy. I guess when it's already complicated by Asperger syndrome, a straight guy intending to talk about different sexualities is too much to handle, especially for someone so buttoned up. But then Max said, "I wish people could shed their skins like lizards." Touching. Then he followed it up with a "Yep." Max, I love you again.