Are you sobbing? I am not asking you that question as if you just finished watching this week’s episode of Parenthood, I am asking it to you right now, at this very moment. Almost a day later, are you still sobbing? Because you should be. If you are not still absolutely broken up about everything that happened during the last episode of 2013 for this automatic-tear gifting show then maybe go watch it one more time. If you still don’t shed a Knowshon Moreno level of tears from your eyes I’m genuinely curious about your status as a warm blooded member of the human race and would suggest that you attempt to contact the aliens from V at your earliest possible convenience in order to learn how to believably replicate human emotions. Because wow if that episode wasn’t was packed with heartbreaking moments from top to bottom, and ones that were able to hit home at all levels whether it be a tiny twinge of sadness because you could relate with Drew’s situation or a huge punch to the heart that made you feel like breaking out in deep racking sobs Amber Braverman style.
To make this somewhat organized I’m taking this Braverman family sob fest step by step from the low levels of sadness to the worst of the worst as it’s the only way to make sure I don’t go completely off the rails with sadness too early in this thing. One particular through line that I would like to point out before breaking the episode down into parts is the theme of two people facing each other as opposed to sitting side by side. The majority of scenes were made up of only two people, sometimes three, and the only instances of people sitting next to each other were when those two people were either happy or understanding of the person they shared the frame with. In what is an appropriate indication of the sadness involved in this episode, this only happened five times in the entire hour with one set of characters responsible for almost half of that amount. It was interesting to see this be the only real connecting set piece between many of the Bravermans, as most of the family didn’t intermingle but instead were left to discuss their problems with one member of the family and then go right back to dealing with it personally.
Without further ado, we begin with Drew. Drew’s issue is one that many current of former college students or people in their late teens can relate to, which means just about everyone. Not knowing what you want from another person and then overthinking it so much that you end up ruining what you had in the first place is a mistake everyone makes and learns from. Lucky for us, last night we only saw Drew making the mistake and being sad about it, not growing from it quite yet. His relationship with Natalie was rocky from the start, and even though they handled it maturely in the beginning there was always going to be a point where Drew wanted more and Natalie wanted less and only one of them could come out of it satisfied. The first scene with Drew we see him and his roommate brushing their teeth, with the former trying to “be a bro” and break to him gently that the girl he’s been so casual in hooking up with is also being casual with half the campus. They are tellingly side by side during this conversation, in what is the first on screen instance of Drew’s roommate being a sincere human being instead of a complete ass.
The first scene with Drew and Natalie together, in which he attempts to broach the subject of her hooking up with other guys, they are also side by side. Although I couldn’t identify the music specifically, the song choice is that with a 60’s or 70’s vibe that reflects their history well. They originally became friends because of their shared enjoyment of this exact type of music. The scene lasts only a little more than a minute but with even that undertone of genre in the background lends a feel for who these two people are and why they’ve enjoy each other’s company. Then Drew goes to seek advice from his uncle, and everything starts breaking down for the poor kid. Crosby and Drew have been one of the best new character combinations this year, and Crosby actually gives his nephew some solid advice on how to feel about his girl troubles here even though it isn’t what Drew wants to here. The direction here places Crosby and Drew on two different levels, in two ways. First, Drew is seated while Crosby stands and bounces a baby. This setup automatically makes Drew look like a younger child seeking advice from a father figure. Additionally, they are face to face but instead of this meaning they are at odds with each other it represents how each person’s opinion differs from the other. Drew listens, and tries to understand how to practice what Crosby is preaching in order to save his relationship with Natalie, no matter how casual it may have to be.
Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when his second conversation with Natalie doesn’t go as planned. Instead of sitting next to each other cozy on the bed, here they each pick a side of the room and use the beds as a sort of wall to lean on opposite one another. Maybe the “backs up against a wall” motif is too literal here but I liked the way the small dorm room setting was used to force the two into close proximity with one another even though that’s not what either would prefer during this particular interaction. The music here was “Wings” by Haerts, which is a pop song released this year even though the beat and the music video do their best to convince you it’s from the middle of the 80’s. It seems like a song that could actually be playing in a college dorm right this minute, but harkens back to that feeling of record playing and vintage hits at the same time, once again reflecting their on screen relationship through music. Of course in Drew’s attempt to maintain the relationship with rules that would make both of them happy he forces her away, albeit in an amicable way. Don’t you know never to out and out ask a girl what the rules should be, Drew? Of course he just isn’t smooth enough to be able to manage it in a tactful way, but the decision not to paint Natalie as a spurned or annoyed person was a good one and consistent with how she’s been represented all season. She’s a good person who genuinely wants to be friends with Drew, but they are separate people with different feelings. Notice her use of the word “furious” in this scene. She knows he isn’t the type of person that could ever be truly furious with anybody, and leaves the conversation in a place where you can tell she understands the position he’s in and genuinely would like them to remain friends. You feel bad for Drew, because he really does deserve someone nice, but you feel bad in a way that feels real and relatable. Which is good, because that’s about the only situation in which that was the case in this episode because besides Drew, shit got real all over the place.
Julia and Joel started out as one of the weakest story lines of the season, second only to the disaster that was the mayoral race. It seemed like everyone could predict exactly where this was going, that one or both of them were going to cheat on the other, and we were just biding our time until it got to that point. Thankfully Katims and crew veered slightly away from that cliché, instead using Pete and Ed as supporting players in what became a two person play skirted with worry and hurt. Marriages go through rough patches, that’s just how it is, and it was nice to see Joel actually respond to Julia’s pleas (spoken as she stands behind the couch while Joel’s back is turned, notice) to at least work on their marriage instead of just stewing in discomfort. Joel coming home from work early to make pizza with Sydney and Victor and taking Julia out to an adults only romantic evening is true to who Joel is as a character. It doesn’t make sense that these two people would just give up on their marriage after a few fights, and I’m happy the show didn’t push them into some sort of melodrama just for the sake of it. Of course, they didn’t get to that romantic dinner without a few shaky moments because otherwise why have this box of Kleenex here?
Wouldn’t it be nice if after Joel put some effort in and Julia rededicated herself to her marriage everything just blew over and they were happy again? Of course it would be, but this is Parenthood, and if there’s one thing the show should have taught you by now it’s that we can’t have nice things. As Julia cleans the kitchen like some sort of human power scrubber, she gets a text from Ed. Well meaning and joking, it isn’t what anyone could call a threat to the walls Julia has built up against him, but her discomfort is palpable nonetheless. Naturally, she just cleans harder but can’t ignore him forever and goes to his house instead of just returning a call, because that makes sense. Of course the show needed her to go to his house as he’s packing up his belongings in preparation to split from his wife because there needs to be a reason for them to be face to face a foot away from one other.
So with Night Beds’ “Lost Springs” playing, which if you recall is a band that Katims has already utilized this season in a moment of emotional manipulation of the audience, Julia and Ed get a little too close and give in to something they’ve both been thinking about for a few months at this point. The kiss between them isn’t anything to write home about, it doesn’t even have a romantic feel to it at all, but Julia enjoys it just enough that you can see it in her face how much she regrets not pushing away sooner. She feels something in that moment that poor Joel has no idea about and she doesn’t know how to handle it. So she leaves and pretends everything is relatively fine, letting Joel wine and dine her like they did in their younger, childless days, in order to fix what’s been ailing them. If this were a happier show, when Joel helps her with her necklace she would have turned and given him a kiss and they would have waltzed out to dinner together like the happiest people on the block. Instead he comes up behind her, this time him making an (almost unspoken) plea to her, and she remains with her back facing him in a way that mimics the conversation they had in the beginning of the episode. The pain in Julia’s face in that moment, knowing how much her husband loves her but also that as much as she loves him there are feelings for somebody else swirling around in her head too, is raw and heartbreaking. So much credit to Erika Christensen here, able to relay that to the audience with nary a word and no tears. Sometimes a representation of pain doesn’t need tears for the audience to understand the emotion.
But sometimes it does, because sometimes a couple like Ryan and Amber exist, and sometimes the only thing that can describe how much sadness is happening is a boatload of tears. As anybody with two good eyes and a beating heart could tell you, this relationship has been heading to a bad place all season. It wasn’t never going to end well, and Ryan’s Hulk-out at the bar last week set this episode up as the one where it would all fall apart. Who would’ve thought, though, that it would end from his side of the table and not Amber’s. The slow explosion of their relationship was bookended by their two scenes together with them both receiving advice from third party family members in the middle. Amber’s visit to The Luncheonette to face the band members and her uncles was just the prologue, an appetizer to all the hurt that would come later. Once again, we have people having a conversation opposite one another. The advice givers are sitting side by side, opposite Amber who is falling apart in front of them. This mimics the Drew and Crosby conversation, in that the two sides aren’t at odds with one another but simply view the situation in different ways while also understanding where the other side is coming from.
The first of two Ryan and Amber conversations is scored in such a way that it practically places a huge neon sign flashing above their heads that the end is night. The normal show soundtrack, except with the undertone of drums added, is just different enough that the audience will pay attention to the shift. The drums sound like war drums, bringing with them the announcement of a battle that will leave few survivors. The full fight that follows is therefore not a surprise, but rather a foregone conclusion. Ryan continues to keep things bottled up away from his fiancé while Amber struggles to make him open up to her and treat her with the respect she knows she deserves from someone who loves her so much. Yelling across the table at one him won’t be enough though, and you can see in both of their faces that they know this but don’t know how to have that conversation any other way. Ryan and Zeek’s fireside chat about the whole thing is also accompanied by the usual score plus one specific addition to match the scene. Acoustic guitars strumming softly pair well with the campfire setting, making it feel that these two former soldiers are really off in the woods somewhere happy to be in each other’s company and singing campfire songs. Instead, they talk to each other because they share something that no one else in the extended Braverman clan can. This is the only instance in the entire hour where the advice being imparted by an elder is not delivered head on, but rather side by side. Even though Zeek has years of hindsight that he can access to help Ryan work through his troubles, it isn’t presented in a condescending way in the least. Both of these men went through the hardships of going to war and then coming home and they both had similar troubles, yet reacted in slightly different ways. It’s a conversation filled with understanding and attempts at comfort, and is shot and soundtracked in a beautiful way.
Meanwhile, Amber’s advice hunting operation ends up at her mother’s door, and is shot like a confrontation even though it isn’t supposed to be. Mother and daughter sit on the couch (you guessed it!) opposite one another. It is here that I first noticed that Amber had been clothed in black the entire episode as if in mourning. This isn’t a huge deviation from her normal wardrobe but there is usually some sort of color pop somewhere in her outfit or accessories. Not here though, here she wanders from place to place as if she has suffered a great loss, even though that loss is still a few hours from occurring. Out of all the advice giving conversations that happened during this episode, this is probably the one that is most accurate and true. We get to hear Sarah’s advice as both “just a person” and as a mother. For most of this first half of the season Amber has seen her mother as someone who is against her and Ryan being together for reasons she either refused to or wasn’t ready to comprehend. The line “just because you’re tough enough to handle it doesn’t mean that’s what I want for you” was just the beginning of the end of episode waterworks for me and it’s a testament to both Lauren Graham and Mae Whitman that I didn’t give in to my inkling to pause it for a minute and collect myself because I wanted to watch these two talented ladies keep acting without any interruption. Here, Amber understands what her mom has been seeing all along but the part I most liked was the way you could see her internalize the information but not make a decision one way or another. That’s something that is so true to that character and you can see spending so much time around Graham has taught Whitman a thing or two about acting with about a dozen facial expressions in the space of 30 seconds.
With all of this building up throughout the episode, it wouldn’t be a shock at all for the final conversation between Amber and Ryan to be full of anger and screaming and throwing things. But no, that would let everyone off too easily. Anger the audience can recover from, can recoil from just enough so as to not let us get too involved in what’s about too happen. Instead we just get tragedy. Deep, intense, heart ripping in half to the sounds of an instrumental backing track, tragedy. Amber decides she can deal with whatever Ryan throws at her because as long as they love each other they can get through any problem. Her decision doesn’t end up mattering though, because he made a unilateral one to reenlist that will crushes her, whether he meant for it to do that or not. The shot of Mae Whitman bawling her damn eyes out pretty much mirrored my face at that point, and then something interesting happened. The camera doesn’t linger there, forcing us to watch her fall apart at her kitchen table with the music droning on in the background as one would expect. The opposite happens.
The soundtrack cuts out completely.
A second later, they smash cut away to Julia standing in her bathroom.
A great artistic choice and one that almost makes Amber’s pain worse for the audience. It left us imagining what was happening back in that kitchen, almost not worrying about Julia and Joel for a minute or two. Instead of allowing us the privilege of knowing how things wrap up between Amber and Ryan, the show takes that away from us and forces the audience to imagine it themselves. Which makes it that much worse, because what’s happening to two characters we’ve formed emotional ties to will always come out worse in our own heads than it would if we were told how to feel about it, it lets us internalize the pain just a little bit more.
After all that sadness, it would irresponsible for me to end on anything other than a happy note, even though the happy parts of this episode were objectively the worst parts, naturally. We weren’t fortunate enough to be able to leave the entire mayor’s race behind, of course, because that would just be too easy. It wasn’t annoying to watch Adam and Kristina (sitting or standing side by side THE ENTIRE EPISODE) be all happy and lovable together, per se, but with everything else that was going on it was too much to have to pretend to care about some random mother at the playground not know that a citywide election had already taken place when I would have rather been watching literally any other person deal with their life falling apart. Sarah had some nice comedic moments, which Lauren Graham always jumps at the chance to do. Otherwise, nothing else of note really happened in the “happy Braverman” side of things. I’m not sure where to categorize Drew’s visitor in the final shot (set to “This Place is Haunted” by Devotchka), as I’m pretty sure I’ll fall on the depressing side of that character and I just can’t take any more tears at the moment.
Parenthood doesn’t return until 2014, which is awesome. Not because I don’t want new episodes, but because I’m pretty sure that’s how long it will take me to rehydrate myself after this episode. Damn you Katims.