Editor’s note: Regular recapper Izzy Grinspan will be out for the final two episodes of this season but is planning to return for season three. Today, Justfied and Saturday Night Live recapper Joe Reid is filling in.
On more than one occasion this year, I've referred to the current season of New Girl as its third. Part of this feeling that New Girl is older than it is can be boiled down to network-versus-cable episode-order business (this was the 48th episode of New Girl, a number it would take Girls — obligatory Vulture mention, commenters — five seasons to reach), but an equally big part is how far the characters have come since the pilot. Primarily Jess and Nick.
"Winston's Birthday" is a remarkable episode for how much it showcases Jess as loudly dominating her environment. From Cece's wedding to the unexpected arrival of her father (thus throwing her morning after with Nick quite out of balance) to a surprise substitute-teaching gig at the elementary-school version of the Dangerous Minds classroom, Jess repeatedly took charge of her situation and wrestled it into submission. Compare this Jess to the episode-one girl who couldn't properly retrieve her stuff from her wiener boyfriend. Call it a triumph of tinkering with the concept (partially true), call it a triumph of realistic character growth (also partially true), but the bottom line is that Jess has come a long way.
Which isn't to say Jess doesn't have her share of foul-ups. The vision of maturity that New Girl has for all of its characters is a kind of striving, two-steps-forward-one-step-back shuffling toward getting one's shit together. Jess still ends up smudging Cece's henna into a full-on beard-smudge. She still ends up subjecting her class of unruly monsters to unasked-for life lessons about relationships (leading to young Miguel offering her a cigarette in the episode's very best moment). But she also ends up barking orders into her phone like a total boss. A boss who can't seem to convince her dad to stay in a hotel when he visits, but hey, life's a process.
The surprise appearance by Jess's dad (Rob Reiner) provided a standard sitcom trope — doubly so when Nick has to pretend that he and Jess didn't just sleep together so that Bob doesn't try to kill him. Nick's come a long way since the beginning of season one as well. I'm not sure I've seen anything on any show this season sweeter than that sad, revolting breakfast he cobbles together for Jess (the half-cooked eggs! the torn-by-hand grapefruit!). The old Nick used to literally run away from his feelings. Now he's asking Jess's dad for advice (podcast-worthy advice) about his concerns that he won't be able to maintain the good thing he's got going with his current lady, whom he names "Yolanda Winston" to keep up the charade.
But ultimately, Nick manages to work up the self-confidence to tell Jess's dad that Yolanda and Jess are one and the same. Sure, that ends up with Nick on the run and defending himself with croquet mallets (and souvenir-size baseball bats; and ... brass coin plates?). It also ends up with Bob delivering some incredibly harsh truths about how he sees a lot of himself in Nick, and how neither of them are good enough for his little girl. It's heartbreaking to see Nick so wounded, but he doesn't cocoon like he might have done last year. He regroups and gives Jess a breakfast do-over on the roof. And while certain glances — not to mention overt statements by Jess to her classroom — indicate that there are real concerns about whether Nick and Jess's relationship can work, there's no question that these are the versions of these two best equipped to give it a shot.
Meanwhile ... poor Cece, you guys. The jury is still out on whether marrying Shivrang is a good idea (he seems like a super-great guy, but Cece still doesn't seem into it), and everything surrounding the wedding is prone to disaster. After a busy day of preparation, Cece falls asleep and gets her freshly applied henna all over her face, so cue the freak-out. Cece calling Jess to come over and fix things reminded me of that Seinfeld where George becomes Elaine and Elaine becomes George. New Girl doesn't put quite so fine a point on it, but so often it's been Cece riding in to play fixer to whatever disaster befell Jess's life. Of course, Jess doesn't entirely fix everything, what with smudging Cece's face-henna into a permanent five-o'clock shadow. But she sure gave Uncle Shishir what-for when he was hogging Cece's spotlight ("Shishir, you son of a bitch! You little son of a bitch. It is not your day!"). Ultimately, Jess does the most adult thing possible and calls in Shivrang to calm Cece down. Honestly, this Jess is freaking me out with how together she is.
Schmidt's sub-plot is the most isolated this week. At least Winston gets a runner where he ducks into and out of everybody else's story — wearing a ridiculously amazing red track suit — hoping that someone will remember that it's his birthday and throw him a surprise party. Schmidt, however, is left to his own devices, which means he gets to deep-six his newly rekindled relationship with Elizabeth all by himself. After a night of boisterous lovemaking that kept Elizabeth's neighbor, Bernie, uncomfortably awake, it looks like Schmidt is coming around to the idea that this girl likes him. We get a fun flashback to Fat Schmidt and Elizabeth busting some thrash-dancing moves at a kegger, and between that and her repeated screaming at Bernie ("STOP THREATENING TO MOVE AND JUST MOVE!"), I have to implore the New Girl producers to keep Merritt Wever around for the long haul. Nurse Jackie can't last another season after this one, can it? I know this is the same futile hope I had when Lizzy Caplan was on the show, and the reality of the story says that girlfriends/boyfriends of the five main characters are destined to leave sooner or later (don't look so surprised, Shivrang; you know what you signed up for), but gosh have I been enjoying Wever these last few weeks. Anyway, Schmidt ends up getting embarrassed by Elizabeth's Y2KittyKat shirt when she shows up to see him at work, and she dumps him, and he ends up winning her back with an equally abhorrent "Frogetaboutit" shirt, and none of it is actually all that interesting (Schmidt's shallow! Until he isn't so much!), but the interplay between the two of them makes it worth it.
So going into the season finale, much like last season, we're looking at a lot of relationship questions. The final scene on the rooftop — two couples, plus Winston, who thinks this is all the surprise party he's been angling for — offers a version of New Girl that is probably too happy to last very long. Throw Cece/Shivrang into the mix, and we're looking most certainly at a wedding where Big Decisions are made for all sorts of couples. For now, though, I'm glad we got that moment on the roof, as well as that bittersweet look on Nick's face. Oh God, I don't want to see Nick Miller get hurt next week. PLEASE DON'T LET NICK MILLER GET HURT NEXT WEEK.