There was a scene in last night’s season-five finale of Parenthood that, for me, demonstrated what this show is capable of when it’s striking all the right poignant, textured notes. It happened when Joel and Julia tucked Sydney into bed while Joel regaled his daughter with tales of what happened on the day she was born. After laughing over how many Bravermans were packed into the delivery room, he told the story of the epidural that suddenly made Julia besotted with her anesthesiologist. “Here I was, going through 40 hours of intense labor next to this woman,” Joel remembered, smiling and looking directly at the woman who is still, despite their separation, his lawfully wedded wife. “This guy comes in and gives her one shot: She loves him.”
The subtext of those words said everything about why Joel put his marriage on pause: because he felt like he had put in intense labor of his own, for years, as the caregiver for his children and his wife’s primary cheerleader. And what did he have to show for it? The realization that Julia didn’t appreciate his support and could potentially be distracted, not by an anesthesiologist, but by a sustainability committee co-chair with a tendency to send frequent, chummy text messages.
As Julia and Joel gazed at each other from either side of their sleeping daughter, the camera angle in the scene suddenly switched to an overhead shot of the three of them, the way it probably was in that hospital bed on the day Julia temporarily fell in love with a man who could make her lower extremities go numb. This was how it all started for this family: with a man and a woman and their little baby, with three as a magic number. The message of that image came through pretty clearly: Joel and Julia, it seems, will try to get back together and get back to where things started for them. (Note: I realize that Joel wasn’t in the final dinner scene montage in this episode, which could suggest that their reconciliation isn’t as much of a done deal as I just implied. But the visual metaphor I just described had me pretty convinced.)
What I loved about that scene was that it was touching without beating us over the head with a box of facial tissues, that it telegraphed so much about this family unit’s recently rocky history without having to explicitly explain it. It was a quiet little moment that one could easily imagine unfolding in a real little girl’s bedroom somewhere, between a husband and wife also trying, for their own sakes and their family’s, to find their way back to each other.
Season five gave us a number of great, quiet little moments like that, ones that earned our tears because they unfolded in a way that felt organic and genuine. Think back to Sarah’s appletini promise to support Amber’s wedding in episode two, or Crosby pledging his loyalty to baby Aida in episode three, or Kristina comforting Max in the backseat after that disastrous overnight field trip in episode 18. Each of those interactions between a parent and child was well-scripted, then brought to tear-brimming life by actors who, after five seasons, have become like family to each other and, by extension, their audience.
I just wish this season of Parenthood had contained more moments like those and fewer subplots that either dragged on unnecessarily or nearly damaged an udder in their blatant attempt to squeeze emotional milk out of situations — see Amber and Ryan, for one — that had clearly already run dry.
This finale was knocked off-course by some missteps, too. For starters: Haddie finally resurfaced, with blonder hair, blue eyeliner, and a lesbian lover from Cornell. That relationship was a perfectly interesting thing for Parenthood to explore. Just not in a finale! Why didn’t we find out that Haddie had gotten romantically involved with Lauren, a.k.a. Michelle Williams’s 12-year-old little sister, at least four episodes ago so Parenthood could really dig into how Adam and Kristina would respond to their daughter’s unexpected change in sexual orientation? (Okay, fine: Lauren isn’t actually Michelle Williams’s little sister, she’s Rookie Mag’s Tavi Gevinson. Either way, it’s still unclear why Haddie brought her home, especially since she was obviously nervous about revealing the nature of their relationship to her parents.) On one hand, it was cool that Adam, Kristina, and the show didn’t make a super-big deal out of Haddie being gay. On the other hand, why bring it up at all if not to make some kind of deal out of it? It would have been much more interesting to watch the Bravermans deal with that development during part of this season than it was to follow Adam and Kristina on their adventures in charter-schooling.
Then there was the whole Amber/Ryan situation, which got weird due to the presence of Ryan’s mom, played by a heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking, supremely rude Annabeth Gish, and then got weirder when Amber and Ryan had cry-kiss sex in Ryan’s hospital bed and Amber later bought a pregnancy test. The last time a pregnancy test showed up in a Parenthood season finale someone was actually pregnant (that would be Kristina, with Nora), which suggests Amber may end up in a similar expectant way. Getting pregnant: It really is the answer to every relationship problem you may have with your possibly alcoholic, Army-discharged, kinda sorta ex-fiancé. Way to play it to win, Amber.
And then there was Drew and his spontaneous road trip of — ugh — Natalie love. I liked that Zeek gave him the Pontiac GTO he’d spent all season tinkering with, but did not like that Drew immediately used that fine automobile to drive to Portland to visit Natalie. Yes, that Natalie, the one who suddenly reached the “I love you” phase of their still-nascent relationship after spending an entire school year refusing to commit to Drew, despite the charming and unwavering presence of his emo-band front man bangs. She can’t love Drew at this point, and it’s completely inconsistent with her character that she would declare such a thing. Part of me wishes Drew would follow in his cousin Haddie’s footsteps and find real love with his true soul mate: Berto, the roommate who stole his almond butter and then, unwittingly, stole Drew’s heart. (Dammit. I really need to remember to keep my most solid Parenthood fan-fiction ideas to myself.)
Of course, the really big thing that happened in this episode — apart from, as fully expected, Sarah deciding to give that whole Hank thing a shot again — was that Zeek and Camille finally moved out of their house, a transition commemorated in a final montage that served as an update of the Parenthood opening titles. Instead of hearing Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” we heard a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Instead of seeing the season-one version of the extended family gathered around a dinner table underneath the globe lights of the Braverman backyard, we saw the much larger, slightly older, season-five version of that family, gathered once again around a table beneath those glowing backyard luminaries. And instead of thinking that these parents and kids assemble in this place all the time, we knew that this would be the last time. It should have been a tearjerker of a moment. But it wasn’t. Instead, it played as something more joyful than sad. The cry-capping part of me was disappointed by this; my tear ducts had been training for this moment ever since Camille first hinted that she wanted to sell the place. But in terms of the broader themes of season five, the joyful tone made sense.
This entire season has been about people making accommodations for the ones they love with an eye toward building a future together. That’s why Zeek decided that he and Camille really should sell the house; why Hank let Max work in his studio no matter how many expensive pieces of lighting equipment he knocked over; why Sarah finally saw that the man Hank is trying to be is more important than the guy he sometimes still is; why Crosby finished fixing his stupid mold problem himself (well, with Joel’s help) and got his family back into their house; why Adam and Kristina decided to start a charter school that could benefit Max, as well as other kids like him; and why Joel and Julia — possibly, maybe, most likely? — decided it was time to put recent differences aside and start all over again. And it’s also why, even though this season of Parenthood wasn’t on par qualitywise with previous seasons, I’ll still be back if and when there’s a season six. No matter how rough things get, you can’t bail on family. And you also can’t bail on a season finale cry-cap without running down a few cries.
Cry Moment No. 1: Victor’s Essay
Victor’s triumph in that essay contest accomplished two things. One, it made it clear that holding him back a grade actually was the right move, because he’s excelling now. And two: It gave Joel and Julia an excuse to sit side-by-side during Victor’s reading and shine with teary pride as he read the essay about how working with Zeek on his Pontiac made a “really hard year” for Victor “pretty decent.” A little corny? Yes. But somewhat effective as a cry-petizer (ooh, fun new word!) for the rest of the episode.
Cry factor, on a scale of one tear to five: One tear.
Cry Moment No. 2: Sydney Begging Joel to Stay
After Victor’s reading and a delightful fro-yo celebration, Joel accompanied the family home. But when he tried to duck out to his Sad Dad Apartment, Sydney did not want her father to go. She started sobbing and begging him to stay with an intensity that must have stabbed Joel right in the heart. Of course he couldn’t leave after that display. And of course I couldn’t not cry.
Cry factor, on a scale of one tear to five: Three tears.
Cry Moment No. 3: Zeek’s Pontiac Present
Zeek’s obsession with refurbishing that car actually bonded him to multiple family members. It created a project for him and Victor; it gave him an excuse to go on a road trip with Crosby; and, ultimately, it gave him a gift to give to Drew. When Zeek told Drew, “From the very beginning, I was doing this for you,” and then Drew got obviously verklempt ... well, it was sweet. At least it was until Natalie’s involvement sullied the whole thing.
Cry factor, on a scale of one tear to five: One tear.
Cry Moment No. 4: Amber and Ryan’s Cry-Kiss
I went through multiple stages with this cry-kiss moment. First I thought: Wow, you guys, this is too much. Then Matt Lauria really started going for it with the sobbing and I started to emotionally lean in to what was happening. And then it became clear that they were going to do it on that hospital bed, seemingly in plain view of anyone who might happen to walk by Ryan’s room. At which point I got distracted by the weirdness of that and lost the mood.
Cry factor, on a scale of one tear to five: Half a tear.
Cry Moment No. 5: The Aforementioned Joel/Julia/Sydney Bedtime Scene
I started here, so I’ll end here. I’ve already explained why this scene worked so nicely. But the reason it made me cry? Well, that goes back to what we ultimately want from Parenthood: to see all of these families happy and whole, united the way many of us wish our families could always be. Earlier in this season, I advocated for a split for Joel and Julia. I still believe that split was necessary and gave this season some much-needed dramatic heft at a time when Parenthood often seemed adrift. But after so much time apart, it was moving to see these two, at least for a moment, remembering that, just like Zeek’s Pontiac, their family is a pretty special gift, too.
Cry factor, on a scale of one tear to five: Three tears.