You can break almost every episode of any show down to its main story and subplots. It's a universal construction. A show like The Grinder usually has three subplots in addition to its main story, which usually involves Dean's current obsession. One goes to Stewart and Deb, another involves the family, and if the law firm isn't already involved in the shenanigans underway, it probably gets a subplot of its own.
In most shows, this structure allows for adequate use of large casts — otherwise, it's too big to spotlight everyone in a single episode. Each character gets an arc that doesn't necessarily require a lot of interaction, but ideally encourages some cross pollination between plots. Unlike most shows, though, The Grinder has a small cast and a small world. Its various subplots constantly overlap and collide, which the show uses to fuel its manic energy and rapid-fire jokes.
When combined with The Grinder's perpetual mocking of conventional TV tropes, we get "Divergence." It's the cleverest episode yet, custom-built for the TV nerd audience the show seems to cater to.
As is customary, "Divergence" opens with a Grinder episode that epitomizes the main story. Mitch Grinder, scrubbing a boat in a marina, is greeted by his son (welcome back, Colton Haynes!), who just got home from "the war." Mitch warmly embraces his son, and the two of them start scrubbing the boat together … until Mitch realizes the name of the boat, the S.S. Inkspot, reminds him of a bloody spot in the sink that was mentioned in his current case. So, he hastily abandons his son without so much as a second glance.
Deb and Stewart, watching with Dean, are flabbergasted at Mitch's total willingness to leave his long-lost son and disinterest in the war. "NOBODY CARES ABOUT THE WAR!" a frustrated Dean yells. "The case got solved, that's what you care about … it's just a side story to help solve the main one."
When Deb and Stewart point out how that seems like a lot of work that could otherwise be spent just working on the main case, Dean counters with, "Have you solved our big case just by working on it?"
And that's how Dean gets everyone involved in side stories. He hopes that if a few of them go off and do other things, someone will have a break that will help them clinch the malpractice case. Hilariously, Dean (and Pop Sanderson, who remains weirdly game for his son's showbiz-fueled schemes) mine the Sanderson kids for material over dinner that night, and everyone is off.
"We're gonna find something," Dean says. "We've just gotta not look in all the right places." Let's run through ’em all:
- Dean and Liz team up to help her ex-boyfriend, Joel, who gets in trouble for trashing the principal's office.
- Pop and Ethan talk about Ethan's gambling problem after learning that he owes $130 to one of his classmates.
- Todd desperately wants a side story of his own, but doesn't really have one, so Claire makes him copy papers all day.
- Stewart, despite insisting that he's not going to get into a side plot with Dean, becomes a side plot in "Divergence" itself, as events keep conspiring to prevent him from signing a settlement agreement with Mandler, strongly suggesting that he doesn't really want to settle.
In a wonderfully meta way, Dean's side plot involving Liz and Joel becomes the episode's main story. It's all about how side stories ought to be as important as main stories, except they aren't … because Dean only got into this side story as a means of solving his main one. Still with me?
It all reaches a hilarious crossroads once we find out that Joel is taking the fall for Chad Oseroff, the kid who actually trashed the principal's office, but who unfortunately has the principal's ear. Oseroff can tell that Dean isn't fully invested, and uses Joel for something else. Dean admits this is true: He was hoping he could put minimal effort into this little side story, then sneak out when he found his eureka moment.
"WELL, THIS LITTLE SIDE STORY IS MY MAIN STORY," Joel shouts. "IT'S CALLED MY LIFE."
Liz and Joel are left to face the principal and Chad by themselves, but then Dean returns and apologizes to Joel. "This is my main story," he tells him, which touches Joel but confuses everyone else. The ensuing argument does exactly what Dean had been hoping for all episode: It gives him a breakthrough, so he's ready to leave the teens hanging again. This perplexes Joel, who was totally ready to take the fall until Dean said he would defend him.
"Okay, maybe the lesson today is the side story is as important as the main story," Dean hurriedly offers as he tries to leave. When he's reminded that this isn't relevant at all, he blurts out the truth: "OKAY, FINE. THE SIDE STORY ISN'T AS IMPORTANT."
About Those Side Stories:
- Pop and Ethan turn out to be terrible for each other. Pop Sanderson talks about how he also had a gambling problem, but instead of admitting it, he just doubled down and gambled more, hoping to win back what he owed. It didn't work out. Ethan and Pop get the idea that they're going to run away together to avoid both Ethan's gambling debt and the malpractice suit, only they're caught by Deb, who tells them they have to buckle down and face their problems.
- Todd spends the day copying papers for Claire while she watches The Grinder.
- Stewart finally makes it to a settlement meeting with Mandler, but suddenly realizes he doesn't want to settle — so he tells Mandler that Sanderson & Yao will see him in court. Immediately afterward, his brother comes in with his breakthrough, which he wants to share as soon as Mandler leaves. This leads to the episode's best bit of physical comedy: Mandler slowly gathers up many scraps of paper and messily stuffs them into his backpack, eating up the few remaining seconds of "Divergence," which ends just before Dean tells Stewart what he's learned. Well played, Grinder.