Casual Season Premiere Recap: Self-Improvement


Phase Three
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Michaela Watkins as Valerie.
Michaela Watkins as Valerie. Photo: Hulu

The premiere season of Casual, which earned Hulu its first Golden Globe nomination, left fans feeling anxious for the future of Valerie and Alex’s relationship. In the finale, Alex breaks up with Emmy after discovering that she slept with Valerie, even though Valerie admits that she intended to break them up. Their lives thrown into disarray, the season ends as Alex and Valerie watch their parents get married. They’re both searching for happiness, but resistant to the idea that they might find it with each other.

“Phase Three” picks up where the first season left off, though at least one development is more that a little shocking: Alex’s attempt at self-improvement. After the sound of birds chirping wakes Valerie up, she finds Alex making a smoothie downstairs, and he greets her as if it isn’t ungodly to make real conversation at 5:30 in the morning. When he tastes his smoothie, he’s instantly repulsed: “It’s like 95 percent of the ingredients are fine. And then you get one moldy peach, or, like, a bad raspberry and suddenly the whole smoothie tastes rotten.” Valerie stares helplessly. She knows she is the rotten fruit, the one who ruined Laura and Alex’s lives with her self-destructive behavior.

Despite Alex’s 7 a.m. run and 8 a.m. yoga class, Valerie refuses to believe he has changed. (I, too, do not believe these humans exist.) He does concede that “happiness is kind of boring,” but nevertheless, he’s got to stick with “phase three” of the breakup. (Phase one involves drinking, drugs, and women, phase two is wallowing in self-pity, and phase three is self-improvement.) It all definitely makes Valerie uneasy, but as Alex acknowledges, it’s meant to be distracting, and “distraction is the universal human motivator.” Though spoken with confidence, this adage seems quite contradictory, until we see what Alex wants to distract himself from: his repressed anger towards his sister.

At the office, Valerie momentarily escapes her own problems. Her patient, Serena, doesn’t want to attend her girlfriend’s seder because of an “aversion to cults,” describing the Old Testament as a “book of spells.” Valerie encourages Serena to give the seder a chance, spells and all: “It sounds like it means something to her, and she’s trying to include you.” But after mocking Alex for his newly positive outlook, this advice seems disingenuous. I wish Valerie took her own advice and made an effort to know Emmy, not just sleep with her, so that she hadn’t forced Alex to push her away.

As soon as Serena is out the door, Valerie turns to Leia for help. “Talk to me,” she pleads. “Just say things to help me ignore the horrible thoughts inside my head.” But Leia’s apocalyptic post-drinking-water scenario isn’t exactly soothing, and Valerie turns inward. She mentions that Alex has been exercising, but she only sees it as a cry for help. She knows it’s only a matter of time before he looks to her.

Back at the house, Alex avoids his work responsibilities, while Laura avoids her return to school. They admire his piano, which Alex confesses he’s never played. Alex later brings Laura to his yoga class, where they run into Beth, who asks him out. Surprisingly, he turns her down — the thought of intimacy is crushing, he explains, on an existential level. Yeah, Alex is totally fine! No problems here!

Valerie meets with Leon to put an end to Alex’s health kick, so we know she’s really desperate. Leon admits he’s been hungry ever since Alex threw out all his food — treats yourself to that croissant, Leon! — but he supports Alex on his path to spiritual enlightenment. Valerie just wants things to go back to the way they were. “You want your mentally unstable, possibly suicidal brother to revel in his drinking and philandering?” Leon asks. She nods, afraid of what might happen if her brother faces the truth.

More distractions await Valerie back at work. The neighboring office is under construction; from the chirping birds to this relentless drilling, she’s denied peace wherever she goes. When she goes home to pick up Laura for the public school tour, Alex asks to tag along. Of course, he doesn’t miss the chance to ask about their photography program.

During the tour, Laura asks a girl sitting in the hallway is she likes the school. I didn’t totally her bitter response: “School’s a fucking drag everywhere. I guess the worst part here is watching the teachers wonder every day how their lives went so wrong.” What teenage girl speaks like this? Maybe if the school had a photography program, she wouldn’t be so angry.

Still, this chat does the trick: Laura decides she doesn’t want to attend the school after all. Just as Laura and Valerie are about to order dinner (“junk food,” of course, since they need a break from experimental goat cheese), Alex runs out. He got a phone call from Leon, not a text, and naturally assumes he’s bleeding out somewhere. Why else would he actually call? The reality is much worse: Leon discovered his ex-fiancée is engaged. “I follow her on Instagram, which is a bad idea,” Leon admits, “but her compositions are well-conceived.” It’s okay, Leon. It happens to the best of us.

Back at the house, while Valerie and Laura eat Chinese food, they have their first honest moment with each other since Valerie slept with Michael. Laura asks Valerie who she was in high school, and Valerie explains her lost childhood, how she was forced to be a grown-up. Now that she’s divorced, it appears that Valerie longs to make up for lost time and revert to being a kid. But if she keeps making poor decisions, she’ll eventually need to face the consequences.

Speaking of poor decisions, Alex drags Leon out to Mara’s house to distract himself from his own problems. Leon insists that Alex should confront his feelings, which he does, in his own way, by berating Mara for Leon: “You broke his heart. You know that, right? He trusted you, let you into his home, and you just get to move on? Fuck that and fuck you. You don’t just get to forget.” Mara apologizes, but not before Alex recognizes that his speech is really meant for Valerie.

When Alex returns home, Valerie asks about Leon. He sighs before deciding, “He’s gonna be fine.” It turns out the piano isn’t just for show, either; he sits down and plays a simple arpeggio. After feeling betrayed by Valerie and acting in such a guarded way for most of the episode, this is Alex’s own way of being honest. This is how he’ll resume his place within the family.

In the morning, Valerie wakes up to yet a new noise and finds Alex at the printer, overly excited and surrounded by piles of paper. When she demands an explanation, he tells her that he’s preparing syllabi — yes, Alex intends to homeschool Laura. “I did all of your homework throughout high school,” Valerie reminds him. But he doesn’t seem to care. “It’s 2016. We need to prepare our children for the future.” Valerie insists that Laura is her child, but Alex brushes it off. He sees himself as a paternal figure to Laura, and this is his way of solidifying that role. Valerie is speechless, but he assigns her a role as well. “You should teach Psych,” he offers. And just like that, they are together again, focusing on Laura so that they don’t have to confront their problems with each other.

Casual Season Premiere Recap: Self-Improvement