Crashing’s season finale begins at a strip club and ends at a baptism. It’s a fitting transition for a show that has wrestled with the sacred and the profane, holy and unholy, saints and sinners. Pete, a God-fearing man who has just recently entered the rough-and-tumble world of stand-up comedy, has struggled not just with employment and his environment, but with his values. He has only lived one kind of life for so long that diving headfirst into another one naturally requires some adjustment. But “The Baptism” argues that Pete’s dream wasn’t all that cracked up to be. “It’s, uh, not exactly what I thought out there,” Pete tells his ex-wife Jess, with the disappointment of someone who finally sees the world as it is.
By returning to Pete’s failed relationship with Jess, “The Baptism” also embodies the general unevenness that has plagued Crashing’s debut season. Though Pete’s divorce arc has had its moments, it has mostly served a throat-clearing function, a way to establish Pete’s life as a comic and separate him from his home and God. Holmes understandably developed the story line further by delving into the affair’s aftermath, but it ultimately paled in comparison to the specificity of the parallel stand-up plot. Lauren Lapkus’s earnest, sympathetic performance as Jess notwithstanding, the divorce story never quite went further than “Breakups are tough and there are two sides to every failed relationship.” Jess was always ancillary, and her personal growth beyond Pete was as well, so instead we’re left with Pete’s perspective. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; after all, Pete’s point of view necessarily dominates Crashing. But it is mildly strange that the season finale largely concerns Jess’s return to the faith and not, you know, Pete or the career for which he risked everything.
Before we get to that, there are a couple ideas that work in “The Baptism,” mainly around Artie Lange’s introduction to religious faith. Artie tags along with Pete to his college roommate’s wife’s baptism, but immediately becomes uncomfortable around the good Christian folk. He eventually finds Stephanie (Natalie Morales, previously of The Grinder fame), a “reasonable” Christian, and opens a sincere dialogue with her about accepting a higher power into his life. Artie plays skeptic while Stephanie plays believer, but while those archetypes are a little tired, their conversation never feels forced. Stephanie, a fellow addict, tries to explain to Artie that a higher power, or faith, or God, is just another way of letting go of things you can’t innately understand, ceding them to something bigger than yourself. He initially struggles with this, insisting that there’s an explanation for everything, but eventually caves and says he’ll give it a shot — probably the best outcome for a Christian on a mission faced with someone like Artie to “save.” By the end of the episode, he’s doing his own personal baptism: a face-dive into the pool. “That’s good stuff,” he says. “Thank you, Lord.”
However, the crux of the episode follows the weird love triangle between Pete, Leif, and Jess, which comes to a conclusion that doesn’t quite fit into a finale. After Pete and Jess briefly reconnect, she admits to him that her relationship with Leif is over, and when Leif abruptly shows up at the baptism to try to win Jess back, she loudly rejects him. Feeling completely lost, Jess finds herself moved by the pastor’s speech at the baptism, specifically about returning home to God after straying far from the path. This prompts Jess to publicly crash the baptism demanding to be risen, which in turn prompts both Pete and Leif to awkwardly join her in the pool and respectively confess their love. Despite Leif’s nonsensical protests of love and Pete’s sensible plea to reunite as a family, she chooses Jesus and baptizes herself.
If I squint hard enough, I can sort of see what Holmes and Apatow were trying to do here. Pete feels as lost as Jess, but the difference is that Pete doesn’t know himself as well as he thinks he does. In “Parents,” Pete’s mother bluntly told him that he doesn’t really have a point of view onstage, and that has de facto become Pete’s most compelling struggle. He wants to be a comedian, but he has also expressed reservations about actually working at it, which often details doing menial, degrading labor so he can craft a voice onstage. He also desires stability and balance, two things a comic’s life doesn’t have. After getting fired from Rachael Ray, he questions all of his choices and quietly wonders if anything makes sense.
So when he sees Jess again, lost and alone, begging a snotty, indifferent pastor to bring her back home, Pete all but jumps into her arms. He’s willing to give up the comedy just so they can be together, but the truth is that Pete wants the stability more than his ex-wife. He just doesn’t want to struggle anymore. On the other hand, Jess just wants to return to God for herself, not for anyone else. At her lowest point, she quickly rediscovers faith. Pete already has faith, and it’s not enough. At the end of the day, he’s just a man without prospects, sharing a motel room he can’t afford with his ex-wife’s former lover.
There’s a fairly potent idea in there: A religious man learns that faith alone won’t be able to guide him, while his ex-wife rediscovers God. Yet this idea unfortunately lies in implication. On the surface, it’s a mildly wacky scene featuring melodrama and a baptism pool. Jess’s self-baptism doesn’t garner much catharsis, and then the episode, and subsequently, the season abruptly ends. Pete still doesn’t have a home, and he’s in a much worse place than he was at the beginning of the season, except now he’s even more lost than before. Props to Crashing for ending its debut on a bleak moment, but of course, Holmes soothes the moment with a shirtless Leif, lying in the same motel bed as Pete, eating French fries with his feet.
All in all, “The Baptism” ends the season on an anticlimactic note. It tries to digress from the seasonal patterns with a new setting, but ends up returning to many of the same wells. It tries to connect the various strands in the series — comedy, faith, divorce, etc. — and comes up a little short. It admirably engages with complex ideas, but never follows through on them. At its best, Crashing has many things to say. Here’s hoping that next season it finds a way to actually say them.
The pastor’s talk with Pete is hands-down the best scene in the finale. In short, the pastor prays with Pete and cites a bunch of half-truths as sins: Pete’s a panhandler (actually barking), he committed arson (T.J. Miller’s small fire at Jess’s yard sale), and that he caught Jess in bed with two men (it was only one). The pastor gathered all of this information from gossip within the congregation. “Can you wrap it up?” Pete says through gritted teeth.
Early in the episode, Artie buys Pete a lap dance from a stripper. The situation goes south as soon as Pete suggests her line of work is degrading. In response, she tears into comics and comedy. Her three best insults: (1) “No one’s a bigger degenerate than a comic”; (2) “Every motherfucker and their mother has a one-hour special”; (3) “Comedy died with Richard Pryor.”
Pete’s college roommate and his wife recognize Artie Lange from the family-friendly Christmas film Elf, where he plays a mall Santa.
Another great gag: Everyone finds the pastor’s jokes funny, even though they’re quite bad, mildly irritating Pete.
“John the Baptist. Not a lot of career options with that name.”