What happens to a family when the glue holding it together decides to take a break? Does the world end? Does time stop? Will the family crumble under the weight of added responsibility, usually shouldered by one person without complaint? This question feels like an age-old sitcom trope — take Mom out of the picture and watch the world crumble — but this week’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat tackles it with grace and aplomb. Removing Jessica Huang from the picture would dramatically change the show, of course, but “Time to Get Ill” subverts this a bit by exploring Jessica’s desires to be something other than the all-seeing Eye of Sauron for her family.
As the episode opens, Jessica intuits everything her wards are doing. Evan’s over-milking his cereal. Emery’s trying to bring one too many combs to school. Eddie’s nose-deep in a book about Fish-head Jackson and King Crawdad, two wrestlers gearing up for a fight of the century on pay-per-view. Louis just wants to know which jacket to wear to work. Jessica runs the household with an efficiency that is terrifying. After she trundles her children and husband off to their respective occupations, she’s going to clean the house, return a library book, stage a house with Honey, try on her wedding dress to make sure it still fits and get it all done in time to have dinner on the table. The trouble is, she’s sick.
Or, at least she’s getting sick. There’s sneezing. There’s coughing into the laundry. Despite her repeated use of white flower oil, which cures everything including air-quoted “depression,” it seems that she might becoming down with something, even though it might take her actually dying to fully realize that. Thankfully it doesn’t come to that — Honey lets her know in no uncertain terms that despite what Jessica thinks she looks like, she’s actually, really sick. “Toe-up” is the technical term Honey employed — she’s right. She’s sick.
Who takes care of Jessica when Jessica takes care of everyone else? What happens to the house when the person in charge has to lay down and rest? These are the questions her family grapples with when they return to find her laid out. Seizing the opportunity to do the kinds of things Jessica would never let slide, they unilaterally decide that they’re going to do something that Jessica would never, ever allow them to do: They’re going to watch Fish-head Jackson and King Crawdad wrestle it out in the Battle of the Swamp Creatures. Clearing it with Backup Mom is easy — the promise of two adults dressed like animals fighting each other is enough for Evan.
With the door open for one transgression, a whole host of others follow. Louis buys a bigger TV and a plan is in place: do homework, get the fight snacks, clean the house, and check on Jessica to make sure that she’s sufficiently passed out. They give her with NyQuil and turn the humidifier on extra loud. She can’t hear anything. They’re good to go.
Life with Dad is all ginger ale and mixed nuts and Carmen Electra cutouts at the grocery store. Everyone’s over and ready to watch the fight, albeit very, very quietly. Jessica’s sleeping after all, and to wake the Eye of Sauron would be bad news for everyone. As the camera pans across a crowded stadium, a familiar face peers out next to Honey, who’s in attendance — Jessica.
Her bed is made. She’s gone. She left the humidifier on to cover her tracks.
Later that night, Jessica sneaks in the house and opens her bedroom door to find her entire family there, sitting on the bed looking very disappointed. The jig is up! They know she was there. Don’t worry, she’ll explain everything. She was really sick, but just for one day — a night of good sleep knocked whatever bug she had right out. But the sheer pleasure of having one more day of uninterrupted Jessica time was too wonderful to give up. Honey called and invited her to see the Battle of the Swamp Creatures, selling it as a sweatier and more violent Melrose Place. She didn’t feel she could go, though, because she holds the family together. She had a sneaking suspicion that her house would be in total disarray, but when she peeked and saw that everyone was doing exactly what they should be doing without her telling them to do it, she realized that she could buy herself a little more Jessica-time. So she faked it, taking a break from her responsibilities and her regular life.
The chills she had when they came in to check on her? Ice-cream headache, induced by the Chipwich she was eating in bed. That coughing fit that caused them to send her straight back under the covers was a ruse to hide the wrestling magazine she was reading. She faked out her family, finished that Chipwich, and snuck out when they went to the grocery store. And then, of course, they saw her. On pay-per-view — a fact that Louis blurts out without thinking, blowing their cover.
The reason they went through the tricks and the deception and the sneaking around is that Jessica’s uncanny way of knowing absolutely everything before they’ve even done it and making a comment about it is a bit extra. Everyone needs space to let loose, though she might need it more. Her life is vigilance and boy clothes day in and day out — if she can have some freedom, they can, too. Not everyone in the family should have to alter their lives so drastically in order to just live.
Without Jessica’s guidance, they’re fine. How nice it is when things work out!