In this week’s episode of Parenthood, when the doctors and nurses rolled Zeek Braverman toward the operating room from which he knew he might not emerge, it was pretty impossible to fight off the tears. That was partly because of Craig T. Nelson’s delivery of his open-heart farewell to Bonnie Bedelia. “I’m scared, Millie,” Zeek said, his voice cracking so severely that his last words came out like a baby bird’s squawk. “I’ll see ya.” But it was also because of the way Camille responded after Zeek was whisked away, leaving her with just his wedding band of gold to clutch. The camera kept its eye on Camille in that moment, and it let us see her break, then attempt to regroup. It was the rare occasion when Parenthood has given Bedelia the space and time to let some personal, intense emotion naturally spill out of her character. That was nice and moving to see.
For a few moments, it even made me think that Zeek — maybe, perhaps — wouldn’t make it through the episode. If his own wife is getting so upset, I theorized, for maybe a millisecond, she must know something. She must sense that this is the end.
Of course, in my Braverman-iest of Braverman hearts, I knew Zeek would make it through surgery just fine. After all, this was only episode three in a final season of 13 episodes. If the man’s going to go, it probably won’t happen until somewhere between episodes seven and nine. Which is fine, by the way. I don’t particularly want to lose Nelson from the ensemble. But I definitely wanted a little more from this episode: maybe a deeper, in-the-marrow fear that Zeek really might die, or a tighter focus on what was happening in that hospital. Keeping the narrative fixated there and not allowing it to drift away — to Ruby’s shoplifting issues, or to Amber’s ridonkulous road-trip to Wyoming — would have helped. Every time I felt like I was really digging into Zeek’s situation and how all of his kids were struggling to cope in that waiting room, I got tugged away by a subplot or by Crosby’s decision to hop on a motorcycle and nearly get himself killed. (Honestly, when he was zooming around those California curves, I had a massive Matthew Crawley–on–Downton Abbey–hitting-a-lorry flashback. Which would have been terrible. But also, at the same time, the most unexpected, gutsy thing Parenthood has ever done. Kill off the younger son while the patriarch’s life theoretically hangs in the balance: that would have been a corker, wouldn’t it?)
I hesitate to suggest that Parenthood should have semi-replicated something from another show, especially when that show also happened to star Peter Krause. But dammit, I have to be honest: I kept wishing the writers had approached this hour in a way that vaguely echoed Six Feet Under’s “Ecotone,” the HBO series’s season-five episode that placed several members of the Fisher family in a hospital waiting room following the (“Narm!”) seizure of Nate. There was a sense of palpable awkwardness, claustrophobia, and fear-primed-to-become-grief that permeated that entire episode, even when it briefly cut away to other matters. I wanted that same mix of jittery weepiness for this hour of Parenthood, as unfair as it is to impose such preconceived notions on a show with a very different tone and sensibility.
All of that said: I still teared up a few times and was really floored by one moment in particular. Which I will discuss, after I address the silliest thing in this episode: that Amber and Drew road trip.
As Drew noted, it takes 18 hours to get from San Francisco to Wyoming. Eight-teen hou-errrs. That’s a long way to go — even longer than randomly going to Vegas — especially without calling ahead first to make sure Ryan’s going to be around during the day and not, say, at a matinee of Boyhood. It also was puzzling that: (a) Amber would make that journey at the same time her Grandpa was undergoing major surgery; and (b) that she felt so strongly about revealing the pregnancy to Ryan in person when she (allegedly) was so determined to raise the child alone. Clearly she was conflicted; part of her, it seemed to me, wanted to hear him say he was determined to be a father to that kid. But also, clearly, the Parenthood writers wanted her (and Drew) to put an unnecessary amount of mileage on that beautiful classic car so she could confront those conflicted feelings while talking directly to Matt Lauria. Oh, and also so she could confront them via an argument with Drew that inevitably led to Drew accusing Ryan of being just like their father. (Saw that coming from more than 1,000 miles away. Which, coincidentally, according to Google Maps, is how many miles there are between San Francisco and Wyoming.)
The one digression from Zeek’s surgery that worked for me — because really, let’s not even waste our time talking about Ruby’s decision to go all Winona on a tube of lip gloss — involved Julia’s relationships with Joel and Not Joel. When Not Joel sent her that waiting-room survival kit inspired by Zeek, it made me almost — almost — like the guy enough to start actually referring to him as Chris. That grand, Twizzler-related gesture clearly won over Julia, enough that she finally told Joel that she was seeing someone, which led to the moment that floored me in this episode. Sam Jaeger’s ten long seconds of speechlessness, followed by his hastiness to end that phone call after that confession, felt utterly real and heartbreaking. That’s how a man would react when he finds out his wife has moved on and he hasn’t. That’s how it feels when you care about your wife and her family, yet you’re still being replaced by some other guy who only kind of, sort of knows them. That wasn’t a cry moment. But it was Parenthood and its actors getting a moment absolutely right. (By the way, in case you’re wondering why Joel, who’s separated from Julia, seemed so concerned about Zeek, while Kristina, who’s still married to Adam, didn’t seem concerned at all, please remember that, in order to keep budgets in check, all the principal cast members will not appear in every episode this season. Clearly this was Monica Potter’s week to sit on the bench, which also means there won’t be a “Weekly Airing of Grievances About the Chambers Academy.” This is a relief, as well as, I must admit, a little sad.
Hey, speaking of sadness, here are the two key cry moments from this episode:
Cry Moment 1: Zeek goes into surgery. This was discussed at the beginning of the cry-cap. But just to reiterate: It was a moment of high emotion, brought to life by two actors who know their characters well enough to know how hard they’d be trying to keep themselves in check. It was lovely and sad and a cause for all kinds of verklemptness. Cry factor, on a scale of one tear to five: 4.
Cry Moment 2: Zeek gets out of surgery. Once Zeek was in recovery, Camille and the kids got to go see him, embarking on a non-death march that was set to the tune of Sean Rowe’s “The Long Haul.” The rising waters in Sarah’s and Crosby’s eyes, in particular, as they watched their father slowly open his — well, that got to me. But the fact that the episode ended on Zeek and Camille clasping hands, echoing the way last week’s episode ended, was the tear icing on a cry cake. Cry factor: 3.5.