“Fortress of Solitude” strikes me as an instant improvement over the first episode of Shrinking. It’s funnier, more emotional, and more complex. Without the burden of establishing the show’s premise, there’s time to hang out with the ensemble. It allows us to actually like these characters — and it brings out deeper truths that “Coin Flip” didn’t have time to explore.
For one, “Coin Flip” hardly allowed us to get to know Jimmy’s daughter, Alice, as a person. She was just the sullen teenager who, for valid reasons, had little interest in hanging out with her dad. Now she’s willing to make more of an effort if Jimmy is. She can’t completely drop her anger and act like the past year never happened, but she can try to spend more time with him and begin the process of forgiveness. Similarly, Jimmy wishes he could skip past the hard part and return to a place of comfort and closeness with Alice. That’s a common theme in Shrinking: Everyone wants to rush through the messiness of life and arrive at a point where they don’t have to hurt anymore.
In this episode, we understand how Alice has gotten by this past year: with a support network largely made up of Jimmy’s friends. His neighbors Derek (Ted McGinley) and, especially, Liz have almost become surrogate parents for Alice — with Taco Tuesdays and regular communication with her teachers. It has gotten to the point that Liz’s presence is becoming overbearing, and Gaby goes so far as to tell her to back off so that Jimmy has more time to reconnect with Alice. Liz emotionally recounts a time she overheard Gaby and Jimmy’s late wife (Tia) talking about how much of a “mom” she was. It’s an interesting peek at Liz’s insecurities.
But it seems like not even Jimmy knows just how much Alice relies on Paul, whom she’s meeting regularly for chats in the park. He reminds her not to let her grief drown her and kill her relationships and social life — she should join her friend for “bridge drinks” later that night, but first, she should eat dinner with her dad. I like seeing Paul in a gentler mode here than at work, where he’s almost frustratingly private. And in general, I appreciate this look at Alice’s support system. You can imagine how it may have gradually formed in the wake of Tia’s death as Jimmy became unreliable as a guardian.
Alice tries to take Paul’s advice, bringing chicken sandwiches home. Unfortunately, the timing is terrible: Jimmy has decided to take up his old attorney friend Brian (Michael Urie) on his pickleball invitation. Jimmy spent a year dodging Brian, but he had to get in touch this week when Sean needed help convincing Grace’s husband not to press charges. Urie makes for an invigorating new personality — a healthy dose of energy and aggression that this show may have needed. When Brian tells Sean he doesn’t know what he did to make his best friend ghost him, the pain is palpable on his face.
It leads to a tender scene when Jimmy sets Brian off again after refusing to get real with him. Brian can’t possibly conceive of why his grieving friend would’ve rejected the company of “human Zoloft,” but Jimmy eloquently points out that that’s exactly the problem: Brian wouldn’t let Jimmy be miserable and feel his feelings like he needed to. Brian’s catchphrase is “everything goes my way,” which sounds almost taunting when said to someone whose wife just died. The scene ends with a nice bit of dark comic relief when Brian points out, “I never said everything goes your way,” but their long-overdue reconciliation is cathartic to watch — surprisingly so for a character we only really met in this episode.
The irony, of course, is that Jimmy is making the same mistake in his professional relationships that Brian did in their personal one. Jimmy won’t let his patients work through their feelings on a natural (albeit long) timetable. From his point of view, it’s worth it to directly confront them about issues that might otherwise linger and impact their mental health for years. That means taking his antisocial patient Dan to the coffee shop to force him into a tentative conversation with the barista whose small talk regularly ruins his day. And it means telling his most obsession-prone patient that it’s magical thinking to believe any of her compulsions will help her maintain control over the universe. While we don’t see the consequences of these sessions, it’s clear that Jimmy’s advice won’t do much to help either patient in the long term.
Jimmy has been hiding the worst of his transgressions from Paul, who finds out about the soccer-game brawl from Alice. He cautions Jimmy against letting his professional life bleed into his personal life — but by the end of the episode, Jimmy has gone in the complete opposite direction, inviting Sean to crash at his place for a while. Maybe Jimmy wasn’t totally responsible for missing out on dinner with Alice that night, but it’s immediately clear that this is a bad idea for everybody involved. How are you going to invite new people into your home and your family when you’ve been neglecting your relationship with your own daughter? It’s one step forward and two steps back for Jimmy and Alice, and it’s a reminder that the path to closeness won’t be linear. These things take time, and both of them will need to accept that.
• My biggest laugh of the show so far is the sight gag of Jimmy showing only half his face on his Zoom session with Grace even when he turns the laptop.
• The meeting with Alice’s guidance counselor is funny but a good illustration of how Liz has stepped in during Jimmy’s absence. I like the moment when she leaves Jimmy to handle the rest of the meeting but he has to immediately call her back to talk about Alice’s plan for AP classes.
• I have to say, the occasional racial humor isn’t really landing for me. Sean’s comment about pickleball being for white people just feels like a little too easy of a joke (even if it’s true).
• More Vampire Weekend! This time it’s “This Life.”
• There is a subtle payoff to Gaby’s water-bottle gift from “Coin Flip” when we see Paul using it.
• Okay, Jimmy’s impression of Gary Oldman as Dracula has to be a reference to Segel’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall character, right?