How many entirely random things must be true for an episode like “The Last Bus in Town” to exist? When first-time showrunner Amanda Peet decided to write a series about the academy — which itself feels a little random — did she remember her former off-Broadway co-star David Duchovny mentioning that he almost finished a Ph.D. in literature? Or is that the kind of random trivia co-creator Annie Wyman, who actually finished her Ph.D. in literature, would know? “I’ll text him,” I imagine Amanda Peet saying. “David randomly owes me one.” And did they know when they launched their heroine’s tenure as chair with a Harold Bloom quote that the acknowledgements section of David Duchovny’s most recent novel would randomly discuss working with him when he studied at Yale in the ’80s? (Do they even know that now?)
“The Last Bus In Town” contains several significant moments of pathos for important characters and one giant payoff for those who have watched since David Duchovny’s name was first mentioned as though the intervening episodes were but a countdown until David Duchovny showed up. That he did it in Mulder’s Speedo was as superfluous to the plot as it was stylish. When I fired up the pilot of The Chair, I did not predict a penultimate episode that would showcase the many facets — actor, novelist, singer-songwriter, erstwhile academic — of David Duchovny’s long, random career. But I digress.
Back at Pembroke, in the last few hours of Ji-Yoon Kim’s life before meeting David Duchovny, she’s again at odds with Dean Larson. The Pembroke Daily is set to run a story that the English department issued a gag order on students talking to the press, which is both a misrepresentation of what Ji-Yoon told Lila and, at the same time, exactly what she told Lila. Unlike Bill, she immediately agrees to work with the PR flack on a statement of apology.
Actions, though, speak louder than words. Larson wants to escalate Bill’s disciplinary hearing to a termination hearing with Ji-Yoon’s say-so, except they don’t give her the option to say no. The dean knows about Bill lecturing hungover after his daughter left for college (in his defense, I think he was still drunk), and about Dafna rescuing him from his scooter accident (“getting rides from female students”), and about the tender, poignant moment he accidentally played a video of his wife in labor and was so mesmerized to see her that he didn’t turn it off (showing “nude videos.”) Then the dean fires his real warning shot: “Are you two involved?” It’s not a question but a threat. The administration is watching you, Ji-Yoon.
Ji-Yoon calls to update Bill, but he doesn’t answer. He’s too busy pitying himself to even clear the pizza and beer detritus from his coffee table, exactly the state his daughter feared for him. When he finally reads the formal letter initiating the termination proceeding, he busts into his wife’s old painkiller cache, then throws in some watermelon weed gummies for that extra-productive double-downer high.
Meanwhile, the neglected Ju Ju theater of Ji-Yoon’s multifront war refuses to be contained today. She accuses her mother of being a “puta” who knows nothing about her Mexican heritage. Upset, Ji-Yoon defends herself, but of course this isn’t about information. It’s about belonging. This time, when Ju Ju’s dropped off at Habi’s house, his protest that she can’t speak Korean feels insensitive. Ji-Yoon insists that Ju Ju understands more than she speaks, and what if that’s right? When her grandfather complains of the language barrier, does she hear something darker — that she’s not Korean enough?
Ji-Yoon doesn’t have time to delve into that right now. While her father takes Ju Ju to a family birthday party, she’s off to tutor David Duchovny on the past three decades of English literature scholarship. When she arrives at his country house, he’s doing laps in his indoor pool. It’s pretty sick, basically an ad for quitting your Ph.D. and becoming a Hollywood star instead.
For his distinguished-lectureship talk, David tells Ji-Yoon he’d like to revisit his doctoral thesis on Beckett. Heck, he might even finish and submit it. She’s supposedly there to help him, but she’d rather shame him. Objectively, it’s a bad look for Ji-Yoon. She rattles off newer schools of critical theory — new materialism, digital humanities, book history — to intimidate him, but those are just categories for types of observations and insights that anyone can have regardless of knowing the categories. Could there be an academic discipline more immediately accessible than literature? Isn’t that what makes it so special? Just pick up a book and think about it. It’s intellectually bullying, but David’s no better behaved: “Is this hostility because Pembroke is, like, this lower-tier Ivy and I went to Princeton and Yale?”
Eventually, and in contravention to her mission there, she tells David she’d rather give the lectureship to someone else. She’ll get him an honorary doctorate if he’ll please just renege. For the first time all season, and with star of stage and screen David Duchovny no less, Ji-Yoon successfully fends off a man threatening to railroad her English department. It’s so random.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Bill’s attending Ju Ju’s cousin Minji’s first birthday party in his sweatpants after being intercepted on his drunken pilgrimage to McDonald’s. While Ji-Yoon’s gossipy aunties talk shit on her “Frankenstein” family (Mexican daughter, no husband, derelict boyfriend), Ju Ju sits Bill at a gracious and welcoming men’s table, where he proceeds to get extravagantly drunk. This is not the kind of drunk you can get at a child’s party; especially on TV, there will be consequences.
The main event of the celebration is Minji’s Doljabi ceremony — the object she crawls to and picks up signifies her future. Ju Ju knows all about it, which has me curious how old she was when she was adopted. How many Doljabis has she been to? Did she have one? Does she wish she did? Bill is growing irate that the adults are lobbying Minji to pick the money when she wants the paintbrush. The scene doesn’t really work as an analogy for what’s going on in Bill’s life — it’s just high talk. In a different show that I’m thrilled not to be watching right now, Minji would ingest one of those pills Bill drops among her Doljabi objects, but The Chair spares us.
It also spares us scenes of banishment. Instead of rejecting Ji-Yoon’s degenerate boyfriend, her father sees him safely home. Those gossipy aunties clear up Bill’s living room as Ju Ju finishes her Día de los Muertos altar for Sharon. It’s a testament to the Kims’ loveliness, and should he and Ji-Yoon ever take the romantic plunge, Bill would be lucky to have them. And there are glimmers that Ji-Yoon would be lucky to have Bill, too. He wants to know what Ji-Yoon picked for her own Dol ceremony; he beams when Mr. Kim says the pencil — teaching was her destiny.
And maybe teaching is what she should focus on, because the blowhards who fill out the English department are starting to feel beneath Ji-Yoon’s concern. When Yaz confronts Elliott about the tepid tenure letter he wrote on her behalf, he curiously recasts it as a favorable letter. Incensed, she tells him about Ji-Yoon’s merging their classes to boost his enrollment and how his name is on a forced-retirement hitlist. He takes off to form a cabal with the other oldies, all under the same impression that they would be paid to bore students to death until their mortal husks gave out.
Even Ji-Yoon’s victory over the distinguished lectureship is short-lived. Yaz has accepted an offer to give her talk at Yale, where she has been offered an endowed professorship with expedited tenure. The argument that follows feels accidental, a series of slights and recriminations about how to operate as a minority woman in the white man’s milieu. Yaz accuses Ji-Yoon of running around and playing nice, of giving them too much credit just for inviting her to the party. It’s more complicated than that, which Ji-Yoon points out and Yaz already knows. Ji-Yoon chose to be the first Asian female tenured English professor at Pembroke because of colleagues like Joan and Bill and Yaz. But there have been enough tenured Black women in other English departments that Yaz doesn’t have to break a barrier. She can teach at Yale, where maybe fighting the Elliots won’t be daily life.
Ji-Yoon seems broken, and she doesn’t even know about the coup yet. When she finally makes it home, she’s greeted by a trail of marigolds and photographs of her mother, who died when she was only 14. Ju Ju made an altar for her grandmother and namesake, Je-Hoo. Nothing is going the way she planned at work or at home, but Ji-Yoon is the mother of this lovely, curious, complicated kid, and she saw David Duchovny in the iconic red Speedo, so at least it’s not all bad.