Focusing on the individual trials of the Murphy family lends “Breaking Bill” a unity of purpose that pushes the episode past what’s become the series’ predictable path. Sure, a few side characters—still F Is For Family’s weak spot—continue to get more screen time in this second season. But Vic, and Bill’s weird little sidekick Phillip, are deployed well, and the return of Frank’s new boss Smoky retains the entertaining weirdness of his introduction. Plus, obnoxious bully Jimmy gets driven away (possibly to a “Catholic military school”) at the end of the episode thanks to Bill’s quick and devious thinking, so that’s a plus.
But the show’s meat is the Murphys, as they all cope with a house and family full of anger, resentment, disappointment, and bewilderment at the changing world around them, and “Breaking Bill” is at its best in watching them all dare to dream a bit. They all get clobbered, as is the series’ way, but everyone’s story layers in just enough humanity along with the violence, screaming, and occasional petty larceny to make the merest hint of individual triumph echo long after the meager gain is recorded.
Frank, driving 12-hour shifts for Smoky’s delivery business, may get home just minutes before Sue has to get up at 6 a.m. for her job at Plast-a-Ware, but he’s clearly deriving a touch of self-esteem (along with that sweet $1.35 and hour) from the gig. “I love this job, and I’ll take every extra shift I can,” Frank tells Smoky at one point, his enthusiasm tellingly outstripping the tangible rewards he’s getting from driving a truck full of flavored condoms and expired fruit pies. Sue, her clunky salad spinner prototype (which she innocently dubs “the salad tosser”) loaded into the family station wagon, chimes in with the office’s incessantly offensive banter with a confidence gleaned from both fitting in with her asshole coworkers, and from coming up with a genuinely useful idea on her own. Bill has finally saved up enough paper route money to buy a new hockey stick just in time for tryouts, reveling in his first taste of earning power. And Kevin, flush with the two-second radio jingle made from the sprawling prog rock opus of his band Merlin’s Monocle, busies himself passing out thousands of hand-drawn fliers for the band’s first gig, at the evocatively named Paradise Pavilion. (Maureen, as usual, doesn’t get much to do.)
But F Is For Family is built on a foundation of failure, so Frank, after accidentally sleeping until 5 p.m., not only upends the tentative truce he found with Kevin last episode by obsessing about his son’s time-wasting music “hobby,” but also upsets Sue by slighting her big plans at work. Sue continues to find her position as family breadwinner complicated by Frank’s mixed feelings and insensitivity, and the fact that her boorish bosses laugh her invention out of the conference room. (Sure, it’s a unsightly mix of washing machine and bicycle chain, but it’s just a prototype, dammit.) Kevin copes with his father’s scorn over his dreams of rock stardom by heading to the band’s gig over Frank’s furious, meatball-throwing objections, only to find that Paradise Pavilion is an old age home, where the extended prog-rock stylings of Merlin’s Monocle fall on (legitimately) deaf ears.
And Bill, Jimmy having stolen enough of Bill’s hard-earned money to make a new hockey stick out of reach, steals one. The heist itself is a well-observed sequence, playing up ”good Murphy kid” Bill’s heretofore unthinkable act with a ”Chief Brody sees the shark” zoom to emphasize how big a deal it is for a little kid to try to get away with something. Bill, reduced to tears at the world’s continuing contempt (the sporting goods store raised prices so he can’t even afford a lesser stick), is emboldened to criminality by his biggest taste to date of how unfair life is. When things go wrong, it’s upsetting, both for how mundanely terrifying it is for Bill to have his parents called (he gives Jimmy’s name, in a moment of panicked deviousness), and how the meek Phillip joins in with a shocking skateboard assault to the proprietor’s wooden leg. (Phillip got told off by Bill’s hatchet-wielding boss for going fetal when Jimmy stole Bill’s cash, setting the stage for an action that, he confesses later, “made my pee-pee feel good.” Watch out for Phillip.) When Bill, touted by Frank (in comparison to the ever-sullen Kevin) as “my only living son,” runs into the woods to bury the purloined hockey stick in the snow, his guilt only relents once he sees the hated Jimmy being abused by his equally awful father for the crime. “Fuck Jimmy! He’s gone! We’re free!,” bellows Bill to the Phillip and the heavens, his small triumph loaded down with the newfound liberation of having gotten away with being the bad kid, for once.
Bill’s guilt comes from his dad extolling his virtue (“That thing you feel inside is called pride!”), just as Frank’s guilt over lying to Sue about the unemployment office caused him to lose his erection in bed last episode. Similarly, Kevin—after slinking over to Frank after the disastrous gig—echoes his father’s words the morning after Frank’s big mouth cost him an airline job, sighing, “How much shit am I in?” As it turns out, neither was in much shit—at least in the form of the abuse they’re expecting from a family member. Both returning defeated from something they dared hope would give them what they wanted, and both find unexpected sympathy from someone who knows just how they feel. Sue knows how hard it was for Frank to admit he’d blown it as a provider, and Frank knows what it’s like to have your greatest, most precious youthful dream crumble in your hands.
The episode begins with another flashback to the 1958 Frank, here seen as a trim, open-faced Mohican Airlines baggage handler, watching the planes take off and confidently confiding in best work pal young Bob Pogo, that he’d be a pilot, too, one day. Instead, as Frank sees his anger and contempt for his son’s undoubtedly far-fetched rock dreams seep away in the face of Kevin’s humiliation, he finds a kinship in the boy’s failure. But he doesn’t want to pass his disappointment on, his mockery (Jimi Hendrix, to Frank, was just “that drug addict who fucked up the national anthem”) turning into a gentler sort of discouraging life lesson for the boy. “You did your best, you tried hard, and you failed. There’s no shame in striking out,” isn’t a pep talk exactly, but neither is it the dismissive contempt the young Frank received from his father over his pilot dreams.
Last episode, Frank and Kevin had a moment, Kevin’s admission that he doesn’t hate Frank countered by Frank’s that he did, in fact, hate his father. Frank—Kevin’s unlikely success in impressing the one pretty girl who’d heard the concert while visiting her grandparent aside—knows that Kevin (who’s even flunking music) is most likely in for a lifetime of crushed aspirations, too. But he lets him have his moment. And it’s a begrudgingly sweet moment to end on.
- Frank and Smoky’s reluctant bond has only strengthened, as Frank sleepily greets Sue’s farewell kiss with a murmured, “I love you, Smoky.”
- Speaking of Williams’ Smoky, his tale of having sold his albino son to the circus when the boy was born continues to show both the strange depths of Smoky’s mind, and Michael Kenneth Williams’ talent for selling the hell out of a joke. Getting carried away with grief (he never spent the $75, in case the son comes back one day), Smoky desperately asks Frank if, maybe, somehow, Frank is actually the light-skinned boy all grown up. “Tell me Frank Murphy, is your name Larry?!,” is another huge laugh line from Williams.
- F Is For Family keeps trotting out those feral kids for some dull “white trash” jokes. Here, it’s a tossup between feces falling out of the younger kid’s diaper, and their tale of their sketchy parents being taken to “the people zoo” while their grandmother apparently lies grievously injured from a fall at their house.
- Bill’s school is named after Buffalo-based inventor Alfred Southwick, who came up with, among other things, the electric chair.
- Frank’s anger at Kevin’s musical pipe dreams gets pinned partly on the encouraging Vic. Sadly for Frank, Vic’s too-short robe derails his rant with a skillfully deployed view of Vic’s penis.
- Frank, referencing Kevin’s new room in the basement: “As long as you live under my house, you’ll follow my rules.”
- In Frank’s one real, unalloyed triumph of the season, he pops out to threaten one of Bill’s delinquent paper customers with a tire iron after the jerk insults Bill. It’s the little wins.