Michaela Watkins, Eliza Coupe

Oh, Valerie.

That could really be revised to say “oh, everyone,” but since so much of the series to this point has been either “oh, Alex” or “oh, Laura,” Valerie’s little adventure seems more monumental. It’s not that she hasn’t done some selfish or foolish things previously—as terrible as Drew is, she really shouldn’t have locked him in the garage—but heading into the final episode of Casual’s terrific first season, writer Halsted Sullivan and director Fred Savage sent her right over the edge and into the land of Being a Real Asshole.

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It runs in the family, I guess. Before we get to the good stuff in this episode—and there’s plenty of it—the biggest issue remains the borderline cartoonish villainy of Charles Cole (Fred Melamed). To be clear, that doesn’t seem to be an acting issue. Melamed’s performance is teeth-grating in exactly the way the script seems to demand, and if the only goal was to make him appear to be self-centered, callous, and oblivious in the way that Dawn (Frances Conroy) is, that would be one thing. Intolerable parents exist, both in fiction and in life. So do terrible people who abuse (emotionally and physically) their children. But in laying it on so thick, Lehmann and company sap a great deal of the sting out of the really unkindest cut of all.

Charles doesn’t just say and do shitty things. He seems to do and say them in the shittiest way possible. Take the non-invitation to the poker game as an example: the point of the line would be clear if all we got was “there’s a kind of honor in playing it safe.” But by beginning that with “Some people might call you a coward, but…,” the scene makes it impossible to believe that Charles doesn’t know just how much meanness that sentence carries. If there were only a few such lines and actions, it wouldn’t be an issue, but after two episodes in a row, it’s a bit much. Worst of all, it lessens the impact of the ultimate act of cruelty: the revelation that any kindness from Charles, including asking Alex to be the best man, was intended only to help wring a lot of money out of his son. Imagine the power of that moment, which already packed a wallop, if Casual left room for viewers to believe that Charles was at all sincere.

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Still, it’s one issue—albeit a big one—in another solid, thoughtful episode. Most of the half hour is spent with Valerie and Emmy, who go from butting heads (largely because Valerie makes her issues with Emmy so clear) to connecting in more ways than one. Casual has left threads dangling at the ends of episodes before, from Dawn’s unexpected arrival to Alex’s one solitary match on Snooger, but this is the first time they’ve ended an episode with something that feels like a cliffhanger. Oh, Valerie.

The final episode of the season seems sure to dive into what, exactly, made Valerie climb into Alex’s bed with Emmy—and no, “we were on drugs” isn’t reason enough—but that unsettling dream sequence seems to open the door on a few possibilities. Whatever the reason deep down, it’s about Alex, and jealousy, and fear. “The desire for love,” Dawn said to Valerie on the world’s most awkward hike, “is a powerful thing. If you force him to choose, he may not choose you.” Without that line (and that dream) it might be reasonable to dismiss her choice as a stupid mistake, but in including both, Sullivan makes such a thing impossible. The final shots, first of Valerie’s face and then Alex’s, paired with the silent credits, do what Charles’s callousness couldn’t: deliver a merciless punch to the gut.

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While Alex gets the worst of it this week, Laura has a pretty bad day herself. Skipping the reception (and is that what it was? the suggestion seemed to be that the wedding would be happening later), Laura picks a flier out of the trash and heads to Michael’s art show for reasons that don’t seem to make sense, even to her. There, at least, she gets a sharp slap to the head that seems to finally make her own foolishness clear, and while it’s likely a positive realization after all, it’s clear that it hurts. Sending Laura home to her mother’s bed, rather than her own, makes that pain all the more sharp, and knowing how much she misses her mom makes the inevitable fallout of Valerie’s hookup seem even more dread-inspiring.

So Happy Thanksgiving, Casual fans. It looks like things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

Stray observations

  • It’s not really quotable, but that little “so good” after Emmy shows up with the sandwiches was gold.
  • “That was an awkward family dinner, that night. We had rice!”
  • “You called marriage ‘choiceful imprisonment.’” “And now I’m wise enough to make that choice.”
  • This has been true all season, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before: the original music (by Mateo Messina) is terrific, and ties individual scenes and stories together in all the ways a great score should.
  • It’s heartening to see that while Valerie (at least initially) looks down on Emmy’s choices with regard to being open, the show doesn’t—and the issue with Terrible Parents isn’t so much that they fucked around, but that they had so little concern for their children while doing so.
  • Worst hike ever.

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