Toward the end of “Love Is A Long Road,” as Bobby and Andy bemoan their unsuccessful quest to pick out the best possible gift for Travis’ college graduation, Tom chimes in at the end of the bar with his own thoughts on what graduation means: “It’s a milestone. A time to consider where you’ve gone but also where you’ve been. … It’s nostalgia.” The musings evoke Mad Men’s best pitch ever (perhaps Ellie wasn’t wrong when she jokingly dubbed Tom Gulfhaven’s own Don Draper earlier this season), a reminder that going forward is so often intertwined with going back and that memories of the past are sometimes the most welcome thing in the present.
And there’s more than a bit of that nostalgic feeling surrounding “Love Is A Long Road,” the penultimate episode of season five. With no word on renewal from TBS at the time of airing, this could be the second-to-last go-round for the wine-drinking misfits of the Freeling Drive cul-de-sac, and everyone involved has to know that’s a real possibility. There’s a sense of harmony at multiple points in the episode, that if the show has to end here, it’s going to do so at a point where it leaves its beloved characters happy. There’s no setup for a big season-ending cliffhanger or a victory lap of easy fan service jokes, just Cougar Town doing well what it’s done well for years.
That feeling of nostalgia is also grounded in the fact that Cougar Town is visiting very familiar ground with the plot of this episode. More specifically, it’s revisiting the last time Travis graduated, completing his high school experience in season one’s penultimate episode, “Breakdown.” Once again, the celebratory air of the event spurs the group on various adventures and conflicts, all of which run parallel to the events of the earlier episode. Jules and Grayson are feuding about privacy again, this time triggered by the decision to invite Chick into their home. Ellie and Laurie reignite their long-standing feud once graduation planning puts the latter in a position to usurp Ellie’s role as Jules’s best friend. And after the 70-foot inflatable gorilla with Travis’s face on it last time, Bobby and Andy are trying to top it with a new, even bigger gift. (Which is impossible, because how do you top a 70-foot gorilla? You can’t!) Rarely if ever has Cougar Town so directly paid homage to an earlier episode, and the result is a deep reward for the continuity nerds that make up a chunk of its fanbase—it goes past running gags to a level of historical awareness more at home on How I Met Your Mother.
Where “Love Is A Long Road” truly succeeds, though, isn’t in how it manages to emulate the structure of “Breakdown,” but in how it shows how far its characters have come since that point. Take Jules and Grayson: At the time of “Breakdown” they were in the early stages of a relationship, feeling out their tolerance for each other’s quirks and learning how to listen to each other. Here, they’ve been married for two years and in a relationship for two years before that, and the beats of their feud about Chick are the same argument they’ve had for years. Jules is so committed to making people happy she’ll sacrifice all personal space, while Grayson needs his privacy to a level she’s never truly understood. Early fights ran the risk they were too similar to be together, while this fight is a groove their relationship falls into every so often by simple virtue of their personalities.
That doesn’t mean either of them are still in a place where they can recognize what fight they’re having, which is where Chick proves he can still be the voice of reason. The concerns about Chick’s health introduced at the end of “Refugee” are shelved for the course of the episode, which allow for standard unwelcome visitor humor as he watches World War II’s greatest hits and proclaims when he’s going to the bathroom. While it removes some of the pathos of that earlier interaction, keeping Chick sharp allows him to fire off his own truth guns to let Jules know he expects Grayson to be rankled by his presence and is in fact reassured by how he’s giving it a chance. It pushes both to an exaggerated PDA session in the town square, another far cry from the early days when they were playing it tight to the vest, and a reassurance that whatever happens next, these crazy kids will be all right.
Similarly, the conflict between Laurie and Ellie goes through some of the same beats that we’ve seen these characters go through many times before, but it’s different because they’re so different. “Love Is A Long Road” proves the change in that relationship by flipping the roles from where they were in “Breakdown,” where this time it’s Laurie gleefully rubbing something in Ellie’s face and Ellie’s confidence left shattered and looking for an outburst. (Both actresses get great beats to play, between Busy Philipps dancing a victory dance and Christa Miller hurling an entire cake against the wall.) The conflict between the two in “Breakdown” was a far more loaded one—culminating in the murder of one of Ellie’s beloved giant hats—largely because their relationship was still at an acidic point. At this point in their friendship, the sting has gone out of the barbs, so much so that Ellie’s comfortable enough in Laurie’s presence to admit she’s feeling left out, and Laurie can say something nice and truly mean it. And four years later, Laurie finally gets to pay Ellie’s reluctant consideration forward: It’s her turn to tell Jules that the third member of their group’s feeling left out so the balance can be remedied.
As for Bobby and Andy, their plot is on the sillier side of things, largely because—as previously stated—topping a 70-foot gorilla is a tall order. They revisit their old idea of using fireworks to make a point (“Like Independence Day! The movie, not the holiday”) and wind up arrested for their trouble, and then go off on a crazy road trip to track down wrestling guests for the occasion. Unlike the other pairings on the show, Bobby and Andy have never felt much need to grow up together, content to be the idiot man-children when they’re together even as they mature in other stories. And that parity keeps both men entertaining, and it’s also a bond stronger than one shared by the majority of the cast.
Yet these efforts feel a touch empty, which gets to the problem “Love Is A Long Road” has compared to “Breakdown”: an episode ostensibly about Travis’s graduation barely features Travis. I’ve said before that once Travis reached drinking age, the show entirely lost interest in telling stories about him at college, and the graduation reflects that disinterest. There are no sightings of his former roommates Kevin or Sig, no indication that the show cares about his education beyond digs at his graduation from art school, or even any dwelling by Travis on the fact that he’s moving on to a new phase of life. Where “Breakdown” explored Travis’ insecurities about leaving a mark and his desire to make Bobby feel special, here, he’s just walking into Ellie trying to seduce him to earn points with Jules.
If the pathos is lacking in that instance, the episode makes up for it by going to chaos. “Breakdown” ended with the entire cast throwing decorum out the window and chasing a red balloon down the middle of a field, and “Love Is A Long Road” amps it up even further with the introduction of two professional wrestlers having an all-out brawl right in front of the stage. It turns into another stretch of anarchy as Bobby, Andy, and Tom get tossed around by two professional wrestlers, with the ladies looking on in a sense of amusement. (Once again, Grayson’s above the fray, if only because this time he’s too busy discussing JFK conspiracy theories with his father-in-law to notice the brawl in front of him.) Next week may indeed be the end of Cougar Town, but if the show must go gentle into that good night, it’s going to leave enough moments to keep viewers nostalgic for a long time to come.
- Title card: “Wine Spectator gave this episode 96 points.” This puts it on par with a 2010 Chateau Canon La Gaffelire from Saint-Emilion Grand Cru in France and a 2010 Lewis Cellars Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, California.
- Full disclosure: If I hadn’t rewatched “Breakdown” prior to writing this I would have probably put this episode closer to a B, but being one of those aforementioned continuity nerds, I have to tip my hat to how well they emulated the earlier installment without rehashing it.
- Revisiting season one of Cougar Town for the purpose of this review was a wonderful excuse to remember that season’s greatest moment. And its collection of good-to-great moments.
- New game: Slap-a-dope! Gibbs-tested, Chick-approved.
- Someone register the patents on wine crutches ASAP. Right is red, left is white. I assume the latter is the thinking crutch.
- Jules waxes poetic about how her son grew up right: “If you could have seen that drunken hair-sprayed beach trash and that dip-spitting mullethead who conceived that kid, you’d never have expected this.” Laurie: “Which one were you?” Jules: “I don’t remember.”
- Bobby’s first gift to Travis was building a Ninja Turtles sewer lair replica in an actual sewer for preschool graduation. “We played Ninja Turtles for three hours and got sick for five months!”
- “To show my gratitude, I will allow you to hug me.”
- “A stolen police badge! How much?”
- “I’m sleeping with her son, and that’s basically cheating.”
- “I’m gonna get a shiv and stab Captain Carnage.”
- Season (series?) finale next week. No way to know if this’ll be last call for Cougar Town or not, but you better get your best wine out of storage just in case.