(Screenshot: Netflix)

“When you dig for oil, sometimes you hit a sewer pipe!”

When Frank and Sue finally have it out, F Is For Family shows the limits of catharsis. At the couples’ retreat, Frank finally does what Sue claims she wants him to do. Frank Murphy spills his guts, telling Sue that the loss of his job and Sue’s growing success at hers has forced all the patriarchal shit he was brought up believing right into his mind, and out of his mouth. Shifting through mockery to anger to eyes-averted confession, Frank lets Sue have the truth in stages, finally admitting to her that losing his traditional role as head of the family has left him humiliated and bitter, even to the extent that he’s found himself wishing for Sue to fail. Somberly calling Sue’s Salad Tosser brainstorm “brilliant,” he tells her, “I guess it bugs me that my dream’s in the past, but yours is ahead of you.” It’s the sort of classic dramatic breakthrough in communication and honestly that generally leads to hugs, tears, and happy resolution, not Sue’s response here of a furious, “You motherfucker!”

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F Is For Family isn’t about easy resolutions, where, to repeat the cliché most TV series are built on, “acknowledging the problem is the first step to fixing it.” What F Is For Family has done best is to show how the shouting matches and conflicts the show is built on are informed by the seemingly inextricable reality of the internal and external forces that define us, whether we recognize them or not. Should Sue have known that, in asking Frank to dig deeper, she was all but guaranteeing a discovery she couldn’t accept? Sure. But that’s the most insightful part of the whole mess here. When we, trapped in our own messes, demand “total honesty” from someone important to us, we’re secretly hoping the answer we get will not be the worst case scenario we , deep down, know it to be. Sue snaps at Frank’s admission that his own insecurities and predispositions make him view their marriage as a competition, and that he can’t accept that Sue could win it. The clues were all there for Sue to see, except that she’s right there in the mess too. There’s no perspective inside a mess, and, in digging for oil, Sue’s found that her marriage is in deep, deep shit indeed.

The battle of the sexes narrative of F Is For Family, tied as it is to the show’s 1970s setting, only exacerbates the Murphys’ troubles. Starting out as two too-young parents in the late 50s, Sue and Frank accidentally backed into what were still, to them, clearly defined roles. Last season saw Sue not so much rebelling against her 15 years of wife-and-motherhood as physically rejecting it, to the point where she found herself weeping alone at the family breakfast table for no reason she (or especially Frank) could understand. Finding some much-needed (if deeply problematic and compromised) freedom in busting out of that role with her new job, Sue navigated Frank’s wounded pride and ego as best she could, imagining, as we all do, that things would work out, somehow. But relationships are complicated under the best circumstances, and the Murphys—with their money problems and personal issues raging daily around them—were going to explode eventually. Now they have, as the couple returns exhausted and smarting from the supposedly cleansing retreat and snipe and shout at each other. Frank slouches in a chair while Sue, hearing Bob Pogo’s message that the plan to get Frank’s job back is a go, sneers an acid, “I sure hope you don’t fail. See, it wasn’t that hard, was it?” They can’t even deny their animosity to Maureen, something they’ve both been so invested in hiding from their youngest child in the past. The retreat brought out honesty, and catharsis, but F Is For Family has, for all its faults, convincingly built a world where knowing the worst about the people you love sometimes means learning things you can’t live with. Hugs aren’t going to cut it.

(Screenshot: Netflix)

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While their parents are away for the weekend, the Murphy kids’ storylines come to their boiling points as well. Bill, terrorized by the vengeance-minded Jimmy, apologizes to Phillip with a coveted Willie Stargell baseball card, and the two use Phillip’s disturbing fantasy-journaling skills to plot a way to get rid of their mutual tormentor. Meanwhile, Kevin breaks down at Vic’s party and finally confesses about having slept with Cutie Pie (I’m gonna sigh every time I remember that that’s her name), in the form of a prog rock ballad of contrition that, nonetheless, sends the drug-fueled Vic on a pistol-packing rampage that clears out the place. Both stories pay off the kids’ (and Vic’s) journeys this season in entertaining enough fashion. I’d say “predictable fashion” as well, except that Bill and Phillip’s childishly elaborate scheme (involving a bike chase, a rope, and a convenient port-a-potty) winds up being thwarted (Jimmy just rides around the clotheslining), only for Bill’s stoner paper route boss to rather shockingly plow into Jimmy with his van. (“My name is Jimmy Fitzsimmons!,” Randy yells as he flees the scene, hilariously demonstrating that Bill’s impromptu “blame Jimmy” strategy is apparently a well-known one around town.)

With each Kevin and Bill’s subplots playing out in violent mayhem, it’d be tempting to look at the chaos as standard sitcom stuff, except that each does a nice job of paying off the characters’ arcs within the broad shenanigans. Kevin can’t just come out and tell Vic what he’s done. Instead, all his days of guilty teenage stewing have led him to compose an mini rock opera about his misdeed, complete with oversharing lyrics about his masturbatory habits. Likewise, Vic’s laid-back, playboy lifestyle has been heading for some kind of disaster. (He has been shown driving while coked out of his mind and reclined so far he can’t see the road). Cutie Pie’s reasons for sleeping with Kevin are still a mystery (insofar as the writers haven’t provided her with anything resembling an actual character), but the collision here of Kevin and Vic still works, with both Kevin’s tortured shame and Vic’s bleary, furious heartbreak sold nicely by Justin Long and Sam Rockwell.

Vic’s hedonistic downfall has apparently caused him get fired five times recently, with his straitlaced boss showing up unannounced at Vic’s bacchanal to try to get Vic to actually remember he no longer works at the radio station this time. And Kevin’s desperate attempts to unburden himself (to Frank, to his enduringly obnoxious two friends) could only explode in the form of a marathon, nakedly confessional ballad. (“Did I understand that 30-minute song correctly?,” asks the gobsmacked Vic, right before his coked-up rampage starts.)

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As for Bill, the inevitable showdown with Jimmy didn’t need to end with a deus ex van, but it’s as good and brutal a way as any to resolve the coming conflict between a switchblade-wielding teen psycho bully and two kids with a Road Runner and Coyote-esque grasp of actions and consequences. (Phillip, revealing his bulging, graphic journal of Jimmy-killing, admits, “This is how I get my feelings out when my ears get hot.”) That the mangled Jimmy only rouses himself to “coma-punch” Bill in the nuts and insult the helpful nurse Bill brings him to is about as funny as the kid’s ever been, and Bill’s tearfully elaborate confession about his role in Jimmy’s injury suggests that he’s been scared straight off of the bully track he’d been on. It’s both messy and tidy, which is an admirable feat.

Still, F Is For Family doesn’t do easy resolutions. Bill and Kevin both await the fallout from how their own big dramatic gestures went violently awry. (The spent Vic, left talking to—and licking—one of his hallucinogenic toad party favors on his front lawn, is, after all, only about 15 feet from where Kevin is curled up in fear in his basement hideaway.) And Frank and Sue, having finally said exactly what they have been avoiding for so long, are in an even more precarious spot than they were before they climbed into Father Pat’s VW bus. Bob’s answering machine message promises that the payoff of Frank’s work saga will be the season’s big finale (and the glimpsed newspaper headline “Airport lays off dozens of security workers” ups the potential chaos factor even further). But, as this episode underscores, life’s deep-rooted problems aren’t so easy to fix.

Stray observations

  • Greg and Ginny also have it out on the retreat (where their frequent visits have elevated them to senior counselors), both tearfully coping with Greg’s revelation about his homosexuality. Which is fine—neither comes off particularly like a villain or a fool, as both Ginny’s denial and Greg’s desperation seem couched in mutual affection, still. But their whole storyline has basically been a series of cheap he’s gay/she’s oblivious gags, complete with, here, Greg caught droolingly fondling a crucifix Jesus’ “swimmer’s body,” and Ginny chattering on about Greg coming home happy from his nightly wanderings (Greg knows all the most police-free rest areas) “with a hot meal in his tummy.” Having it both ways here just doesn’t work.
  • Vic, having spent two grand on a nude ice sculpture of Cutie Pie: “We can celebrate the permanence of our love while we watch it slowly melt away.”
  • Rockwell is always deeply at home spouting Vic’s stoner YOLO pronouncements, which makes Vic’s sloppy-earnest into of Kevin (“I’m so happy he’s chasin’ his dream, and I’m proud to call him my friend”) both contrast touchingly with how he’s been selling out with his radio station payola, and devolve into coked-out rambles about faking the moon landing.
  • “I feel like you were the kinda kid that me and my friends would have thrown into a pond.” Frank, progress aside, is not a fan of the touchy-feely Father Pat.

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