“The Bender” ended on Grace And Frankie’s biggest cliffhanger to date, with Grace stranded at a gas station—carless, walletless, friendless—and Frankie learning that her friend Babe wants to die. “The Party” picks up with that slightly more shocking second one, as Babe explains to Frankie what exactly is going on. Her cancer is back, and it’s terminal, and she is the happiest and most fulfilled person she knows, so she wants to go out on top. Babe wants to end her own life, and she wants Frankie to help her do it. Babe’s predicament sends Frankie and Grace on a tumultuous journey as they try to figure out what friendship really means and work toward repairing their own in the process. The emotional beats of the episode are spectacular, and Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin somehow manage to outdo themselves with piercing, vulnerable performances.

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When a show introduces a character at the last minute as a way to push the main characters to a critical part of their arc, I think long and hard about whether the addition merely serves the purpose of plot or adds something else to the show. With Babe, I didn’t have to think that hard. Yes, she’s there to help reunite Grace and Frankie on a plot level. Their mutual love for her binds them together. And the high emotional stakes of her death pulls out revelations for both—about friendship and love and sacrifice. But Babe doesn’t just seem like a mere plot device. The writers have very efficiently and resourcefully created a fully realized character in Babe. And Estelle Parsons gives a warm, radiant performance without ever letting us forget she’s a damn Oscar-winning actress who can bring it on so many levels. She doles out too many brilliant line readings to list them all, but I was particularly affected by her delivery of these:

“The cancer’s back. It’s everywhere.”
“Besides, I don’t want to go out fighting, I want to go out flying.”
“It’s more, baby. It’s more.”

I want more Babe. She’s so delightful that I wish she’d been a character since the beginning. That was prescient on the writers’ part—creating a character that could instantly work her way into our hearts so that her death would hit very hard. In this case, it doesn’t feel like emotional pandering, but rather just really good character writing. It’s clear from the way Grace and Frankie talk about Babe and act around Babe that she’s the kind of person other people are almost cosmically drawn to. She’s the kind of friend who throws a last-minute party that everyone shows up to. She has a wicked sense of humor, trying, in the beginning, to find the right balance when it comes to gallows humor and full-out nailing it by the end. The specifics of the character ensure that this assisted-suicide storyline lands. The fact that Babe’s so immediately infectious makes it all the harder to see her go. The writers have effectively situated us in the same headspace as the characters on the show: I viscerally felt Grace and Frankie’s struggle to let Babe go.

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Even outside of the way it affects Grace and Frankie, Babe’s storyline stands on its own, hitting on a lot of compelling truths about life and the right to choose when to end it. Grace And Frankie doesn’t get too preachy about it, instead rooting the story in the specifics of this character, but she makes a very compelling, emotionally driven case for assisted suicide. It helps that the story is so personal and Babe-centric, instead of making an broad statements on what it means to want to die. It’s just another example of how Grace And Frankie eloquently touches on issues that affect people later in life rather than just using old age as a source of comedy.

Before all the Babe stuff really gets going, Grace attempts to apologize to Frankie for the things she said and did—things she doesn’t remember saying or doing thanks to the magical memory-erasing powers of a million martinis. She tells her she didn’t mean any of it. She buys her penance wind chimes. But it doesn’t work. Grace And Frankie is committed to portraying the realities of the situation. Grace isn’t going to just easily get off with some wind chimes and a half-assed apology. Frankie tells her straight up that her apology sounds more like an excuse for her bad behavior. Both characters comes from a believable place given what we know about both of them. And their scenes here are very well written, with Tomlin and Fonda then taking what’s on the page and imbuing it with detailed emotions.

And then Babe heightens it all. We’re used to seeing Grace and Frankie unable to see eye-to-eye on things. But in this case, the stakes are higher than usual. They can’t see eye-to-eye on Babe’s decision to end her life. Frankie’s torn up about it because she loves Babe, but she also knows it’s the right thing to do, because it’s what she wants. And Frankie believes in giving her friends what they want. Grace can’t go along with it. She doesn’t want Babe to die, and she lets that—ultimately selfish though well intended—viewpoint cloud her judgement. She keeps insisting that there could be hope. A new medical treatment could come out tomorrow. But Babe’s mind is made, and if Grace can’t stand behind her, Babe respects that. Babe is perfect. Have I mentioned that yet? In any case, Babe’s death is yet another thing Frankie and Grace can’t agree on. Only this means a lot more than how to wash the floor or even how to date.

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For all the romantic relationships that get a lot of play this season, these last few episodes of Grace And Frankie leading into the finale are really about friendship, and the show is painting a very intricate and varied portrait of what friendship looks like—with bright parts and dark ones, too. Grace’s season-long fear that she’s unlovable comes to a head here, when Frankie drops the bomb that she’s incapable of unconditional love. Brianna gets underused in the episode, but she does end up playing a pretty big role in Grace’s emotional arc. When Grace asks if Brianna felt unconditionally loved as a child, Brianna doesn’t hesitate to say no, and adds that it shouldn’t be that wild of a revelation for Grace. “It’s not exactly your thing.” The matter-of-fact tone to her response makes it cut deeper. But Brianna spells out Grace’s ultimate problem: She doesn’t love herself unconditionally. “The Party” parses out compelling ideas about unconditional love, self-love, and friendship. Her conversation with Brianna pushes Grace to attend the party she was boycotting on principle. As much as she doesn’t want to see her friend go, she’s ready to start loving unconditionally, to do the hard things sometimes required of friendship.

Grace being there for Babe means more to Frankie than any wind chimes could. After “The Bender,” I wondered how the Grace And Frankie writers could possibly mend the show’s central relationship. The fact of the matter is that it needed to be mended, because as season two has shown over and over again, Grace and Frankie work best as friends who drive each other crazy than they do as people who hate each other. But at the same time, it would have been cheap for the writers to just hastily bring Grace and Frankie back together with something like wind chimes or a wordy apology for the sake of moving the show forward. Instead, the writers found a grounded and emotionally rich way to move Grace and Frankie forward. “The Party” is heavy on character, light on plot, and that works to its advantage.

Like Mallory, I’m a little confused as to how Robert and Sol seem to be on perfect terms after having such a huge fall-out. The reunion of Robert and Sol was moving but hasty. Their trajectory lacks the kind of nuance and realness of Grace and Frankie’s relationship arc, with everything getting resolved a little too neatly. But at the same time, I’m glad there isn’t any real Robert and Sol drama to distract from all the weight of the Babe storyline. They get a fluffy but fun subplot here that manages to bring Brooklyn Decker—whose real-life pregnancy kept her from having much of a presence in this season—back in for some well earned laughs. I’m not crazy that the only significant storyline Mallory gets all season is the sudden paranoia that her husband is cheating on her, but the sheer humor of her daughter Madison referring to Sol as “this fucking guy” keeps the storyline from being a total dud. Madison saying “fallopian tube” is easily the biggest laugh of the episode. But Decker also slays with “oh my god, I forgot there were two.” It’s a fine subplot, but I also wouldn’t have minded the entire episode being just about the titular party, Babe, and Grace and Frankie learning how difficult and layered friendships can be. That’s where the true meat of the episode is. That’s also where Grace And Frankie overall shines in its storytelling: in stories that put the characters and their emotions first.

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Stray observations

  • Frankie, upon seeing a cop in the beach house: “I didn’t even do it yet! Oh my god, I was right. Minority Report is real.”
  • I love Babe’s pet names.
  • All of the affectionate moments between Frankie and Babe are so effective and beautiful. This friendship was developed quickly on the show, but the rich history between the characters is fully felt.
  • The party at Babe’s really did look like the party of a lifetime.

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