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Grace And Frankie goes dark and then darker in “The Bender”

Illustration for article titled Grace And Frankie goes dark and then darker in “The Bender”
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“The Bender” is the first episode of Grace And Frankie that’s wholly hard to watch. All season, the writers have been laying the groundwork for Grace’s spiral, and that buildup has been extremely effective, especially in retrospect. It was back during “The Road Trip” that I first noted that Grace’s drinking problem seemed to be taking a dark turn. The writers got to a point where they had to address it, otherwise they’d run the risk of trivializing Grace’s behavior, which has gone from the occasional martini to being drunk more often than not. Frankie and Grace have both taken some hits this season, but the two women handle the healing process in very different ways, a divergence that’s makes for richer storytelling than just the surface-level details of their conflicting personalities. In “The Loophole,” Frankie lost her lube and Grace lost her chance at a romantic relationship with Phil. Frankie copes by burning her artwork on the beach and charging forward with life. Grace copes by pushing her emotions down and adding alcohol on top—a lot of alcohol.

Of course, it helps that Frankie has some other things going for her right now, like her healthy and thriving relationship with Jacob, which gets spotlighted in “The Bender” when she introduces him to Coyote and Bud. That subplot manages to be just fine. Bud’s immediate skepticism toward Jacob doesn’t add a whole lot to the episode and comes off as conflict for the sake of conflict, but there is a very nice moment in there where Bud points out that Sol was the nicest man in the world but still managed to break Frankie’s heart. Bud’s protectiveness of his mother is rooted in real feelings that touch on the characters’ histories, but it’s a pretty by-the-numbers plotline overall. I did laugh at how instantly Coyote loved Jacob though. Ernie Hudson has been giving such a charming performance that it perfectly tracks that someone would be so immediately taken with Jacob.


Grace, meanwhile, has steadily lost everything that’s good in her life. Her attempts to get back in business last season were thwarted by Brianna. Guy didn’t work out. Reconnecting with her friends didn’t work out. And now, Phil hasn’t worked out either. Grace feels lonely and unlovable, despite insistences from Frankie all season that she, at least, loves her. I could see the signs that the writers were heading toward a dark place with Grace, especially when the topic of Phil’s wife was introduced. But I didn’t know they’d go quite as overwhelmingly dark as “The Bender” does. And even though it’s a markedly different storyline for Grace And Frankie to tackle, I’m on board. The writers aren’t sugarcoating or romanticizing Grace’s spiral, and while it’s difficult to watch, it’s spectacularly realistic and affecting. Jane Fonda gives another spectacular performance—one that truly highlights just how versatile she is. Give her any material and she’ll bring it to life. Part of the discomfort in the scenes at the bar where she’s so sloppy drunk is just how real it looks, sounds, and feels. She doesn’t overdo it. That’s a very real depiction of someone who has been guzzling martinis all morning.

So the only thing Grace has left is her friendship with Frankie, but excessively drunk people have this tendency of poisoning even the good bits of life. It’s already hard to watch Grace lose any sense of dignity or poise when she’s at the bar, but it’s infinitely more disturbing when she returns home and directs her drunk rage at Frankie. She calls Frankie a bully, blaming her for encouraging her to get with Phil in the first place. “You bullied me into Phil! You bullied me into feelings! I don’t want to feel!” She pushes Frankie even further away, saying that if Frankie’s plan to mold a better Grace fails, it’ll just be like every other thing in her life that she ultimately fails at. This is a whole new level of mean. It’s the kind of mean someone gets when they’re hurt and upset and cover those feeling sup with an endless supply of vodka. And Jane Fonda isn’t the only one doing the emotional heavy-lifting in the scene. Lily Tomlin slices in her portrayal of how Grace’s ranting affects Frankie. She’s hurt by Grace’s words, and she’s hurt because she sees a friend in crisis. Season two has so effectively further developed their unlikely friendship, which makes it all the more powerful to see Grace rip the seams of their relationship to threads with her vicious, drunken remarks. Grace And Frankie is getting into some very real, dark shit that threatens to change the very nature of the show. But so far it’s doing so with intelligence and depth.

Grace desperately buying a bunch of mini vodka bottles in a gas station juxtaposed with Frankie shopping for party supplies with her friend Babe makes for a strong visual representation of how emotionally disparate the two women are at this point of the story. Estelle Parsons guest stars as Babe, an immediately welcome addition to Grace And Frankie’s universe. Babe’s different from other characters on the show in the sense that she seems to be equally friends with both Frankie and Grace. Before leaving to travel the world, she went on walks with both of them—separately, but back-to-back—and acted as sounding board for both of their rants about one another. Frankie lights up when she sees Babe, and Grace lights up when she hears of her return, too. I’m instantly interested in a character who seems to be able to bridge the differences between the two and have meaningful friendships with both. And as it turns out, Frankie and Babe’s partyshopping isn’t just a fun and colorful contrast to Grace’s dark trip to the gas station. It ends on a decidedly troubling note when Babe reveals the real reason behind the grand party she wants to throw. Babe wants to die, and this party is her bon voyage. The episode ends on that cliffhanger, along with Grace stranded at a gas station after her car is stolen. Grace And Frankie seems bound for a very emotional season-two conclusion.

Meanwhile, Robert and Sol continue to repair their relationship in a subplot that builds nicely and has really strong payoff. I saw Robert and Sol’s romantic night in Sol’s dismal new place as an inversion of Grace and Phil’s romantic night in “The Loophole.” In the case of Grace and Phil, their surroundings were all so lavish and idyllic, but there was an underlying sense of unease. The fancy hotel and champaign and room service sharply contrasted the ugly reality of their ill-fated romance. In the case of Robert and Sol, their surroundings aren’t exactly picturesque, but their love and the strength of their relationship makes up for all that. They make the most of it. Robert couldn’t be happier to be eating cereal with the man he loves. When the upstairs neighbors start blasting music, Robert seizes it as an opportunity to share a dance with his husband.


That’s all very cute, but their storyline takes a much more significant and poignant turn when they return home to Robert’s house. When deciding where to eat, Sol hesitates to sit at the nook in the kitchen, where he first told Robert the truth about his infidelity. They run through the other rooms in the house and realize that each one is marked with a bad memory—even the front stairs. Place can play such a huge role in relationships. Of course, we ascribe meaning to places all the time outside of the context of a relationship. Memories are usually anchored in a particular place. In a relationship, you make those imprints together. “The Bender” eloquently touches on that for Robert and Sol. Each room in Robert’s house holds a certain significance for their relationship, a shared memory. And most of them are bad. That tracks for a relationship that started in secret and a marriage that started with a lie. They decide it’s time for a new place to make memories in. Robert and Sol aren’t just moving on; they’re moving out.

Stray observations

  • I said I was sick of characters on the show spelling out the premise as a recurring bit, and Frankie does just that in the beginning of “The Bender” as she’s catching Babe up. But I’ll take it this time, because Babe’s response is great. Frankie has just unloaded a bunch of shocking plot twists to her life, but Babe’s only truly astounded by one aspect: the fact that Grace and Frankie are living together.
  • Grace names the other morning patrons of the bar Abandoned Husband, Workers’ Comp, and Been Here Since Last Night. As it turns out, Abandoned Husband and Been Here Since Last Night are married. Fonda’s line reading of “You mean Abandoned Husband is just…Husband?” is a standout moment of the bar scenes.
  • Babe: “Critical junction: “Racing car or snail in a top hat?” I already instantly loved Babe, but it really sealed the deal when she acknowledged the seriousness of selecting the perfect piñata.
  • According to Grace, Cheesecake Factory makes the best martini in town.
  • Billie returns, and I’m glad the show didn’t just drop her after her first episode.

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