According to the laws of comedy, if you’re going to put all of your main characters in an elevator together, that elevator has to get stuck, especially if those characters don’t really like one another, and double especially if they’re getting into the elevator after a major life event like, say, divorce arbitration. The second Grace, Frankie, Robert, Sol, and Bud stepped into that elevator, they were all doomed. But “The Elevator” employs the stuck-in-an-elevator trope to lay illuminating character groundwork that retroactively gives context for some of the show’s most significant emotional beats. Thankfully, the episode doesn’t force the characters to work through their issues in real time in the elevator. That would have felt, well, suffocating. Instead, the writers use their characters’ forced proximity to allow them to collectively reflect on the past, employing another classic comedy trope: the flashback episode.

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The bulk of “The Elevator” takes place on Labor Day, five years prior to Sol and Robert coming out to their wives. It was the day Sol and Robert intended to come out to their wives, but the unexpected early arrival of their entire families at the beach house for the holiday delays the reveal. Though it was definitely something that had crossed my mind during the pilot and in the episodes immediately following, I never got too stuck on why it took Robert and Sol so long to come out or why they did when they did. But the context provided by “The Elevator” is more emotionally informative than narratively necessary.

Robert, it turns out, wanted to tell the women sooner rather than later, but Sol found every excuse to delay. That all follows what we know about Robert and Sol and their respective relationships to their wives. But much like “The Sex” charts a subtle, building role reversal between Grace and Frankie, “The Elevator” shows significant change in both Robert and Sol, change that ultimately delays their coming out. Mallory’s very sudden delivery of her daughter Madison (a name Grace, Frankie, and Brianna unanimously hate) in the beach house makes Sol realize he wants to be there for Robert during these significant life moments. He isn’t ready to hurt the people he loves by ending his marriage, but he also loves Robert too much to keep their relationship limited to stolen glances and secret kisses.

This revelation allows Sam Waterston to continue giving yet another infectious performance as Sol, but it’s also a strong episode for Martin Sheen, who usually doesn’t have much more to do than furrow his brow. Still, even though it’s the most emotional work we’ve seen for the character, Robert’s arc isn’t nearly as immersive as Sol’s. But it does lead to a rare tender moment between Robert and Grace, who realizes that she has been busying herself too much with work and tells him she wants to give the company to Brianna and try to reconnect. It’s a devastating moment given what we know, and Sheen does a solid job of conveying his character’s sudden change of heart. Sheen and Jane Fonda don’t have nearly the same level of comedic chemistry as Waterston and Lily Tomlin, but that ends up working for the sake of the relationship between Robert and Grace, which is much more awkward and forced than Sol and Frankie’s love for one another.

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But the most compelling relationship work in “The Elevator” happens between Grace and Frankie. After all, Grace’s realization that she has been too self-absorbed comes from an interaction with Frankie, not Robert. The flashback happens long before the two were united by their present-day circumstances, so I was initially frustrated by the return to a time when Grace and Frankie still hated each other. That dynamic, while yielding some humor, just isn’t as probing or dynamic as the much more complicated Grace and Frankie have in the present.

But “The Elevator” reveals that they’ve always existed in that strange space between friends and enemies, butting heads at every corner but still finding soft moments of connection. Frankie spends most of Labor Day doting on a very pregnant Mallory, and when Grace makes an off-hand comment about how Frankie doesn’t know the first thing about pregnancy since she never went through it herself, Tomlin’s face falls with the perfect amount of hushed turmoil. Grace’s words slice like her knife, and Frankie, being Frankie, doesn’t wait too long before telling Grace exactly how it made her feel.

Grace can often come off as the villain in the dysfunction between her and Frankie, because Frankie’s downfall is that she cares too much about others, and Grace’s is that she doesn’t care enough. In “The Elevator,” Grace is definitely in her most self-involved mode, but there are emotional layers to Grace’s actions on Labor Day that ground the character and make it so that she doesn’t just come off as a monster. She’s aggressive and self-absorbed, but she wants to be a better wife and mother, and Frankie helps her realize that. For all their talk of not understanding each other, Grace and Frankie have each others’ numbers. After all, there’s a reason Frankie seems to be the only person capable of talking Grace down from her claustrophobia-induced panic attack in the elevator.

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Stray observations:

  • “My anxiety doesn’t give a flying fuck!”
  • Love that we see Grace very casually nibbling on those pot gummies when we jump back to the present.
  • So Coyote’s the father of Mack, yeah? I wish I cared.
  • Can labor really start and end as quickly as it did for Mallory? Because that’s terrifying.
  • Mitch and Coyote assembling a play house while high as hell is perhaps the most I’ve ever liked Mitch and Coyote.
  • The reveal that Bud saw Robert and Sol kissing that night but convinced himself it didn’t really happen doesn’t add all that much, but it leads to a touching moment between Grace, Frankie, and Bud, as the women assure him he did nothing wrong by not saying anything. And their hug brings the power back like magic!
  • Brianna becomes immediately joyful when Grace gives her permission to be mean to a vendor on the phone. Brianna is the greatest.

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