A few years ago Mad Men delivered a one-two punch when ad man Don Draper was seeking the Jaguar account. One week he and Joan played a happily married couple taking a Jag for a test drive at Christmas, and the next week the firm was pimping her out to get the account. After last week’s glorious musical performance of Arnold’s coming out, “Croquembouche” feels like the grimy reality.
It’s a very funny episode, but Arnold’s coming-out scene is one of the few that doesn’t find a laugh. As Arnold’s dad Bruce (Geoff Morrell) says, “You haven’t had much to say, have you, Josh?” Even jokey Josh is quiet. But that’s a pretty gross power move from Bruce. Josh and Tom don’t have much respect for Arnold’s dad as it is, so maybe it doesn’t have much impact, but nevertheless Bruce is something of an authority figure laying an ambiguous guilt trip on his son’s friend because he feels betrayed because Josh didn’t tell him he’s Arnold’s boyfriend because Arnold hadn’t even come out yet. What a baby.
“Croquembouche” is all about how people cope with disappointment. So that’s Bruce’s method. He slaps the tower of croquembouche his son Steve (Nick Cody) made for Arnold’s birthday. So make that at least one laugh in the coming-out scene. Arnold’s mother Donna (Gina Riley) is much more chill. When Bruce kicks Arnold out and storms off, she wraps her arms around her son and says, “I’ll give you some money. Go stay at Josh’s for a while. Be as gay as you like. Shower yourself in dick and glitter.”
Or take the scene where Josh, naturally, tries on Arnold’s mom’s wedding ring and can’t get it off. As you may have gathered, this episode has a lot of stuff you’d see on other shows. For instance, Tom being sad to discover he’s not the only one his boss, Christina, had eyes for. “I thought I was special” is straight out of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. More appropriately—although It’s Always Sunny isn’t an inappropriate reference for Tom—Josh comes down with some Looking logorrhea when he imagines there’s a huge elephant in the room when you meet your boyfriend’s parents, which is the fact that, well, I’ll let him say it: “Hi, so sometimes I put my penis in your son’s butt.”
But anyway, the ring scene. When Josh realizes it’s stuck, he immediately confides in his friends, which in this case just means Arnold. Arnold freaks out and shuts down, much like he does with the cake Josh made for his party. Steve always makes the cake for Arnold’s birthday, and Arnold doesn’t know how to handle a situation like this, so he makes Josh leave the beautiful cake behind instead of, say, being thrilled he gets two cakes. And with the ring, he suddenly gets worried that things aren’t going exactly right and tells Josh to get it off. That’s his solution. To command that things go back to normal. We still don’t really know much about Bruce and Donna. Maybe there’s good reason for Arnold to be so upset. In fact, there’s a tremendous early party scene where Bruce tells Josh he thinks the coffee cart is successful because Josh has charisma. What’s so great about it is that neither of them really knows how to talk to the other, but it’s not awkward in a cringe comedy kind of way. It’s real-life awkward, just a little bit uneasy as both of them try to say something relatively natural and relatively true to how they feel. It’s the party version of that great hook-up scene with Josh tunneling under Arnold. The point of all this being, who knows, maybe this ring fiasco actually would set Arnold’s parents off.
Nope. Donna, true to her “dick and glitter” response later, makes a friendly joke to put everyone at ease and calmly pulls Josh aside to try to lubricate the ring. No fuss. Bruce is a little more on edge. Not at first, but as soon as he finds out it’s not a problem he can fix on the first try, that’s when he starts lashing out at Donna. “This is what happens,” he says, apparently meaning that she should always keep her wedding ring on lest a fidgety boy whose ring finger is one size too big tries it on. So Arnold grew up with the frustrated, passive-aggressive, conservative dad and a perhaps overly relaxed, generous mom, one who seems more comfortable with easy solutions like money than addressing her son’s needs (“What are you worried about now, Arnold?”). And let’s not forget Steve, who seems like an obnoxious jerk for most of the episode but comes off feeling pretty innocuous by the end. After all, he used to delete Arnold’s porn from the family computer.
Meanwhile there’s Hannah, who had gone off her meds, hence the tenderizing of her foot, but is now back on them. “It just really hurts to know that I need to take pills simply to function. Really painful. I can’t wait to be beige again.” She knows she needs them, and she knows Rose might need them. Like Arnold, she’s a product of therapy programs, and she’s internalized a lot of wisdom. But this, this is pure Hannah: “You take medication to get yourself out of a dark hole, but you end up just in a display home on an empty street.” It’s another viewpont that you’ve seen on other TV shows and movies, but at least it’s honest and well put.
Alan gets one of the shortest cold opens on the series—a rickety attempt to swivel in his chair the morning after he slept over at Josh and Tom’s—and then he wanders around the house while everyone’s asleep over the credits. So “I’ll Be Fine” is blaring all through the house, trying to whip up some excitement, but Alan’s just staring at Tom’s cardboard city, checking out Geoffrey’s cuckoo clock, examining the chicken coop. No list of the best title credits on TV would be complete without Please Like Me.
Josh tries to administer some self-help/group therapy exercise he’s picked up, making Alan say, “Everything’s gonna be okay,” and then Tom, and then all of them together. I’m not sure it sinks in, but Alan seems to enjoy it by the end. Unfortunately, the children leave, and even though Josh made Alan promise not to do any chores at their house, he didn’t make Alan promise to go home. So Alan putters around the house all day, unable to face Mae. At one point he picks up a rooster. “You a bloke? Adele, are you a rooster? Have you told Josh? Not good, mate.” He also chats about aging with John the dog, playing himself, in a thinly veiled projection of his own anxieties.
In last week’s account of Josh’s supreme stability this season, I was wondering how his occupations were going. But of course. Even his coffee cart is making a profit. He’s still in school as what must be a sixth-year-senior by now, but Arnold’s dad Bruce still seems impressed. What “Croquembouche” brings out is how together Arnold is in his own way. He can’t cope with much himself, but he knows how to help others. He even sticks up for his dad after Bruce rejected him. At the end Josh, Tom, Arnold, and Alan sit on the roof in agreement. “Everyone’s hopeless.” But Alan tries to buck, saying he’ll bounce back in no time. Arnold responds with a story about how boys cry just as much as girls until age 9 or 10, when they’re socially conditioned not to. “You don’t have to be resilient. It’s okay to break.” It’s healthier than denial at any rate.
Back to the ring, once he takes a breath, Arnold Googles a solution: cold water to contract the finger. Bruce tries to shout him down, but Arnold insists, “Yeah, it might not work, but we have to try.” Exactly. And in this case, it does. No panic attacks even. And Arnold’s Zen about having coming out, calling it his dad’s burden now. Arnold might just be getting better after all.
- “Croquembouche” is written by Josh Thomas, Thomas Ward, and Liz Doran and directed by Matthew Saville.
- Tom: “Josh wants to know if he’s allowed to be gay.” Arnold: “You can be gay.” Tom: “Should I be straight?” Arnold: “You can be whatever you like.” Hannah: “What about me? Should I have worn a dress?”
- Rose’s old flame Stewart calls her out of the blue. He’s just off a divorce that he says is due to his ex-wife’s inability to handle his issues. “You’re not much of a catch, are you, Stewart?”
- Bruce tries to give fatherly advice to Tom. “People look at you, they know they can do whatever they want with you. You’re not gonna create a fuss.” A few scenes earlier, Bruce was treating Arnold like he wouldn’t create a fuss. No wonder Arnold gets all flustered and shouts to stand up for himself.
- Bruce tells Tom, “Stand up for yourself. Ask for 10 grand.” “I just feel a bit shit about it.” “Well ask for 20 grand then!”
- Josh tells Alan, “I’ve never considered whether or not you could be a better dad the way I’ve never considered whether or not the moon could be better.”
- Donna: “For fuck’s sake, Bruce. Why would you slap his croquembouche?!”