New Girl’s fourth season began with the roommates gleefully ripping wedding invitations from their refrigerator. Twenty-one episodes later, Jess—with a smile and a shrug—tacks one more notice of upcoming nuptials to that stationery collage. After multiple breakups, several makeups, one declaration of friendship (and an equally confident confession of love), Cecelia Parekh and [First Name Redacted.] Schmidt are engaged to be wed. And all it took was one of the most satisfying sitcom turnarounds in recent memory.

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“Clean Break” is the culmination of that turnaround, a tribute to a key player in New Girl’s comeback season that simultaneously displays the depth of the bench he leaves behind. There’s no better evidence of the effect Damon Wayans Jr. has had on New Girl (and the effect New Girl has had on Damon Wayans Jr.) than the emotional journey Coach takes in this episode. Entering “Clean Break” with an address that gives the episode its titular refrain, the character exits while shedding the last particle of his gruff exterior. When he turns to join May in the car that will take them to New York, Coach is wearing a scarf that was hand-knit for him by a woman he once mistakenly identified as “Jebecca.” He wears the item without pretending he’s too macho for traditional winter accessories; she made sure that the color scheme reflects his National Basket(s)ball Association rooting interests.

In his zeal to leave Los Angeles free of any “nonessentials,” Coach gives “Clean Break” a heavy emphasis on material things: Objects like the Regis Philbin Crepe Pan or Jess’ photo cube can only lead to memories, and, in Coach’s words, “memories are nonessential.” But the props that factor into the episode symbolize more than memories—they stand for relationships, too. And relationships are what gives New Girl derives all of its comedic, dramatic, and narrative powers.

Rather than exploring that from an ensemble perspective, the season finale takes a micro approach. Not wasting their last chance to work with a number of regular players divisible by two, Rebecca Addelman and Kim Rosenstock craft a script (from a story by Addelman) that runs the cast through several different pairings: Jess and Coach, Jess and Winston, Coach and Winston, Nick and Jess, Winston and Jess, Cece and Schmidt. It’s not only an 11th-hour opportunity for Wayans and Lamorne Morris to play drunk together—it’s also a chance for New Girl to show off the versatility that remains once Wayans leaves. None of these pairings is a dud. Some are better for laughs (Winston and Jess: United by Cece’s secret, divided by Winnie The Bish a.k.a. a.k.a. a.k.a. Brown Lightining’s telephone prowess), others for pathos (anybody else still struggling with the lump Schmidt’s proposal—and Cece’s response—left in their throat?). Still others work great in both respects: While Coach goes Navin Johnson on the loft’s living-room knickknacks, Winston gives him a chance to expose some vulnerability via consumer-electronics analogy.

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“The remote’s going to miss this TV so much,” he says between sobs. “Our TV’s going to miss that remote,” Winston hiccups in response. And you can trust that he knows the impact of his words, because Winston is the type of guy who intentionally hit the “Info” button on that remote because he likes “to know more about the cast and crew.” He’s subtly perceptive like that—how else could he keep tabs on a cat that disappears for episodes at a time?

In re-acquainting the viewers with New Girl Couples’ Skate, “Clean Break” avoids spending too much time with any one twosome. Coach and Winston and Nick and Jess have arcs that carry throughout the entire episode, but they’re not locked in to those formations. There’s an entertaining flow to the season finale, as the New Girl molecules orbit the nucleus of the loft, sticking together for full storylines as well as brief bits. The major plot points—the engagement, Coach’s departure—are approached as a group, but the character material is handled on a one-on-one basis.

Considering all of their history—including very recent “Who’s sitting next to you?” history—there’s a charge to the scenes between Nick and Jess tonight. Their dating life put a damper on season three, but even when the characters are denying their feelings for one another in “Clean Break,” you can feel why Elizabeth Meriwether and her team were eager to put Nick and Jess together in the first place. There’s a fun, natural connection between the man who can’t throw away his sunglasses and the woman who pushes photo cubes on her friends—it’s there between the actors who play them, too. That easy rapport will ground whatever unspoken feelings Nick and Jess have for each other; for as long as New Girl can sustain it, the show will turn out meaningful moments like the tandem trash diving that concludes “Clean Break.” (Or the trashing that proceeds it.)

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The show has similarly jerked viewers around with Schmidt and Cece, but an engagement puts the brakes on that back-and-forth. In its execution and in the emotional swell it summons, the proposal recalls Jess and Nick’s first kiss in “Cooler”: Surprising in its impulsiveness, but undoubtedly a long time in the making. (Since the beginning of season four, says Meriwether.) And like its fellow New Girl milestone, its executed with a no-looking-back confidence, the nerves being affected by Max Greenfield and Hannah Simone backed up by the assuredness of a TV show making precisely the right move at precisely the right time. New Girl is at its best with a little spontaneity, mirroring the improvisational rhythms of its performers. An engagement ring (or in this case, an engagement fiver) stifles some of that spontaneity, but it’s hard to see anything like that through “Clean Break”’s joyful tears.

Coach deploys his clean breaks in order to delineate the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one—and that distinction can apply to “Clean Break” as well. I’ve written before that New Girl is better summarized by “phases” than seasons, but all of season four fits comfortably in the confines of a rebound phase. Needing to rebound no more, it transitions into a new phase and a new season with “Clean Break.” Many chances for spontaneity still await the show—the only part of its future that’s written is the save-the-date placeholder on the refrigerator door, the one memento from the episode that speaks to all of the relationships within New Girl. After all, Jess does say she’ll see Coach at the wedding.

Stray observations:

  • That’s a wrap for The A.V. Club’s coverage of New Girl, season four. It’s been a pleasure watching the show’s comeback alongside y’all, and I hope you’ll come back next fall for season five. (To paraphrase Nick Miller, that’s wordplay—but it’s not a writing lesson, because I wouldn’t recommend writing like that to anyone else.) If you’re interested in further thoughts about New Girl’s fourth season—and where the show’s heading next—check out my Walkthrough interview with creator Elizabeth Meriwether.
  • “Who’s that girl?”: This week in New Girl pseudonyms, alter egos, and nicknames: The opening seconds of “Clean Break” go hard at this feature: “Mr. New York,” “Mr. Broadway,” and the episode’s first Jebecca, all in under 30 seconds.
  • Jack McBrayer puts on a good show as Wally, the milquetoast donation collector with unfortunate prejudices (Schmidt: “I dropped something in the bin and I need it back.” Wally: “You Jewish?” Schmidt: [Awkward silence.]) who stands between Schmidt and the Cece box. But on the bases of salesmanship and taglines (“Hear that sizzle? Let that sizzle speak!”) Regis “Father Of New Girl Producer-Writer J.J.” Philbin takes the top prize for “Clean Break” guest stars.
  • Other “Cooler” echoes: The way Nick and Jess are framed as they sneak into the hallway to check on the Sex Mug, I could’ve sworn they’d end up kissing.
  • This is not wordplay from Nick (at least not intentionally): “I’m going to get hard and fix myself.”
  • Regis Philbin’s infomercial leads Drunk Coach to a profound conclusion: “Those pancakes are paper thin.”
  • Schmidt finds the “Why would a bank chain its pens to the desk but leave its vault doors open?” paradox of the parking-lot charity-donation box: “Why are you so secure? You’re full of things that nobody wants!”
  • The beginning of Jess’ Sex Mug confession sounds like it could be the start of any night in the loft: “Winston had fallen asleep polishing his candelabra. I had just opened a bottle of pink wine. And then you showed up.”
  • Schmidt cuts to the chase: “Why are we talking about Winston? Cece loves me!”
  • And last but not least: Take us out, LOLFurguson!

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