Michaela Watkins, Tara Lynne Barr

To this point in the season, Casual has balanced on the finest of edges, expertly walking the line between comedy and tragedy to create something that feels sometimes ugly, sometimes joyful, but (almost) always honest. “Home” isn’t an exception when it comes to honesty, but for the first time, it felt like there wasn‘t much to laugh at.

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That’s due in no small part to the place in which the episode leaves us—and that’s with Valerie, shattered. The sense of impending disaster grew ever-so-slightly throughout the episode, and it seemed clear that Valerie, Laura, and Michael were headed straight for the confrontation they’ve been setting up for weeks, but none of it could have prepared me for Laura actually going to Michael’s house, or for Tara Lynne Barr’s performance. She’s never seemed smaller or more vulnerable, and it was quite a smack in the head, for both teacher and parent, to see how little about what’s going on with Laura they’ve understood.

It’s easy to forget that Laura is a kid (and that’s not entirely due to the writing: Barr is in her 20s), because both the show and the characters treat her like an adult. In some senses, she is, as are many teenagers: young, certainly, but capable of encountering the world on a grown-up level. But “Home” reveals how shakeable that maturity is, and what wounds and insecurities dwell beneath the capable surface. Barr’s performance this week—and not just in the final scenes—gave me a new level of appreciation for her work on the series so far. Like Dewey, she’s succeeded in building a shell so convincing that to see it fall away feels almost invasive.

The scene outside Michael’s home may not be the best of the series thus far (my vote still goes to Valerie in the elevator), but it’s gotta be up there—and it’s easily the most unrelentingly bleak. Barr’s performance is the thing on which the scene hangs, but Michaela Watkins and Patrick Heusinger also do unsurprisingly excellent work, and there’s so much going on that it was startling to realize that the whole scene unfolded in about 90 seconds. Writer Harris Danow wisely exercises a great deal of restraint—Michael doesn’t say much, and “You’re a kid” does more than any long speech could possibly do—and director Tricia Brock shoots the whole thing in that distinctive orangish glow of streetlights, which gives the scene a sort of softness that makes what occurs in it all the more harsh.

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While Laura’s meltdown may be the biggest (and least funny) happening of the series so far, it’s not the only thing of import that takes place in “Home.” Alex gets shaken up a bit himself, by way of an Emmy-initiated foursome. Who didn’t want to stand up and cheer when Emmy asked if there was any man Alex would feel comfortable including and he got that smile on his face? There’s nothing about Leon that says ’foursome,’ but as soon as he opened the door it was clear it could never have been anyone else.

I’ve saved most of my Nyasha Hatendi love for ‘Stray Observations’ to this point, so let’s dive into it in the review-proper, because he deserves it. Leon is one of the show’s best characters, a fact made all the more significant by how little we see of him and by the subdued nature of his performance. For whatever reason—loneliness, kindness, bewilderment, maybe a combination of all of the above—Leon keeps letting Alex into his life. He keeps opening the door. And every time he does, he brings something new out in Alex (and in Tommy Dewey) and reveals just a little bit more about himself.

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Look at his face when Alex is trying to convince him to give up Finding Nemo and jump into bed with he and the girls. He doesn’t remotely understand what Alex is saying (and it is a pretty stupid argument). More importantly, he doesn’t even blink when Alex, a guy he barely knows, describes the evening as “two best friends on a crazy adventure.” Maybe they’re kindred spirits in some wounded way. Maybe he’s just not in a position to turn away friends. Whatever it is, any scene between Alex and Leon is a welcome one.

Still, Alex’s biggest moment isn’t the approach (funny) or the foursome itself (also funny). It was when Emmy leaves the bedroom, presumably after noticing he’s gone, and joins him on the couch. There’s no awkward fumbling, no bravado, no pretense. They don’t have to talk about what happened. They just settle in to watch Nemo, and it’s that sort of gentle kindness and affection that makes Laura and Valerie’s confrontation that much more painful. When things hurt, all you want is to find something that feels, however briefly, like home.

Stray Observations

  • Things I never expected to say: I feel pretty bad for Emile. He still sucks, though.
  • I also feel bad for high-five lady. She just wants to be enthusiastic, man!
  • “Well a bat is longer and easier to swing, but I think we should go with a hammer, because it’s almost impossible to block.”
  • “I can’t just pivot from clownfish to foursome.”
  • I paused the episode on Emmy’s profile, just to see what she likes (Bjork, Enlightened, “wine and sustenance”) and noticed that Alex is still working on that code:

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