This has been a strange final season. It started with what felt like a clear mission for a victory lap season, then slowly started losing the focus of that mission, devolving into a fuzzy mishmash of storylines with varying levels of development and interest. This loss of focus—obviously partially due to stated budgetary restrictions that mean each cast member can only be in a certain number of episodes—exploded into near madness in last week’s episode, which felt like a perfect storm of everything that’s gone sour about the season. “Lean In” is still feasting on the leftovers of that sour storm, but there are definite signs that the show is gearing up for a powerful end.

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The biggest difference between this episode and the last several episodes is that “Lean In” finally feels like the writers remembered this show is ending. There’s an overall feel of putting the pieces in place for these characters, of settling their stories into a state where the finale can bring them home, and this is a feel that’s been missing for quite a while. There’s no bigger place this feeling exists than in Zeek’s story, which has been the obvious throughline for the season since the beginning. Zeek’s newfound closeness with Drew is used to great effect here, as he enlists Drew’s help in researching a romantic vacation for his next anniversary with Camille. Camille has (once again) kind of gotten lost this season, relegated to the role of nagging caregiver and seen mostly in the background. Giving Zeek a story where he does something kind for the woman who is essentially trying to make sure he stays alive is a nice, sweet moment for them both (and Camille’s face when Zeek tells her about his plan is some wonderful acting from Bonnie Bedelia). It’s also the perfect dagger right before Zeek has some sort of cardiac event; an effectively manipulative way for the show to remind us that yes, this is the final season, and yes, not everyone may make it out alive.

Also working hard on the farewell tour beat was Sarah’s story, which is a nice change of pace as it finally felt like Sarah’s story rather than Hank and Ruby’s story. When NBC promoted this episode heavily featuring Jason Ritter’s return, it was concerning. Would the writers bring Mark back only to create yet another triangle situation for Sarah? Instead, though, it was more like a goodbye. A goodbye for Sarah to that huge part of her life, and a personal admission to herself that Mark is her past and Hank is her future. I’ve had issue with the way Hank’s story has played out this season—mostly because a lot of it excluded Sarah—but it’s really great here, emphasizing Hank and Sarah’s relationship and having them actually talk about how much it means to them both, and how they have to work at it to make it work because of all of Hank’s communication issues. Hank is such an interesting juxtaposition to Max; in a way, he’s the show’s exploration of what Max’s relationships could be as an adult. That is, if Max gets the proper guidance on how to communicate in romantic relationships.

That view of Max is perhaps what the writers are going for, but they’ve gotten themselves in such a deep pit of awfulness with this Dylan and Max story that it’s going to be fairly difficult to climb out. Kristina’s behavior in last week’s episode was appalling, as was Max’s, and much to my horror that behavior continues straight on into this one. The fact that Kristina forced Dylan to be partners with Max after all that happened last week is horrifying, as is the fact that Kristina simply doesn’t understand that Dylan is being legitimately harassed. Even when Max comes close to physically assaulting Dylan, Kristina doesn’t get it (and Adam isn’t any better, blaming Dylan’s parents for not being around rather than putting the blame where it belongs: on himself, Kristina, and Max).

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It’s so infuriating that someone who is in charge of keeping her students safe has absolutely no idea when one of them is in danger, simply because she can’t see beyond being a mother to her son. It’s infuriating that when Dylan says Max is harassing her, Kristina calls it a misunderstanding. And although Kristina and Adam talk to Max and explain to him what they did wrong, then explain to him what he did wrong and how to do better in the future, it doesn’t feel like enough. Kristina and Adam apologizing to Dylan’s parents still doesn’t feel like enough. The one thing that almost feels like enough is Max apologizing to Dylan, because it’s a pretty great apology, but it still doesn’t quite feel like enough. The issue here is that it still feels like the show itself is saying that what Kristina, Adam, and Max did wasn’t all that bad. It still feels like the show is blaming Dylan’s parents just a little bit for being so absent from their daughter’s life. Kristina and Adam took one small step toward not raising a monster this week, but as the owners and administrators of a school, they still have a long way to go.

The final peg in the march toward the season finale fell into place in this episode as well, as Joel and Julia’s story is picked up after taking last week off. Joel’s promise that he would fight for Julia basically has her all tied up in knots, as she wrestles with how his impassioned plea to win her back completely fights with her decision to move on. If Joel’s plea at Julia’s doorstep was his moment to finally redeem himself for the hell he put Julia through last season, his impassioned speech about how much he loves her and wants her back in this episode is the crown on his redemption throne. It’s a great speech—and it might make him an ass for putting Julia through everything he did, but it’s him finally admitting he was an ass—and it throws Julia completely out of orbit. Julia spent last season exactly where Joel is now, and her big decision is this: Does she throw away all of the growth she made since then, moving on and developing a stable life for herself without Joel, knowing that he could hurt her again?

In the end, the status of Julia and Joel’s relationship is left in limbo, just like Zeek’s fate. These are the stories—Braverman-focused, intensely emotional—that feel like Parenthood announcing the beginning of its end. With only four episodes to go in the series, it’s about time.

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Stray observations:

  • Braverman Of The Week: Joel, because that was some speech. (Is Joel a Braverman? I still don’t know the rules of this game.)
  • Chris is a decently nice guy but he was always in a weak position in his relationship with Julia. She never made a decision about Joel unless Chris somehow indirectly prompted her to, and when he directly asked her to choose, she couldn’t do it. That’s going to be an awkward work environment now.
  • Zeek was really rough on Drew in this episode. Whenever Grandpa pulls out the “I’m disappointed in you” type of reasoning, that’s the stuff that cuts deep.
  • What half-naked werewolf does Ruby have all over her walls? Tyler Hoechlin, right?

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