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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Parenthood: “Promises”

Illustration for article titled Parenthood: “Promises”
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I had been married five years when I first suspected my wife was cheating on me. I had gone to Indiana to work on a presidential campaign, leaving her to scrabble feebly at the sides of the sinkhole that was our life together in California. I had cut her loose and taken the escape hatch, and we both pretended to be fine with it. Those long nights when I would call her from the frosty Main Street of the town I’d been stationed in usually resulted in the two of us acting like nothing was wrong over the phone, even as she was daring me to ask a cute girl at a local ice cream shop on a date and I pushing her to do something equally as reckless, each of us urging each other to push the fucking self-destruct button already. Those dares condensed into clouds that floated away from my lips on the air.

When I came back, it was obvious something had broken, and I became convinced she was having an affair. She talked about this guy all of the time. Never mind that I had been the one to leave, and never mind that he lived on the opposite side of the country, so the actual reality of an affair was physically impossible. I sensed on some level that I had created a vacuum and he had stepped into it, and she was only too happy to have him there when I had gone away. We had always been each other’s centers, and suddenly, we just weren’t. Whatever anchor I had provided her had drifted away, and now she was all too happy to let him be that, while I sat on the bottom of the ocean, waiting for the ship to come back.

You don’t have to cheat to cheat. When I left my wife for a presidential campaign without really discussing it with her, I cheated on her by abandoning the vow I’d taken to be there for her when she needed me most. And when she moved somebody else to her center, she cheated on me by removing me from the place I had always assumed I would hold with her. When we made those dares to each other, it wasn’t just the two of us having fun or being goofy about the strain my decision had put on our marriage or even playing relationship chicken; it was the both of us trying like hell to externalize something that had grown ashen inside ourselves, the better to get the divorce the place we had grown up would demonize. If one of us slept with someone else, it would be “their fault.” But it’s so rarely somebody’s fault. You look up one day, and your marriage is gone, even if it seems okay on the surface. Getting it back requires the both of you needing it to come back, and that doesn’t always happen.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while many critics are holding the slow dissolution of Joel and Julia’s marriage up as something just as bad as Kristina’s run for mayor, I think it has become one of the best things Parenthood has ever done. I can absolutely agree that the way in which that story was introduced was pretty terrible. Joel and Julia had their perfect marriage in the first episode, and then in the second episode, everything started to fall apart right away. The decay of a marriage usually takes months, if not years, and it’s far more insidious than attractive guest stars from fondly remembered TV series popping up to make kissy faces at the protagonist.

A lot of times, when people say a TV story isn’t working, they’re talking about how it was introduced, because it can be hard to suspend disbelief for a story that takes some stupid steps on its way to starting up. I will absolutely admit this happened to me with the “Kristina runs for mayor” storyline, because any time I thought a scene or moment in that storyline worked, I would once again get distracted by how strange it was that Kristina was running for mayor. But I’d argue that the Joel and Julia troubles are different. As weird as the sudden introduction of Ed Brooks was, the kind of tension that’s built up in Joel and Julia’s marriage is absolutely the sort of thing that happens to even the best of marriages. The stakes are all internal, with Ed only serving as catalyst. With Kristina’s run for office, the stakes were mostly external, and they obliterated any internal drama the series meant to build with the story.

The Joel and Julia story tonight hinges on two excellent scenes, the first of which involves Julia going to Adam to tell him about how her marriage is suffering, and the second of which involves Joel telling his wife he suspects she’s having an affair with Ed. That first scene works so perfectly because Julia is like a slowly deflating balloon, little bits and pieces of her state of mind escaping not in a rush but in a controlled release that gradually grows to that rush, until she’s just letting it all out there, including the kiss with Ed. (Adam, a true Braverman, acts like this happens to married people all of the time, because it happened to him once. He should add: “And then that girl was in the Percy Jackson movies!”) Adam’s advice—everything Julia is feeling for Ed is more about her problems with Joel than anything Ed brings to the table—is all well and good, but it’s one thing to say it, and it’s another thing to be Julia, to be standing there, feeling like the person who’s supposed to love you more than anything in the world isn’t really seeing you and somebody else is. That’s hard to come back from.


To be honest, Ed being drunk at the fundraiser (also, does all of Berkeley hold its fundraisers on the same night? Is this part of Bob Little’s reign of terror?) was a bit too much of a cop-out. I get that at some point, the glass would be shattered for Julia in regards to Ed, and she’d stop idealizing him so much. But this feels like a very blatant attempt to do that, to make her realize that if she cheats on Joel with Ed, she’s not just blowing up her marriage but blowing up a marriage to Joel, the greatest man in the history of the planet. Yet the aftermath of that scene, where Joel confronts Julia with his suspicions is brutal, because you want her words to soothe him, even as you know that they won’t, because they’re just a little bit true. An affair is, technically, a physical thing, but the groundwork gets laid for it over long periods of time, and realizing the one you love also loves someone else can be even more devastating than finding out they got drunk and slept together that one time. In that way, an emotional affair can be even more devastating.

It’s perhaps unfair to write almost exclusively about Joel and Julia in this review, because the rest of the episode was well-measured and nicely handled in a way the rest of this season mostly hasn’t been, with only a couple of missteps. For instance, as much as I enjoyed Zeek hanging out with his best pal Paul Dooley in the Thai restaurant, it feels like people have basically been telling Zeek exactly what his new friend does for the last several weeks, and even if I buy it would take that long for Zeek to get it through his thick skull, it doesn’t exactly make for riveting television. (Meanwhile, Camille is slowly turning into Scarlett Johansson in Her. She’s experiencing so many new things now that she’s not tethered to a physical body!)


And, honestly, I don’t even know that the Joel and Julia stuff was the best stuff in this episode, it was that good. Built around revelation as it was, that meant the biggest revelation would carry the most weight, and here, it had to be Hank’s slow realization that he, too, might have Asperger’s. The whole story was just about perfect, in the way that it started with Max overreacting to a broken promise, continued with Adam and Kristina insisting Hank read a book to better understand their son (which is absolutely something they would do), then built to Hank figuring out some of the reasons for why he is the way he is and why he’s had so much trouble in his relationships with his wife and Sarah, among others. And yet when he tells Sarah all of these things, she’s about to go on a date with a doctor who founded a non-profit to save babies. That’s the hackiest plot device in the world, yet it has so much resonance because we’re seeing it all through Hank’s eyes, in the middle of this sudden bolt from the blue that, nonetheless, doesn’t get him one step closer to what he really wants.

Ray Romano’s fantastic in this story, largely because he takes the persona he’s already given Hank and tweaks it just enough to let you see how he was always like this but never quite knew it. It also gives the relationship he has with Max a bit of a new twist, as Max has more experience in this arena than Hank does, and now, they’ll both have something to teach each other. I don’t know how Parenthood makes all of this work, building it around a guest star, but I’m really interested and excited to see where this story goes.


At their best, revelations clear the air and get someone ready to move forward on another part of their lives. Yet at the same time, having a big revelation always carries with it a hefty dose of fear or anger or regret. What does the world look like now that I know this? How did I not always know this? The episode ends with Hank, because he’s ready to take those tentative steps forward. But it leaves us hanging with Joel and Julia, because neither of them is quite sure how to proceed. Really, there isn’t a way to proceed. They’re going to be stuck in Limbo until they both realize how they’ve let down each other, and it’s that limbo that will erode even the strongest foundations.

I’m still married to her today, and we’re so much happier now, so much wiser. It wasn’t easy to keep that together, but it was worth it. And yet, sometimes, I can look at her, even in our most loving moments, and realize she is someone I didn’t know for a long time, someone I still don’t know on some level. My suspicions she cheated were beside the point. No answer would have satisfied me. I wanted her to have, so it could be over; I wanted her not to have, so we would stay the same. The only answer was to let that lack of answer be enough and to keep watering it and giving it sunlight until we saw what grew out of the ashes could be more beautiful than that which we lit aflame.


Stray observations:

  • There were, like, 50 other storylines in this episode, and I gave them short shrift, because I wanted to talk about myself. The first of those is the return of Amy to Drew’s life, which is nice and all but mostly just made me a little confused as to why all these ladies are so crazy about Drew. My wife suggests it’s his hair, which, I guess? Still, there was some good stuff in here, particularly when Drew and Amy tentatively suggested they didn’t want to split up to each other and seemed mutedly happy about that. Revelation can be a beautiful thing, too.
  • The second was Sarah’s date with the doctor, which was fine and all, but mostly made me wonder whatever happened to a time when Sarah could have a storyline that wasn’t just about her dating. I know I’ve made this complaint before, but really. (Bonus points, however, for the scene where Jasmine googles him because Sarah won’t.)
  • Adam going to Crosby to tell him to keep an eye on Ed Brooks sets up a bunch of plot bombs I’m sure will go off sometime soon, but it was mostly just amusing for the lunk-headed, doofy way the two of them plotted to keep their sister’s marriage together.
  • Also: Does Adam work during the day anymore?
  • Sarah gets in a good line when Carl asks her which girl came after Lincoln, and she says “Johnson?” This show should have more presidential jokes.
  • Did anyone mention Haddie Braverman, even tangentially?: The scene where Hank goes up to talk to Max would have been so improved by somebody just saying, “Also, Haddie exists!” don’t you think? Alas, it doesn’t happen.