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“The Pontiac” is a “FUCK IT!” finale. By that I mean that it has barely anything to do with the season that preceded it and hopes we don’t really pay attention to that fact. But on its own terms, as a wrap-up to some other, better season, it’s pretty terrific. Hell, much of the hour centers on a character who hasn’t appeared since last year explaining to her parents that she’s dating a woman, and it’s just about perfect. (She does not, however, explain to her parents that she and her girlfriend have adopted a cat who loves pie, which is a real missed opportunity.) I’m not saying that this episode tries to disown what came before it. To some degree, it has space to be this kind of finale because the last two episodes spent so much time wrapping up the season’s major stories. But it also doesn’t strain itself to reconcile Joel and Julia or anything like that. There’s enough there to write your own ending if you want to. Most everything else is just about making you feel things intensely.

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I think this is the right approach. Season five of this show was a goddamn mess, and there are points in “The Pontiac” when the overriding sense is one of relief—at the show having found its way to the end and from the show for having mostly stayed intact along the way. Like most Parenthood finales, it’s the kind of episode that would work just as well as a series finale as a season finale, but unlike those earlier ones, it doesn’t try too hard to squeeze in 500,000 things. Instead, it mostly focuses on a handful of smaller storylines, doesn’t force conflict into everything, and leaves us in a place where we don’t have to worry about the characters. It even ends with a Bob Dylan cover and transitions Zeek and Camille’s outdoor setup to the backyard of Adam and Kristina, so that life can go on. This is pretty handily the best episode of the season, and at times, it’s surprisingly moving and beautiful. But it also feels like it would have been a hell of a lot more powerful if it had a truly great season of TV backing it up.

The structure that holds the episode together is Zeek and Camille moving out of their house, the sort of thing that I was petrified the show was going to back down on many, many times. But no. The two leave the rambling Braverman manse, and it’s not turned into a charter school or home for Crosby and Jasmine or anything like that. The sale presumably goes through, and Zeek and Camille presumably move to their smaller house in San Francisco. Adam and Kristina take over the role of family center, as you knew they would have to, and everything feels like it’s come full circle. So many of the best series finales are about how life just keeps going. They allow us to project how the characters’ lives will look, going forward. “The Pontiac” does quite a bit of that, and though it leaves just enough open for next season, the questions it raises—is Amber pregnant? Are Joel and Julia reconciling?—are the sort that aren’t so pressing as to need immediate answers. Those who desperately need them can answer them in their own heads. The rest of us are left with the sort of open ending life mostly hands us.

As a “FUCK IT!” finale, “The Pontiac” also does a great job of making me feel incredibly charitable toward the show again, even though I’ve had significant problems with it this year. It’s packed with great scenes and moments, for almost every character. (The only person who doesn’t really get anything to do is Jasmine, which is too bad.) We have Joel’s voice cracking as he tells Sydney the story of her birth, a story that contains Julia telling the anesthesiologist that she loves him, even though Joel was there the whole time. (I love the way that this functions as a strange, tacit forgiveness from Joel, wrapped up with an apology for the shitty things he’s done. Joel, everybody! The greatest husband alive when he’s not being the worst!) We have Kristina telling Haddie she will always love her and then Adam doing the same, just silently while the musical montage plays. We have Hank muttering, “I look at you” when Sarah says that’s what she needs and she’s not sure he can give it to her. We have Annabeth Gish as Ryan’s trainwreck of a mother and Zeek giving Drew the Pontiac (because he doesn’t care for his other grandchildren so much) and Victor reading in school and so, so many other things. Oh, and we have old people dancing in the house they’ve just sold.

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Parenthood developed a reputation somewhere in its third or fourth season as a superb method of jerking tears from audiences, but the problem with that reputation is that it eventually decided that was all it should be, which led to a bunch of stories this season that rampaged over logic and common sense because they wanted us to post them on Twitter as animated GIFS with text reading “ALL THE FEELS!!!!!” over them. But you can’t have “ALL THE FEELS!!!!!” without logic and common sense, so this season started to feel completely haphazard. “The Pontiac” is nothing but tear-jerking moments, but look at how much it stands on the shoulders of the first four seasons and not this one. All of the relationships the episode exploits—save for maybe Amber and Ryan, who got more story development in this season than the last one—are ones that have run much of the length of the show, and Sarah’s kiss with Hank is more or less a capper to a season four plotline that just got extended into this season for some reason. (Okay, Drew and Natalie got a bit more time here than I would have expected, but I think the show thinks we’re way more into those two than we are.)

Even the Joel and Julia thing—the one season-long plotline that made a significant showing in this episode outside of being a framing device for everything else—mostly plays off of stuff from way back when. The catalyst that puts them together in that bed, helping their daughter fall asleep, is a perfect day out after Victor reads his essay, and Victor coming to a place where he’s comfortable and doing well in school is more or less another season four storyline bearing full flower. Most of the stuff that works here is stuff that feels like a direct continuation of season four, and most of the stuff this season that hasn’t worked as well has been pointless complication. While watching the Joel and Julia scene, my wife remarked that they couldn’t just get back together without talking about their marriage nearly falling apart and why that happened, but at the same time, that wouldn’t really fit the finale’s tone and need to ignore much of this season. Talking about what happened will be necessary (if they’re going to reconcile, which I’m not sure they should, which makes me feel crazy), but it’s the sort of thing that can be left for season six. Right now, just the hint of everything being okay will be enough.

Ultimately, that’s what “The Pontiac” understands that both this season as a whole and previous Parenthood season finales did not: The hint of things being all right is usually more than we deserve. Life is filled with pain, but it’s also filled with sweetness and good things, with moments when we connect and find warmth and love. Compare this finale to last season’s finale, which strained to put an exclamation mark on every single storyline. “The Pontiac” puts a big, fat period on the story of Zeek and Camille’s time in their home, but it’s also filled with commas and hyphens and question marks. It’s filled with new beginnings and middles that take on new dimension. It’s filled with people reaffirming their love for and belief in each other. It’s messy and imperfect and absolutely doesn’t deserve an A, but I’m giving it one anyway, because it’s the version of the show I love best, and if it’s the last time we ever see this series, it’s a heck of a way to go out.

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Finale grade: A
Season grade: B

Stray observations:

  • Braverman of the week: I’m going to buck convention and go with Sarah, who is quiet and steadfast throughout and manages to make getting back together with Hank her own decision, even though he’s been pestering her about it for what feels like months now. She also knows how to navigate some tricky situations with Ryan’s mother, Agent Monica Reyes.
  • Did anybody mention Haddie or Piecat even tangentially?: Haddie appears! Haddie is in a same-sex relationship with Lauren! They make a very nice couple! It’s sort of amazing how a.) Haddie is exactly like Kristina and b.) every scene with the Adam and Kristina family makes 10 times more sense when Haddie is around to hold down the center of it. Also: Adam says she could call every once in a while. Sure. Blame it on Haddie, Adam. Blame it on Haddie. (As far as Piecat goes, that’s a dream for another day, I’m afraid. Or maybe he can be worked into About A Boy? Call me, Katims.)
  • The greatest shot in Parenthood history is when Adam has that conversation with Lauren, and he abruptly realizes the subtext of every interaction he’s had with her or Haddie since they came home. It’s hilarious. (I also liked the earlier scene when Haddie tried to come out without coming out, and Adam just repeated everything she said back to her, because you could tell he knew there was some subtext here, but he just wasn’t getting it.)
  • Crosby and Adam remain one of the show’s most reliable character pairings, and they’re a lot of fun as they move everything out of their parents’ house/just generally make a mess. If we get a season six, I would like to see more shenanigans, please.
  • I kind of hope that Amber got intentionally pregnant in that scene with Ryan. Because if she didn’t, I don’t really know how that story is going to play in a sixth season. Or maybe everyone will just forget about it.
  • I love any time the show depicts exactly how other people drawn into the Bravermans’ orbit would deal with having to listen to them, and both Joel telling the story of Sydney’s birth (during which he screamed “No more Bravermans in the birthing room!”) and his crew mock congratulating him for Victor’s essay competition win are fine examples of the form. On the other hand, he wasn’t there at that final dinner, so clearly, all is doomed. (But seriously, wouldn’t it be kind of interesting for this show to take on divorced parents doing a solid job of raising their kids without reconciling? No? Yes? I think so!)
  • Sydney Graham is Heisenberg alert: Sydney finally admits that all she wants is her family back together, bringing her full circle. Her plan spiraled out of control, and now, she makes one last desperate attempt to right old wrongs. Truly, this has been Breaking Bad as retold with a 10-year-old girl.
  • Have you noticed how Nora has started to have lines? That’s a thing we have to look forward to if the show’s renewed. Just let the kid improvise, Katims!
  • Very weird: Neither Braverman daughter goes to say goodbye to the rambling manse. I guess Sarah lived there long past when she wanted to, and Julia got to express her feelings last week. But it was still odd.
  • So much for my certainty that Zeek was marked for death because I am way too invested in my belief that this show is thirtysomething. Next year, Katims! Next year!
  • Thanks for joining me on the ride through this season. It wasn’t always easy, and there were times when I wondered if I could get through a full 22 episodes of it. My thanks to Gwen Ihnat and Carrie Raisler for filling in every so often for me, and my thanks to all of you for reading and offering up your great thoughts in comments (though if you could stop insisting this whole Joel and Julia thing is all her fault instead of both of their faults, that would be nice, thanks). I don’t know if this show will get a sixth season, and after this finale, I don’t think it necessarily needs one. But if it does, I’ll be there, and I hope you will be too. See you then, and let’s hope Drew and Berto realize their true passion for each other over the break!

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