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Parenthood: “The Waiting Room”

Bonnie Bedelia (left), Craig T. Nelson
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For an episode that is ostensibly about being helpless in the face of potentially earth-shattering news, “The Waiting Room” feels a lot like a series of wake-up calls. When at its best Parenthood has always stacked its stories in this way, turning the waves of one story into ripples that affect characters in their own stories. Zeek’s surgery is the heart of the Braverman story this week, but he’s barely present for most of it; the story is really about the family, and what happens while they’re waiting to find out his fate.

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Zeek’s story might not be about Zeek—not really—but Craig T. Nelson certainly anchors it with enough weight for it to have the needed meaning for everyone else. Zeek’s stubborn, frustrating reaction to his health situation is all but in the past, except when it’s used for a poignant little runner with his wedding ring. For Zeek, taking off his wedding ring is like shedding himself from Camille (and in turn his extended family), and that’s not something he’s very interested in doing. In a way, his ring becomes the tether for the whole family, transferring from him to Camille during the surgery, then back to him once they know he’s safe. But it’s what happens to the family in the waiting room once he takes the ring off that is where the heart of the episode lies.

The main thing Parenthood seems to want to point out here is that although Zeek’s health has been the focus of these early episodes, life for everyone else doesn’t just stop. It can’t. Even in the waiting room, the one place where it would seem appropriate to only focus on Zeek and forget the outside world, life sneaks in. It sneaks in when Crosby and Adam fight over watching the baseball game. It sneaks in when Crosby and Adam fight over who is going to handle an urgent Luncheonette problem. It sneaks in when Julia realizes her boyfriend might be more into her than she is. It sneaks in when she realizes she might like him anyway. And it sneaks in when Joel calls, and Julia realizes she has to tell him she’s seeing someone. All of this happens because Parenthood needs to have story in the episode, yes, but it also happens because Parenthood recognizes life doesn’t get any less messy just because you have other things going on. If anything, the opposite happens.

Which is why these little wake-up calls feel like the natural thing to pair with Zeek’s health scare. Julia seems pretty ready to run away from her new boyfriend forever (and for the life of me, I can’t seem to remember that guy’s name, which isn’t a great sign) until he does something nice for her in the waiting room and she reconsiders. Whether or not it’s significant that the boyfriend and Joel gave Julia similar comforting words about Zeek right before she reconsiders, well, that remains to be seen. But it’s her decision to tell Joel she’s seeing someone else that feels like the wake-up call moment in all of this, no matter where their story goes from here.

Crosby’s wake-up call moment is a little harder to parse, mostly because I spent a significant amount of time worrying he was going to crash his motorcycle and die. Parenthood is clearly having a little bit of fun at the audience’s expense—or are generally just sadistic bastards, you choose—because it is obvious that the direction of that scene was begging you to come to a certain conclusion. Crosby spent the episode in willful denial about the level of danger Zeek was in, and apparently his wake-up call had to come in the form of some potentially self-destructive behavior. The meaning of what Crosby discovered is a little harder to parse: Are we to infer that Adam’s crazy pessimism is the correct reaction? Because no one should Google “[medical thing] + worst case scenario” and send the results to their family. Being a pragmatist is one thing, Adam, but that’s crazy behavior.

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After the opening sequence Amber’s story is mostly disconnected to the rest of the family but thematically it flowed nicely with all of the hospital drama. Amber’s story is about a lot of things right now, but mostly it’s shaping up to be about growing up and about the choices you have to make to do that. Amber goes to Wyoming to tell Ryan she wants to raise the baby on her own, but it’s pretty obvious she is going to change her mind as soon as Ryan is so thrilled to hear the news. Ryan has always been a character in search of something he can’t seem to find, and he clings to the news of his impending fatherhood like the next thing that will save him. To Amber’s credit (and to Drew’s credit, for giving her a wake-up call speech of his own) she realizes she can’t be the one to save him, and neither can her baby. He has to save himself, without her, for it to work. It’s a quiet step on the surface but has a huge impact on Amber’s character as a whole. Is it weird to be proud of her? Because I’m pretty proud of her.

The only thing that doesn’t quite work here is the drama with Hank’s daughter Ruby, mostly because it feels so divorced from the rest of the show. It doesn’t help that “troubled teenage girl who acts out because she needs a father figure” is well-trod territory in fiction, no matter how much Hank’s very specific personality traits make the story just a bit different from the typical rendering. There are good things around the edges here, though, specifically seeing how (and why) Hank and Sarah’s relationship works on a practical, day-to-day basis. Seeing Sarah demonstrate how she communicates with him when he’s wrapped up in work mode is fascinating, as is seeing how Hank in turn makes an effort to pull himself out of his head and respond to Sarah the way she wants him to. It’s a nice, subtle way to make their partnership feel workable and real, without putting a bow on it. The Ruby stuff, well, that still needs some work.

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Stray observations:

  • Braverman of the week: Drew, for being the “get a grip” friend every pregnant woman with a dubious partner needs.
  • Parenthood loves to be on the nose, but the cemetery outside of Zeek’s hospital room was so on the nose it was up the nose.
  • So did Oliver Rome go back to Albuquerque and do the show or what? Don’t leave us hanging! This is the final season!
  • Amber and Drew road trip! I’d watch that spin-off. Maybe they can host a road game show called “I Spy.”
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