The season five finale of Parenthood was a tremendously satisfying episode of television; so satisfying it easily could have been a worthy, if unplanned, series finale. While it’s a blessing the show is getting a final season to truly map out a long-term endgame, last season’s finale doesn’t leave much to follow up on. What’s great about “Vegas” is how the writers take this challenge as almost a puzzle to be solved, figuring out how to deftly continue the few threads that were left open last season, while introducing a few new, entirely germane wrinkles to give the stories weight to carry them toward the future.
Welcome back, Parenthood. I’m so glad you’re still here.
The key to the success of the stories in this episode is that they are all about misdirection and expansion. Misdirection by taking familiar stories we thought we knew the result of last season and twisting them just enough so we realize we actually know nothing, and expansion by taking tiny threads of stories from the finale and fleshing them out enough to establish them as legitimate threads for the upcoming season.
Of the two, the misdirection is the most prominent, especially in the story of Julia and Joel. The finale left them in a place that hinted at a reconciliation, and it felt like a fairly welcome and earned end to what was a very emotionally tumultuous story. Parenthood plays with that sense of security the finale left us with, introducing Julia here in the midst of passionate sex with who we assume is Joel, right before yanking that assumption away by revealing a stranger. It’s a cheap trick, sure, but it’s an effective one; from that moment on Julia’s story becomes one of discovery more than anyone else. Who is this guy she’s sleeping with? How much time has passed? Little details are deftly revealed—he’s a coworker, and it seems as if they went to law school together—but more interestingly, the why of it all remains a mystery. To the writers’ credit, they reveal the truth (or at least part if it) by a fellow Braverman being nosy, when Camille nags Julia about their potential reconciliation, and it’s revealed that Joel is still the one balking at getting back together, so Julia decided it’s time for her to move on.
For all of the complexities of the Julia and Joel marriage arc last season (and I feel like I should state for the record, I mostly enjoyed that story immensely, despite its issues) it feels somehow right that with the show back, what we saw in the finale wasn’t some sort of magic relationship fix. They’re still a mess, but despite Julia seeming to commit to Office Guy, Joel still wears his ring. She still turns to Joel for comfort. When Joel kisses her and she rebuffs it, it feels like the pause in a conversation, not the end of one. And no matter if they get back together or break things off completely, where they’re at now feels lived-in and right.
The other bit of misdirection is on more of a meta level, as Zeek encounters some health issues and the Countdown To Someone Probably Biting It begins. You can’t throw a stone without seeing a headline about Parenthood, the final season, and death, so Zeek falling out of his blackjack chair in Vegas was certainly shocking. (Why were Sarah and Zeek celebrating his birthday in Vegas alone? Who knows? REASONS.) But Zeek didn’t die, he just had “an event,” which appears partly to be an excuse to get three quarters of the Braverman children in Vegas together, and partly an excuse to set up an actual, more drawn-out death storyline for later in the season. Either way, it’s unsettling, chaotic, off-putting, and ultimately touching, in that uniquely Parenthood way.
As for story expansion, the prime candidate for this from the finale was Amber and the mysterious pregnancy test she bought 24 hours after having sex. It was ridiculously clumsy to shoehorn that bit into the finale and logistically silly, but it makes much more sense in this premiere, as she is further along and now facing the decision of what she should do next. Parenthood isn’t a stranger to dealing with abortion, but there was never any doubt Amber was going to keep this baby, was there? She spends most of the episode working through her feelings (with the help of an excellent Haddie) but her story really begins where the episode ends: Her standing in front of her mother, confessing to Sarah that she’s pregnant. Because although this is Amber’s story, it will inevitably deepen into an Amber and Sarah story, and for the better.
Hank’s role in this final season also appears to be expanding, as he gets stories of his very own with his ex-wife and troubled daughter. Troubled teens aren’t the most compelling thing, dramatically, but Hank and Sarah’s relationship appears to be in a good place, and there’s no one better at dealing with troubled teenagers than Lauren Graham. Trust in Lauren Graham, Hank. Stitch it on a pillow if you need to remember.
This was essentially a “Let’s get reacquainted with everyone!” premiere, but that feels like exactly what the show needed: To come in, establish where everyone ended up after that very satisfying finale, and establish a few new story threads for the future. As premieres go? Not too shabby.
- Welcome to weekly coverage of the final season (sniff) of Parenthood! I could never fill Todd’s shoes (seriously, he’s really tall) but I hope to at least try. However, I don’t really understand the Piecat thing so I’m counting on you, dear commenters, to grab the Piecat torch and run with it. PIECATTTTTTT!
- Braverman of the week: Haddie, because by some miracle she’s still here. And she’s awesome.
- Speaking of Haddie: Haddie, Amber, Drew, and Natalie are all in a scene together! That feels like wish fulfillment aimed squarely at me, and I doubt it will ever happen again.
- Of course Crosby has lurid Vegas stories, but glitter in the eye and a rash from stripper perfume? Psshhhh, you can do better than that, Crosby.
- Chambers Academy is really a thing, and really a thing we are apparently going to be visiting often throughout the season. Sure. The Max story about resisting the school was a patented Parenthood emotional manipulation, but a fairly effective one.
- The main reason I hope Zeek isn’t actually sick? Sick Zeek is annoying, y’all.
- “Is this good or bad?” “You tell me.” This is a conversation many, many women have shared when delivering pregnancy news.