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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Suburgatory: “The Motherload”

Illustration for article titled Suburgatory: “The Motherload”
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In the very first line of the pilot, Tessa throws a pass that “The Motherload” catches and runs with: “If someone asked me the biggest difference between the suburbs and Manhattan, I would have to say it’s the moms.” She’s matter-of-fact, but it’s no accident that her first fixation in Chatswin is motherhood. It takes nine months, two surrogate mothers, and an extravagant Mother’s Day to do it, but finally Tessa confronts her feelings about her mom walking out. Eden haranguing Tessa about her mother is thankfully futile, a comment not only on Eden’s place in Tessa’s world but also on lazy pop psychology writing (we’re spared an “It’s not your fault” scene). Instead it takes Dallas picking Dalia over her to finally send Tessa over the edge. “The Motherload” finds several new beats that show just how fertile Suburgatory is, and Jane Levy’s tearful drive home is like a closing statement. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

It’s amazing how far Tessa’s come in Chatswin, from the grudging do-your-time-and-get-out inmate to someone with friends and a life and a job. Now she wants to abandon her new life because it revealed an issue she didn’t know she had, like a patient blaming a therapist for her problems. It’s a potent cliffhanger even though there’s a safety net. Obviously Tessa isn’t going to leave Chatswin. Her readiness to do so is all that matters.

There’s another line from the pilot that has always hovered over the series, sometimes faintly and sometimes in bold, Vegas, Cirque du Soleil animal costumes: “I think this is a Fellini movie.” In the dreamlike carnival sense, there’s no question. Panuch the kangaroo is sadly absent from “The Motherload,” but in his place is a medicated vision of Yakult (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) and Noah locking performance artists in a big, blue cage and the running of the moms. Suburgatory may not be as existential (or even philosophical) about its world as Fellini, but in episodes like “Down Time” and “The Motherload,” you feel the weight of the anxieties behind all the usual absurdities.

That’s part of why “The Motherload” has such a distinct feel from most Suburgatory episodes. It’s rare to see through the heightened, medicated fun-cloud that cushions most Chatswin experiences. The episode also opens with a stripped down version of its theme song, and because it resolves almost nothing, it’s free to build to an overwhelming compound climax and save the clean-up for next year. It opens with a fantastical encounter between these two ridiculous families and closes with the sudden, inscrutable arrival of Tessa’s maternal grandmother. Why is she here? Why now? “The Motherload” feels like a fever-dream even apart from Yakult’s Mufasa.

Much of the emotional power of these episodes comes from what’s unspoken, like the way George and Dallas can sit together at the DMV and produce sparks without ever acknowledging their connection. Tessa’s voice-over is usually about narrating her story, but “The Motherload” finds a way to accentuate the theme of unspoken-ness with Tessa’s snarky comeback to Eden, lightly paving the way for heavier takes on a similar idea. Tessa can’t even talk about her rejection letter in so many words. The dramatic wallops invariably come from keeping silent: Tessa and Dallas sublimating disappointment, Noah’s self-imposed distance from Eden, and Sheila Shay’s many secrets. The episode goes predictably crazy in the final act as everyone finally admits (some digestible portion of) reality. Alan Tudyk is so good in the scene where Noah gets paternal it actually helps his usual obnoxious behavior go down easier. And however predictable Ryan’s adoption is, Allie Grant putting the pieces together still packs a punch. Noah and Lisa have never been so serious. It’s comforting to know Suburgatory still has surprises.

Naturally the Mother’s Day episode gives Ana Gasteyer and Gillian Vigman plum material, not to mention a Motherboy-esque image of Mr. Wolfe and, um, Mrs. Wolfe. Gasteyer’s so intense—of course Sheila has a refrigerator full of emergency blood for each member of the family—that we don’t need a DNA test to see Sheila is Lisa’s mother. And Jill is always a frosty delight, from her studied, mechanical baby-talk to her clubbing a baby seal. Needless to say, the Werners’ nursery is a masterpiece.


Less well integrated is the plot device named Eden, but at least she finally goes off, though not before realizing what she realized in “Hear No Evil” and playing some Occupy Wall Street audio for the baby. Most of “The Motherload” is this bizarre high and then Eden appears and it’s back to last week. That said, the problems with her are cumulative at this point. Nothing surrounding Eden in this episode is cacophonous that wasn’t already.

Fortunately “The Motherload” is overflowing with compensating virtues. It’s a finale that illustrates how far the show has come by echoing the premiere, and it shows how much more there is to explore by breaking new ground. It provides an answer or two and a whole lot of powerful build-up, all of it revolving around themes of honesty and paternity. It features one of the show’s sharpest portraits of the suburbs, both in story and style. It highlights an extensive cast of stalwarts, a handful of whom manage some real pathos. In fact, everyone is sympathetic, on all sides of conflict, and the Lisa story climaxes in a moment of profound empathy. Perhaps most impressive, “The Motherload” sidesteps more obvious finale conflicts for this totally irrational, totally relatable moment of Tessa feeling rejected by Dallas. Suburgatory has become such a rich comedy, thematically and aesthetically, that there's always more to discuss. And this is just the beginning.


Stray observations:

  • “The Motherload” is written by Emily Kapnek and directed by Ken Whittingham.
  • It’s almost a shame that Time cover about attachment parenting came out after the season had wrapped. Almost.
  • The Werners’ daughter finally makes an appearance. I wonder if she’ll be involved more next year.
  • Jill’s very impressed with how the endangered-species-themed nursery turned out. “The interior decorator had some of the animals murdered just for this room.”