One of the central things that makes Superstore such an effective comedy is its understanding of constancy. Set in the world of retail, the show is able to build its humor from tedium, the inescapable feeling that every day is going to be like the last one and you’ve got to do something new and interesting to pass the time. Holidays come and go, elections are held, children are born, relationships end, but the one thing that’s always constant is that big fluorescent-lit beige building and its never-ending rows of low-quality yet reasonably priced goods.
Until now, at least. The fact that so much of Superstore’s humor is grounded in routine makes the shattering of those routines all the more powerful when it happens, and it appears to now be a trend for the final episode of the year to do just that. Last year’s finale “Labor” ended on the potent image of the employees of Cloud 9 abandoning the store in a show of solidarity for Glenn, and now “Tornado” ends with the even more potent image of circumstances reversed. The employees are still there, but now it’s the store that’s gone, torn open in the wake of a freak storm. It’s an impressive capper to what’s been an impressive sophomore season, an ambitious move that works because it’s still grounded in the show’s character dynamics.
“Tornado” lands all the stronger because for the first half of the episode, the storm that feels like it’s brewing is Glenn’s final decision on the layoffs. With the news blurted out at the end of “Cheyenne’s Wedding,” the wagons are circled, discussions fireworks safety and the raccoon population secondary to the fact that six people aren’t going to have jobs anymore after today. Everyone ducks and covers, reacting in their usual ways to disaster: Garrett doesn’t get worked up about it all, Mateo forms no fewer than four alliances to protect himself, and Dina sucks up to Glenn until she learns management is exempt and spits a wad of Jerousha’s banana bread on the table.
However, the person taking this the hardest is Glenn, who may as well be killing some of his foster kids for the agony he’s going through. From scene to scene Mark McKinney amusingly cycles through all five stages of grieving this episode: denial as he avoids it in the meeting, anger in his call to Jeff, bargaining as he tries ranking systems and employee votes to make the decision, depression as he runs away, acceptance as he’s ambushed trying to slip out of the store. It’s tragicomedy coming from a completely understandable place and drawing on one of Superstore’s key themes, Glenn’s genuine affection for all his team (even the ones growing weed in the garden center) crashing against a corporate office that only sees them in terms of numbers.
While on their own layoffs would be enough to change the Cloud 9 status quo, that resolution comes only halfway through the episode. Superstore planted this idea a few weeks ago when a mention of tornado readiness drills was brushed aside in a staff meeting, and now they pay the price for their lack of vision. After series of frantic calls home to loved ones, they fortify themselves against the potential impact of a storm—an impact that hits them full-on, tearing off the roof and casting everything aside. The destruction of the sets is handled with vigor, the energy that only a production team excited to knock down the confines of the space they’ve been in for two years can bring. Doubly effective is the final walk through the rubble after the storm passes, characters loosely picking up debris and walking the familiar aisles in the strangest of quiets.
The visual effects are good, but where the storm fully pays off is the way it elevates the various narratives of the season, winds whipping up tension and debris in equal measure. Mateo panics and calls Jeff to admit that he still loves him. Garrett blurts out that there may be an emotional component to his hooking up with Dina, discrediting his claim he doesn’t get worked up about anything—and even worse, meaning he has to admit Jonah’s right about something. And the beleaguered Sandra gets a dark moment of triumph, responding to Carol’s slut-shaming by slamming the door in her face as the storm raged its fiercest. Season two of Superstore found considerable success in developing relationships for its cast—the pairing of Garrett and Dina in particular has paid far more dividends than Dina’s crush on Jonah in season one ever did—and it’s rewarding to see how the season’s events shaped how they react in a moment of crisis.
And of course, there’s the kiss. I didn’t watch the promos for tonight but I’ve gathered from comments that NBC spoiled Jonah and Amy having their first kiss as the storm raged on. And even if you hadn’t seen it, it doesn’t feel like much of a surprise, given “Tornado” telegraphs what’s going to happen as soon as the two seek cover together in the pharmacy. Recent episodes have leaned more heavily on the romantic collusion of the two as Amy’s marriage decayed throughout the season, culminating in Jonah’s use of the word “sexy” last week and his desperate attempts to back-pedal this week. (Efforts that are much more in character than his frantic misdirections in “Cheyenne’s Wedding,” his belief that bringing ‘sexy’ back into common conversation will fix things a peak misguided Jonah move.)
While putting them in this life-or-death situation is a cliched approach to getting the big kiss, “Tornado” does do the necessary legwork prior to make it feel like less of a spur of the moment move. Jonah is, as Amy observed, terrible at comforting her, but he’s still making a sincere effort for reasons not related to last week. Amy likewise turning the “sexy” line back on her shows she’s entirely aware of what he’s trying to do, and not freezing him out in response. If the will-they/won’t-they of it all is to be embraced, Superstore is better keeping them as a pair that connects on reasonable grounds rather than unrequited love from one party or one that’s constantly contriving to keep them apart. And again: the chemistry is there between Ben Feldman and America Ferrara, and when it does happen in the fever pitch of the storm there’s more feeling than just red meat thrown to the shippers.
The season three renewal means that Cloud 9 will almost certainly rise up from the rubble, the final image of the shattered store definitely leaves an impact. Everyone’s been through a near-death experience together, and is walking away a bit different: Jonah and Amy getting even more complicated, Dina admitting she’s glad Garrett isn’t dead, Mateo willing to socialize with Jonah (and both willing to socialize with Marcus), a potential crisis of faith for Glenn, Sandra giving a look devoid of empathy to Carol. The tornado blew some winds of change in along with its force, and that’s an exciting thing. Superstore has grown into a terrific show in its second season by virtue of how many different aspects of the world—corporation, politics, religion, immigration—it’s able to capture inside the walls of a big box store. What’s the next step now that the box has been flattened?
Episode grade: A-
Season grade: A-
- Best “Life In A Big Box Store” Interstitial: The customers who are impatiently waiting to check out at a darkened aisle, to Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” The scene’s even better when you picture this happening off to the side:
- In a related fun callback, the guy asking questions about the razors is the same consumer who had a lot of questions about toothbrushes several episodes ago.
- Amy’s nametag: Dottie.
- The break room ballot scene is an episode highlight, and further evidence that those store-wide gatherings are where Superstore truly shines. From Jonah’s consideration of the difference between democracy and mob rule, everyone including Sandra writing in Sandra, and Glenn’s frantic departure glimpsed through the windows, it’s a guaranteed win for the show when its entire cast is gathered together.
- Everyone calls their loved ones before the storm. Cheyenne insists that Bo make sure Harmonica becomes an actress, Amy make sure her daughter is safe (and Adam, yes you), and Dina delivers instructions to her pets: “Crackers, Harriet, Mr. Beaks… I want you to open the cages. I know you know how. I’ve known for months.”
- Another one of Glenn’s cars gets totaled by the storm, which I believe brings the total to four.
- Alliances formed by Mateo: Asian (Asian/Polynesian at Sandra’s request), gay, Catholic, Dave Matthews Band fans. And on the latter, that was a great slide away from Marcus when he tried to hold Mateo to said alliance.
- Of course Marcus didn’t get invited to Cheyenne’s wedding. You know he’s the kind of guy who keeps asking the DJ to play some Hoobastank.
- “We’re not sure if it’s the same raccoon, or a cousin, or a brand new raccoon.” If only Glenn had the Belcher family’s assistance in monitoring raccoon activity.
- “I’m gonna be backed up until Sunday. Maybe I’ll have chili for lunch. Blast it with dynamite.”
- “You’re not a slut Justine, stop trying to seem interesting.”
- “It can’t be a mistake if it’s what everyone voted for!” “That’s always true.”
- “Tell someone you trust!” “No Cheyenne, that’s only if the tornado’s molesting you.”
- “I don’t wanna die in a Cloud 9 surrounded by diarrhea medicine.”
- “Do we sell baby pigs? Because I found a baby pig.”
- RIP (?) Brett.
- And the Superstore review section is closed for remodeling! Thanks everyone for shopping with us over the last few weeks, I’ve enjoyed your feedback as we dig into this charming little show. Here’s hoping that if/when Cloud 9 reopens next season, we’ll get to do this again.