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Not that The Middle hasn’t done a solid job of keeping its characters moving along in something approximating real time (or at least as close to it as prime-time TV allows), but that doesn’t make it any less jarring to arrive at an episode where Axl is turning 21. Where does the time go?

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Funnily enough, that’s exactly what Mike finds himself musing about as he’s having a birthday beer with his eldest boy, a celebratory beverage which father and son don’t actually get to enjoy together until almost the end of the episode. Why? Because Axl can’t be bothered to come home unless it’s on his own terms, and he’s got no interest in trudging back to his family anytime soon, probably because he feels like he’s finally grown up and can’t bear the thought of his mother continuing to remind him about how he used to be her little baby once upon a time. Poor Frankie, meanwhile, is discovering that her youngest child is developing all the surly traits that have come to define Axl, and – as she worriedly points out to Mike – Brick is smarter, which makes him far more dangerous than Axl ever was.

To give Axl his due credit, he may not want to have to deal with feeling like he’s being babied by Frankie, but when Mike asks him to come home under the pretense of helping him move the old freezer, he does at least try to help out his dad by sending Sean over to assist. (This also results in a nice scene which gives Sean a bit of additional depth as a character – suddenly I find I’d like to see an episode that teams him up with Mike – while also providing an excuse to remind viewers that, yes, Doris is still hanging out in the Heck house, and she’d still much rather live with the Donahues.) Finally, with no other option available to him, Mike breaks down and breaks out his Dad Voice, delivering three simple words in a tone which cannot be ignored: “Axl. Home. Tomorrow.”

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And, lo, Axl does indeed come home, at which point Mike reveals the real reason he’s demanded Axl’s presence, but his explanation about how he’s following in the grand whimsical tradition of Big Mike faking him out with his manure-related request completely befuddles the newly-minted 21-year-old. In turn, Mike decides that maybe he doesn’t want to have a beer with his son after all. That, or he plays Axl like a fiddle, knowing full well that Axl’s got enough of a tendency toward feeling guilty that he’ll turn up to join Mike for that beer eventually, which is exactly what happens. Things are initially stilted and awkward between the two of them due to Axl’s horrific faux pas of asking the bartender what European bears they have – the combo “it’s like I don’t even know you anymore” / “what are you, some kind of fucking idiot?” look Mike gives him is priceless – but after that belly flop of an opening salvo, Mike actually comes within an inch of getting philosophical, trying to tell his son that time may seem like it’s dragging right now, but soon it’ll feel like it’s flying by. In the end, though, he stops philosophizing and starts tossing back beers with his boy, at which point Axl drinks his dear old dad under the table, leaving the old man muttering, “I’m not 21 anymore.” What a drag it is getting old, eh, Mike?

Also a drag: when your formerly undemonstrative youngest son suddenly turns into a mouthy little punk. This is another one of those instances where it’s hard not to look at the situation, shrug, and tell Frankie, “You know, honestly, you kind of earned this kind of treatment,” but you can also appreciate how jarring it is for her to have to suddenly start dealing with Bad-Ass Brick. Really, though, what I found far more relatable – and your mileage clearly could vary on this – was the concept of a parent struggling to discipline a child who thinks at least as fast as you do, if not faster, and counters your every comment by offering either a smart-aleck remark, a snarky observation that highlights a flaw in whatever argument you’ve the past few minutes trying to make, or – worst of all – expresses utter indifference to the punishment you’re trying to dole out. Frankie spends the entire episode at odds with Brick, growing increasingly more frustrated with him, and by the end, their relationship really isn’t all that much better, but it’s at least a little better, and it’s clear that she remembers that, Brick or not, that’s about the best she can hope for from a teenager.

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As for Sue’s storyline this week, I’ll be honest, it feels like one of those instances where the writers realized that they weren’t going to have many more opportunities to utilize Spudsy’s or any other establishment within the food court, resulting in someone saying, “Okay, folks, if you’ve been sitting on mall food joint jokes, then now’s the time to get ‘em out of your system, because college is calling!” Not that there’s anything wrong with that: from the arrival of the Chop Suey USA manager onward through Sue sticking with Spudsy’s and accepting her promotion to Assistant Manager of Condiment Distribution, I was laughing pretty much every time Sue took center stage. It’s hard to complain about that.

Stray observations:

  • Just in case you’re a fan of The Goldbergs who’s found your way here and you don’t understand why this review ends after these observations,and find yourself wondering what the hell’s going on, here’s what the hell’s going on: because there were two new Goldbergs episodes tonight, we opted to give The Middle its chance to go solo again. Don’t worry, though: The Goldbergs gets its own review, too, so it’s win-win.
  • The line about freezing bananas for banana bread that’s never, ever going to get made clearly hit a little bit too close to home in the Harris household: my wife instantly shot me a look, and as soon as I started to open my mouth, she turned her head and sniffed, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Which was absolutely the reaction I expected, given that - hand on heart - it was only this past weekend that our daughter gave her shit about doing the exact same thing.
  • I think I might possibly watch a spin-off revolving around the goings-on at Chop Suey USA.
  • Favorite callback: Don’s Oriental Food.
  • I’m pretty sure I muttered “oh, shit” under my breath when Brick muttered to Frankie, “Nobody likes you.” I mean, sure, that’s a line from Typical Teenager 101, but it still packs a wallop.
  • “Taste the lesson!”
  • Magnum cum Relish? Peanut Butter and Jealous? Yep, Brad kills it again.
  • There were lots of way-too-familiar moments within Frankie’s attempts to punish Brick by making him do a writing assignment, but my favorite moment - aside from the “because” bit - was when Brick’s tendency to slip into the library of his memory palace proved to be a benefit when Frankie tried to annoy the piss out of him by reading aloud.
  • Sue being wracked with guilt about the thought of betraying Spudsy’s by going to Chop Suey USA was good, but truth be told, I think my favorite Eden Sher performance of the evening came via her reaction to Axl drinking a beer. (“Alcohol is tearing this family apart!”)

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