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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Middle, “The Christmas Tree”

Illustration for article titled iThe Middle, /i“The Christmas Tree”
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For some people, getting the Christmas spirit is an almost instinctual thing, done at least as much out of habit—as soon as Thanksgiving’s over, it’s time to put up the tree—as it is because they’re actually feeling Christmassy. For others, holiday cheer is something that they almost need to force themselves to feel, owing to whatever unfortunate circumstances may be going on in their lives, and given that the Hecks have to deal with financial misfortune on a daily basis, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if they were five full-fledged Scrooges.

But they aren’t. In fact, this year, even the family’s resident Scrooge—that’s right, Mike, we’re talking about you—is running around kissing his wife and slapping her ass. To be fair, though, he’s not kidding when he says that he’s already gotten everything he wanted for Christmas: Not only does he not have to deal with his in-laws horning in on his holiday (“No air mattress, no sharing the TV, no waking up to Tag reaching for a high shelf in his sleep shirt”), but he’s also getting to spend the holiday with his family, and just his family.


It takes a while, however, before we fully grasp that Mike’s sudden burst of Christmas spirit is about more than just the relatively rare opportunity to have his house to himself during the holidays. At first, the episode seems to be much more about Frankie, specifically her unquenchable desire for her life to be the way she’s always heard it should be, and in this case, she’s clearly remembering a lifetime of TV shows and movies where moms have been beside themselves with excitement when their kids are coming home from college for Christmas break.

The thing is, it’s not like Frankie doesn’t see Axl all the freaking time. We know this, and we know she knows this. But she wants to be one of those moms anyway, dammit, and that’s how it’s going to be, whether Axl wants it that way or not. And make no mistake, he does not want it that way, and doesn’t hesitate to say as much. Rather than take a step backwards and stay out of it, Mike ventures into the fray and suggests that mother and son attempt to broker a deal where they each get a certain amount of what they want out of the holiday, if not necessarily everything they’d hoped for.


It’s hard to say if anyone really came out a winner in this arrangement: Since Axl’s annoyance with or indifference to virtually every family activity he was forced to be involved in came shining through, it seems unlikely that Frankie could’ve gotten much out of his presence. Then again, given that he’s pretty much always been annoyed with or indifferent to the things he’s had to do with his family, maybe it just seemed like old times to her. Either way, their pact worked out well enough until Christmas Eve, when Axl—still smarting over the fact that the previous evening’s activities proved to be a major disappointment (unless you consider making cookies and jitterbugging with your host’s grandma to be the height of excitement)—found himself really, really wishing he hadn’t agreed to spend the evening watching White Christmas with his family rather than attending the big bonfire with his buds… and the cheerleaders… and the Naked Polar Bear Plunge.

But Axl’s made a deal, and he begrudgingly tries to make good on it, which lasts just slightly beyond when the Hecks discover that the copy of White Christmas that Frankie purchased on eBay is in German. (“Dammit! I knew 72 cents was too good a deal!”) At that point, Axl finally loses it, delivers an angry tirade about the horrible injustice that’s being committed against him, and storms off to his room. Beaten, Frankie tells Mike that he can tell Axl it’s okay for him to go to the bonfire, and he heads off to do so, but when he gets there, there are some surprises in store. The first surprise is Axl’s, when Mike tells him that it was Frankie’s idea to let him go ahead and go to the bonfire. The second surprise, though, is ours: After explaining that both he and Frankie know that they’ve only got a few more Christmases left before it’ll be hard to get everyone together for the holidays, Mike likens the situation to Harry Chapin’s “Cats In The Cradle,” then proceeds to quote the last verse to Axl, only to have his voice break before he can even finish.


Damn. I started getting misty again just remembering the scene, so you can only imagine how affecting it was when I was actually watching it. Yeah, it’s one of the most emotionally manipulative songs of all time, but the busier life gets, the more it hits home… or maybe that’s just because I’m a dad myself. Maybe your mileage varies if you aren’t one. But you don’t have to be a father to appreciate what Mike’s feeling and the sentiment he’s expressing, and Axl’s not such a dolt that he isn’t moved by the moment: In short order, he’s decided to bail on the bonfire and just spend Christmas Eve with his family.

When you’ve got a storyline with a moment as heart-tugging as that one, it’s pretty hard to compete, which may be why Sue and Brick went in lighter directions. I thought Sue’s refusal to give up the Christmas tree despite her allergic reaction to its presence got a little too absurd once she set up camp behind the plastic sheeting, but then the cheerleaders arrived and called her “Bubble Girl,” and I grew slightly more tolerant, mostly just because the writers use those characters just infrequently enough for me to still think they’re really funny every time they appear. Also, knowing Sue, the fact that she believes she’s allergic to Christmas and that she’s ruined Christmas for the whole family, well, you actually can imagine her going to insane lengths to make things work out all right.


Brick’s storyline could have been as ridiculous as Sue’s, but it worked better than I’d imagined it would when it first started rolling. Granted, I don’t know many fundraising scenarios where they give the kids the prizes before the money’s turned in, but if you can get past that aspect, the idea of him unwittingly creating a Ponzi scheme was pretty great, particularly the way he managed to hunt down so many different ways to keep bringing in money before ultimately just stealing poinsettias from the graveyard—oh, sorry, I meant taking free flowers from the dead-people park—and selling them to unsuspecting neighbors in order to finally break even.

All told, it was another enjoyable Christmas episode, buoyed into greatness by Mike’s moment of sentimentality and then locked into place with the tag to the episode. At first, I thought the episode was going to have Axl mock “Cats In The Cradle,” and he did to a certain extent, but then when Brick asked how the song ended and Axl’s own voice cracked when he had to acknowledge that the father had died… I mean, what, did someone in the writers room for The Middle say, “Let’s see if we can get the viewers to cry twice”?


Okay, maybe not. But with that said, I’m betting I’m not the only one who found themselves suddenly echoing Brick’s final words of the episode: “I’m calling Dad at work!”

Stray observations:

  • Axl gets doughnuts for breakfast because he’s coming home from college for Christmas. Brick lives at home every day of his life, and he gets half a Pop Tart and an olive. To put salve on the emotional wound, Frankie assures her youngest son, “Don’t worry. Someday I’ll be happy you’re here, too.” Parenting!
  • “You sold 20 rolls of wrapping paper?” “That I did not do.”
  • It was a small moment, but I really liked the way Mike responded to Axl’s use of the words “worst Christmas ever” by calmly stepping in and saying, “Let’s not start throwing that phrase around…”
  • Best descriptive phrase: Axl talking about the family’s Christmas puzzle and saying that it’s missing so many pieces that “it’s the wise men in robes looking at a hole!”
  • “Have you seen the Orson Hooters?”
  • “According to the mood ring, I’m not that worried about it.”
  • When Brick wonders if what he’s doing isn’t just the same thing Frankie and Mike are doing with their credit cards, Frankie explains the big difference: “We’re going to die before they get us.”
  • “It’s a musical? That should’ve been disclosed at the beginning of negotiations!
  • I said the writers may have wanted to try and get viewers to cry twice, but make that three times if you count when the German version of “White Christmas” started to play, because damned if that didn’t get me a little bit, too.
  • “I’m glad we got a real tree this year.” “Me, too.” “You know next year we’re gonna have an artificial one.” “I know.”

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