In a recent interview with Variety, Les Charles, one of the co-creators of Cheers, reflected on the 25th anniversary of the final episode of that series and, in doing so, reflected on the inherent problem in ending sitcoms in general, zeroing in on the fact that last episodes don’t tend to be typical episodes.

“They change,” said Charles. “They do something different than they’ve done before. They’re usually longer. You take a half-hour form, for the most part, and turn it into an hour—or in our case, I think we went an hour and a half—and it really stretches your story. Everybody wants to see a typical Cheers episode. They don’t want it to all of a sudden be horribly dramatic or give you something out of context. But they want it to be special and to somehow be the best Cheers episode ever. Well, you know, every week you’re trying to do the best Cheers episode ever! So there’s just a lot of expectations placed on that particular episode of a series, and in a lot of cases people are disappointed.”

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This is very true: many sitcom series finales have been disappointing. Thankfully, that did not prove to be the case with The Middle, which came to a conclusion with a double-length episode that—after a farewell season that offered viewers an opportunity to say goodbye to a number of recurring characters—focused almost entirely on the five individuals who were the heart of the series: Frankie, Mike, Axl, Sue, and Brick.

No, it wasn’t the best episode of The Middle ever. But it sure was special.

Things kicked off by rewinding to a few seconds before last week’s episode ended, which isn’t a bad move when you consider how many casual viewers tend to tune in to see a series shuttering its windows. We see a sparsely-lit Axl opening his parents’ bedroom door, asking them not to turn on the light because he doesn’t want to have to see their faces when he tells them that, yes, he’s decided to take the job opportunity offered to him in Denver. The flip side, of course, is that they don’t get to see his face, either, but you can tell by the deep breath he takes before making his announcement and the way he zips off after spitting out those six life-changing words that, for all his bravado, it’s a decision that’s been hard on him, too.

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Frankie, however, has a decidedly more visceral reaction: she begins weeping uncontrollably. For all her none-too-subtle efforts to get her eldest son to stay in town, he’s still decided to leave. Mike’s already made it clear that it’s not going to be an easy departure for him to deal with, either, having told Axl outright last week, “I’ll miss the hell out of you,” but as is par for the course, he shrugs off his emotions and tries to help Frankie get through the initial stage of her grief. It isn’t easy—she’s all over the place at first—but he actually tries to commiserate by asking her what the cookies she keeps in the nightstand do for her. “They make the sadness go away and they help me forget that my son is planning to move halfway across the world,” she sobs. You can’t see his face in the darkness, but after nine years, you can easily imagine his slightly bemused expression when he replies, “I’ll try one.”

I’d be hard pressed to attribute it to the cookies, but it must be said that when we next see Frankie, it certainly looks as though the sadness has gone away. It hasn’t, of course, but like Axl, she’s made a decision: she can’t change what’s happening, but she can at least put on a brave face, do her best to stay in her son’s good graces during the short amount of time he’s got until they drive him to Denver, and—God willing—come across as cool enough with the situation that he’ll come back and visit. Remarkably, she manages to maintain some semblance of this façade, albeit with a few hiccups along the way, for the majority of the episode, but there was never any chance that she’d make it all the way to Colorado without losing it. But we’ll get to that.

Having dropped the bombshell on his parents, Axl still has to break the news to his siblings that he’s officially decided to take the job in Denver, and it’s a task that once again finds himself trying to avoid the inevitable emotion of the moment and instead favoring the idea of basically just sneaking out and letting his sister and brother figure out that he’s gone long after he’s made his departure. Given how little guilt Frankie has to lay on him before he agrees to go tell them, it’s clear that he was already resigned to his fate, and it’s not like he really ends up having to tell them, since Sue pretty much makes the declaration for him. Inevitably, she proceeds to bawl and blubber about her brother’s impending exodus, while Brick instead opts to launch headlong into big plans for reworking his soon-to-be Axl-free living area, a response which thoroughly frustrates Axl yet provides viewers with some tremendously funny visual gags, like Brick wandering around with a tape measure or shoving a gigantic bookcase down the hall and—oops!—into a doorframe, where it fits so snugly that I think we can all reasonably presume that it’ll effectively reside there forever.

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It’s right after that when Axl’s scheduled departure abruptly changes…or, more precisely, it’s when Mike realizes that his lunkhead of a son neither knows which months are represented by which numbers between 1-12 nor does he know how to properly count to ten in Spanish. The end result of these revelations is that Axl suddenly only has four days to get everything packed and get to Denver. Yes, this does truly plumb the depths of Axl’s stupidity, but not entirely unlike Sue’s heaving sobs, which were considerable even by her tearful-explosion standards, it’s a moment that no longtime fan of the series is likely to judge as being out of character.

At this point in the episode—and your mileage may have varied on this matter, as can often be the case with the critic-reader relationship—my anxiety level kicked into overdrive, and it felt like things began to zoom by. Yes, part of that may have been because I was watching an advance screener, so I was never unaware of how much longer was left in the episode, but anyone who’s ever moved has felt that sudden surge of horror when they realize how little time they’ve got left in their domicile and how much they still have left to do before then. In Axl’s case, it wasn’t just the packing, prepping, and travel time, it was the process of dealing the emotions inherent in leaving behind pretty much all the people you’ve ever loved and the only home you’ve ever known.

Trust me: that shit ain’t easy.

For the writers, the benefit of throwing an unexpected time crunch into the story is that it more or less gives them carte blanche to deliver scenes that feel rushed, because of course they’re gonna feel rushed, you fool, Axl’s got to be in Denver in just a couple of days! Except here’s the thing: instead of hurrying through things, thereby overstuffing the episode, the progression is delivered in an effectively streamlined manner wherein each scene fills a plot need while also servicing the fans with moments they’ll appreciate.

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Take, for instance, the first scene after the May-June revelation: Axl needs to pack, so he needs boxes, which are easily available—and for free, no less!—from the Frugal Hoosier, one of the most oft-referenced locations in Orson. So there’s the fun moment for the fans, but the scene also provides an opportunity for Mike to express how impressed he is with how Frankie’s handling Axl’s departure as well for Frankie to release some steam by snapping at Mike about what a goddamned emotional tightrope walk she’s embarked upon. It’s the only way to play it, though, as far as she’s concerned, because “the moment he leaves, he holds all the cards.”

Meanwhile, Axl’s on a tightrope walk of his own, trying to balance his desire to avoid big emotional moments in general with his interest in why Brick isn’t having an emotional moment in regards to his departure, which in turn frustrates Sue, who wants nothing more than to share a moment with Axl. In short order, though, the siblings all get their moments, starting with Axl’s faux game show to give away his car. I say “faux” not because it’s not a real game show, but because the fix was in from the beginning: despite the fun flashbacks inspired by Axl’s round of sibling trivia, he was always going to give Sue his car. It’s a very sweet moment, one that actually caught me so off-guard that I gasped when the camera cut to Sue’s reaction shot, after which I promptly choked up…and not for the last time.

The car-giveaway scene also sets up Brick’s steadfast refusal to sit in the middle on the drive to Denver, thereby setting up the first car scene of the episode. Not that they leave the driveway, but it still counts, mostly because it’s such a wonderful spotlight for Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher, and Atticus Shaffer to play off each other and only each other. We get an explanation for why Brick’s acting the way he is (he’s never known an existence without Axl, and he’s trying to figure out how to construct one without him), we get an acknowledgement that Axl and Brick are going to miss each other, we get a laundry list of reasons why Sue’s going to miss Axl, and we get Axl’s admission that he’s been avoiding giving Sue her “moment” because of how much he’s going to miss her.

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Most of all, though, we get a line—and, of course, it’s Sue who delivers it—which really made the tears start to well up: “The middle is the safest place to be: you’ve got love on both sides of you.”

Yep, Sue got her moment. And we got one, too. Plus, we got one last reference to the Fergusons. That’s the way the episode progresses: a tear-jerking moment, a laugh, and some more tears, followed by further laughter.

Finally, the day of departure arrives. In addition to a blue bag sighting, we see Axl growing increasingly surprised—and getting a little bit concerned—about the fact that Frankie is still towing the line of Supportive Mom. We also get one of those rare Mike moments where he’s all but wearing his heart on his sleeve, giving Axl his father’s watch, which he’s not only repaired but has gotten engraved with the longitude and latitude of the Heck house, “so you always remember where you came from.” Even before he’s revealed the engraving, though, Axl’s already stricken with emotion, unable to utter more than “that’s, uh, wow” before enveloping Mike in a hug, which is received with the requisite awkwardness, yes, but also with a look that reveals how happy Mike is that the gift clearly meant as much to Axl as he’d intended.

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Frankie’s reaction to walking in on this moment of gift-giving is priceless and oh-so-perfectly Frankie, but as pissed off as she is with Mike about swooping in and scoring his own emotional moment while she’s trying to keep her cool, she still manages to shrug it off and re-plaster her smile as she approaches the front door, where Axl stands with his back, ready to head outside. Before doing so, though, he takes a deep breath and says, “Well, this is it,” after which he—and we—take one last look at the living room. Let me just say this: if Charlie McDermott manages to defeat nine years worth of odds and secure an Emmy nomination for this season, then he cinched it in the eternity that takes place between the camera cutting back to Axl and the turn of the doorknob by Mike. You can see so many emotions running across his face, so much love for the life he’s lived in this place, probably even some split-second second guessing of his decision… And then it’s over. In that long last glance, you get the feeling that he’s realized two things: leaving home is every bit as hard as he’d feared it was going to be, but there’s no turning back now.

As soon as he steps outside, though, he’s greeted by a gaggle of neighbors who’ve gathered to wish him bon voyage. Axl awkwardly accepts a farewell squeeze from Brad before saying goodbye to Lexie, Ron Donahue and Bill Norwood share a manly moment with Mike over his intended route to Denver, and Frankie and Nancy Donahue have a heartfelt hug, with Nancy reminding Frankie, “Our sons may leave us, but at least we’ll always have each other.” (Say, where is Sean, anyway?) The best farewell appearance, however, belongs to Weird Ashley: it’s unexpected enough to inspire an abrupt burst of laughter the moment she appears, and it scores another big laugh with the way it ends. It’s absolutely perfect.

Also perfect, if somewhat expected: when Axl walks over to the car and discovers that Brick has opted to sit in the middle after all, putting a positive spin on the situation by reminding Axl, “I can sit by the window on the way back.” But this, of course, leads into Brick musing on which window he might sit by, which sends Sue into a tizzy, which leads to raised voices before they’ve even fully driven away. In other words, it’s just what you’d want from a Heck family car scene.

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Indeed, the drive to Denver is filled with a number of great car moments, some between Mike and Frankie, some between the kids, some involving the whole family. There’s the absurdity of the bees and the car peaches, the relatability of the family running out of data, and the intentional familiarity of conversation topics like frozen heads and death napkins. And in the midst of it all, we also get the anticipated closure of the Sue and Sean story, with Sean getting stopped at the airport because he didn’t realize that Sue had put the snow globe in his bag, deciding that he couldn’t go to Ghana without finding out if Sue felt the same way about him that he did about her, and driving like a bat out of hell down the same route as the Hecks in order to catch up with them and get his answer. And, boy, did he get his answer…

Of course, the snow globe ends up shattered into a million pieces, but as Sean says over the dampened rubble, “It doesn’t matter. We don’t need it. It did what it was supposed to do: it brought us to each other.” You can complain about how long it took for these two crazy kids to get together, and you can bemoan the fact that we didn’t really get to enjoy any time with them as a couple, but I don’t think you can complain about the way this scene plays out. And how could you? Sue Heck wins!

But then we finally hit the moment that was almost as inevitable as Sue and Sean coming together: when Frankie’s façade shatters like the snow globe. For all the things she’s tolerated throughout the course of the episode, she finally loses it when, in the midst of another low-data crisis, Axl flippantly suggests that they just take him off the family plan, since he’s not really part of the family anymore. It’s clearly just a throwaway remark as far as he’s concerned, but for Frankie, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. She tells Mike to stop the car, gets out, runs a few dozen feet, and then it all comes spilling out: the complaints, the concerns, the fears, and the tears.

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In the end, though, everything—both for the Heck family and for their loyal viewers for the past nine years—comes down to the final onscreen exchange between Frankie and Mike Heck:

Frankie: “It’s the end of an era, and it’s never going to be the same again.”
Mike: “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

And so the closing moments begin: we flash-forward to see that Axl ends up with three sons who torture him the same way he tortured his parents, we learn that Brick puts all of that reading to good use and becomes a successful author with a damned fine beard, and we discover that, after a few false starts, Sue and Sean live happily ever after…and so does Brad, apparently, based on the fella standing next to him at Sue’s wedding. And as for Frankie and Mike, they keep living where they’ve always lived, they continue to follow the same economic trajectory they’ve always been on, and—most importantly of all—they’re still together and, one can only presume, still driving each other crazy.

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But that’s the future. That’s not where the series leaves us. It leaves us in the present, with the Hecks driving into the sunset, still squabbling, yes, but very much still a family. And when it actually ends, it ends with a whisper.

Okay, fine: it technically ends with a song by Reverend Tim-Tom. But I couldn’t hear it over all the sobbing, so I’m giving it to the whisper. Besides, it’s nice to think of Brick finally getting the last word.

So here we are at the end of The Middle, a series that revolved around one of the most real families on TV, stayed startlingly consistent throughout its run, went out on its own terms, and delivered as wonderful a finale as its fans could’ve hoped for. It may have been underrated throughout almost its entire run, but it won’t soon be forgotten.

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Unlike the blue bag.


Stray observations

I have none, as you’ve already suffered through way more words than anyone in the right mind should’ve had to endure, except to offer my thanks to the creators and cast of The Middle for everything they’ve given us over the course of these past nine seasons, to the A.V. Club for letting me come back to cover the series finale, and to you, the readers, for joining me in trying to make this wonderful show just a little bit less underrated.

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I don’t know if we made a big difference, but we definitely made a difference.