All right, time to take the gloves off. No more Mr. Nice Kate: After a string of strong Trophy Wife episodes, “The Punisher” is another very funny episode about family support. The B+ probably gave it away. There is an awkward stretch to the best bit, though nothing on the order of Bert’s self-portrait. After Kate takes their screens as punishment, Hillary and Warren wrestle over Kate’s phone, their one remaining source of communication and games, and when she walks in on them, they accidentally knock it into the sink. They don’t want to let on that they were trying to violate the terms of their sentence, so they half-heartedly try to keep her from turning on the sink, but she does anyway. Kate’s dirty from using all those tools that Kate uses all the time, you know, like Kate does. So Hillary says they’ll just put the phone in rice: problem solved. But then Kate turns on the disposal because something’s clogging the sink and the kids just let her. If it’s Diane, I get it. The kids are so afraid of her that they’d be frozen in place. But they’ve been bucking against Kate all episode so far. It’s not a very long way to walk to set up the punchline, but it does require some scenery. The punch-line is worth it. Kate pulls her ravaged phone out of the sink in shock. She looks up at the kids and begins in a quiet, sing-song voice, “Yoooooouuuu liiiiiittle…” and that’s about the only intelligible phrase in a string of bleeped profanity that not only breaks the episode into commercial but plays over a black screen for a moment first, like even the sight of Kate cursing out her children is being censored.
Okay, the B-plot isn’t perfect, either. It begins with Crista Flanagan’s teacher informing Jackie and Pete that Bert might be feeling some tension between them, so they make a plan to have a fun family outing together, just the three of them. Some plot points are rusty, like why Jackie comes around to Pete’s position on mini-golf at the end. There’s no real demonstration that Bert actually feels any strain, and there’s even less that the golf trip has ameliorated him in any way, but Bert is so indomitable it’d be hard to tell in any event. And the pirate-speak mostly just clutters the comedy until the finale when Bert wants to get some “arr!ange sherbet” and neither parent can tell if he’s doing the pirate voice or just being Bert. Still, it’s always fun to get a glimpse of Pete’s former marriages, in this case a match-up between a nerd and a free spirit. After Jackie’s first putt misses, she keeps going: “I didn’t mean that, do-over, the ball’s still moving, hole in one!” Jackie is the queen of easy jokes that still make me laugh.
And in the other corner, everyone else. In fact, “The Punisher” is another episode where Meg’s around for a plausible portion of the episode instead of a character arc, and she packs a lot of jokes into the first act, flirting with a phone-scrabble player while Kate carries an oversized box, calling Warren “the weird virgin,” backing up Kate with stern looks when she punishes the kids for roof-diving against her orders. Kate finishes her hesitant verbal punishment with an “I’ve got my eyes on you” gesture. Meg follows her but gradually morphs into an “I don’t really care” hand-wave. It follows that she behaves like Kate’s third kid in a later scene, reacting most strongly to Kate turning off the TV and fighting back the loudest, even though she’s not actually subject to Kate’s rules.
“The Punisher” is primarily a Kate-Diane story, but not in the old way where the two women struggle to establish their relationship. This is about Diane helping Kate to establish authority in her relationship with the kids. Once Diane walks her through it and Kate takes the kids’ screens (“I just punished all over this place!”), she warns her that maintaining the punishment is the hardest part, setting up an episode of guilt. Psych! Kate does feel guilty about overreacting to the death of her phone, but that’s hardly the emphasis, and the kids don’t prey on her guilt. They run crying to Diane, and Diane sides with Kate, too. Actually, Diane provides some sensible advice: Think all those horrible things about the kids but don’t say them. Find a middle ground between rolling over and cursing them out. After so much domineering behavior, it’s surprising to see Diane behaving like a human mother.
Most importantly, the Kate-Diane-kids story is very funny. Hillary and Warren immediately start jamming together obnoxiously on their instruments to annoy Kate into relenting. Kate tries to level with them, asking if they’d treat Diane this way. “Obviously not.” “She doesn’t allow noise before dinner.” Then Hillary starts reading Warren a passage from Entering Chambers. “You know you’re not supposed to read your dad’s legal erotica.” When Jackie comes over post-bleeping, she takes Kate outside and pretends to chew her out while telling her she wishes she could have seen the looks on their faces. Kate doesn’t get it, but Diane knows the kids are watching. “I have the peripheral vision of a hammerhead shark.” Every cutaway to the kids’ perspective shows Diane and Kate in a convincing argument, and with only slightly more arm gestures than in the close-ups.
Long story short: Trophy Wife is on a roll. Tell your friends.
- Meg: “What? You know I’m a sucker for virgins.” I hope that wasn’t a seed for a season-five plot, but in a post-Cougar Town world, anything is possible. Including a season five of Trophy Wife.
- After Kate punishes the kids by telling them disobedience is “not cool, really really not cool,” Kate asks Meg, “You think that worked?” “No, actually I think they have less respect for you now.”
- Pete wants to go get ice cream instead of mini-golf. “You’re in, you lick, you’re out.” Jackie: “Well, maybe if you did a little more of that in our marriage, we’d still be together.”
- Which brings us to the great moment where they tell Bert they’re going on a family trip. Pete wants Bert to guess, so he starts pantomime-eating ice cream, but Jackie blurts out, “Mini-golf!” before he gets there.
- Hillary trying her mother’s sit-down gesture is priceless.
- Best moment in the fake-fight: It’s Kate’s turn, so she starts finger-pointing while saying, “Thank you, Diane.” Diane feigns shock.