One of the things I don’t think I’ve been adequately conveying in these reviews is just how much I’m fully enjoying this season of United States Of Tara. Even though I tend to give the show a B or B+, I’d peg the season as a whole (so far) at a high B+ or even an A-. The storyline is really shaping up to be the most impressive thing the show has ever done, unfolding more like an intriguing novel than anything else, and if that means individual chapters are a little slower than the whole thing, it doesn’t mean that I’m not impressed by the big picture, by the tapestry the show has slowly but steadily woven. It’s drawing on little hints tossed off throughout the season and on the history of the entire show as a whole. It’s introduced a truly wonderful new character in Dr. Hatteras. And it’s, most importantly, taken a hard look at how Tara’s condition, which was treated as quirky fun back in the first episodes of the show, has real consequences for this family, nearly pushing it to the breaking point.
Let’s start with Wheels. Now, obviously, Tara—no matter which alter had control of the body—wasn’t going to kill a baby. But the moment when she transitioned into the creepily smiling alter we’ve been calling You Will Not Win (now known to us as Bryce Crane, or, rather, Tara’s spin on her half-brother) and took off with the baby was genuinely suspenseful. It wasn’t so much that I was worried for Wheels—the show couldn’t exactly pull back from having Tara harm Wheels significantly, so it was clear she was just going to give Hatteras a scare. (Even if Charmaine had found out that Wheels had been taken on a bus into the middle of nowhere, she’d have kicked Tara out of her life permanently, no matter that Wheels was unharmed.) And as you watched Bryce with Wheels, you were forced to think back on when Kate and Marshall were little or when Tara and Max had first met or any number of moments in this family’s history. Tara’s condition may have manifested itself as a coping mechanism, a way for her to protect herself from whatever Bryce (or someone) did, but it’s become a dark force in the lives of everyone around her.
One of the things I’ve liked about the series as it has gone on is that it’s portrayed just how chaotic all of this is. Tara, of course, has always been a chaotic person, and in the early going (and, indeed, in some of the lesser episodes of seasons two and three), this was portrayed as a fun kind of chaos, a TV-friendly kind of chaos, where a serious mental illness was treated as a kind of crazy thing people just had to put up with, in true sitcom fashion. And because this is a TV show, that fun chaos can never go away. Things can never change. What season three has done (as did season two, to a lesser extent) is portray the gravity of that situation. Maybe the family’s used to Alice and Buck. Maybe there are times they don’t mind having those two (or some of the other alters) around. But having to deal with this eventually gets wearying, damaging.
I like shows like this. I like shows that take apart every element of their premises and hold them up to the light. Season three of Tara has been doing this splendidly, asking if having such savvy, self-sufficient kids is such a good thing if they’re constantly having to take care of their parents, asking if Max isn’t just a little screwed up himself for falling in love “with that” (as Marshall put it), asking if the quest Tara’s on for a cure—or maybe even just peace of mind—is anything that can end satisfactorily. One of the fundamental assumptions of narrative is that people can change and grow and get better, and long-running TV series often run into the problem of not being able to change anything. Tara’s one of the few shows where the longer the show runs, the less change it has, the better of a show it could be (assuming the other characters’ reactions to Tara evolve in believable ways).
What I’m talking around, here, is that quite a bit happened in this episode, but it’s all setup again, all setup for whatever’s coming, even if it’s fascinating setup. The emergence of the season’s new alter—Bryce—suggests that we’re headed into the third act of this particular story, and Bryce’s threat to kill Tara raises the stakes even more (though he conveniently seems to think she’s outside of him, not the body he’s occupying). I loved the business with Chicken going missing, apparently killed by Bryce, and the use of the stuffed rabbit to symbolize the lost little girl terrorized by her half brother was nicely done. It’s also good to have Hatteras along for the ride, as he’s a good audience surrogate in these sorts of scenes (even if his turn to not knowing what he believes anymore feels forced by the writers, having killed off his kite boy to give him a crisis of conscience). And the other alters—particularly Alice (and probably Shoshanna and Buck, given last week)—taking control to try to guard against the re-emergence of Bryce has been an interesting turn to take with those characters.
The other stuff, as always, was a bit weaker, but I did like Max and Marshall getting on the plane, revealing Max’s intense fear of flying, a fear that has him telling Marshall to “not get your hopes up,” when it comes to doing well at the film festival. Marshall, see, has made it into the fest, and Tara can’t go, so Max goes along. The scene where Max is ranting on the turbulent plane with Kate trying to calm him and Marshall trying to pay attention to anything else is possibly the funniest in the episode, until it turns unexpectedly poignant, with Max trying to get his son to keep everything muted, expectations wise. One of the great things about this season has been how it’s shown us that all of these people (particularly Charmaine and Max) are screwed up, just less recognizably than Tara is, and how they could all use just a touch of help.
- The less said about Kate and Evan and Evan’s stereotypically terrible kid, Monty, the better. I liked the bit where Kate and Evan were having a fancy dinner in an airport steakhouse, though. A lovely misdirect.
- Charmaine’s friend at the spa was played by Gillian Vigman, who’s best known to me for her work as the female lead on the late, lamented-by-me-and-five-other-people comedy Sons & Daughters, one of those shows that was ahead of its time and really needs a DVD release already.
- I loved Charmaine assuming Tara and Hatteras were having an affair. It’s the kind of typical sitcom storyline you’d expect here, but the actors all played it well.
- Marshall’s extreme bitterness at the fact that Kate obviously hadn’t told Evan anything about him was pretty funny. I also liked Max letting Kate know she didn’t need him to give her advice anymore.
- I kind of hope we see Gimme again. I have no idea why that would happen, but Gimme’s the only one who can sort this out. Probably through peeing.