You know that jaunty little bouncy music Showtime plays under the “previously on” segments of this show, the music that’s supposed to let you know you’re watching a comedy, dammit, no matter how dark everything’s gotten? That music’s starting to seem particularly inappropriate heading into United States Of Tara’s home stretch, and I can’t imagine it seeming anything but ridiculous and jarring come next week’s episode, what with how this one ended. After a full season of rising tensions and several episodes of the characters avoiding the obvious answer to the question of “What should we do about Tara?”—have her institutionalized or seek more comprehensive professional help than she can get in Overland Park—tonight’s episode is one part supporting character bloodbath, one part attempt to force catharsis, and one part grim march toward the place we always thought we might be going. When Tara gets out of the car at episode’s end and pitches herself over the edge of a bridge, it’s a truly horrific moment. No jaunty music is gonna make that seem anything less than heartbreaking.
And here’s the thing: I know Tara can’t die. When the producers were making this episode, they labored under the assumption that there would be a fourth season. And that means that Tara needs to survive whatever happens to her, because without her, there’s no show. (I don’t think the world would take kindly to this just becoming a show about the Gregsons picking up the pieces after their mother dies or Frances Conroy filling the mental illness hole at the center of the series.) Yet at the same time, it’s such a tremendously horrifying moment that it almost doesn’t matter that it will almost certainly be reversed when we get to next week. Because this shows just how far Tara is willing to go, both to not have to go into an institution and to keep her family from everything her condition has done to them. On some level, what Max’s mom said to Bryce about how everything that has happened in the Gregson family, everything Marshall and Kate could have been but aren’t, was all Tara’s fault. And on one level, that’s sad, because Bryce so irreparably screwed this woman up that she can’t take care of her family properly. But on another level it almost seems selfish. This woman can’t put her own stuff on hold long enough to help out her own kids?
“Crunchy Ice” takes its title from what might be its quietest scene, a small scene of Kate and Marshall barricading themselves inside of Kate’s bedroom to hide out from Bryce. As they lay on the bed together and talk about whether Kate will come home for holidays once she’s married and Marshall’s memories of Lionel, the scene raises an interesting idea: When Marshall and Kate were kids, they thought their mother was just being goofy when she’d change into other people. But now that they’re adults, they see that they’ve grown and changed and she cannot. Her alters are frozen, and though Tara can make small steps forward, they keep her frozen as well. And for as long as Kate and Marshall live at home, they’ll always be hiding from Tara on some level, always locking themselves away to keep things from getting too bad. The only way out of this situation is to leave the house entirely.
If I have a complaint about “Crunchy Ice,” it’s that it reverses the things that happened in last week’s episode a bit too abruptly. Kate and Marshall seemed to have made their break with their mother entirely, heading off to their own, new lives, yet they both come back once their father asks them to return. Now, granted, you’ll often drop everything to help family, and the two kids have a certain amount of affection for Max, simply based on what he puts up with. They probably want to help, deep down, but after making their break seem so definitive last week, well, this felt slightly cheap, as though a few words of encouragement about how you have to love your mother from Max’s mom would be more than enough to set Marshall on the path back home. (And, granted, that he ran from the home of one mentally ill woman to another says something, I think.) But it’s rare to have a TV show make a major story development and say, “Just kidding!” quite THIS rapidly. It gets the half-hour off to a weird, discombobulating start.
Pretty much everything after that is terrific, though, from Charmaine and Neil trying to figure out just how much to let Tara into their lives and their baby’s life to Bryce wandering the Gregson house like a tyrant to the marvelous little vignettes where Buck, T, and Alice all pop up to say their final goodbyes to Max, Kate, and Marshall, respectively. Very early on in my coverage of this season, I talked about how I’ve always thought that in the initial creation of the show, Diablo Cody probably came up with the three main alters as ways to give the other Gregsons someone inside of Tara to bounce off of, a facet of their mother/wife that they really needed at certain times. But now, Kate and Marshall have moved past T and Alice. Kate’s a confident young woman; Marshall’s well on his way to being a man of the world. And yet T and Alice are frozen in place, keeping some part of Tara with them. Some people in this world can change, but Tara never can. It’s one of my favorite meta-comments on the way that TV shows will keep characters stuck in place for years and years that I’ve ever seen. (Similarly, Chicken seems like someone who was once someone Charmaine could bounce off of, but now Charmaine has grown up and moved on, showing us the end result of this process.)
Season three, ultimately, has been a little messy, much messier than the neater, more tightly plotted season two. But all of the weird little detours and dead ends—like, what, exactly, did Marshall’s student film have to do with much of anything, since I assume there won’t be time to deal with it next week—have added up to a portrayal of a family looking for easy answers and not finding any outside of the one they’ve been refusing all along. When Neil finds the location of the grave of Bryce Crane in amongst Buck’s porn stash, it seems like this might break the spell, might finally bring Tara back and send Bryce away. Instead, it’s mostly catharsis for Charmaine. The only thing that can bring Tara back is that jolt of having her son tackle her. Otherwise, catharsis isn’t for her. She’s trapped in amber. She’s a TV character.
- Just one week to go! Any thoughts on how this all turns out? Or do you imagine that Tara really is dead? (Addendum: I wrote the bulk of this post before seeing the finale, so do not take my words above as proof one way or the other.)
- It’s interesting that Marshall will let pretty much anything Bryce says or does—including trying to push his buttons about Lionel—roll off his back, but what really snaps him into action is the threat to Tara herself. Cool-headed kid, that one.
- The choice to open the episode with footage of the characters leading their separate lives, Max trapped in his house with a 14-year-old psycho, set to a Christmas song was… odd.
- It’s not exactly a time for hard jokes, but both Brie Larson and Patton Oswalt were very funny tonight, usually delivering weird little gags around the edges, jokes to cut the tension.
- "Also, a habitat for ferrets. Oh, they got out. Huh."