Written by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson
Directed by Millicent Shelton
Airs Thursdays at 10pm EST on NBC
This week, on Parenthood: Julia holds on by a thread, Camille leaves for Italy, and Amber focuses on work
This season of Parenthood has been an incredibly consistent one, with interesting arcs for most of its characters and great moments for everyone. With so much going on, however, a few arcs have floundered, coming perilously close to cliché due to under-examination and familiar character beats. “Speaking of Baggage” focuses on two of these, giving them overdue attention and emphasizing their lingering, underlying causes: Julia’s struggles at home and Amber and Ryan’s engagement.
Julia’s arc this season has been rather superficially handled. Savvy TV fans see two recognizable, attractive actors of the opposite gender brought into her and her husband’s spheres and immediately know the show is teasing an infidelity storyline several episodes down the line. There’s been plenty of talk of Julia’s discontentment as a stay-at-home mom, but we’ve seen very little of this. In contrast, she seems to be a great mom, nurturing her children, spending time with them, and bending over backwards to help Victor improve his reading comprehension. She may say she’s unfulfilled, but we haven’t seen anything to back this up. Until this episode.
Erika Christensen knocks her scenes this week out of the park, showing Julia’s desperation and unhappiness, brushed under the façade of a strong center. Here is the discomfort with full-time parenting we’ve heard her discuss, the need for help, and the guilt that comes with, knowing Joel took on this role in their family for years so she could work at a job she loved. There’s also a palpable fear that this is what her life is, and all that it will be, for years- at least until the kids are out of the house. She can’t get a job even at a firm that loves her (in theory) and while she’s very happy to watch Joel and his company build towards a lucrative and fulfilling long-term partnership with Peet, she also sees her mother, so out of sync with her husband after having so consistently put others ahead of herself for most of her life, struggling to make herself heard and be happy, a looming specter of what her future could be.
Much like oft-discussed Sarah/Amber parallels, this season has played closely with Camille and Julia’s life choices, but while Amber’s situation is far closer to Sarah’s than she’s admitting to herself, Julia’s is further from Camille’s than she fears, and Camille and Zeek’s lack of communication may be prompting Julia to over-correct. We can see that Julia’s a great mom, but it seems clear she can’t; will she be calmed by somehow being reassured in this, or will the show take another path, determining that she isn’t suited to this role, a shocking prospect for a member of the Braverman clan of UberFamilyTogetherness. Either way, if Parenthood can keep showing us where Julia’s head is at as they do this week, rather than simply telling us, we should be in for more great Julia beats from here on.
The other under-represented storyline examined this week is Amber and Ryan’s relationship. Most of Amber’s arc this season has been focused on her relationship with her mother, leaving the moments between the couple to be respites of love and acceptance, with the occasional insecure Amber beats. This week that changes, with Amber throwing her energy into work just as her fiancé starts pressuring her to lock down their wedding plans. Time after time this season, Ryan has been set up to fill the Bad Egg role- being secretive about his family, responding to Amber’s complaints about her mother, this week seeing Amber be flirtatious with one of the band members of Ashes of Rome, and each time he’s reacted maturely and respectfully. Meanwhile, Amber’s been a pinball of emotion, bouncing back and forth day to day. Along with validating Sarah’s concerns, Amber and Ryan’s brief interactions this week let him see that perhaps, despite what she says, Amber may not be ready and by getting married so quickly, they may be making a mistake. A mistake he doubles down on, buying one hell of a rock, given their financial situation. This is an important development and seeing the nuts and bolts of this relationship, rather than the fairy tale we’ve mostly seen thus far, has a lot of potential. Matt Lauria and Mae Whitman are fantastic together and it’s been wonderful watching their characters blossom over the past two seasons. Hopefully they’re not headed to a painful break- there’re enough unhappy couples on this show as it is.
The rest of the episode jumps back and forth between Camille and Zeek, once again a reliably nuanced and well-developed storyline, Drew and his not-girlfriend, which nicely sidesteps a potential convenient-drunken-amnesia plotline, and Sarah and Hank’s complicated friendship. It’s great to see Hank and Max interacting again, but the return of self-obsessed Sarah is less pleasant. Focusing on Amber’s wedding has been good for Sarah, who can easily become insufferable in her treatment of potential love interests. This week she goes down to Hank’s shop to open old wounds and harass him for seemingly no reason. The show is likely moving towards a Sarah/Hank reconciliation, but if scenes like this are how we’ll get there, we need a better reason to root for this couple and a better understanding of why they’re separated at the moment- Sarah’s whims are not enough.
Overall, this is a fantastic episode of Parenthood, one that salvages one of the season’s most problematic storylines and develops an under-explored element as well. The final lingering questionable arc is Kristina’s mayoral campaign. Hopefully the show can rehab that thread over the next two weeks, tightening up the final weak point in what has so far been a strong, emotional season.
What did you think of this episode? Were you as glad as I to finally see where Julia’s coming from? Think Bonnie Bedelia will take the next few episodes off, or will we see her in Italy? What’s next for Amber and Ryan? Post your thoughts below!