Friday, January 30, 2015

A Fictional Family & Their Legacy: Saying Farewell to 'Parenthood'

When a television series that has been a part of your life ends, something stirs within you. It's this weird, intimate connection with the characters that you possess that causes you to want the best for them after the credits fade to black. I know. It sounds strange, right? But anyone who has been a fan of any television show for a period of time knows what I mean. You want to leave your favorite characters in a place where they're not just well taken care of, but where they are happy. Where they are loved. Where there is hope.

Parenthood has always been an extremely emotional series for me and for nearly everyone who ever watched it. The reason why it is so emotional is because it's so raw and real. These aren't just characters on a television show. They're US. They're family members of ours in real life. They're friends. And their struggles are our struggles. They experience birth and death and love and loss. They celebrate little things like good grades on tests. They experience traumatic events and hospital visits. And through it all, they continue to rely on and support each other. The Braverman clan has been through their fair share of joys and struggles and they've kept changing and evolving because of them. So when we said goodbye to them in "May God Bless And Keep You Always" (the most fitting title for this series' farewell, might I add), I was so utterly impressed that Jason Katims managed to take everything I loved about the series as a whole and translate it to screen in the final moments. The finale exemplified everything that Parenthood was about -- unconditional love, loss, joy, hope, laughter -- and I couldn't have been more pleased with the result.

When a television series ends, you want to know that the characters you love have grown up, that they've evolved and changed and have become better people because of the relationships they've had and the experiences they've been through. And when you tell people what Parenthood is about -- that it's a show focusing on a large family as they struggle and succeed -- it's easy to focus on the minute changes that have occurred -- on the small seasonal arcs and miss the big picture. "May God Bless And Keep You Always" reminded us that while this show was always about fractions of the family (about Adam's side and Sarah's side and Crosby's side and Julia's side and Zeek and Camille's side), the real "big picture" has been on this family as a whole. That's why it's so important that the scene of the entire family playing baseball to remember Zeek is spliced with snippets of the individual families' futures.

Though this series finale was emotional, it wasn't sad -- not really. Not for long, at least. It was hopeful. It was full of promise. It was full of assurance that the characters we had grown to love would be okay after we left them. More than that, they would continue to grow and change and that Zeek's life would inspire them to do so. Perhaps, though, the best part about the Parenthood finale was that everything came full circle. It was beautiful to watch the parallels unfold -- of Amber and baby Zeek moving in with Zeek and Camille, just like Sarah did at the beginning of the series; of Sarah and Zeek reflecting on their journeys and their growth; etc. -- throughout the episode. What really got me, too, was something that my roommate mentioned when I began marathoning the show on Netflix.

During season four of Parenthood, the theme song changed from "Forever Young" to "When We Were Young." And that was important, Leah noted. When I asked her why it was, she told me to think about it. What significance would there be in the theme song changing to something quieter and simpler and a bit sadder, back to something familiar and happy? (After I jokingly told her: "Maybe they couldn't afford to use it anymore?" I really did think about its significance because we're both women with English degrees after all and analyzing meaning is what we do.)

It came to me, of course: the significance in the theme song changing back is because the Braverman family itself was resetting -- they were falling back into normalcy; Kristina's cancer was gone and Amber was getting stronger and Sarah was falling in love and Adam and Crosby were becoming partners. Leah said two simple words: "Full circle." And really, when I thought about it, how beautiful is that? How beautiful is it that we returned to "Forever Young" as the series drew to a close? A constant reminder of how much this entire fictional family has been through, how much they've grown and changed, and how they will always return to each other -- to that metaphorical or literal family table and celebrate life together.

While we're on the subject of character growth, let's talk about "May God Bless And Keep You Always" and how each character and family in this series began their journeys and how they ended it.


We all knew it was coming, didn't we? We all knew that Zeek would be the one to die in the series finale. And honestly, I didn't really cry over his death (because it happened very similarly to The Last Song), but what I DID cry over was everything involving Zeek preceding his death. Zeek began the series as the patriarch of the giant Braverman clan with Millie faithfully by his side. And he wasn't a very loving or nurturing dad. He was the kind of father and grandfather who was prickly -- he believed in discipline and in not sugar-coating truths. Throughout the series, Zeek impacted a lot of people both positively and negatively through that tough love approach. But there are two really important events that occur within "May God Bless And Keep You Always" that we need to discuss: 1) Hank asking for Zeek's blessing; 2) Zeek's conversation with Sarah before her wedding.

The latter is really poignant and important because it's so easy to forget that after all this show has done, the series began with a simple premise: an adult woman moves back home with her two teenaged children because her life and, consequently their lives, are falling apart. And so it was extremely important in the Parenthood series finale to focus on Zeek and Sarah's relationship once more since that was the hinge that the entire show swung on. And when Zeek asks whether or not he's been a good father to her, Sarah -- with tears in her eyes -- tells him that he has been "the very best." Zeek didn't always make good choices as a parent and he and Millie learned a lot about compassion and love and growth from each other (how amazing was it to see them grow closer, to see the depiction of a fictional couple in their "third act" in life grow closer together just like a newly married couple would do?), but they also learned a lot about unconditional love from their children and their grandchildren.

Zeek learned how to be more patient and loving and compassionate when it came to Max. And that allowed him to embrace Hank (also who most likely has Asperger's) and to trust him to take care of Sarah. Zeek jokingly tells Sarah that she's his favorite, and I think that in a way, it's so significant that these two people's journeys paralleled each other. As Sarah grew to trust and to open herself up to others -- to stop letting her past dictate how she lived in the present, so did Zeek. The patriarch of this clan grew so much over the years and as a result, grew so much closer to his wife and to his family. He started thinking about other people. He started planning trips and expressing his love. And Camille grew too. She learned how to love herself and that when she did that, she was able to love her family and take care of them better.

So when Zeek died in the finale, it was sad but it was fitting. There was closure, there, in a way that I had always hoped there would be. Zeek stayed with his family and was on that field with them playing baseball, being proud, and probably yelling at Adam and Crosby about how they're holding their gloves. Zeek and Camille grew together in understanding and in love and became better people because of it. And when we flash forward, we see that Camille took that trip to France that Zeek had planned for them. She continued to live so that he could be remembered; she continued to have adventures because he would have been there with her.

And in a way, I think he was.


There was always the question -- in the last few seasons, at least -- of whether or not Joel and Julia would end up together or if their relationship was beyond repair. And when Victor's social worker approached them in the finale about the opportunity to adopt Victor's half-sister, we knew that the couple had a choice to make. They weren't ready for another adventure quite yet. Not, at least, while they were still settling into the idea of being "normal" again as a family after everything with the separation. But what I loved about the finale was that we returned to a new normal for the couple and their family. Because of everything they had been through, Joel and Julia learned to communicate about everything. They learned that they have to be on the same page, together, or not at all. And though their eventual decision to adopt Victor's sister was inevitable, that didn't make the moment they held her any less heartwarming. The truth of the matter is that Joel and Julia have always had a complex relationship: Joel was always the sweet, nurturing one; Julia was the hardworking, more emotionally stoic one. That's how they operated throughout their entire relationship.

Until life threw them curveball after curveball and they didn't know how to cope. That's where the beauty of the series finale comes in, though: after all Joel and Julia had to go through in their marriage, they came out stronger on the other side because of it. They learned to stop planning every moment of their lives. They learned to stop controlling each other and resenting each other. They learned to become a team -- one unit -- in their decision-making and their parenting. They learned how to love each other better by putting each other first. They had to learn how to re-establish trust, and that was something so painful and so real to watch unfold on our screens.

But in "May God Bless And Keep You Always," it's clear that in the future, Joel and Julia have an expanded family. In addition to Victor's half-sister, they now have another baby (and a puppy because who doesn't love puppies?). You know why this makes me happy (in spite of the fact that I was momentarily confused about the fourth child)? Because it exemplifies how both characters have grown up so that they could grow together: Joel has become more outspoken; Julia more compassionate. Now, the two have learned from each other and from their mistakes in order to become not just better spouses and parents, but also better people.


Max danced with a girl at Sarah's wedding. If that didn't make you tear up, then perhaps the fact that he graduated from Chambers Academy with a smile on his face did. Adam and Kristina have had a rocky road in the past few years, not just because of Kristina's cancer but because of everything that life has thrown at them with three children. I never doubted that these two would make it, out of the Braverman clan. They were always depicted as the pillars of strength: the rational, natural parents -- Adam being the leader; Kristina as the nurturing and caring mother. But Adam and Kristina were never stock characters or stock parents. I absolutely love Adam's growth throughout the series because his character proves that you can still be searching for your joy even into your 40s. You can still find things to be passionate about and sometimes those things shift. When Adam walked away from the Luncheonette, I knew he made the right call for him and his family. It was the right thing to do and when Crosby walked in on Adam teaching the kids at Chambers how to cook, he knew it too. Because the truth is that life is too short to not find what you're passionate about and sometimes that passion does come with a bit of uncertainty and a bit of struggle.

Adam accepts the job as headmaster of Chambers Academy and it's such a beautiful move because do you remember Adam at the beginning of the series? He was in a job he didn't like and wasn't passionate about and he's spent so much of the series just being torn between the idea of supporting his family and figuring out what his dream is. And what I think he realized in this finale was that he has to take a few leaps of faith in order to get to his dream. I'm so happy that Adam was able to find something that filled him with joy long-term. It's funny though, isn't it? Adam and Kristina spent years trying to find their passion. And as it turned out, their passion was the thing they'd been doing naturally for years before that -- being a loving parent to children who need it. I'm so pleased with how Adam and Kristina's journey unfolded; how loving and supportive they always were. How they were flawed but still the people others leaned on for support. How Adam grew as a son and a brother and a father. How Kristina learned that life is imperfect and so are people but that doesn't mean they aren't worth investing in.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about Max, whose growth throughout this series has been fantastic. Here's a character who grew from a young boy struggling with Asperger's to a young man who now knows that he's different and who struggles, still, to relate to people but is actually trying. He's found success as a photographer and in the flash-forward we see that Max graduates with a smile on his face. A genuine, full, wonderful smile that reminds us of how little and angry and scares he used to be and of how confident and wonderful he's become. Max isn't a perfect character, by any means. He's still learning and I know that he will still continue to learn long after Parenthood ends on how to be a better person.

But... isn't that kind of the beautiful, poignant part of this whole journey? Aren't we all learning to become better?


Crosby's journey has always been an interesting one. He's often been considered the reckless and childish one of the family, with good reason. When we first meet him, he's casually hooking up with people and living life like he's still a teenager. And then he discovers that he has a son. And slowly, Crosby begins to grow up (interlude with Max's behavioral aide aside, which made me mad at him for a long time). I think that what I've always appreciated about Crosby and Jasmine's journey was the realism surrounding it. These are two very stubborn and strong-willed individuals who don't easily compromise and have to figure out life together if they're going to make it, you know, TOGETHER. What I always appreciated about Parenthood was that it never strove to accept Crosby's poor decisions and it didn't ask us to. All it asked us to do was watch as he figured out a way to grow up by himself -- as he learned to become a self-aware individual with standards and values and hopes and dreams.

Though he was never my favorite character (though I love Dax Shepard and the comedic relief Crosby brought was perfect) because of that immaturity, I truly love that this series showed us how you can grow up, realistically. Learning to become an adult and make difficult decisions isn't easy. Adam and Kristina make it LOOK easy because they've always been responsible and they've been doing the whole parenthood thing for years. We watched Crosby's journey unfold, slowly, and it was so wonderful to see him stumble and then pick himself back up again because that felt real. It felt true to his character that he would screw up and make right and then screw up again. And it felt true to Jasmine as a character that she would always tell him when he was wrong. Because he needed that -- he needed her. Jasmine isn't without flaws, either: she used to be extremely judgmental and nagged a bit (that's toned down so much since the series began). But she's always believed in Crosby's potential and I think that's exactly what he's needed. Everyone else constantly dismisses him, even though they love him but Jasmine always believed in him and his capabilities. I love that we've seen Crosby and Jasmine's relationship grow into a partnership, rather than two stubborn people being stubborn together. They've grown and loved each other and Jabbar and Aida so well over the years. They've learned how to communicate with their families and they learned to stand on their own, as a little family, too.

And I absolutely love that Crosby stuck to his dream and decided to keep The Luncheonette around. He believed in himself in the end of this series -- he believed he had what it took; that he had a plan and finally -- after all this time -- because he believed in himself, Adam believed in him too. And Jasmine never stopped believing in him. They're happy, at the end of this series and in the future, with their successes and their failures because both made them strong. I couldn't be happier about that, really.


I'll spare you the novel that I could write about this little family and try to contain myself. Sarah's journey throughout Parenthood was always the most important, in a way, because it was what propelled this show. And Amber and Drew's development, as a result, was always just as important. At the beginning of the series, Sarah was a mother full of frustration and bitterness and anger. She yelled at Amber for her choices. And Amber? Amber was rebellious because she could be. She thought of herself and herself alone, as most teenagers do, and resented her mother for a lot of things. But one main element of Sarah's personality always stuck out to me and it was her ability to admit when she needed help. She was reluctant, of course, to move home with her mother and her father. But she wasn't afraid to. There's a difference, right? And that fearlessness was passed down to her by her father and was passed on to Amber.

Sarah and Amber's journey as mother and daughter was often painful to watch because there was so much misunderstanding and yelling and anger there. They hated each other, for a time. Sarah couldn't stand the way Amber acted and couldn't understand it; Amber just wanted to feel like she was alive -- to feel like people cared about her, ANYONE cared about her. She was reckless and it almost cost her very life on one occasion. As the series grew and developed, these two women learned to not just become reliant on each other for support and for communication but also for love. Amber began to see exactly what kind of strength it took for her mother to raise her and Drew -- she was able to see how strong Sarah was and how much she had disrespected her throughout the years. Amber's journey was so beautiful, too: she grew to break a cycle of dysfunction and she broke free of the things that shackled her to pain by finding healing from them (like her relationship with her father and with Ryan). As a result, Amber became one of the most loving, vulnerable, wonderful women I've ever seen on television.

And as a result of her struggles and relationships, Sarah learned to love herself and believe in herself again. She learned how to speak up and to make mistakes and to amend those errors. She learned to be a better mother and a daughter and a sister and she learned to be unafraid. That's what drove her to Hank -- their pasts were marred with broken relationships and messiness and mistakes, but in loving each other, they learned to love themselves, too. The flash-forward is so wonderful because we got the opportunity to see Hank and Sarah being happy in the future (and let's just pause and talk about how delightful it is that Hank and Sarah are two people with extremely broken pasts and families who manage to fit together so perfectly) with their blended family sitting around the dinner table together -- Amber is married! With a daughter! Ryan is still in the picture, but from a distance and takes care of little Zeek! -- continuing to live and love each other well.

(And Drew? Okay, I could write a NOVEL about Drew but I'm so thankful that we got the chance to see him grow up from someone who told Sarah that he needed a father, not her, to a young man standing up at his mother's wedding and talking about how much he loved her. Drew is the one character in this series I didn't expect to attach to, but he's the one that over the last season I was most drawn to. He was focused on supporting Amber throughout her pregnancy, even traveling with her to see Ryan and deliver the news. He grew closer to his grandfather. He spoke truths and learned how to become a better son and learned how to deal with the impact his father had on his life and turn it into something positive. He learned to heal and heal others through his words. And he learned that he needed his family and that they needed him. Beautiful.)

Parenthood will forever remain a special series to me. It's a series that honestly portrayed a family so lovingly, hopefully, and beautifully. As it drew to a close and we watched all of our beloved Bravermans, their spouses, and their children walk off the field after a game of baseball and a fitting goodbye to Zeek, I couldn't help but smile with pride -- they were going to be okay. They would all be okay.

May God bless and keep you always, Bravermans. May your wishes all come true. May you always do for others and let others do for you. May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung. And may you stay forever young.


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