This is the fifth installment in a look at the theological and pastoral wisdom found in the current season of NBC’s Parenthood, mostly regarding the intersection of unsuspected love in the context of suffering. It has been almost a month since I have written anything, mostly because I felt the program was in the middle of a filler-episode streak, understandably serving to carry on the narratives of its many subplots but not standing out with profound moments of grace in ways earlier episodes have. Don’t get me wrong. There were some touching moments in recent episodes like Adam caring for Kristina while she is retching on their bathroom floor due to chemotherapy, Joel taking Ryan under his wing at the construction site, and Max going to a middle school dance for the sake of his sick mother’s desires. The latest episode, “What My Wondering Eyes See,” despite some hokey elements mostly related to Santa Claus, broke Parenthood‘s recent streak though with some noteworthy moments highlighted here.
This time rather than focusing on one particular scene as I have in previous posts, I will take a look at a number of the show’s subplots that finally came to a head—during Christmas, of course, which is an emotionally charged season. As I watched these subplots unfold, I noticed the presence of both fear and love along the lines of: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18) Of course, this verse speaks of God’s perfect love and judgment, but if they are true for God, the ideas do and should have horizontal (that is, human-to-human) implications.
Zeek & Adam: Zeek, the Braverman patriarch played by Craig T. Nelson, had some shining moments this time, especially in relation to his eldest son, Adam. When he discovers Kristina is in the hospital, Zeek tries to help, which annoys Adam in a moment of chaos as the medical staff are dealing with Kristina’s septic shock. “Adam, I really want to just help,” he tells his son, who is endlessly frustrated: “Well, dad, you’re not helping. OK? So just go home!” But Zeek comes back to the hospital later that day in a very touching prodigal-son (father?) type of moment: “I brought you your computer. And I brought you some clothes. You know, stuff you might need. And then I made you a sandwich. Still like ham and cheese? Your favorite?” I found the ham and cheese sandwich to be the clincher here that endears Zeek back to his son—I mean, seriously, how amazing is that? Zeek has got to be pushing 70, and he makes his fully grown son some nostalgic comfort food in a time of despair.
As Zeek begins to walk away, Adam says,”Hey, dad. Could you stay a while longer?” At this point they reconcile and embrace. Adam’s request for Zeek to stay a while longer really seemed to sum up much of the sentiment implicit in all the other conflicts below—that is, one person not wanting to lose another who actually loves them in a self-sacrificial and not just sentimental way.
Adam & Kristina: Speaking of Kristina’s hospitalization, perhaps the episode’s most memorable moment came when Adam watched a tear-jerking video Kristina made for her children in case she dies:
There isn’t anything particularly profound about what she says exactly. Much of it is kind of general and banal, but her video is full of nothing but love, no admonitions, just unadulterated love, love, love. As a result, Adam has a veritable come-to-Jesus moment. Kristina’s video brings him to his knees with tears and hands folded, saying, “Please don’t take her from me. Please don’t take her from us.” This is a guy from a family who has stated on several occasions that its religion is baseball.
Alas, after this scene Kristina does survive her sepsis. I’ve honestly wondered whether she would be killed off the show or not with her cancer, and now that this episode has passed, I don’t think she will die after all—she has survived too many scares already.
Sarah & Hank: In case you missed it, Mr. Cyr (played by Jason Ritter) dumped his colorful and imperfect fiancée Sarah in the previous episode. This answered another unresolved question: What will happen with the Mark-Sarah-Hank love triangle? Well, Sarah and Hank (her boss, played by Ray Romano) did not skip a beat since they professed their love/like for each other (and more) in this very next episode. The jumping-into-bed aspect aside, Hank and Sarah’s dialogues were incredibly awkward yet honest expressions of unconditional love. Consider this scene where they are in a shopping mall bar drinking martinis after shooting Santa Claus photos together (complete with Sarah in an elf costume):
Hank: So now it’s complaining and bragging?
Sarah: There’s gotta be a word for that.
Hank: Pathetic. That’s the word.
Sarah: Oh. Well, I am pathetic, so that’s fine.
Hank: No. I’m sorry.
Sarah: No, no, no, I am.
Hank: That’s horrible to say…
Sarah: It’s alright. So I’m horrible and pathetic.
Hank: You’re not horrible. You’re not pathetic. I’m pathetic.
Sarah: I’m pathetic.
Hank: You wanna challenge me?
Hank: Alright. I’m sitting in a mall, and my daughter is in Minnesota, and it’s Christmas. You’re up.
Sarah: I’m 42, and I just moved back in with my parents.
Hank: You win. You win the prize.
Sarah: You know, sitting in a crummy mall in a terrible bar with an awful drink, dressed like one of Santa’s helpers, and I feel so good. And I think it’s because of you.
Hank: Well, I feel good because of you. … You know, I’m happy I met you. I am. I’m not happy ’cause, you know, I’m never gonna be happy. I’ve accepted that. But I’m almost happy.
At this point they hold hands, and we see even more later, including Hank escaping his newfound vulnerability only to later brush their night together under the rug to save face. But he comes back to Sarah by the end of the episode to repent and say,
I’m not drunk, so I’m just gonna say this fast. About what I said before, that we could make this a one-time thing? By the way, if that’s what you want, I’m good. … But I just want to clarify. Yeah, that’s not how I feel. I feel pretty much the opposite. Yeah. You’re not horrible. That’s what I came to say. You’re incredible.
Smilar to Zeek’s prodigal-son return, Hank’s love is reciprocated, and Sarah embraces him. Sure, she’s probably moved on too quickly at least for Mark (Mr. Cyr) fans, but why didn’t Sarah and Mark work? Why do Sarah and Hank work? I mean, Mark is a nice, likable, sweet guy. Mr. Cyr on many accounts is “Mr. Perfect.” Maybe that’s the problem. Sarah and Hank are horrible and pathetic together. It’s difficult to be in the midst of perfection. It’s like being in the presence of a Holy God: one is incinerated by perfection. But Hank likes Sarah despite all her pathetic-ness and in spite of his own horribleness. Likewise, Sarah likes Hank, warts and all. In a sense, they absolve each other, and the absolution produces repentance: “I’m horrible and pathetic.” I also don’t think Sarah is falling into the same trap this time around as she did with her drug-addicted ex-husband (Seth) either. Hank’s hang ups just aren’t the same.
Amber & Ryan: Speaking of Sarah’s relationship with her ex-husband, Sarah’s daughter Amber has a similar challenge in her own life. Ryan—played by Matt Lauria (Friday Night Lights‘ Luke Cafferty)—the PTSD-affected Afghan war vet, finally fell apart. His explosion was inevitable; at least, I saw it coming. After getting drunk, trashing Amber’s car, yelling at her, and storming off, Ryan has his own very prodigal-son moment. This time though, love does not cast out fear. Rather, there is some conditionality:
Despite Amber being in love with Ryan, she does a seemingly healthy thing for herself, asking for some time to make sense of the relationship based on her mother’s (and her own!) history with men. I’m afraid this is either going to go really well in the end or really, really bad for Ryan. Perhaps if Amber took Ryan back we could cry foul, claiming she is enabling his dysfunctional behavior. I get it. But her rejection also runs the risk of causing him to fall deeper into his dark pit of despair. Another way to say this is, Ryan is in very serious need of the type of undeserved love that Adam, Hank, and Sarah all experienced above. If this isn’t going to come from Amber, I sincerely hope it comes from the likes of Zeek and Joel since it sounds like his own family is unlikely to do so.
In the end, of course, one would hope that a sufferer in Ryan’s position (and Adam’s and Hank’s and Sarah’s) would receive not only imperfect horizontal love that serves to cast out some fear but the Perfect Love from Above that truly casts out all fear and leads to true repentance and amendment of life.