Tuesday, August 23, 2016

REVIEW: 'Casual' - Alex and Val Confront Their Ugly Past Again to Move Forward in 'The Great Unknown'

Hulu's Casual - Episode 2.13 "The Great Unknown"

Alex, Valerie and Laura come together during a family crisis.

Evolution is a necessary component of storytelling. It's just something that needs to happen. Audiences need the stories they watch to evolve and change as they go along. That's what makes the stories have purpose and meaning. Television is great in this respect because audiences get to see how characters change over a course of many years in success. The best series understand the psychology of their characters. How their entire lives up to this point have defined who they are as people. How new experiences feel both familiar and different. How those experiences have the same opportunity to change who they are moving forward. Val and Alex's lives have been defined by their extreme closeness due to the neglect of their parents. And now, that has seriously stunted their lives in adulthood. This season has been very structurally similar to the first season. And yet, it has built to such a terrific resolution that suggests huge bursts of growth for the entire family. That's very exciting heading into the third season.

Alex and Val have always been close. Living together following Val's divorce has brought them even closer together and brought Laura into the mess as well. And yet, they often find themselves struggling to properly and appropriately communicate with each other. Val and Alex have both held each other back in their lives. They have also inserted themselves into each other's lives to save them from the fantasy of happiness. Both Alex and Val have these ideals of what happiness looks like. And yet, both of them struggle with it in a massive way. Part of that is inherently a part of their character arcs. But another huge component is just how codependent they have always been. Val gets serious about her relationships much more quickly than her family or partners. She has enjoyed a healthy sexual life post-divorce. But nothing has seemed as meaningful or genuine as her marriage to Drew. She was miserable at the end of it. But now that she's far removed from those emotions, she looks back with yearning because it was simple and easy. Conversely, Alex feels the compulsive need to manipulate love to his favor. He ruins lives just to get what he believes he needs in his life. Whenever he's reached out in a genuine way, it has exploded in his face. And yet, his manipulations haven't made his life any better or happier either.

Once again, it's Alex and Val's parents who appear just to bring them back together. Alex and Val have had a rough few episodes. Their relationship has gotten much more hostile and antagonistic. Alex ruined Val's happiness with Jack because he doesn't know how to cope on his own. That forced Val to realize just how much she propped up her relationship with Jack even though it wasn't all that special. Alex did that. He has inserted himself in her life and seemingly taken over in her new group of friends. It was so surprising and great when Val finally found a group of people she loved being around. Alex has manipulated those bonds by forcing therapy sessions out of Jennifer. That has revealed that Jennifer isn't a perfect person. She's not deliberately trying to destroy Val's happiness. But she's the reason why some of these ugly details come out. A birthday party wasn't going to be the fix for all of this. Val was ready to leave this life behind and return to Drew. Her father was what forced her to stay. Once again, his impossible and demanding request forces the family to come together in awkwardness and forced connection. He's dying and wants his kids to help kill him.

Charles and Dawn are the root of so many of Alex and Val's problems. They haven't had a huge presence on this season like they did in the first year. Their inclusion in the narrative have helped highlight just how damaged Alex and Val are. But they can't be solely to blame for everything going wrong in Alex and Val's lives. They have to take some responsibility for their own actions as well. They have to accept that they've purposefully upheld these dynamics. Alex and Val are so close even in adulthood because it's comfortable. Val hasn't searched for another place to live post-divorce because she's fine staying with her brother. It's a twist on the family setup that has been really good for storytelling across two seasons. But it is also so unhealthy because of the siblings' relationship. Charles forces them to come together one last time to help him die. He's made his peace with his decision. This is the last time Alex, Val and Laura can confront him about the past. But not much time is actually spent rehashing those old issues. Alex holds onto them more than anyone else. He believes he's been unsuccessful in relationships because he didn't have a role model to show him what love looks like. Charles simply says he did the best he could. That's the only kind of rationalization Alex will get. He'll have to find some way to live with that.

No one knows what's going to happen after Charles' dies. It's the great unknown as Laura puts it. This is something the family has been preparing for. The series opened with Val, Alex and Laura attending Charles' funeral. Of course, it was only a dream then. But now, Charles is really dead. It has to put to a close his effect on all of their lives. That's scary for the family. It exposes them in a really raw way. A way that highlights just how fucked up all of them really are. This isn't the death that Laura was planning for. She had made her peace with her relationship with Spencer being a very finite thing. It had a natural end date. She doesn't know what to think once a world of possibilities open after his treatment starts working. That makes her a very alienating presence. She takes after her uncle a little bit and self-sabotages this relationship. And yet, she has the maturity to address this problem head on. She doesn't know what this relationship is without his terminal disease. But she at least takes that first step to discovering what it is. That's a huge sign of progress. This family has done so many messed-up things to so many people. They've hurt and betrayed many over the course of two seasons. All they really have is each other. But now, they need to make peace with their own independence. Charles and Dawn brought this family together. They forced Alex and Val to handle some impossible and really dark situations. They had to deliver the lethal drink to Charles because Dawn wanted nothing to do with it. They've survived that. But what comes next?

The finale closes with the biggest glimpse of change and maturity yet. Alex has been getting free therapy sessions from Jennifer for a couple of episodes now. He did that because he needed to vent about his situation and Val wasn't around. He complained about her disappearance. He fixated on his creepy eyebrows. But now, he has accepted that therapy is something he should actually do right now. It ensures Jennifer will remain an important part of the show moving forward. She has a history with this family that could complicate therapy for Alex. And yet, it could also force him to address all of the problems in his life. He lost his company. He has a new idea that Jack may be able to help get off the ground. But that new purpose and desire to make something again will only be meaningful if Alex takes it seriously. He created Snooger and then left. He abandoned his project just to accept the check and the free dating. That indulged his selfish behavior. Now, he's realizing that is no longer okay. Meanwhile, Val has accepted that she can no longer live with Alex. She needs her own place in this world to truly find out who she is post-divorce. She has been uncomfortably walking around this existence listening to the advice of others. Things haven't really been going her way. Her relationships haven't had much substance. They've been fun but they haven't been meaningful because her focus gets pulled away by Alex and Laura. Living somewhere else may not help at all. But it's a step she needs to take and Alex allows her to do it. So, the season closes with Val, Laura and Leon pulling up in a u-haul to start a new life in a new house. A profound and significant moment to close the season on.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Great Unknown" was written by Zander Lehmann and directed by Fred Savage.
  • It's clear that Frances Conroy's schedule left her unable to appear on the show at all this season. That's somewhat disappointing. Her absence always had to be explained away. And yet, it's still in keeping with her character that she would leave her husband in his time of need just because it's too difficult and unbecoming.
  • After their almost hookup, Val and Leon haven't been that close. Leon has been a part of her life because he's become friends with Alex. She only interacts with him when she needs to get something through to Alex. And yet, their conversation while going to pick up her car from Chili's and then the impound lot is fantastic. There were perhaps some romantic sparks being reignited there as well.
  • Of course, Val's relationship with Jack is left pretty open-ended as well. He doesn't show up at all following her birthday party. She's too busy dealing with her father to deal with all her feelings about learning that Jack has slept with all the other women in his group of friends.
  • The tattoos really are a great symbol for what Laura and Spencer's relationship was. It was a fun thing to do in the moment because of the spontaneity. But it's going to be on her body for the rest of her life. That's not something she really thought about beforehand - just like her relationship with Spencer. She's simply adjusting to the changing circumstances.
  • I would love to see even more of Leon and Leia next season. They both had some fantastic moments this season. Leia meeting the family for the first time and then reading a poem at Val's birthday party was great. Plus, the little glimpse at the life Leon was living while away from Val and Alex was phenomenal. It has a heartbreaking insight into a life of love and betrayal.
  • This season produced 13 episodes - three more than the first year. At times, some stories did feel a little bloated. But overall, the length was pretty good and interesting for all of the main character arcs. Season 3 is gonna be 13 as well. And now, the show has the confidence to pull off that length for a season.