There’s a certain art to crafting the perfect series finale. The ideal finale has to wrap everything up in a satisfying way, but still leave a few ends untied. It has to boil down seasons’ worth of storylines and episodes into one final message, one ending that gives meaning to the hours that viewers devoted to watching this show, instead of, you know, working or spending time with their families.

“Parenthood”

A+
Series Finale
NBC


“Parenthood” successfully accomplishes the basics, but also does something rare with its series finale. More than just validating hours spent in front of the TV, it reinforces the relationships that viewers maintained with these characters and this family who felt as breathing and real as the ones sitting on the couch next to them. “Parenthood” is a notorious “mom show,” a supreme cry-fest because of its relatability. As the Bravermans embrace on a baseball field in the sunshine, the lines between real family, real grief and real love disappear into the script and the images.

It’s not a TV show anymore. This is family.

“Parenthood” begins this perfect hour of television by setting up Sarah’s (Lauren Graham, “Gilmore Girls”) wedding, bringing the family together for this joyful celebration. Sarah hastens her plans so her ailing father Zeek (Craig T. Nelson, “Coach”) could be there to see his “favorite” child wed to a kind and stable man worthy of her open heart and unconditional love. Of all the Braverman siblings, Sarah was the one to lean on her parents the most; she lived in the Braverman compound until her parents sold the house, and they supported her financially until she found a good career as a photographer. Before her father passes, she wants to show him that all his support allowed her to find happiness and love, one final thank you to all he’s given her.

Sarah’s situation finds a parallel in her daughter, Amber (Mae Whitman, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”). Amber appeared to be making all her mother’s worst mistakes, getting involved with a man who drank too much and couldn’t be bothered to hang around to raise their child. But she’s already on the path to a happier future, after her uncle Crosby (Dax Shepard, “Hit and Run”) offers her a job at his revamped Luncheonette recording studio. Rather than running away and trying to do everything on her own like Sarah did, she accepts help from her family from the start. At the wedding reception, Zeek tells Amber that he’d like her to live with them for their “third act” of life. With Zeek’s finale rapidly approaching, this is a double act of kindness: Amber has a supportive place to raise the baby, and Zeek’s wife Camille (Bonnie Bedelia, “Die Hard”) will have company once he passes.

Their wedding is predictably upbeat and beautiful, but even more remarkable is how the show uses the wedding scenes to weave effortlessly between ending narratives for different characters. While swaying around the room to reception music, Joel (Sam Jaeger, “Inherent Vice”) and Julia (Erika Christensen, “Swimfan”) decide to adopt another child. Though they’ve only just reconciled, they promise that this is it, that they’re a couple and a family and will never break again. As he holds her while dancing and whispers that the child “is already ours,” we truly know their union is stronger than ever.

Even Max (Max Burkholder, “The Purge”) finds his happy ending at the wedding. All season, he’d been chasing after a girl who didn’t understand that his Asperger’s made navigating his crush difficult, and didn’t like him back. Max is the acting photographer of the wedding, but instead of hiding behind his camera all night, he goes off to dance with a young, friendly wedding attendee. The parallel between Max and Hank is striking: Hank (Ray Romano, “Men of a Certain Age”), Max’s mentor and a fellow Aspie, found an understanding and wonderful woman to share his life with, and when Max looks at his dance partner and lets her touch his shoulders, it’s evident that Max’s future is similarly bright. He’s not defined by his disease — he can take impressive photos, connect with other people and even graduate high school. It’s a long way from his portrayal in earlier seasons, a hopeless burden to his family and the “difficult child” that his sister describes in her heartwarming conversation with him. Leaving Max Braverman on this note, that he’s got a promising future beyond a textbook definition of “high-functioning,” almost makes up for the fact that we won’t get to spend more seasons watching him grow. Almost.

But beyond the wedding, the element linking the entire episode together and bringing it to transcendent heights was its tribute to Zeek. Despite his brashness and averseness to change, he’s always been the glue of the family and the leader of Team Braverman. We know going into this episode that his heart condition is dire, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to hear Camille calling out his name at home and see the look on her face when there’s no response. The most heartbreaking scene in the episode (and possibly the entire series) is Zeek sitting like a peaceful king in his leather armchair, eyes closed but still watching over his territory, the home he loved so much. After Camille walks over to him, the scene quickly cuts to a baseball field, where the Bravermans spread his ashes and play a celebratory game of ball.

The final montage is the ultimate eulogy to Zeek: we see what accomplishments the rest of the Bravermans are up to in the years following his death. Considering that the rest of the episode set the characters down these paths, these flash-forwards could seem fairly redundant. Joel and Julia have four kids, two boys and two girls just like Zeek and Camille did, and open presents on Christmas day with their big family. Crosby and Amber record in the studio, while Adam (Peter Krause, “Six Feet Under”) hands a diploma to a cap-and-gown-clad Max. Camille finally visits Chez Marie, the place Zeek told her about in the weeks before his death, the place they were going to visit together. Instinctively, we knew where all the characters were going, but actually seeing it (set to the most gorgeous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”) gave the episode a special sense of finality.

If the best finales leave you with one final message, “Parenthood” offers its parting words in the last shot. The Bravermans, arm-in-arm and supporting one another, walk off the baseball field and onto the green grass together. In the end, “Parenthood” was all about the power of loved ones to hold, to heal, to love unconditionally.

It’s not a TV show. This is family.

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