The guys return for the second half of the show’s second season.
Despite the real emotional upheaval we see in the episode, “The Great Escape” reminded me how almost serene Men of a Certain Age seems in comparison to the shows that surround it.
Let TV’s other great shows grapple with cancer (Breaking Bad), hyperactively explore film tropes (Community), or play Sopranos in Middle Earth (Game of Thrones): MoaCa settles for a far more realistic pace and is no less great for it. Take the main thrust of tonight’s episode: above all else, creators Mike Royce and Ray Romano seem to be exhorting their audience to talk to each other. Ain’t that sweet?
This is the same show I was so smitten with this past January, so that message isn’t nearly as cloying or mundane as I’m making it sound. The episode begins with the men in much the same place we remember them: sitting in their favorite booth at the diner, ignoring their coffee and waffles as they sort through their mennui.
Or at least Joe (Ray Romano) is trying to steer the conversation that way, specifically in the direction of his wife Sonia (the reliably great Penelope Ann Miller) and his weird pee-stream. But Owen (Andre Braugher) and Terry (Scott Bakula) have places to be. Joe’s pee-stream will have to wait.
Owen returns to the dealership, where he gets a surprise visit from the owner of Scarpulla Chevy, who’s looking to buy Thoreau off of Owen for dirt-cheap. Scarpulla knows Owen Sr. made some bad financial decisions, and he’s banking on the fact that Owen would rather just sell the place than deal with all those “shitty, impossible decisions” he talked about in the midseason finale.
Elsewhere, Terry tries to convince Erin (love-of-my-dreams Melinda McGraw) to let him cook her a real “welcome home” meal after she’s been at a conference for the past week. He gets locked out of his place, though, so Erin offers to let him stay at hers. We’ve learned in the few brief lines Terry speaks in the diner that he’s still outwardly dismissing the idea that he’s in love with Erin.
So the scenes of him settling in at Erin’s are particularly affecting: snuggling into her too-small bed; adjusting to the cat; finding a place for his toothbrush. The toothbrush in particular acts as a great totem for how Terry’s feeling: when he finally deposits his toothbrush in the glass next to Erin’s, we know he’s made a major decision to “go domestic.”
Joe spends a night out with Manfro the bookie (Jon Manfrellotti), who wants a wild night on the town before his chemo treatment begins. A number of pieces have been popping up lately praising Manfrellotti for the depth of his performance, and they’re not hollow praise. The actor and stand-up—most famous for playing Gianni on Everybody Loves Raymond—brings real heart to a role that could’ve come off creepy or one-note in lesser hands. The episode actually ends with Gianni—who almost decided to forgo chemo treatment so he could try to make it happen with a stripper he just met—going to his treatment with that same stripper. It’s one of the sweetest moments so far in a series known for them.
After crumpling up the piece of paper with the offer on it, Owen actually ends up spending most of the night awake, mulling over the wisdom of refusing the offer. While helping his wife Melissa (Lisa Gay Hamilton) test out various products for her new job as an Amazon reviewer, he paces around the room, thinking about the pros and cons of selling the dealership.
Once he overcomes his biggest con—that Owen Sr. would throw a fit—he ends up deciding to sell the dealership and stay home to take care of the kids so that Melissa can pursue her writing career. The two celebrate with some cognac and sex. In an odd twist, though, Owen Jr. invites his father into his office not to tell him that he’s selling the dealership but to assert that he’s going to open that body shop come hell or high water. It was something of a left turn and not something I claim to totally understand. Sound off in the comments if you had thoughts.
Near the end of the episode, Joe gets a call from his ex-wife Sonia, who, we learned earlier in the episode, has just broken up with her boyfriend. “Wanna come over and have a drink?” she asks, the almost girlish excitement palpable in her voice. He of course obliges, trying in vain to keep the smile off his face. At this point, Joe’s willing to forgive Sonia’s infidelities; the single life has effectively chewed him up and spat him out. The two almost hook up, but they both break off because of the mutually weird feeling. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, both seem happier for having seen each other and gotten it out of their systems.
The best plotline in the episode, however, goes to Terry, who’s sometimes left to clown around in a story about his failed acting career or an awkward hookup. Here, though, we learn that Erin has all along considered her relationship with Terry to be no more than a fling. She saw the “real” guy at the conference, and she realizes she doesn’t want to throw everything away just to hop in bed with Terry. Erin’s able to hold it together until she sees—what else—Terry’s toothbrush in the bathroom. When Terry walks into the bathroom the next morning, he sees that she’s taken his brush out of the glass and laid it on the sink. That’s some nice imagery there, Royce & co.
I hope sincerely that this is an indication of things to come for Terry. Scott Bakula’s a magnificently charming actor, and it’s always a bummer to see him get the jokey B-plot. But in this episode and “And Then the Bill Comes” from the first half of the season, we see Terry transform into a vaguely tragic character that recalls Gatsby or, more recently, Walter Kirn’s Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air. Despite their current success, none of these characters seem to be able to escape their respective pasts. I can’t wait to see where Terry ends up, even if I’m dreading it a bit, too.
The men are visibly relieved when they finally reunite at the diner near the end of the episode to hash out everything that’s just happened. I know how they feel. It’s good to have them back.