“To Have and To Hold”
May 31st, 2010
“Is every single thing just lurking beneath the surface?”
United States of Tara isn’t a mystery show, per se, but there is a central search for answers at its core which we seem to be returning to once a season. After reaching out to her college rapist in an effort to discover the truth behind her condition only to discover that it went far deeper than that particular trauma, Tara stepped away from trying to find the source of her problems and instead tried to medicate and try to continue living life without that knowledge. However, as the second season has progressed, it’s clear that her condition is creating more strain in her life now than ever before, and through the help of a new alter (Shoshannah) and whatever it is that the Hubbard house brings out in her.
I recently caught up with the past three episodes of Tara (the end of the season turned out to be too busy to get to it live), and I’m on record as suggesting that Tara’s second season is perhaps the most confident on TV this year outside of Parks and Recreation and perhaps Sons of Anarchy. “To Have and to Hold” is another strong episode which speaks to both the mysteries of Tara’s past (which I think we have enough information to sort out, if not entirely comprehend) and the damage of Tara’s present, emphasizing the long-term ramifications of the former while reminding us that the gravity of the latter has yet to be determined.
Let’s piece together what we now know about Tara’s past:
- She and Charmaine were placed into Mimi Palmeter’s home as foster children, which either means their parents were abusive (which seems unlikely, as I doubt they would have ever been able to regain custody) or that Tara and Charmaine were adopted by their current parents.
- Alice is explicitly based on Mimi Palmeter (as we pretty much figured out once we saw Tara and Charmaine’s Mother’s response to seeing Alice at the Hubbard house).
- Tara suffered some sort of abuse at the hands of a male figure within her past (which we presume to be her birth father since Mimi’s husband wasn’t around in 1976, although it’s strange that they’d cast Six Feet Under’s Nikolai for such a bit role).
- Chicken’s appearance, and her age, indicates that Tara was around five at the time of the abuse.
Now, there’s some other pieces that we’re still sorting out: for example, are we to presume that Alice was carrying on an affair with Hubbard, as was indicated in an earlier episode, and which would explain her mourning outfit? And would this have been the reasons for the associations between Hubbard’s house and Tara’s memories, as Alice’s presence within the space would have brought back those earlier memories? A lot of that remains somewhat unexplained, and it’s going to be interesting to see at what point Tara’s alters stop keeping secrets. There’s a scene in the episode where Charmaine explains to Tara what happened when they were in the basement with Shoshannah during the tornado, and the idea of resolving to stop keeping secrets. As much as she was speaking to the characters (who do love to keep their secrets), she was also speaking to Tara’s alters (at least in my mind), as it seems that newly returned T. and Alice certainly know something more about this situation than they had earlier let on.
For the most part, though, it’s clear that they’re trying to protect Tara: the show has always made the argument that the alters exist as a defence mechanism, and yet it appears they’re only really defending Tara against something specific. As Alan Sepinwall noted about “Explosive Diorama,” Tara was being threatened by Max in that situation, and yet none of the alters emerged in order to defend her. The show risked, in its first season, having Tara swallowed up by the alters, and I think part of the quality of this season can be attributed to getting to know Tara a bit better. She was a tabula rasa last season, but here she’s a flawed human being who sometimes makes some rash and selfish decisions, and I don’t think the alters exist to keep her from going down that path. At least in the context of this season (where the idea of slipping into an alter to handle a particularly difficult life/parenting situation seems to be largely on the backburner), they don’t exist in order to guide Tara on the path for righteousness, the angel and devil on her shoulder controlling her mortality: instead, they are there to help Tara navigate the horrors of her past. Some alters are more territorial than others: Buck, for example, will use the body for his own worldly pleasures any chance he gets. However, it seems as if Shoshannah represents a turning point, a character whose path to control (if that is each alter’s desire) lies through trying to solve Tara’s dilemmas rather than forcing her out of her own life. The introduction of co-consciousness has gone a long way to emphasizing the ways in which the alters battle over the same body, and how Tara is not just one person turning into another: she is one person who shares that body with a whole host of other individuals, and that’s more complex than perhaps even the series first realized.
Toni Colette continues to do some really great work, and I think the show has been smart to pair her with Rosemarie DeWitt more often this season: it’s given Charmaine’s own storyline a closer link to the central conflict, as a lot of subtext regarding the episode’s conclusion was buried in her storyline and even in the search for Mimi itself. Note how Tara comments that family secrets became that much more challenging in the age of DNA testing (which would, perhaps, prove she was adopted), or how Max and Nick’s discussion of fatherhood and what knowing your father doesn’t love you does to you ties in with what Tara’s father might have done to her. Charmaine is making decisions which will place her own daughter in a position which perhaps hits too close to her new conception of home, just as Max and Tara are to some degree placing their own kids in a similar position as Marshall and Kate ponder the future. The show isn’t quite Breaking Bad, in terms of how the protagonist’s actions are hurting those around them, but it has that same sense of being so focused on one’s personal survival (not always unjustly) that those around you sort of get lost in the fray.
Unfortunately, in the case of Kate, she remains sort of lost in the plot as well. There are hints here that Zack is in fact more than Kate is really bargaining for, as his comments regarding Tara’s condition (calling her schizophrenic, and then forecasting that Tara could some day become more dangerous) seemed a little too on-the-nose. This is either a problem with the script, in that they wanted to raise concerns about Tara’s impact on her children so that we make the comparison between the abuse Tara suffered as a child and the less serious, but still damaging, abuse her children dealt with living with her but didn’t find the right character to voice them, or a sign that his interest in Kate goes beyond “rich wunderkind takes interest in internet princess for sake of personal vanity.” Either way, it didn’t feel particularly organic: while Marshall’s search for an identity, testing the waters with Lionel in his search for romance and self-awareness, feels directly connected with Tara’s search for the secrets of her past, Kate has just sort of been floating through life, and even some sweet little mother/daughter scenes (as we saw here, with Tara telling Kate never to lose herself) can’t really tie Kate’s behaviour this season to Tara in any real capacity. I don’t want to suggest that all characters need to be defined in terms of Tara, but Marshall has managed to be intimately connected with Tara’s condition while still having a compelling story of his own. Kate hasn’t been able to pull off the same feat, and while you could argue she’s at risk of becoming like Tara I think that the show has sort of meandered its way towards what may be a tragic conclusion for the character without really justifying the time spent with her beyond Brie Larson’s charm.
I like the idea which Marshall expresses in the final scene, that in making some sort of grand gesture with Lionel (giving him the fantasy which he concocted in an effort to romanticize his pick-up experience at the park) he has in some way screwed everything up. He lives in fear of everything going to hell, of one decision finally unearthing every secret which remains just beneath the surface. And to some degree you can read Kate’s current storyline as her learning how to hide those things about herself, learning how to create alters (like Princess Valhalla Hawkwind, and like the persona she’s playing as a Fro Go employee) in order to maintain beneficial relationships. And in some ways Charmaine is herself preparing to live a lie, constructing a perfect life for her daughter which will be predicated on a bit of “pretend” which Nick seems willing to be a part of but which might tear Charmaine apart with guilt and uncertainty. And while it may be a bit thematically convenient that all of the show’s characters are confronting situations similar to that which Tara experiences on a daily basis, I think it speaks to the heart of the show’s appeal: while Tara’s situation is “strange,” the emotions that it brings to the surface are universal, and we see in her an exaggerated isolation of the problems we face in our everyday lives.
“To Have and to Hold” is a nice reminder of that, and a solid penultimate half-hour heading into next week’s finale.
- I was convinced that Max rushing off was heading towards bringing Neil back in order to stop the wedding, but it makes more sense that he’d go to keep T. (and eventually Chicken) from completely losing it.
- I didn’t think of it before, but it’s kind of funny that Max and Nick were painting a new altar.
- It took me way too long to figure out that Seth Gabel (who’s playing Zack) was Jeremy Darling on Dirty Sexy Money – I think it took so long since I actually watched Six Feet Under after Dirty Sexy Money, so along with Parenthood it has completely taken it out of my Peter Krause memory, leaving Gabel behind with it.
- I know that she was their Foster Mother, but wouldn’t Mimi have at least had them call her by Mrs. (or Miss) Palmeter? Other than the mystery (and the fallibility of memory), why would Tara have referred to her as Mimi in that dream?
- Line delivery of the night: “Is that much fun even legal?!” as Charmaine and Tara discuss their bizarre choice for a bachelorette party. Rosemarie DeWitt has been darn good this season, and I’m sad that she isn’t really in a position to benefit for it at the Emmys in such a tight category.