Television

The Many Grace Notes in 'Grace and Frankie', Season 5

Lily Tomlin as Frankie Bergstein and Jane Fonda as Grace Hanson in Grace and Frankie, S5, "The Retreat" (Netflix / screengrab)

While Grace and Frankie is as fun as ever, season 5 suggests a sadder path for a show that has often pushed its sadness to the periphery.

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When audiences where first introduced to Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) they were at the precipice of a huge life change. After finding out that their husbands Robert (Marin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterson), co-workers at a prestigious law firm, had been having a secret affair for decades, the scorned ex-wives found themselves living in the summer home that both couples shared. Grace, the WASPY former CEO of a beauty company, and Frankie a vegan hippie with a penchant for weed, made for strange bedfellows, but over the course of four seasons they created a company that makes vibrators for elderly women and learned to rely on each other as genuine friends. In the finalé of Netflix's Grace and Frankie, season 4, having been duped by their children to enter a retirement home, Grace and Frankie escape their gated environs and hotfoot it back to their beach house, only to discover it has been sold.

For most of its run, Grace and Frankie has propelled itself forward on the odd-couple energy of its premise, mining the comedic nuances and mishaps of two very different women cohabitating under unusual of circumstances. Each season that premise has been enriched -- and the cracks in it have been illuminated; it has been injected with heartache and insight, pushing the characters forwards and backwards as they attempt to find a shape for each other in their lives.

Wisely, season 5 is the most contemplative about the limits of living with, and loving, someone who is different in every way. It's also the season most willing to interrogate the friendship at the heart of the show and find it wanting, perhaps even damaging. While Grace and Frankie is as fun as ever, this latest string of episodes suggest a sadder path for a show that has often pushed its sadness to the periphery, bravely suggesting that by drawing themselves in opposition to each other the women in this story have calcified their worst traits in order to reinforce the lies that they think they have to maintain.

Fans of the show may tire of the early couple of episodes this season, drawing as they do from a lot of material that worked better in earlier seasons. A sense of repetition permeates the show as the writers try to detangle themselves from the season 4 cliff-hanger and re-establish the rhythms of the characters. Grace and Frankie effectively has to reboot itself by becoming what it was in the beginning. It can feel like an uneasy tug of war and, as the writers try to work out how much they want the protagonists to change while still maintaining the dynamic that has been so successful, both the comedy and drama can feel forced. Indeed, for viewers hoping that the big shake-ups of season 4 would have a lasting impact, those hopes are dashed within the first two new episodes, "The House" and "The Squat", which are some of the shakiest of the shows' run. However, even here there are more than a handful of big laughs, especially when centred around Grace and Frankie's new found fight to save their home and their willingness to become squatters in the house that they both sought shelter in after their shattering divorces.

TV by AlexAntropov86 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

As the episodes progress the true emotional through-line of the season appears; first in extraordinary ways and eventually in inevitable ones. These first episodes in season 5 explore how difficult it can be to announce that you want to change and how scary it can be to admit that change might mean dismantling a life that you worked hard to build. Grace and Frankie poignantly argues that it isn't death that these characters fear, but rather the prospect of not becoming who they most want to be before death happens. Whether it's through Grace grappling with her old beauty business, Say Grace, with her eldest daughter Brianna (June Diane Raphael) in "The Crosswalk", or Frankie's insistence that she goes back to a retreat she visited in her youth, "The Retreat", these characters are trying to work out who they once were in order to see if they can reinvent themselves one last time.

So much of this season is about putting the puzzle pieces of your life together late in life. As a direct response, the show is more interested in who these characters are away from antics that have made up the big comedic set-pieces of previous seasons; the narrative is more internal, the emotional fireworks of seasons' past are now a slow fizzle. The themes of reconciling with the past while attempting a present-day reinvention are fruitful, even if they necessitate a more introspective tone than fans may be used to.

Showing Grace and Frankie retreat into their pasts, into the people they were before they really knew each other, works as jet fuel for relationship drama; these characters have to reckon with how they've changed each other and whether those changes have been for the better. Episodes like "The Tremor", which sees Grace fret about Frankie's health, find significant dramatic weight in the interrogation of how these characters function for one another. Most of the episodes unpick these difficult themes surprisingly elegantly, revealing small emotional shifts in the protagonists that facilitate the most rounded and sturdy character arcs for them since the first season. Even when the season is at its broadest, as it is in the comedic gem "The Highs", which sees all of the characters getting high, it's illuminating and turns that broadness into a wider statement about where Grace and Frankie are in their lives.

Martin Sheen as Robert and Lily Tomlin as Frankie in S5 "The Highs" episode (Netflix / screengrab)

Not only is "The Highs" episode the show at its most hysterically funny -- perhaps the funniest half-hour Grace and Frankie has ever pulled off -- it also slyly shows Grace and Frankie at their very best and their very worst. Grace, buoyed by amphetamines, is strong and an adroit business woman – but she's also cruel to her daughters and mentally exhausted. Frankie, high on marijuana gummies, is funny and warm, but shirks her responsibilities and refuses to partake in any emotional introspection. Grace and Frankie never glorifies its central duo, but it also doesn't veer into punishing them, even when they seem to be recycling mistakes from the past.

Unfortunately, by spending so much time digging into who Grace and Frankie are, and fleshing out their characters in such insightful, surprising ways, the characters around them can feel like distractions; pulling away from the core of the show. In particular, Sol and Robert, who have always been reliable grounding forces, are stranded in season 5 – barely connected to the narrative thrust of the season -- and the subjects of little dramatic or comedic exploration. They argue, but what those arguments reveal about them, or their relationship, isn't quite clear. Sol's reinvention as a more assertive, powerful person reflects Grace and Frankie's initial instinct to throw away the shackles that hold them down and rework themselves as more radical expressions of what elderly women might be. However, while Grace and Frankie slowly learn that complete liberation requires sacrifice and is as much an internal shift as an external one, Sol becomes a different person over the course of an episode.

It's a jarring shift in character that's never completely convincing, nor adds to any of the themes that are so painstakingly explored elsewhere. Sol and Robert's characters bnecome more opaquer as the season moves forward (though Waterson and Sheen are excellent), whittled down to a few character beats; Robert wants to star in a musical, Sol is having trouble being as accommodating he once was. They're not especially compelling story arcs, though Robert's storyline ends in a moving grace note that is Grace and Frankie at its most romantic and empowering.

Indeed, in its fifth season, Grace and Frankie has sharpened its romantic plotting beautifully, crafting moments of true romantic catharsis from a variety of meaningful angles. Grace's revived relationship with Nick (an appealing Peter Gallagher) makes up a major late in the season plot point and there is quirkiness to Grace's youngest daughter Mallory's (Brooklyn Decker) attempts to jump back into dating that's appealingly strange. Brianna's characterisation has been deepened and expanded by her romantic partnership with Barry (Peter Cambor) without sanding down any of the prickliness that has made her character such a consistent highlight. It's a lovely relationship and a difficult one, refreshingly nuanced and realistic yet invested with a rom-com glow that brightens many of the episodes. June Diane Raphael deserves special mention for playing a romantic protagonist who is actively suspicious or romance; it's a funny, heartfelt performance that remains as GIFable as ever.

Jane Fonda as Grace in S5 "The Alternative" (Netflix / screengrab)

As good as many elements of Grace and Frankie are, a huge part of its appeal has always been seeing Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play in the same sandbox again, and in this season they're as excellent as ever, seemingly relishing the chance to have such complex character shifts to navigate. Fonda, the queen of playing characters who use external ferocity to cover internal turmoil, expertly charts Grace's increasing fear that she doesn't fit into her own life. Fonda does vulnerable like nobodies' business, partly because she seems to understand that true vulnerability can often look like faux strength, and this season gives her more opportunity to unpack what, exactly, makes Grace feel vulnerable. From Grace's astoundingly funny drug trip to her supposedly happy but equally sad final declaration, Fonda is nuanced and complex.

As Grace is tailor-made for Fonda's mix of marble and mush, Frankie is perfectly suited for Lily Tomlin's knack of rendering eccentric characters more human than the other people around them. On paper, Frankie should seem like a broad stereotype, a satire of wealthy social warriors who talk about poverty over an-all-you-can-eat vegan buffet. It's to Tomlin's immense credit that Frankie never tips over into ludicrousness, unless that ludicrousness is motivated by something deeply human. Tomlin works to show Frankie's emotional elasticity, her tendency to go from sad to happy too quickly, while still signaling that those emotions, while they last, are true and meaningful. It's a delight.

In the finalé, "The Alternative", Grace and Frankie steps into an alternate universe where our sometimes fearful, mostly fearless leading ladies parted ways after the pilot episode. It has perhaps the best sight gag in any sitcom this decade and yet it also feels like the ghost of what could have been; showcasing the spirits that haunt Grace and Frankie every time they question their decisions or their dynamic. Alternative universe Grace and Frankie, without the bond that this fifth season spends so much time questioning, were forced to become the most extreme versions of themselves, cartoon sketches so that they didn't have to admit that they were heartbroken women. What didn't happen is treated as a torch which illuminates what did. So many of these episodes ask questions about personal growth and the ability to reconfigure your life, but situate the site of meaningful change on the individual.

As the season wraps up, the show strongly suggests that change is often a team exercise and that the inside job of becoming who you want to be doesn't have to be done inside an empty home. In the philosophy of Grace and Frankie, the call is coming from inside the house, but that just means that someone is on the other end of the line to talk to. Because even odd couples are, at the end of the day, couples.

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