Mae Whitman as Amber, Sarah Ramos as Haddie, Peter Krause as Adam Braverman, Monica Potter as Kristina Braverman in the series finale of Parenthood.
It couldn't be more fitting that Parenthood, which wrapped up its six-season run on Jan. 29, ended with a baseball game. The pilot episode of the Jason Katims-created show (very loosely based on the 1989 feature film) ended in the same fashion: After a negative experience, Max Braverman (Max Burkholder) doesn't initially want to play in his baseball game, but when he changes his mind, the entire Braverman clan races to get him there in time.
There's a beautiful sense of symmetry, therefore, to how Parenthood's final episode ended, with the Bravermans uniting to celebrate one of their own, Zeek (Craig T. Nelson), on the baseball diamond, fulfilling his wishes and bringing each other closer together in the process. With the series bookended both by the most American of sports — Crosby (Dax Shepard) once refers to baseball as the Bravermans' "religion" — and by Sarah (Lauren Graham) finding her true place (moving in with her parents in the pilot and finally getting the happy ending she deserves), Parenthood gave its audience the narrative equivalent of a home run with all the bases loaded.
And that final six-minute sequence at the end of Parenthood's series finale (called, fittingly, "May God Bless and Keep You Always," the first lyric of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," the show's theme song) might just be one of the most gorgeous scenes ever to air on television. As the family gathers to pay their last respects to Zeek, felled by a Chekhovian heart attack in the final 10 minutes of the series, they do exactly as he once asked — to have his ashes scattered over center field of Marine Park and to have his family play a game of baseball over him. It's a somber but also joyous scene of connection in a series that has ultimately been about the ways in which we forge bonds with our loved ones and about how love grows and changes and is tested over time.
Max Burkholder as Max Braverman; Bonnie Bedelia as Camille Braverman, Mae Whitman as Amber Holt, and Craig T. Nelson as Zeek Braverman.
Parenthood has always been about taking small moments and making them instantly indelible — there's a reason why this drama affects many of us the way that it does, how it can violently yank on our heartstrings by transforming the most insignificant moment into something profound and poignant. Think of Kristina (Monica Potter) dancing with Max or climbing in that backseat to comfort her son. Or Zeek, standing over the wreckage of a car, telling Amber (Mae Whitman) that she's destroying his dream, the dream that he fought for. Or any of the family dinners in which the Bravermans came together, bickered, drank, and danced. We see this Berkeley clan at their best and worst, but these are the moments that add up to capturing a certain American family experience today.
There is a sense, thanks to Katims and the writing staff, of universality to the Bravermans' experiences, of understanding these moments, whether you are a parent or a child, whether you're single or married, whether you came from a huge family or a tiny one. You needn't have adopted a baby to experience Julia's (Erika Christensen) heartbreak when the baby she thought she'd be adopting was no longer hers, or the joy she feels when the child she does eventually adopt, Victor (Xolo Maridueña), finally connects with her. You needn't be a great-grandparent to see the bliss enveloping Zeek and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) when they meet their great-grandson, also named Zeek, for the first time. This is a show about love and about growth, things that as humans, we understand implicitly, even as we fight against challenges.
One hardship the audience and the Bravermans knew they'd have to face was Zeek's death. He was always going to die at the end of Parenthood, leaving the four adult Braverman children to contend with the loss of their larger-than-life father. And it's fitting that his death comes shortly after the birth of the new Zeek, offering symmetry and closing the series along with the circle of life. But rather than make the finale about Zeek's funeral and his children's grief, Katims instead makes it about life, the unexpected changes that come along with it, and the slippage of time. That final six-minute sequence isn't about words of comfort at Zeek's funeral — in fact, there is no dialogue, just an acoustic version of "Forever Young" crooning bittersweetly in the background — but about how his death brings his loved ones together to play a game of baseball with him one last time, to have him underfoot and in the air, to breathe him in and reconnect with him, and to create an ineffaceable moment for them all. There is beauty and joy, there is heartbreak and pain, Parenthood would seem to say. And that's the nature of life itself.
Lauren Graham as Sarah Braverman; Monica Potter as Kristina Braverman and Peter Krause as Adam Braverman in the series finale of Parenthood.
Emotional finales can be a tough thing to pull off properly: Katims achieved this so exquisitely with his ending of Friday Night Lights and I hoped so desperately that Parenthood would manage the same crystallization of mission and sentiment as FNL. And "May God Bless and Keep You Always" manages to do just that, thanks in part to the flash-forwards woven through that final sequence, giving the audience just enough information to point toward the future of these characters that we've come to know, love, and consider family over the past six seasons.
Those flash-forwards aren't about showing the extended Braverman family members in drastically different situations; it's not about Julia becoming a partner at her own law firm or Max becoming a famous photographer — it's about small, stolen moments that hint at what's to come. We know that Max graduates high school, his family cheering him on with smiles as triumphant as the rare one plastered across his face; that Adam (Peter Krause) chooses a career based on helping others rather than about his paycheck; that Crosby and Amber's gambit with The Luncheonette pays off and that Jasmine (Joy Bryant) is pregnant with her and Crosby's third child; that Sarah and Hank (Ray Romano) are happy together, their families gathered around a dinner table — and that Amber has found a new love (FNL's Scott Porter) and expanded her family, while allowing her ex Ryan (Matt Lauria) a role in their son's life. We know that Camille finally does make it to that little French hotel that Zeek spoke so lovingly of, that she completed his dream of showing it to her, and that Julia and Joel (Sam Jaeger) have a fourth child, an unexpected twist after trying so long to conceive and adopting two kids. (That they have four kids now is intentional, given the number of kids in the Braverman clan.)
But at the very end of Parenthood, it's Max who is the last to leave the field in this final sequence — it's Max who asks a girl to dance at Sarah's wedding, and it's Max who has his future ahead of him, thanks to Kristina and Adam and all of the Bravermans. His hesitation and distance at the start of the series have been replaced by something else together; he does appear "in the picture," to borrow Kristina's words, rather than just taking it. He's present and participating and Max lingers longer than the others.
In this way, the final sequence, with its juxtaposition of life and death, punched me in the heart in a way that I didn't really anticipate. Where other series have used musical montages as crutches, Parenthood has transformed these silent sequences into demonstrative emotional tableaux, capturing the feeling of those exchanges without relying on dialogue. For a series finale, "May God Bless and Keep You Always" doesn't have a lot of talking; there are quite a few scenes here in which nothing is said whatsoever and that appears to be an intentional decision — it's not the words that matter so much as the emotion behind them. There's a beauty and majesty in saying goodbye this way, in a long and deliberate embrace with something you love that you don't want to say goodbye to.
As an audience, some of us know these characters better than we know our own family members. The Bravermans seem so real to us, so vivid and three-dimensional that they could almost step off the screen, bringing with them the full spectrum of the human condition. As such, it's important that Katims' ending for Parenthood wasn't an ending so much as it was a beautifully wrought coda — life goes on for the Bravermans. As they come together for that ceremonious baseball game, there aren't tears or outwards signs of grief — there is instead pleasure in each other's company, a family united by adversity and possibility. And as hard as it is to say good-bye to the Bravermans and to Parenthood, resisting change — fighting against the ending of things — is as impossible as standing still in a rip current. Sometimes, you have to let go.