It’s fitting that the final installment of The Goldbergs this year revolves around the concept of love. In many ways, it’s the unifying theme of the entire series and the underlying conceit of countless storylines—how one displays love, how love is received, the feeling of being in love and the pratfalls that entail, etc.
In this way, “Goldbergs Feel Hard” ties an appropriately emotional bow on the series’ remarkable second year. Indeed, it’s such a perfect articulation of the show’s sensibility that one might be forgiven for mistaking this for some kind of de facto series finale. Luckily, based on its ratings, The Golbergs ain’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
The episode begins with a simple enough set-up—after a lifetime of being uncomfortable with displays of affection, Murray is convinced by Beverly and Albert to give the whole saying “I love you” bit a try, especially given that his daughter is about to leave town for a summer-long music program. When, after a few attempts, he manages to say these three words to Erica, the response is predictably muted. Erica at first believes something has gone horribly wrong then, after being assured the gesture was unprovoked, she can only muster a proverbial shrug in response. Embarrassed, Murray claims that will be the last “love you” he ever verbalizes. Horrified by this prospect, Beverly bribes Erica into returning the gesture by buying her a fashionable leather jacket and boots.
Of course, Murray quickly puts two and two together and confronts Erica with her insincerity. The two’s conversation, as most things in the Goldbergs household, descends into a shouting match. Appropriately, they end up using “love” as an attack word (personal favorite: “my love knows no bounds, all the way to infinity!!”). It’s here that Beverly realizes that acknowledgments of love don’t always need be shouted from the rooftop and that people like Barry and Erica display their love in different, less conspicuous ways.
Now storylines about Murray’s pragmatic attitude are a dime a dozen in the series, yet, by boiling it down to its pure essence, the writers manage to avoid feeling repetitive in their execution.
Meanwhile, the episode’s other subplot also deals with love—albeit, in the more romantic sense. The catalyst is Adam’s decision to pen an “epic love letter” to his girlfriend, Dana. Barry warns him that using the “l” word can do no good, as it makes him look weak and can effectively freak the girl out. Naturally, Barry can’t follow his own advice and accidentally ends up saying the same thing to Lainey after she offers to get him a burrito. Their relationship subsequently enters into an awkward phase, with Lainey doing everything in her power to avoid interacting with Barry.
Upon seeing the fissure in that relationship, Adam desperately tries to get his note from Dana’s locker before she can read it. He ends up getting assistance from Coach Miller, who proves to have quite a wealth of relationship advice (“just because I wear the same tiny shorts every day doesn’t mean I don’t wear many hats—Coach knows love good”). Short tangent—while he may have started the series as the more typical disciplinarian, both the writers and actor Bryan Callen have done a fantastic job this season of exploring the Coach’s various idiosyncrasies. This episode is the cherry on top, with Coach actually staging a drug raid, just to get the note from Dana.
Coach even helps Barry with his romantic woes by offering him a spot as the basketball team’s mascot, The Fighting Quaker, so he can be closer to Lainey during her cheerleading practices. Unfortunately, the Quaker’s design—a frightening, dead-eyed monstrosity—doesn’t exactly make Barry’s attempts at emotional connection any easier.
The plotline culminates with the team’s bus being assaulted by members of their rival school. Tradition dictates that their first target be the school mascot. In the heat of the moment, Lainey claims she does love Barry and that she had trouble responding to his declaration because of her own emotional baggage involving her mother leaving. Emboldened by her response, Barry bravely tosses himself into an angry mob of rival students.
This display of strength inspires Adam to run over to Dana’s house and tell her “I love you” to her face. And here’s where the episode drops a heart wrenching bomb on us—Dana tearfully returns the sentiment before confessing that her family might be moving to Seattle. She ends the encounter by returning Adam’s Green Lantern ring and giving him a departing kiss on the cheek. Here’s where the room got a bit dusty for me.
What’s all the more impressive is how the writers are able to deftly service every member of the cast in the episode’s sparse 21-minute runtime. This also makes the final scene, where all the family is gathered together to say goodbye to Erica at the airport, both an organic end to the stories and a thematically appropriate departing image. As Barry comforts Adam over his loss, Murray and Erica share a heartwarming moment where they acknowledge their love for each other without outright verbalizing it.
It’s also here that Patton Oswalt’s adult Adam ends up offering up a brief speech that could very well act as the show’s thesis statement:
“Looking back on your childhood is a funny thing. Sure the details get funny and the days blend together, but the good news is all the hurt fades away and you just end up remembering the love. You remember your family, you remember…1980-something.”
It’s a beautiful sentiment that acts as the perfect coda to the episode and, by extension, the season. In describing the show, words like “poignant,” “heartfelt” and “sentimental” pop up a lot in my recaps. And, frankly, The Goldbergs does these sentiments better than almost any other show on network TV. It’s a show that’s not ashamed to show up on its girlfriend’s door, blast “In Your Eyes” and wear its heart on its sleeve. It’s a show, to put it simply, about love—love for family, love for its decade and love for the sitcom format. And, to quote a gravelly voiced singer and his female duet companion, love lifts us up where we belong.
So, here we go—Goldbergs, I love ya. Never change. Sincerely—Mark.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.