The best thing about Parenthood being the Most Underrated Show on Television is that those who are in on its secret get fully drawn into the intimate sphere that is the Braverman family (much like fans of showrunner Jason Katims’s previous Most Underrated Show on Television, Friday Night Lights, became citizens of Dillon). When any one of the Bravermans laughs, we laugh. And by God, when any one of them cries, we cry buckets. We cry so many buckets that Vulture doesn’t write Parenthood recaps, it writes Parenthood Cry-Caps. (And yet, somehow, I never learn the lesson that I should always wait to apply mascara until after I’ve watched Parenthood over my Saturday morning coffee.)
The worst thing about Parenthood being the Most Underrated Show on Television is that every season, the extended Braverman fan-family has to endure not knowing whether the show will be renewed. The past three season finales have been maybe-series finales, and invariably well-written as such, brimming with conflict resolution, sentimentality, and hope. And each time I have desperately wanted the show to come back but known we and the Bravermans will all be ok if it doesn’t.
But after last week’s finale, I am now hoping more than ever that Parenthood gets renewed. It’s not just because I want it the show to keep ruining my mascara for years to come. It’s not because I want to see Haddie’s new lesbian storyline developed fully, or because I want to find out if Amber is pregnant and where her toxically loving relationship with Ryan is headed. It’s because I need Julia Braverman-Graham to stay on television.
Julia (Erika Christensen), the type-A lawyer and youngest of the Braverman siblings, has always been the most criminally underused of the Braverman quartet. It’s a testament to Parenthood’s ability to play out understated drama that Julia’s storylines—which have included infertility, adoption, and professional woes—have almost always played in the background. That is, until this season, when Julia got a chance to shine in the most unfortunate of circumstances: her gut-wrenching separation from her husband, Joel Graham (Sam Jaeger).
Watching Parenthood is always a little bit painful—see aforementioned cryfest phenomenon—but watching Joel and Julia’s storyline this season has been almost unbearable for me. It’s not because their story is somehow more painful than anything Parenthood has done before. In fact, as far as Parenthood storylines go, it’s outright cheery. No one is diagnosed with cancer (Kristina) or Aspberger’s (Max) or gets in a car crash (Amber). But for the life of me, I just can’t bear to watch Julia suffer.
I didn’t need to take Buzzfeed’s “Which Braverman Are You” quiz to know that I’m a Julia, through and through. Like Julia, I’m an attorney. I’m a control freak to a fault and way too competitive for my own good. I wear sheath dresses and enjoy wine, Adele, and mid-century modern furniture. And though I’m not at that point in my life yet, I imagine that one day, like Julia, I will be wracked with anxiety about being a good parent while managing my high-powered legal career. In other words, I’m a member of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In generation, the group of high-achieving women struggling to “have it all” in the face of continued gender inequities in the workplace (including behavioral ones we impose on ourselves).
Depictions of high-achieving “regular women” like Julia on TV or in movies are few and far between. Most often “career women,” particularly lawyers, appear as flat, underdeveloped automatons without personal lives (the women of Suits) or as unlikeable workaholics who spurn family life (Miranda on Sex and the City was, to put it mildly, a reluctant parent). But Julia is a television rarity: an over-achieving woman with all the trappings that make career women so unlikeable (think “bossyness”) who is still lovable and warm and cares more than anything about her family’s well-being.
Even within the super-accepting sphere of the Braverman clan, Julia struggles to find her place as a Lean In woman. In the early seasons, Julia—who brings home the proverbial bacon while Joel stays home with their daughter Sydney—worries incessantly that Sydney prefers Joel over her, and she even feels judged by her otherwise loving family for it (though, in a few moving scenes, she is reassured her siblings think of her as a good parent, such as when Jabar gets his thumb stuck in a can and Julia swoops to the rescue).
At the same time, Julia commits the cardinal sin that Lean In women so often fall for: she doesn’t just judge herself, she also judges women who make the opposite choice. When she gets jealous in Season 1 of a stay-at-home-mom who has been shamelessly hitting on her husband at playgroup, she spits out, “She doesn’t even work!” before catching herself and adding, “which is a valid, such a valid choice, you know, I took an extra month of maternity leave.”
So for years I have admired Julia for being a realistically flawed career woman who still gets the hot hubby and adorable daughter and can rely on her family to love and support her even when she feels like she doesn’t deserve it (and maybe sometimes really doesn’t). But being Julia Braverman, Career Mom is impossibly difficult, and the Parenthood writers know it. So they have wisely knocked her off her pedestal consistently throughout the series, putting her through the wringer of trying—and failing—to “have it all” over and over again.
After finding out she is infertile and enduring the pain of having a potential adoption fall through (a beautifully played-out storyline in its own right), Julia, desperate to give Sydney a sibling, decides to adopt an eight-year-old boy whose mother is incarcerated. Julia doesn’t immediately click with the boy, Victor, and she tells Joel in one of the most cringeworthy scenes of the whole series, “I feel like I’m waiting to fall in love with our son.” I’ve long wondered whether Julia’s anxiety had to do with her years of being told—or at least, feeling like she was being told—that she wasn’t a loving mother because she worked long hours and left Sydney at home with Joel. Julia has been conditioned by society to be on the lookout for signs that her career is overtaking her heart, so when she goes through the totally normal and understandable growing pains of adopting an eight-year-old, she takes it personally.
Her anxiety starts to eat her up, causing her to have panic attacks, food burning on the stove and all. She misses a discovery deadline at work, then works all night through her daughter’s ballet recital to be able to make it to her son’s baseball game. When she gets called in to a meeting with the partners to discuss her mistake—on no notice on a Saturday—she faces the ultimatum that every woman balancing career and family dreads: “We need your full assurance that you’re totally committed to the firm.”
It’s hard to imagine a man with a difficult family life facing the same ultimatum. When Julia’s brother Adam (Peter Krause) loses his job in Season 2, it has everything to do with “the economy” and nothing to do with his son’s Aspberger’s diagnosis. But Julia has walked right into the trap laid for career women these days: If you try to do too much at work and at home, something’s gotta give.
So Julia chooses home. She’s committed to her career, yes, but she’s more committed to Sydney, her flesh and blood, and Victor, whom she’s sworn to take in and care for when no one else will. But Julia quickly learns that giving up half of the work-life equation doesn’t make the remaining half any easier.
This is where we find Julia at the beginning of season 5: struggling desperately to adjust to her new life as a stay-at-home mom, made all the more painful by Julia’s realization that she doesn’t want to stay at home. She interviews for a job at another firm but gets blackballed by a bad recommendation from the same partner who forced her hand into quitting. (To be fair, Julia did mess up at work, but it stings that her old boss doesn’t give her credit for the many years she was, by all accounts, awesome at her job while still dealing with personal difficulties, including her infertility and failed adoption.)
Being forced to stay at home while Joel goes back to work is unbearably painful for Julia. I am familiar with the common objection that “this was Julia’s choice,” and so she shouldn’t be wallowing in a pity party. That’s true. But for a woman like Julia, who has fought hard her whole life to maintain her career and validate the compromises she’s made in her family life, the daily grind of staying at home feels like failure. It’s telling that for the first few episodes after she quits her job, Julia continues to wear sheath dresses and button-up shirts at home. She just doesn’t know who she is in mom jeans.
Julia’s personal confusion puts a strain on her marriage like nothing has before. Julia bonds with Ed, a dad at her kids’ school who is also adjusting to stay-at-home parenthood after being laid off from a corporate sales job. His situation is actually nothing like hers in that his unemployment, like Adam’s in Season 2, is about “the economy” and not the failings of work-life balance. But he knows it’s tough adjusting to life at home with the kids—a fact Joel is blind to, having made it to old pro status by the time Victor came into the picture—so Ed becomes an important part of Julia’s life. Ed, being a stupid man, misreads the signal, tries to kiss Julia, Julia lets the kiss happen for a moment before pushing Ed away, Julia tells Joel, Joel freaks out, and Joel moves into a crappy apartment and indicates he wants a divorce (to make a very long story short).
All season long, I couldn’t understand Joel’s perspective on this, after all his years of being patient and sensitive. I thought maybe Joel had a brain tumor that caused him to freak out so dramatically and refuse to accept Julia’s pleading apologies for not fending off Ed’s advances sooner. But the real source of Joel’s lingering dissatisfaction comes out in another impeccably written scene toward the end of Season 5, in which Joel (heartbreakingly!) tells Julia they’re not trying to get back together right now.
Joel finally opens up about his true frustrations, pointing out that he made sacrifices for Julia’s career for many years and when it was time for Julia to do the same for Joel, she didn’t deliver, instead showing up at Joel’s workplace to cry to him about her struggles at home.
Joel has a point; Julia has been selfish and focused on her own difficulties, and has not been expressing her support of Joel’s career the same way he used to do for her. Yet for all the progress we’ve made on gender in the past few decades, it still means something different for Joel to support Julia’s career than the other way around. Julia needed constant reassurance that her focus on her career was ok. And Joel got brownie points for staying at home because he wasn’t expected to, and that was seen as something above and beyond (hence women fawning over him at playgroup). What Joel fails to realize is that now that the tables have turned, and Julia is at home with the kids, she still needs support adjusting to her new role, and she has no brownie points to show for it.
In short, the conflict between Joel and Julia reveals a difficult truth about marriage in the Lean In era: It’s not enough for the partner who shoulders responsibilities at home to support the one who works. The support has to be truly mutual, and the dichotomy between career and family can’t be divvied up neatly into “one person works, the other doesn’t.”
Because even though Julia is staying home now, she’s still an attorney at heart, and she still needs Joel to see and value and love that part of her just as much as he needs her to take on more responsibilities at home and “support” his career. That’s why, after Joel tells her they’re not trying to get back together, Julia winds up sleeping with Mr. Knight, the new headmaster of Adam and Kristina’s charter school. Julia meets Mr. Knight in a professional capacity, as she’s been asked to help out with legal aspects of the charter school (a task she jumps on with the zeal of a child starved for candy). Mr. Knight calls her a “scary lawyer”—because that’s the side of her he sees—and she all but drops her panties right then and there, she’s so relieved to have a man acknowledge that part of her again.
Of course, this is Parenthood, so Julia quickly makes clear to Mr. Knight that it won’t happen again, just as Joel finally comes to the realization that even though he’s back at work now, he’s still a “family man,” as his boss puts it, the same way Julia is still a lawyer.
I was dying for months to see how the season finale would handle Julia and Joel’s seemingly inevitable reconciliation, hoping against hope that the writers wouldn’t give them a neat and tidy reunion, which would belittle the real struggles couples like Joel and Julia endure. Of course, I should have known that it would be Victor and Sydney who soften Joel and Julia to each other again. Victor has a victory at school for the first time ever, and Sydney begs and pleads with Joel to stay and tuck her in after a fun family day celebrating Victor’s success. Sydney—already a Lean In woman herself, a miniature Julia capable of clever, lawyerly manipulation—gets Joel to tell her the story of the day she was born as a bedtime story. Joel recounts how Julia told the anesthesiologist who administered her epidural “I love you,” but he’s looking right at Julia as he utters the words. As Sydney drifts off to sleep, Joel puts his hand over Julia’s, reminding her that they still have a bond (of parenthood, or of Parenthood?) even as they still have so much to work on.
It’s a painfully poignant scene, and written with just enough ambiguity to make their reconciliation realistically incremental. Julia and Joel’s story encapsulates the harsh reality that parenting and relationships in the Lean In era are hard on both women and men, and the struggles working women and their families face have no easy solutions, even when partners love each other and their children and desperately want to do the right thing.
A key message of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is that the first step to improving careers and family lives for women is to start a conversation about the difficulties they face, and to recognize that women hold themselves back just as much as the system does. Julia Braverman’s story on Parenthood has done just that. It’s caused viewers to criticize Julia for being selfish and having tunnel vision. It’s also caused them to criticize Joel for not being sufficiently sensitive to her plight. And it’s caused everyone to realize couples like Joel and Julia face uphill battles every day.
This is why I need Julia Braverman, and I sincerely hope she sticks around. There’s still a lot to tell about Joel and Julia and how they will attempt to navigate their needs for personal and professional satisfaction, and I’m excited to see how the writers pull it off. Whatever happens, Julia’s life won’t be easy—and that’s a good thing.