Greetings, big shots! Too busy to go to your mother’s party?! Well, buckle up for a wild, wild ride. …But is this something we can do? Is this something society will allow?
SEASON 1, EPISODE 7: My Mother, the Car
Written by Jay Martin
Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
Original airdate December 21, 2003
There’s no getting around it; My Mother, the Car is definitely an anomaly in the Arrested Development canon. It is perhaps tied with season 2’s Ready, Aim, Marry me as the most tonally different episode of the series (though the latter is an exception for entirely different reasons, namely its focus on highly broad slapstick comedy and a guest star who’d prove quite controversial to many fans). For starters, the show borrows heavily from tropes in the film noir and mystery genres, boasting a genuinely dramatic A story and some of the darkest material the show would ever explore. It also opts for a two act structure instead of the show’s usual three act structure (up until season 4, of course, when the whole notion of structure was thrown out the window entirely), using its first half to slowly put all the pieces in place and build up to a huge turn in the plot, then using its second half to dismantle those pieces and unravel itself accordingly. Even the score is different from usual, with the comical ukulele soundtrack largely ditched in favour of more serious, saxophone-heavy music that would feel right at home in a soap opera. None of this is to say it’s bad, of course – it’s a definite stand-out of the first season for me, and features some of my favourite Lucille moments (among other characters), but it’s definitely unlike any other episode the show’s produced.
Despite borrowing heavily from mystery fiction, My Mother, the Car doesn’t exactly utilise the genre’s tropes in the traditional way. We know from the get-go that Lucille is responsible for the car accident, and is doing everything in her power to convince Michael he was behind the wheel at the time. The writers instead use the first act to give the Bluth siblings the tools they need to unravel Lucille’s devious plan in act two – setting up her history of misdemeanors behind the wheel, her fraudulent license renewal, her penchant for manipulating her children, along with the rock behind the passenger seat, left by Buster in the previous episode, Charity Drive. The only real mystery at hand is the grocery bags Lucille struggles to carry in the beginning of the episode (later revealed to contain gold Krugerrands), in a clever plot turn that plays into both the A story, and Lindsay’s sub-plot of repeatedly visiting the prison, trying to earn the attention of the inmates (who we discover are being bribed by George Sr. to avert their gaze – and obscenities).
Another notable detail about this episode is just how reprehensible Lucille’s actions are. Granted, the show rarely ever depicts her as being remotely nice, but her usual bitterness and self-centred scheming hadn’t yet reached such an undeniable level of villainy (and, arguably, would only ever do so again a handful of times – Whistler’s Mother, Development Arrested and Queen B. spring to mind here), which is arguably kept grounded by Jessica Walter’s immaculate performance. Lucille’s sole motivation here is keeping her license, and in striving to do so, she’s more than willing to isolate Michael from his family, sedate him on far heavier drugs than she’s letting on, and even cause him further head injuries as he comes close to piecing things together. Some deleted scenes also imply that she’s gotten Dr. Miller to assist with her bidding – which eventually comes at the expense of his medical license – though more on that in the “Episode Notes & Trivia” section below.
Despite the largely stand-alone main plot, My Mother, the Car does advance the season’s larger story arcs in its own ways – most notably Buster and Lucille 2’s relationship, in the form of a rather unsettling first kiss. Tony Hale and Liza Minnelli truly throw themselves into their roles, which makes this horribly disturbing pairing oddly believable – and even somewhat endearing, at least to a small extent – and delivers us some fantastic character moments from both of them. George Michael’s crush on Maeby is also explored a little further, when they attempt to sneak into an R-rated foreign film about an incestuous relationship between two cousins – though, much like the George Michael/Maeby sub-plots from the past few episodes, this is relegated to less than a couple of minutes of screentime (other than Top Banana and Bringing Up Buster, the kids are largely confined to the background for this first batch of episodes).
My Mother, the Car may be relentlessly bleak for an episode of a major network prime-time sit-com, but the last few minutes also demonstrate the solidarity beyond Gob, Michael and Lindsay (previously touched upon in Bringing Up Buster, which gives me the impression that almost all of their familial bonding revolves around airing out their grievances over Lucille). Gob may dismiss Michael’s request to vacate the yacht – and even make a ploy to flee to South America in the process – the same way Lindsay lets him down when he asks her to attend Lucille’s surprise party for him, but when it comes to exposing Lucille for the conniving fiend she is, they truly do have one another’s back. Even if Lucille still ultimately proves herself the queen of manipulation in the end.
MY FAVOURITE JOKES/MOMENTS
* MICHAEL Hey, mom. Remember we had that conversation about trying to cut back on things that aren’t necessities?
LUCILLE: Like it was yesterday.
MICHAEL: It was this morning.
* “Honest to god, Buster, it’s like every little thing makes you seize up in terror lately. I just have no idea where you get that from… Get away from that stove, you’re going to light your hair on fire!! …He’s weak.”
* LINDSAY: It would just give dad one more reason to think that I’ve got nothing to offer but my looks.
GOB: Yeah, I got some of that. Except he also didn’t like my looks.
* MICHAEL: I can’t believe she got that driver’s license renewed.
GOB: She didn’t. I dummied her up a new one. Not my best work, though. She wanted to look 48. I nearly airbrushed her into oblivion. Ended up checking “albino” in the form.
* “Come on, this is a Bluth family celebration. It’s no place for children.”
* LINDAY: It’s always been “Michael’s got the brains, Gob’s got the charm, Buster’s got the…”
GEORGE SR: …High-fastening pants.
LINDSAY: You said that?
GEORGE SR: No, I’m saying that now.
* BUSTER: Um, is it okay if I do it for mom and not you?
BUSTER: Because I really like mom.
MICHAEL: We know.
* Michael and Lucille startle the same two waiters both times at the restaurant, the second instance interrupting a rather intimate moment between them:
* An excellent bit of physical comedy on Tony Hale’s part when Buster spots Lucille on the balcony and jumps through the window:
I also love the way Lucille 2 says “I’ll call Dr. Miller” after Buster jumps through the window, and then we immediately cut to Dr. Miller in Lucille’s penthouse getting the call. The show would start to do little gags like that a lot more often in its subsequent episodes.
* “Totally cool. Didn’t feel a thing. You know, mom, I’m crazy about this aspirin. Can’t believe we give it to children.”
* A great little background joke is when George Michael’s approaching the yacht, we hear Gob shooing a woman away, followed by a splash, Gob walking out and throwing the life preserver overboard, finally punctuated about 20-30 seconds later by this visual:
* Another excellent moment from that scene: “Oh, and, uh, preferably French. I like the way they think.”
* LUCILLE: Buster, what’s going on? What happened to your head?
BUSTER: Nothing. Gob was just teaching me how to hit it with a hammer.
(I’d completely forgotten about that line, and I utterly lost it when I heard it.)
* The running gag with Lucille finding a way to injure Michael’s head whenever he attempts to piece the accident together is so, so dark. In a good way, of course. It almost gets pushed too far when Lucille picks up the ornament with the obvious intention of striking Michael with it, but the way she then tries to pass it off as a gift (and Michael just doesn’t question it) is hilarious:
* GEORGE SR: Gold Krugerrands. Your mother snuck them in here, stuffed them in energy bar wrappers to keep me from getting strangled in the shower… or worse.
GEORGE SR: In a way.
* GOB: Turn this skiff around!
CAPTAIN: We haven’t even left the dock.
GOB: But “skiff” is appropriate, right?
* GOB: I was halfway to South America, but I couldn’t let you get away with it, because we’re brothers, Mom, and we kind of like each other.
MICHAEL: You were going to South America?
GOB: I don’t think so.
* There are some serious continuity issues with Lucille’s groceries in the opening scene (namely the bag going from relatively unscathed to crumpled and then back again, and the bananas shifting position several times).
* The joke about Michael being Lucille’s “third least favourite child,” and then the narrator referring to Gob as her “fourth least favourite child,” doesn’t quite work – as being fourthleast favourite out of four children would technically imply that Gob is her favourite. It is possible that the mistake was simply poor phrasing on Lucille’s part, and the narrator’s follow-up was simply a joke about it, but it still never quite sat right with me.
* The floor plan for Balboa Towers defies all logic. The entrances for Lucille Bluth and Lucille Austero’s penthouses are directly opposite one another, and yet they’re able to see each other’s balconies?
EPISODE NOTES & TRIVIA
* This episode’s title is a reference to the short-lived 1960s sit-com “My Mother the Car,” the theme song for which can be heard at one point when Lindsay and Gob are watching tv. It also refers to the episode’s A story, in which Michael’s mother and a car are both major plot points.
* This episode was broadcast after In God We Trust, which makes very little sense as Buster and Lucille 2 are seen as a couple in that episode, yet don’t begin their relationship until this episode. This episode also plays better when it immediately follows Charity Drive (which it does in production/dvd order), as that episode establishes the rock behind the passenger seat of Michael’s car.
* Tobias does not appear in this episode. That’s only two episodes out of seven so far to feature the entire cast. I wonder if there were some scheduling issues with David Cross at the beginning of the series? All 9 main cast members are featured in almost every episode from this point onwards until the end of the Fox run.
* This is the first mention of Les Cousins Dangereux, the French film about an incestuous relationship between two cousins that George Michael quickly becomes obsessed with. In the season 2 finale Righteous Brothers, Maeby is involved an American adaption of the film. We also learn in season 3’s Mr. F that George Michael has a poster of the film displayed on the back of his bedroom door, hidden behind a motivational poster. The actors in the trailer for the original French version also bear some resemblance to George Michael and Maeby.
George Michael would again make the statement “I like the way they think” about the French in Righteous Brothers, too.
* The song playing in the restaurant is Bach’s “Italian Concerto.”
* This episode introduces the Bluth family yacht, which Gob is living on for the rest of the season, up until he blows it up in Missing Kitty. His place of residence is later made a mystery for the remainder of the Fox run, until the season 3 finale, Development Arrested, when we learn he’s been staying on a boat named The C-Word (which he presumably bought in season 2’s The One Where They Build a House).
* The woman at the docks is the second woman Gob’s cheated on Marta with, after Kitty in Visiting Ours. A cutaway joke in the episode also implies Gob’s been hiring prostitutes on the side, suggesting these aren’t the only two. Gob’s adultery would become a plot point two episodes from now, in Storming the Castle.
* Lindsay’s “SLUT” shirt would later appear again in season 2’s Good Grief and The Immaculate Election, and season 3’s Exit Strategy.
* The phrase “that sounds like mom” is uttered again in the very next episode, In God We Trust. Gob also believes Michael may be fleeing to South America in that episode, which may be due to his own plans in this episode.
* This is the second episode where a Bluth tries to take to the sea and flee (although Gob’s reasons for doing so aren’t entirely clear) following the Pilot. It would later happen again (multiple times) in season 3’s Development Arrested, and the notion itself would be explored more thoroughly in season 4.
* Gob also said the line “I don’t think so” in the Pilot (delivered in the exact same manner).
* This episode has an exceptionally long reel of deleted/extended scenes, including a flashback that reveals Michael’s parents forgot his 6th birthday but remembered his twin sister Lindsay’s (including a humorous little bit with George Sr pointing to a pink bike and saying “it’s for both of you!”), a much longer stretch of dialogue between Maeby and George Michael at the cinema, where we learn George Michael wanted to go see a Pixar-esque CGI movie instead, an additional prison visit between Lindsay and George Sr. (where Lindsay questions if everyone in prison immediately turns gay, then muses on whether it’s the fluorescent lighting, and George Sr. tries to discourage her by telling her some “real animals” are getting out of solitary the next day, which of course, prompts her to return), and a funny little bit where Gob mishears Michael’s request to blow Lucille’s “socks off” as “skirt up.” More interesting, however, is the huge amount of material they cut in regards to Dr. Miller, which basically implies that Lucille is bribing him so he’ll give Michael false medical information (including the suggestion that Michael shouldn’t try to remember, because it causes “memory fluid” to pool up and escape), after which Dr. Miller mutters to himself “I’m going to lose my license.” This is expanded on in a deleted scene where Dr. Miller is bandaging up Gob’s head, and reveals “It’s Mr. Miller now,” to which Gob responds “License problems? I can take care of that for you.”
THINGS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
* Lucille 2 can be seen in a flashback playing poker with a group of rather flamboyant men. This is likely a meta joke about Liza Minnelli’s popularity among the gay community.
* “World’s Worst Drivers” is a fictitious tv show, satirising the extremely cheap, low-brow content Fox was airing at the time (and continues to air today).
* Remember the part where Buster jumps through the window? The beautiful capper to this comes in the form of a very easy-to-miss background gag, when Michael is on the balcony speaking to Gob over the phone:
THIS INSTALLMENT’S DISCUSSION QUESTION
Seeing as this episode introduced us to World’s Worst Drivers and Les Cousins Dangereux; Do you have a favourite fictitious film, tv show, song or product from the Arrested Development universe?