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In its final season, Parenthood continues its fascinating peek into women’s health issues

Amber (Mae Whitman) and Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) are at two polar ends of Parenthood's "life and death" final season structure.
Amber (Mae Whitman) and Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) are at two polar ends of Parenthood's "life and death" final season structure.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The premiere of Parenthood's final season opens with a young woman getting a sonogram to see the fetus growing inside of her for the first time, and the second scene features a baby taking its first steps to her parents. As it draws to its close, an old man is being told that he should have some tests run to learn just why he collapsed while on a vacation to Vegas.

One of the chief pleasures of Parenthood has always been that it never tries to outguess the audience. It just leans into what we're expecting it to do, then executes really, really well. If the execution is off, then it dissolves into a predictable mess (as it did for much of last season). But when the show nails the execution, there's nothing quite like it on TV. It's a small show and a realistic one (provided you can get past the thing where money rarely seems to be a concern for the characters), and it's interested in capturing American life as it is really lived — with relatively small, undramatic stakes.

So by positioning this episode to use birth and death as bookends, Parenthood is subconsciously telling you this is its final season, even if you don't already know. And for its final season, it's going to engage in some real circle-of-life business. But that also essentially locks the show into doing a story about a single woman in her early 20s giving birth, and it's not clear this is the show to do that.

Parenthood and abortion

It's always tricky to talk about stories where young women are pregnant, because most pregnancy-related stories naturally necessitate that the character give birth, which means many of them barely mention other options, when many young women would at least consider such a thing. The gravity of the story keeps dragging them toward motherhood, even if in reality, they might not make that choice.

For instance, Amber (Mae Whitman), the woman carrying the child, is a young woman from Berkeley, California, who — so far as we know — has relatively progressive politics. Any religious or political opposition to abortion doesn't exist within the character. And it's not as if the show itself is anti-abortion either. In a pivotal season-four storyline, Amber's younger brother, Drew (Miles Heizer), impregnated his girlfriend and she eventually decided to have an abortion, rather than become a teen mother. It was one of only a handful of storylines involving abortion to actually end in an abortion in TV history, and it was moving television. (Additionally, a character on Friday Night Lights, the previous show from Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims, chose to have an abortion as well.)

And Parenthood actually clears the hurdle of having Amber honestly consider her options in this circumstance. The doctor she speaks with while getting her sonogram tells her that terminating the pregnancy is an option, especially since the father (her ex-boyfriend, Ryan) is no longer in the picture and she's a young woman who works as a receptionist/assistant at a recording studio. By episode's end, she seems genuinely conflicted about what to do.

But, c'mon, she's having the baby. She's a character trapped in a TV show in its final season, and that final season is going to end with somebody giving birth, dammit, to better copy the movie that gave the TV series its name. And it might as well be her.

Why this is a problem

The problem here isn't that Amber will decide to keep the child. That's absolutely a wonderful choice for her to make, and Amber is going to make a kick-ass mother, given everything we know about her. The problem is that Parenthood's story gravity — the force that keeps drawing all storylines toward it — necessitates that the show not really deal with how truly difficult this situation would be for her.

For one thing, there's simply no time to really dig into the complexities of this situation. The story essentially has to conclude with the high of Amber giving birth. And while childbirth is incredibly painful, in this circumstance, it would function only as a prelude to everything else that's dramatically interesting about being a single mother. In TV terms, stories about women carrying pregnancies to term and giving birth are a dime a dozen. Stories about single mothers struggling to make ends meet or dropping everything to take care of a sick kid or just trying to find the time to bond with their child are considerably rarer, since TV is almost completely addicted to nuclear families. (Interestingly, the show did a bit of this with Amber's own mother, Sarah, but her kids were old enough that Sarah didn't have to set aside quite as much of her time for them as Amber would for an infant.)

But because the show is also self-consciously setting this final season up as a tale of the great cycle of life and death, this means that the birth of Amber's child becomes the flipside of what looks to be her grandfather's death. (It's entirely possible his health scare will be just that, but somebody is dying this season. Katims is too great a student of TV history to not put a tear-jerking death somewhere in the final stretch of episodes.) And maybe there's some rough parallelism in that — between the way a woman's body changes when she's with child and the way all of our bodies change as we age — but the show has a whole bunch of other characters to service in just 12 more episodes.

For instance, it seems likely that estranged couple Joel and Julia will work their way back toward each other somewhere in the course of this final season (after the show did such deliberate work at shattering their marriage last season), and there's got to be time for the revived relationship between Sarah and Hank (which will now involve greater amounts of time spent with his daughter from his first marriage). And that's to say nothing of Adam and Kristina starting a new charter school, or whatever it is the show can cook up for Crosby to do, or all of the other side characters the writers will want to give an elegant exit as the show moves toward closure.

There's lots of stuff to do, and so little time. And that's almost certainly going to result in Amber's pregnancy becoming a kind of happy ending to any grief the season causes the other characters. The other characters will rally around their family member (as any good Braverman would), and maybe even the father will come back and renew his commitment to the mother of his child. The temptations will be too great, and neither Parenthood nor Katims has ever been all that great at resisting temptation.

You should never speculate, but let's speculate

It's always dangerous to speculate about TV storylines in their infancy, because it's so very easy for writers to trip them up. Maybe Amber will march into Planned Parenthood next week, or maybe this whole storyline concludes with a lengthy series of time jumps that show how difficult but ultimately rewarding Amber's life as a single mother was. Maybe her grandfather will emerge from his meeting with his doctor with a clean bill of health, and the birth/death dichotomy will prove to be a false alarm.

But Parenthood is an easy show to speculate about precisely because it doesn't try to fake you out. It always clearly signals where it's going early in the season, and then it heads resolutely down that path, because it knows you've been there before. You've had a parent fall ill, or watched as a single family member tried to raise a child alone. Or you've had a fight in your relationship or embarked upon a new one with someone who has a little too much baggage. If all of art is a machine meant to manufacture empathy for fictional people who are not like you, Parenthood is a machine that attempts to tap into the empathy you already have for yourself.

That leaves it in a position where it essentially has to turn the pregnancy storyline into the dash of happy leavening to what could be an otherwise sad final season. Yes, she will surely struggle, and yes, it will be hard. But Amber is going to come out of this OK — or we're not going to have to see the aftermath, at any rate. I have every faith in the world that Parenthood is going to have a terrific final season — and I very much loved the season premiere — but I do wonder if it hasn't painted itself into a corner with this one particular story.

Parenthood airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on NBC.

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