'Grace and Frankie' Tackles Mental Health With Laughs and Tears in Final Season
It’s the end of an era. Netflix’s longest-running original series, “Grace and Frankie,” starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, has dropped its seventh and final season, and I for one am kind of gutted about it. What began as a campy romp highlighting two older women that forge an unlikely friendship after being left by their respective husbands who have fallen in love with one another and want to get married has evolved into a poignant commentary on some really important and sometimes heavy subjects. The final season, while cleverly written and filled with laughs, tackles issues including trauma/intergenerational trauma, addiction, grief/loss, death, healthcare, and dealing with the decline of a loved one with memory loss due to dementia or Alzheimer’s.
There are two plot lines that tackle this head-on. The first is the fallout from Sol and Robert having their home burglarized. Sol in particular feels deeply violated and defaults to a trauma response of hyper-vigilance. Many of us who have experienced this kind of violation have a lot of trouble regaining a sense of control or security that we once felt we had. Sol acts out his hyper-vigilance by being angry with Robert for not having a similar response and for seemingly not taking his angst seriously. I know that when I am triggered and am met with dismissal or told that I’m overreacting, it just makes me defensive and angry, so I completely understand his reaction.
The second plot line that deals with trauma is Grace’s tragic loss of her father as a child when he drowned in the ocean close to his 40th birthday. She and her brother have been estranged for years because of this, and when Grace all of a sudden starts having cravings for a childhood dish that she thought her mother made, Hungarian Chicken Paprikash, she has no choice but to contact her brother for the recipe. As it turns out, the recipe was her father’s, and in a moving exchange, she and her brother swap an ingredient of the recipe for a memory of their father, whom he hardly remembers. The two realize how much their dad meant to them and how this recipe created a kind of unspoken bond between them and their father. As a chef, the power of food as a link to memories of the past struck me as incredibly poignant.
When Grace thinks that her family was responsible for unfairly firing a woman who was a domestic worker in their home and is now running as a candidate for local office, she calls a meeting with Robert and her daughters, Mallory and Brianna, to address the issue. As they piece together their memories of what happened, the girls confront their parents with their feelings of being constantly aware of how unhappy their parents were growing up. Brianna also points out what a bad mother Grace was for treating her like a little adult and only encouraging Mallory’s good looks. Grace and Robert both point out how dysfunctional their own mothers had been and how in spite of wanting to be better parents than their own, they failed. Grace offers a sincere apology to the girls for not being a better mom and the family seems to get some kind of closure on their fraught past.
Here too we find dual plot lines that intersect. On the one hand, there’s Coyote, Frankie and Sol’s adopted son, who is a recovering addict and has been sober for years. When his parents start questioning his behavior and worrying that he will “pull a Coyote,” meaning relapse, just when he finally seems to be on the precipice of joy in finding the love of his life to marry, he begins to go off the rails. The lack of trust that his parents show towards him almost leads him to sabotage his sobriety, but fortunately, he realizes that he does deserve to be happy.
Meanwhile, Grace has become addicted to anti-anxiety meds which she has been abusing in conjunction with alcohol. When she confronts Coyote about his erratic behavior, accusing him of trying to numb his feelings instead of processing them, she realizes that she too has been “pulling a Coyote” and throws away the pills. It’s a sweet moment in which both Coyote and Grace realize that they can’t run away from their fears or push them aside without serious repercussions. In a way, they save each other by reminding one another that addiction isn’t an effective coping strategy for dealing with hard feelings.
This is a throughline that permeates the entire season. A persistent anxiety over the inevitable loss of those we love the most appears over and over again. However, when Frankie is told by a psychic that she only has three months to live, it becomes the focus of her entire life and the source of Grace’s re-triggered trauma regarding the death of her father. In fact, Grace’s anxiety and panic attacks are directly tied to her terror of losing Frankie. She doesn’t connect the death of her father to the possible loss of her best friend until they are sitting at a therapist’s office and Grace says, “I was never a person who ever really felt safe. In my whole life, there were only two people who made me feel safe, you and my dad. And the idea of losing you the way that I lost him, it’s just unfathomable.”
I admit, I was sobbing by the end of this scene because I can so deeply relate to that feeling of never feeling safe. When you finally find that person who can wrap themselves around you like a warm security blanket, you don’t ever want to envision your life without them again.
A second thread about death and loss that becomes an obsession for Frankie is the idea of legacy. She is acutely aware of what she will leave behind and she feels like her life was just ordinary and rife with failures. In a desperate attempt to “achieve immortal greatness,” she attempts a litany of ill-fated stunts, until Grace reminds her that “the people who love you will never remember you as ordinary. They will remember you for how you made them feel,” which is a brilliant lesson for all of us.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the two-episode arc revolving around the absurdly high cost of pharmaceuticals and the reality that insurance companies can stop paying for life-saving medications that elderly patients rely upon. Grace and Frankie take it upon themselves to become “righteous drug smugglers” by crossing over the Mexico border to obtain cheap pharmaceuticals to bring back to the assisted living facility their friend Arlene lives in. The fact that this kind of story isn’t even far-fetched is a disturbing commentary on the broken for-profit healthcare system that exists in this country.
This storyline hit super close to home. Sol begins noticing that Robert is becoming forgetful and repeating himself. He even has to purchase a device that Robert can wear during a production of “Guys and Dolls” so that Sol can feed him his lines. Toward the last two episodes, Sol can no longer protect Brianna and Mallory from witnessing their father’s condition worsen, and Robert finally acknowledges that he needs to see a specialist and start making long terms plans for his care.
The pain and anguish of witnessing a loved one slowly lose their memory is one that my husband and I are particularly familiar with. His own mother has been slowly losing her memory over the course of the last few years, and watching the decline hurts. It’s not just the understanding that at some point they won’t recognize you or recall anything about your life together, it’s the fear that they are somehow trapped inside a body and mind that they cannot escape and cannot express how they feel. It’s an ambiguous loss that occurs over a prolonged period of time and that involves complicated grief over essentially losing someone twice… once to the disease and then eventually to death. I thought they tackled this sensitive subject beautifully and honestly.
I could literally go on and on with all of the subplots dealing with important poignant topics that thread together the 16 episodes of this final season, but hopefully, this will be enough to entice you to watch them yourself. It’s not often that you find a show that features two octogenarian women as the stars and that openly tackles subjects like ageism and LGBTQ+ rights. This show was groundbreaking, brilliantly acted, and cleverly written. The best comedies are those that in their honesty and subtle humor encapsulate the human condition in all of its rawness and can strike a deep chord within you to move you to tears. “Grace and Frankie” does just that.
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