We lucked out — two Dan Lauria showcases in one season. The Powers That Be gives one of the show’s best actors another chance to show off his impressive chops when his own dad comes to town. Grampa Arnold, played by David Huddleston, throws a wrench in the Arnold family dynamic when he’s around; suddenly, Jack is no longer the patriarch of the household.
Specifically, Gramps gives Kevin his own puppy — without the approval of Jack. Thus, Jack finds himself against the idea of a puppy; even if he might have approved a dog entering the Arnold family on its own, he certainly wasn’t going to approve it with Gramps going over his head.
Kevin thinks of owning a dog as a treat, but Jack sees it as a boatload of responsibility: Kevin will have to train it, take care of it, feed it, spend time with it. In other words, he’ll have to become a parent of his own. Gramps treats owning a puppy as a present for Kevin to love and spoil — much like the way he treats Kevin himself. Jack is all too eager to remind him that there’s another side of the coin.
But the dynamic grows an extra layer of complexity because Gramps was in the role that Jack was in not long before. You can see some similarity in their personalities; both are difficult to impress, both are quietly stubborn and hard; and both have a fondness for The Honeymooners. Jack secretly wants his father’s approval, though he’d never admit it. And Gramps is hesitant to give his approval, much like Jack was to Norma in Pottery Will Get You Nowhere. But instead of pottery, it’s a family and a household Jack is showing off.
The disagreements build to a climax in a dinner argument. Gramps makes a statement about the potatoes — they’d give him gas because of the pepper — and it escalates from there. Jack is sure that Gramps is being intentionally hard to impress, as if to roll his eyes at everything that Jack has accomplished. But this specific instance may be one where Gramps truly has medical concerns; in general, he seems eager to focus his resentment at Jack, not the rest of the Arnold family, so it’s hard to say why he’d criticize Norma’s cooking.
Regardless, Jack and Gramps come to verbal blows. Both of them want to convince the other that they’re right, and neither is willing to listen to what Kevin has to say. Kevin’s rejection of the puppy has less to do with the puppy itself and more to do with a feeling that he’s just a pawn in their debates. He also knows he’s an important player in a similar dynamic only a few years removed — if responsibility for someone or something else means that he’ll descend into this inferno of resentment, he’ll have nothing to do with it.
In the end, Jack insists that Kevin keep the puppy. He wants to plant the seed in Kevin that paternity is more than that abomination of broken pride and disapproval that he’s witnessed the past few days. That’s not what being a dad’s about. The puppy both gives the chance to Kevin to start down the road of taking care of others and serves as physical promise that the three will act in a more reasonable, healthy manner.
The Powers That Be is a little bit of a tough nut to crack, thematically. There are lots of contradictions and complexities in the cyclical grandfather-father-son dynamic, so it’s hard to figure out who is in the right at which points. But that’s part of the point. The episode works well because it gives a chance for Lauria, Fred Savage, and David Huddleston to show off together.
It’s not a masterpiece, but The Powers That Be enriches the father-son dynamic of the show and once again puts Dan Lauria as Jack front and center, something I’ll never complain about.
Some other thoughts:
- That Gramps calls Jack “John” is a nice touch.
- I wonder how often we’ll see Buster in the future.
- Very nice final shot of the mailboxes in a line, with the Arnolds’ broken from Gramps hitting it.
- There are too many great little scenes between some combination of Savage, Biddlecomb, and Huddleston that I couldn’t list them all here. But one that stands out is the scene where Kevin wants to show off Buster as Jack and Gramps work on the window frame.
- Jack’s Gleason impression is good but probably not legend-worthy. Still, it gave Gramps one of his darkest moments of the episode where he held back his praise for his son.