Although these changes have come
With your chrome heart riding in the sun
Long may you run
The Family Car would not have been nearly as successful if the setting of The Wonder Years didn’t line up with The Greatest Generation fading out and the dawn of Generation X. But because it does, the Arnolds’ old wagon becomes a symbol for the traditional family values and even Jack himself. The show has established pretty well by this point that Jack takes a lot of pride in keeping the old wagon alive, and it’s pretty poignant (and sad) to see him slowly come to grips with the fact that there’s less of a role for the work habits and traditional values he was raised with.
But the episode actually elevates the car beyond a mere allegorical symbol. Jack has poured his money and his time into keeping it running smoothly. There’s been hiccups, particularly as it comes of age, but Jack’s always kept it rumbling on. In other words, it’s a lot like the Arnold family itself; the episode really made me feel his hurt when people, even his own wife and kids, couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to sell it short.
I found myself really affected by Dan Lauria’s performance this episode as maybe my favorite performance in a single episode yet this series. He alternately looks strong and lost in a world that’s move past the one he lives in. No actor on this show says more with facial expressions and subtle body language than Lauria.
Meanwhile, we have Patrick Cronin playing Marvin Lutz, the polar opposite of Jack, who embodies everything slimy and seductive about consumerism and image. His 1969 Mustang (one of the greatest cars of all time, by the way) immediately wins over the family and even earns the eye of Jack, at least until he learns that he’d have to sell out his old wagon for dirt.
On the school front, Kevin gets bombarded by taunts from the wonderfully despicable Craig Hobson (whom I described as “that little yit” in a previous recap before we learned his name), who provides a great foil for Kevin, Paul, and Winnie. Hobson strikes out with a girl and is, in general, a little spoiled brat, but he always seems to trump what Kevin has to say with a taunt about Kevin riding around in an old bucket of bolts. It’s hard to envision middle school culture caring so much about what cars people ride in, but it fits with the symbolism the car takes on in the episode.
The Family Car’s most excellent scene is the conversation between Jack and Norma about moving on and accepting that the car is dying, the times are changing. Lauria and Alley Mills are routinely fantastic, but are as good as they’ve ever been here.
There are lots of other good scenes here, though. Other favorites of mine are the confrontation at the dinner table, when Karen finally calls a cheapskate (which goes to show you that Karen may not have embraced her anti-bourgeois attitude as much as she’d like you to believe)
Very, very good episode. The Family Car is a reminder of how great Dan Lauria is for this show and how much depth and emotion this show can wring out images and conflicts as simple as a dying car and the decision to buy a new one.
A few other thoughts:
- Those closing shots of the old wagon being quietly towed away as the family and neighborhood fawn over the new car were weirdly moving
- This week’s edition of Wow, Awesome Editing: the montage of Jack negotiating with potential buyers of the old car, cutting back and forth between Jack and a new buyer each time.
- Great shot by Kevin, nailing that glob of potatoes on Hobson’s shirt.
- It’s taken awhile, but Danica McKellar and Fred Savage are finally starting to develop some serious chemistry. I’m looking forward to the next episode that takes on the Kevin-Winnie relationship.
- This was a spectacular episode for music. We have the awesome use of “I Can See Clearly Now” and that perfect, closing use of Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” (quoted at the start of this recap).