We’re not in West Covina anymore. No, this week’s episode kicks off far from California — on a ship from Europe to America in 1901, to be exact. Rebecca’s ancestors — a mother and daughter — are on rocky waters both literally and figuratively. Mom’s giving 1901 Rebecca a hard time about just about everything, from her hair to her too-plump fingers. And most importantly, the mother is wearing a stunning ring. The daughter clearly longs for it — and for her mom’s approval.
Fast-forward 114 years and not much has changed for the Bunch family. Rebecca is in a panic prepping for a visit from her mother — which she thinks may include the hand-off of the aforementioned ring. The Garfinkel ring, a family heirloom, is typically gifted to each female family member on her 18th birthday, but Rebecca’s mother is obviously withholding. And Rebecca will have to play her cards right if she wants to secure the ring (and mom’s elusive affection).
Rebecca’s not the only resident of West Covina who has the holiday-season stresses. Josh has to work a double shift, thus missing all the fun of the West Covina Winter Wonderland, and Greg has to attend Christmas at his mom’s. As a reminder, his mother left him when he was young, and he never got over it, and now that she has a shiny new family, he really hates the woman. Ultimately, everyone is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that they’re adults and that society expects them to behave as such.
To ready for her mom’s visit (she is, after all, what Paula calls a level-five mom pleaser), Rebecca swaps all her Christmas decorations for Hanukkah décor, and even puts on panty hose, but it’s still not enough to appease the woman herself. When Rebecca’s mom (played brilliantly by Tovah Feldshuh) finally arrives, she makes a grand musical entrance singing an ultra-critical hello to her daughter in the style of a Jewish folk song. In a single breath, she scolds Rebecca for not keeping a clean home, reprimands her for not wearing enough makeup, and asks three times if she’s gay.
Titled “Where’s the Bathroom,” the song is full of lyrical treats, this one being my favorite: “You call that a bathroom? That’s what passes for a bathroom? There were no bowls of rocks or any decorative soaps. You don’t even have a bathmat! Who doesn’t have a bathmat? If you need a bathmat I can — oh, did you hear? A bishop in Wisconsin said something anti-Semitic, so the temple has decided to boycott cheddar cheese.” Brilliant.
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Rebecca takes her mom to her office, which is immediately deemed so embarrassing and full of losers that Rebecca tells her mom she just volunteers there — to help “underprivileged lawyers” — and really works at a very observant Jewish law firm that is closed for Hanukkah. As proof, they have lunch with an executive, who’s really just Paula dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire, pretending to be a fancy Brit who just happens to be Jewish. Mom is all about British Jewish Paula, but the character is so over the top and ridiculous that Rebecca can’t help but roll her eyes. And Paula went with an insane portrayal on purpose, desperate to show Rebecca just how absurd it is to go to such lengths to please a woman who, at the end of the day, will never, ever be happy.
Greg, meanwhile, also never, ever seems to be happy. He’s still whining about having to spend the holidays with his evil mother when he runs into Rebecca’s neighbor, Heather. Heather loves a free meal and shamelessly invites herself to Greg’s family bash, and he jumps at the chance to have an outside party witness the terror that is his mother and his half-siblings. But the monster mom turns out to be a charming woman named Shauna who just about radiates warmth. This picture-perfect home comes complete with a picture-perfect family, and even Greg’s teenage half-siblings are lovely. Shauna and her husband even offer to help Greg pay for school should he want to go back, and his resentment and jealousy that have built up over the years somehow allow him to see even this kind offer as an insult.
NEXT: Never give your mom a rectal thermometer for Hanukkah
For a down in the dumps, monotonous stoner, Heather has somehow become a sort of moral compass for the characters on this show. She admits that she came to this family meal because she thought Greg was cute and expected the family to be terrible, but in reality, it’s exactly the opposite. The comment forces a public discussion of what happened way back when, and Greg and Shauna finally talk about why they spent so many years apart. Greg wanted her to fight harder for him when she left his father — and West Covina — and Shauna didn’t want to tear the family apart any more than she already had. Call it a Christmas miracle, but the two come to an understanding, and a long overdue exchange of “I’m sorry” helps Greg let go of his anger, even calling Shauna “Mom.”
The Bunches aren’t having quite as much holiday cheer. After Rebecca gives her mother a beautiful crystal ring holder — which she mistakes for a crystal rectal thermometer — the coveted Garfinkel ring is all but dangled in front of Rebecca’s face. Maybe later, taunts mom. So the two head out for drinks with Calvin Young (mom insists, because what’s more important than work?), and Rebecca’s mother decides that she and Calvin are destined for some serious love-making, and commands Rebecca to leave. Ever the mom-pleaser, Rebecca actually asks Calvin to sleep with her mother, and when he gives a big hell-no, Rebecca takes one for the team. She tells her mother that she won’t allow it — it’s too risky for her professional life. (Which it is.) But mom is furious, enough so that she’s leaving early and she’s returning the rectal thermometer. Salt in the wound.
Rebecca’s been handling the tension and criticism to her best ability, but we can see the edges starting to fray. En route to the airport, they stopped by the mall to return the assumed rectal thermometer, and as they’re (of course) bickering outside the store, Rebecca’s mom notes that she still can’t understand why her brilliant daughter moved to this godforsaken town. But then, booming over the loudspeaker: “JOSH CHAN IN THE HOUUUUUUUUUSE.” Mom’s face drops as Josh — who was part of a national championship hip-hop team in high school and who’s revisiting his glory days with this in-mall performance — takes the stage to dance with a bunch of teenagers and do such moves as his trademark “swoop bye-bye.” It all comes together for Rebecca’s mom, who is disappointed, to say the least, that her child followed a “loser” across the country on an impulse. Forget the Garfinkel ring.
Something about this exchange snaps Rebecca back to reality. She doesn’t care about the Garfinkel ring! She’s done trying to please her mom in exchange for affection! Hell, she’s not even taking the woman to the airport! (Although she does call her an Uber, which almost seems nicer?) She’s done caring that her mother hates her, and… Wait a minute, her mom says, stopping her. The accusation brings her mother to tears. She doesn’t hate Rebecca; she loves her too much, she explains. She worries about her endlessly — and not about her happiness but her ability to survive. And now that she’s seen Rebecca stand up to her, she knows that she is strong enough to survive. And the two part ways on a tense note but with a little more affection and understanding. A Hanukkah miracle, perhaps?
So now that Rebecca has (mostly) gotten over her childhood baggage and Greg is in the midst of getting over his own adolescent angst (and making out with Heather in the process!!!), it’s time for Josh to realize that he has to start acting like an adult. Revisiting his hip-hop moves from high school was physically hard on the poor guy, and he’s coming to terms with the fact that responsibilities — like work and family and a live-in girlfriend — are important things and good things. And adult things.
And as their Christmas present to all of us viewers, the cast come together at the West Covina Winter Wonderland to serenade us with “California Christmastime,” a fantastic ode to all the tacky California clichés that they’ve come to love, from stuntman Santas to Darryl’s henna tattoo. Because who needs snow when you have endless frozen yogurt?