By Jodi Walker
October 18, 2013 at 02:11 PM EDT
Vivian Zink/NBC
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I only cried once. I ONLY CRIED ONCE! It’s a Braverman miracle. But don’t be alarmed: Though the two often seem to correlate, you can’t judge an episode of Parenthood by how many times it makes you sob. I recently saw a film that was so melodramatic I wept for 75% of its duration, even though it hardly developed a character beyond “she’s the nicest one, and she’s definitely going to die in an hour.” It went for the cry every time and it was not enjoyable.

Parenthood, by contrast, doesn’t go for the cry. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Parenthood is only about the cry.

Thursday’s episode was a great contribution to a confident season. Perhaps its swing to the less-than-three side of my crying average had to do with its focus on non-original Bravermans — people we don’t know enough about to get emotional just thinking about all they’ve been through in the last four years.

Take Ryan, for example. Amber only seems to know as much about his past as viewers do — which makes me so, so nervous, but not half as nervous as it makes her mom, Sarah. The moment that bottle of Malbec hits the table and Sarah starts with her first round of leading questions, we know — and Amber knows — that her mom can’t support this marriage in the way either of them wants her to.

These two! They’re so similar, they understand each other so much, but they simply do not know how to help each other. Amber is right: She’s not her mother, and being able to relate to someone doesn’t mean knowing what’s best for their personal situation. But Sarah has a point, too: Amber is turning a blind eye to quite a few warning signs from a wonderful yet troubled guy. Does it matter that Ryan’s family won’t be at the wedding? Probably not. Does it matter that he has a truckload of family issues that he has never told Amber about, and that she’s never asked him to elaborate? Um, yes.

Parenthood’s occasional weaknesses are all tangled up with its strengths. Even when Sarah and Amber are frustrating, it’s easy to understand exactly where they’re coming from because we understand them.

Then there’s Victor, who’s still a problematic character. Yes, Victor brings joy and a new kind of love to his family. But that joy is often under-explored and glossed over, as in last season’s finale. We see how stressed Victor’s entrance into the family makes his parents, but very little about how Victor himself is being affected. He’s a character, not a story line (at least not anymore). This episode shows the audience over and over how Victor’s slow development at school is causing a rift between his parents — but as viewers, we need to care about Victor’s own happiness, not just the happiness that he can or can’t bring Joel and Julia.

It’s hard to get on either of their sides without having any idea what might actually benefit Victor. I know that reading frustrates him, but I couldn’t even begin to know if his confidence is at more of a Haddie-level or an Amber-level, and how that might play into him being held back or not.

Thankfully, I found myself with a happy/confused feeling and the familiar prick of tears in my eyes at the end of the episode, thanks to two characters who I frequently don’t understand but am always rooting for: Max and Kristina. Max tells Kristina that hasn’t decided between her and Bob Little, but he’s giving her $20 for now. He’s got some more research to do, but he does know that she’d make a good mayor and he wants to support her. Whoop, there it is.

Extra notes:

– Was Heather the Campaign Manager wearing a sheer-backed shirt without a bra at some point? She did not learn that on the Obama campaign.

– I was very concerned about Mr. Ray’s willingness to fork over $20,000 to Adam after only hearing that “she cares about education.” But then Little Ray came out and Big Ray tacked on his speed bump request, and if you’ve ever lived with an unwanted speed bump in your neighborhood, it all made a little more sense.

– I was glad to see Drew be honest with his crush. No boy likes Joni Mitchell that much, and he’s got to put himself out there if he’s ever going to get out of the friend zone.

– Adam and Crosby are starting a record label! Oh, was that not what they already did? I really do not understand the music industry.

– Kristina tells Max that politics can be complicated. “I know. I was president.”

– I’m not sure if it counts as an official cry if it comes during the preview for next episode, but it was a bit jarring to come off of the awkward sweetness between Max and Kristina and straight into the rocky cliff that has become Joel and Julia’s marriage. The sight of Luke Cafferty baring his demons to a weeping Lauren Graham in next week’s preview: Oh man. Godspeed, Parenthood viewers.

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