By Brandon Nowalk
Updated May 13, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Michael Ansell/ABC
  • TV Show
  • ABC

At the start of “The Graduate,” the season 6 finale of our current great American family sitcom The Middle, mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton) takes an uncharacteristically calm moment to hug her only daughter Sue (Eden Sher) and tell her how proud she is. “You have been my sunshine ever since you were born.” And she’s been television’s sunshine ever since The Middle started.

The whole cast is essential, from Patricia Heaton’s frantic Frankie to Neil Flynn’s old-fashioned dad Mike, but from the beginning, the secret ingredient, and the secret star, has been Eden Sher’s Sue Heck. With her flat hair, colorful wardrobe, and braces, Sue was always a bit childish. The question is whether her force-of-nature optimism would start to diminish when she started to get older.

Season 6, which Sue is determined to make the Year of Sue, got off to a rocky start. The Middle had been getting better by the season, but after 100 episodes, it’s only natural to wonder when the creative well will start to run dry. The show had always been animated by a live-wire Recession anxiety that kept it teetering between total emotional collapse and a sunny, “let go, let God” kind of abandon, but lately the Hecks have been getting by okay. It makes sense for financial anxieties to rise and fall with the economy. The bigger concern is repeated story lines. There were some episodes where you started to wonder if the only thing left to discover about these characters is which boy or girl they’re gonna wind up with.

It turns out dating is just one arena that shows how far the Heck kids have come. Sure enough, the season Sue turns 18 and finally gets her braces off is the first time she’s faced with a serious adult decision that threatens to shake her innate cheer, a cliffhanger proposal from her older boyfriend Darrin. Her brothers are growing up, too. Oldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott) turns 21 and learns a thing or two about having to take responsibility for his actions, and youngest son Brick (Atticus Shaffer) turns 13 and has his first experience with teenage brattiness. There’s even a sign that Sue’s flamboyant BFF Brad (Brad Bottig) might be growing up, too. In the final shot of the episode at Sue’s graduation party, he’s sharing a table with some boy.

But it’s not called the Year of Sue for nothing. This is Sue’s senior year of high school. She’s worried about getting into college, she’s worried about connecting with Axl at college, she’s worried about missing her senior prom. Axl’s been around ever since leaving the nest, but it’s going to be difficult for a family sitcom to keep Sue at the center much longer. This might be her biggest season. And “The Graduate” pays that off beautifully.

The story about Brick is wrapped up so quickly and arbitrarily it’s almost funny, but it’s worth it for the scene where Sue and Mike (and then Brick) talk about whether or not he should skip a grade as his teachers recommend, not a one of them even slightly prepared to make this decision. The Axl story is wrapped up arbitrarily too, but in a way that’s less about the writers taking shortcuts and more about the heart-warming grace they imbue in the series. Only when he finally stops worrying about how much fun his girlfriend seems to be having this summer without him based on her Instagram photos of her adventures with beefy men does she show up out of the blue, jumping into his arms and telling him how much she’s missed him. There’s an added comeuppance in the fact that she’d only been responding to his texts with one-word answers. At first Axl loved that she was like one of the guys, but now he knows what it feels like to be treated the way he treats women.

As for Sue, it’s the week of her graduation. Written by creators DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler and directed by Heisler, “The Graduate” self-consciously harks back to the season 2 finale, “Back to Summer,” which was Sue’s junior high graduation, but this is one repeated story line that doesn’t feel like a rip-off. This is just the way Sue’s life goes. In that episode, she had to prove that she had perfect attendance even though the receptionist says she missed a day, and at the end, when she finally gets her rightful certificate on the graduation stage, they call her Barb Hecky. It’s another teetering moment The Middle is so good at, the Hecks in the audience giving her sympathetic looks for this final humiliation and Sue onstage in total confusion. And then, out of nowhere, she just starts laughing at the absurdity, turning this potential heartbreak into a memorable moment of good cheer. That’s the grace of The Middle.

“The Graduate” does something similarly beautiful but all the more powerful because it’s built on four years (six, really) of watching Sue Heck grow into the woman she is today. After she loses her place in her yearbook to a caption marked Ana Hajarajanan, loses her physical yearbook altogether, loses her opportunity for a wrestlerettes honor cord because it’s an unaccredited sport, loses her speaking role at the graduation ceremony to a school donor, and loses Perfect Attendance to a classmate because she went to Arby’s for an aborted lunch one week, Sue—supernaturally sunny Sue—accepts that there’s no happy ending here. She doesn’t even want to go to graduation. One of the best comic bits is seeing Frankie strap the wrong shoes on her feet and drag her to the car.

Which makes it all the more moving when the happy ending comes. As she sits there waiting for her name to be called, a classmate passes her yearbook through the audience back to her. I thought that was the moment that would reward Sue’s optimism, but that wasn’t the half of it. As she opens the pages, she finds her yearbook full of notes from her peers, the same peers she thought ignored her all through the episode. They love Sue for the same reasons we do, the joy she spreads running through the halls, cheering up acquaintances, and performing as the school mascot. Then the music starts up, Mama Cass’ “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” which was used memorably on that other ABC show, Lost, but is more fitting for a tribute to Sue. Like in “Back to Summer,” The Middle launches into a rare flashback montage, showing all kinds of little moments where Sue Heck brought sunshine to her school and to her audience.

It’s hard to know what The Middle will look like with two of the three kids at college, but “The Graduate” gives season 6 the bookend it deserves. Whatever the future holds for the Heck family, The Year of Sue has been a resounding success.

The Middle

  • TV Show
  • In Season
  • ABC