After last week’s fun “Weirdo Beach,” which poked fun at familiar TV theme songs and goths soaking up the sun, Portlandia returns with an almost melancholic episode by comparison. The aptly titled “Breaking Up” follows Doug (Fred Armisen) and Claire (Carrie Brownstein) as they consciously uncouple and navigate the single life. Co-creator Jonathan Krisel returns to the director’s chair this week, and like the previous episodes he’s directed this season (“Shville” and “Going Gray”), “Breaking Up” ditches the standalone sketches, and instead follows the characters’ separate storylines, only to bring the stories together at the end. How very grown-up of Portlandia—but that’s exactly the point.
“Breaking Up” feels like a “very special episode,” and it’s reflected in the opening credits, with the use of a very special font and design on the title card. Instead of Blossom or Jesse Spano, however, we get Claire, who’s finally had it with Doug’s childish behavior. Longtime viewers of the show (like us) think this is the best thing ever for Claire, a sensible working woman who’s put up with Doug’s annoying habits for far too long. In a memorable season 4 sketch with Doug and Claire, we recall SNL’s Vanessa Bayer playing a banker who hilariously tries to dissuade Claire from opening a joint checking account with her man.
Claire breaks up with Doug, telling him, “I want someone who can take care of me.” And she finds exactly that in a romance with—Candace Devereaux (Armisen). The co-owner of Women & Women First Bookstore turns out to be a chick magnet—a siren—whose sophistication and take-no-prisoners feminism is intoxicating for Claire. Brownstein plays this attraction to Candace perfectly, complete with the goofy grins and googly eyes. While it’s interesting to watch separate Portlandia storylines collide like this, we couldn’t help but wonder where Toni was throughout the episode. First, we just assumed (wrongly, it turns out) that Candace and Toni lived together, too, and seeing Candace outside of work without any mention of Toni and the bookstore seems untrue to her character. Likewise, she also didn’t chastise one person for saying something that offended her womanhood. Candace comes off as too social and intellectual for the episode, which isn’t the character we’ve grown to love.
While the new relationship starts off like gangbusters (“My hair was shaking,” Candace tells her new lover), Claire begins to feel smothered. Though she’s gotten exactly what she wanted—someone to take care of her—she realizes that being a kept woman isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In one hilarious scene, Candace strips and forces Claire to paint her a la Jack and Rose on Titanic. Candace barks orders at Claire, telling her which body parts to paint next. Candace becomes so controlling that she literally won’t let go of Claire’s arm as she tries to leave for work. “Look we’re both not letting go,” Candace teases, but Claire’s had enough, and smacks Candace’s arm free with her purse.
Meanwhile, Doug grows up and grows on us just a little in the episode. He, too, embarks on a new relationship with a much younger salesgirl at Urban Outfitters. Kendall (played by the awesome Zoë Kravitz) is a bubbly, hippy millennial who thinks Doug is a worldly man-about-town. The generation gap turns out some great comic fodder. When they first meet at the store, Doug asks Kendall if Urban Outfitters sells Misfits t-shirts. He points to another t-shirt decorated with cassettes, and says that he used to listen to the Misfits on cassettes. She doesn’t quite get it: “I don’t know this band…The Cassettes.” When he tries to explain and she responds asking if cassettes are like Pandora, we know these two have to get together.
Kendall and her crew start to hang out at Doug’s new tree house, which he built himself (don’t ask—it’s a pretty lame part of the episode). They look to the older guy to teach them about life. Doug’s a Lyft driver and he offers to teach Kendall how to drive when she says that she doesn’t know how. She’s enchanted with him. When going out on the town, he orders a Laphroaig, and Kendall’s crew isn’t sure what that is, and Doug explains to the kids about Scotch vs. whisky. Like Claire’s relationship, things go well—at first—as Doug tells Kendall, “I feel so not judged by you.”
The luster soon wears off as Doug finds himself as the responsible party (aka the adult) in the relationship. They never do anything “couple-ly” without her friends, and Doug’s always cleaning up his treehouse after them. Since he’s a Lyft driver, Doug ends up chauffeuring them all around since these Millennials aren’t really interested in cars or driving. He gets really annoyed when Kendall’s pal gets sick in the back of his car, and for a change, we take pity on (the finally self-aware) Doug.
He wants to get away from the gang so he tells Kendall that he’s going to drive and make some money. One of his pickups is Claire, from Candace’s house, and the two ride off in sad, uncomfortable silence. It’s a very un-Portlandia-like ending, but it continues with the show’s running themes this season—Gen Xers facing aging and adulthood. “Breaking Up” illustrates a maturity for a show that is still testing its boundaries with the audience six seasons in—and while it’s not always laugh out loud funny, that’s still a good thing. The show, like Doug, is growing up.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.