In "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back," we open with Zeek getting a late night call from Ryan who is feeling anxious and lost about the state of his life. So you call, Zeek? You're more lost than you even realize, Ryan. But in this episode Zeek seems to have been taking his meds and is particularly rational, advising Ryan to pick one doable task or goal to tackle and letting that set things in motion.
Ryan decides to head over to Joel's work site -- thank you, Parenthood writers for any and every scene of Joel in his hardhat -- to apologize and ask for his old job back. Dreamboat Joel is surprisingly strict and turns down Ryan's repeated requests to re-join his team, saying he doesn't have time to train a newbie at the moment. Damn, Joel. It must be the hardhat. Ryan reverts to his old defensive mode and doesn't take the rejection too well, but he's not drunkenly wrecking other people's cars or bludgeoning any fellow veterans so it's still a vast improvement overall.
Meanwhile, Amber is still mooning over her breakup with Ryan and learns from Camille about his late night calls to Zeek. Amber wishes she knew how to help him but Camille advises her not to make Ryan's problems her burden. If anyone knows that you cannot fix your significant other, it would certainly be Camille. Amber decides to head to Ryan's place just to check up on him and they share that jokey banter that often exists between two people who used to see each other naked on a semi-regular basis. Ryan tells her that Joel turned him down for the job and Amber tells him not to give up. She suggests he go back to Joel armed with treats and an honest expression which sounds like the worst advice ever from a machismo-heavy construction job perspective, but Amber's had 99 jobs in the past four seasons so maybe she's on to something. Ryan asks Amber if she'd like to come in, but she ignores his strapping physique, stays strong, and buggers off.
Ryan returns to Joel's site with donuts and even more profuse apologizing, and in all honesty, I didn't see too much of a difference in his approach versus the last go round. I mean, more carbohydrates and a tiny bit less whining? Whatever it is, it seems to work. Right away, Joel recognizes Amber's crafty work and asks Ryan to grab his work gloves from his car and join up. Important takeaways from this scene: Bribery gets you what you want and "no" means "yes."
At Crosby and Jasmine's house we find another benign storyline involving Renee who has now begun judging Crosby and Jasmine's dietary choices for Jabbar. This discussion -- and eventual argument -- comes to a head over a damn cereal bar, but let us not forgot that this show takes place in Berkeley. Renee suggests that Jabbar shouldn't be subsisting on sugar and starch nor should he be staying up late. She also delivers an expert dig at Crosby by reminding him of Jabbar's strict food and sleep schedule before he ever had contact with him, which belongs in some kind of mother-in-law diss hall-of-fame. This offends Crosby so he rallies Jasmine to help him confront Renee but, per usual, Crosby gets combative and ends up calling Renee calculating. Jasmine fades into a more conciliatory tone, admitting that they could tighten up on discipline and structure when it comes to Jabbar.
Jasmine thinks Crosby should apologize to Renee, Crosby thinks Jasmine should apologize to him, and before the American public can say for the 1,000th time "Jasmine should really leave him," Renee decides to take a step back, choosing to have dinner in her room. It partially seems like a guilt trip -- well played, madam -- but it also appears to be a symbolic gesture of easing up on the unsolicited parenting tips.
At Julia and Joel's, the ongoing saga of Victor's adoption continues. Julia is still vacillating on whether or not to finalize the adoption but Joel is convinced that finalization will give Victor the morale boost he needs to start thinking of the Bravermans as his family. Because once you realize you're legally bound to virtual strangers, that's when the love really starts to flow. Later, Julia tucks Victor in for the night and tells him she loves him. Victor, with his back to her, says nothing. Next time, he might just chuck a copy of He's Just Not That Into You over his shoulder and start snoring. Also, Victor is going to date many, many women when he's an adult.
An adoption lawyer pays a visit to Julia and Joel's to discuss the adoption finalization process for Victor. Joel is really trying to sell it, talking about how great Victor is doing but has to compete with Julia's sobering counterarguments about the family's struggles to integrate. Joel is being a bit disingenuous via these omissions, but it adds a nice shade of darkness to his unicorn persona. Finally, Julia blurts out that Victor doesn't love her and I could almost hear the lawyer mutter, "Shit," under her breath. The lawyer assures them that many parents choose not to finalize adoption and she advises Julia and Joel to take their time before heading to the courthouse.
On their way to dinner to meet Crosby and Jasmine, Joel and Julia argue in the car and Julia accuses Joel of trying to shame her into finalizing the adoption. She's kinda got a point there. It's gentle, rugged shaming, but shaming nonetheless. At dinner, Julia is completely distracted and excuses herself from the table. Crosby joins her outside and actually acts like a decent sibling by telling her that observing Julia with Sydney was how he prepared for becoming a father to Jabbar. It was nice of him to omit that he is at best a mediocre father and husband, as to not completely break Julia's sense of self. He also reminds Julia that when he was younger, he often told Camille that he hated her but it didn't mean he didn't love her as well. Essentially, kids can be dicks. It could be the platform for an entire "It Gets Better" campaign for parents.
The next day, Julia tells Victor that they'll be going to court to become his parents for good and asks if he's okay with that. Victor responds with "sure," which is the highest level of enthusiasm that he is physically able to express to these people and Julia should declare this a major triumph. When Victor leaves, Joel asks Julia if she's sure about finalizing and she admits that she's not, but she wants to do it anyway.
At Adam and Kristina's, Max has a meltdown because his student council adviser has shut down his efforts to reinstate the school's vending machine. It turns out that a group of prissy PTA moms has successfully booted the machine from campus and they shut down Kristina's request to discuss reversing the ban. They look upon her with smug disdain, scoffing at her attempts to bring sugar and calorie-laden food to the precious children. In campaign mode, Kristina begins making contacts and doing research to build up a defense. Adam thinks she's crazy, as Max's world will not effectively end without a vending machine, but Kristina is inspired by the fact that she can take on his challenge and be in control of something.
At the PTA meeting, Kristina presents her case to a bunch of stank-faced members about the vending machine profits contributing to art and PE programs at school. She suggests that the machine return to campus with healthy options to prevent students from spending their money at local convenience stores on junk. To the PTA Mean Girls' dismay, Kristina wins the crowd over. At school, Max's friend Micah tracks him down to tell him that the vending machine is back. Max takes off running Chariots of Fire-style down the hallway and jumps up and down upon seeing the machine, screaming "I did it!" as his fellow students literally make it rain Skittles upon him. If Max hadn't experienced sexual feelings by last week's episode, he surely has now. Also, Skittles are healthy?
Finally, we get to the bizarre love triangle between Sarah, Mark, and Hank. Sarah heads to the high school to drop off a report that Drew had forgotten at home and runs into Mark. They have an awkward, self-aware conversation about how awkward their conversation is and Mark asks her if they can meet up just to clear the air. I just want to note that it's unfair for Parenthood to present awkwardness as attractive and endearing instead of the true sweaty, clumsiness that us non-actor folk experience. There is no conceivable way that Jason Ritter can be the face of social awkwardness.
At work, Sarah tells Hank that she'll be meeting Mark for coffee. Hank stammers and jokes about it being a weird thing to do, but really he just wants to clutch his heart and moan "Guhhhhhh." At coffee, Sarah and Mark giggle over some funny anecdotes and then segue uncomfortably into a discussion about Hank. Mark admits he was shocked to learn they were seeing each other and Sarah assures them that there was no overlap and that the relationship wasn't planned. She does, however, let it slip that Hank had kissed her in the darkroom.
Later, Mark shows up outside of Hank's studio to call him out for the kiss -- which happened while Sarah was engaged -- and to announce that he would be a "classy guy" and let him know to his face that he's planning on getting Sarah back. The use of "classy guy" made Mark seem about as threatening as a gerbil, but it was genuine, earnest, and consistent with his eerily perfect character. Hank tells Sarah about Mark challenging him to a duel and freaks out about being accused of scheming on betrothed women. He's also clearly scared that he's going to lose Sarah, but is so emotionally stunted that he can only sputter out phrases like "I like it" and that "I'm into this" when referencing their relationship. Not since "Sloth love Chunk" in The Goonies have I heard such an articulation of love. Hank retreats, causing Sarah to demand that he stay and talk this out with her. Hank says that both he and Mark know what they want and now Sarah needs to do the same.
It's quite the toss-up, no? A sarcastic but sweet curmudgeon versus a winsome, anthropomorphized Labrador retriever puppy. Regardless, we can rest assured that Sarah will make some form of reckless decision in next week's season finale.