Season 1, Episode 7: “My Mother, the Car” – December 21, 2003
Where do taboos come from? How much of our sense of right and wrong is instinctual and how much of it is developed through cultural mores? Why are humans so concerned with familial bonds? The phrase “He/she is family” justifies things that we wouldn’t allow non-blood relatives to get away with. When you’re best friends with someone, they’re like a sibling to you. Mentors can become like parental figures. But “best friend” or “mentor” isn’t strong enough to describe bonds such as these.
Throughout Arrested Development (AD), Michael (“The one son who had no choice but to keep them all together”) blindly struggles with his family. He doesn’t know why he feels the need to hold this dysfunctional group of egocentric morons together, but he does. While AD does consistently draw on other issues for comedy (in particular, racism and treason), “My Mother, the Car” deals explicitly with issues of familial love—a concept completely lost on every Bluth.
Lucille wants a lavish party for her birthday, despite Michael’s admonishments (“Hey Mom, remember about trying to cut back on things that aren’t necessities?” “Like it was yesterday.” “It was this morning”). When Michael returns home, Lindsay suggests that they throw Lucille a surprise party…because Lucille called and suggested it. Michael agrees after some cajoling, but no one shows up. Determined to comfort Lucille and prove her children don’t think she’s been a terrible mother, Michael throws a second party that goes unattended. Afterward, Lucille—who’s driving against all better judgment—thinks that she sees Gob on his Segway and tries to “give him a scare.” The car crashes, Michael passes out from hitting his head on a rock, and Lucille frames him for the accident.
Gob actually comes to Michael’s aid in this episode, but only after he realizes that it’s an opportunity to call bullshit on his mother. Michael, who wants to sell the yacht that Gob currently inhabits and uses to repeatedly cheat on his girlfriend (with whom Michael is in love), is a complete afterthought. In fact, just before calling Lucille out, all he says is that he and Michael “kinda like each other.”
Lindsay, who’s bent on throwing the surprise party because it’s important to honor your parents, won’t go visit her father in prison. She’s afraid to get harassed by the inmates. But when she does visit, no one looks at her. She returns twice in increasingly slutty outfits (seriously—her third shirt says “SLUT” on it), finally melting down because of the lack of attention. George Sr. informs her that he’s paid everyone off so they won’t yell at his little girl, and Lindsay says, “That’s all I ever wanted from you, Daddy. To spend money on me!” Later, at home, she’s happy because her father finally has recognized her intellect. I’m no analrapist, but it doesn’t seem like Lindsay inhabits the same world as the rest of us.
Because Michael is the main character, he could come across as the victim in this episode. His mother frames him for reckless driving, and his siblings abandon him after talking him into throwing a party that he knows they can’t afford. But what about Michael’s awfulness as a father? He literally speaks one line to his son during the entire episode—and that’s to tell him not to come to Lucille’s party.
George Michael and Buster, on the other hand, are loving members of this family—but their love still isn’t familial. George Michael is completely in love with his cousin, Maeby. The two have “will they-won’t they” tension from Episode One until the finale—maybe the show’s longest-running joke. In this episode, George Michael is fascinated by a trailer for a French movie, Les Cousins Dangereux, about two cousins who are in love. Again, the show is playing with taboos. Marrying your cousin is the territory of ass-backwards rednecks and European royalty, not real people. Yet AD makes incest its central love story.
Buster is also explicitly incestuous but in a more Oedipal sense. He’s so attached to Lucille that he (accidentally) starts a relationship with the woman across the hall: another old rich socialite named—wait for it—Lucille. It’s obvious from the get-go that Buster is thinking of Lucille the whole time he’s with Lucille Two: he worries that society will never accept them and flips out on a movie theater attendee over a perceived prejudice. But why? The only aspect of their relationship that’s out of the norm is their age difference. Then again, what’s wrong with an age gap? The George Sr.–Kitty relationship has a similar age gap, and it’s almost expected that a wealthy, powerful businessman would take up with a secretary half his age. But when the gender roles are flipped, it’s suddenly unacceptable.
Of course, it’s not really unacceptable. Buster’s simply thinking about his mother the whole time, which is gross. But there are multiple subtexts to Buster’s movie theater mini-tantrum: he’s infantilized and Oedipal—and yeah, maybe Buster/Lucille Two is weird—but only because women are put on sexual ice floes after their fiftieth birthdays (cougarlife.com aside). Men, on the other hand, are allowed to act like Dominque Strauss-Kahn, Silvio Berlusconi, or Newt Gingrich.
So what do we know about this family, seven episodes in? The patriarch is treasonous, the matriarch is psychopathically self-centered, the oldest is a lying thief, the daughter sluts herself up for incarcerated felons, the cousins are incestuous, and the one who’s supposed to hold them all together doesn’t even speak to his motherless son. Maybe AD is suggesting a different kind of taboo—that the concept of family is overrated. The whole reason the show exists is because Michael decides not to abandon them in Episode One. The show’s creators then spend three years illustrating why this was a bad move. Even if it’s the premise of a comedy, isn’t that a tragedy? Michael and George Michael could’ve started over in Arizona, where Michael could work at some other business, find a nice circle of friends, perhaps re-marry, and George Michael could become a little more high-functioning. He could have a loving, supporting family that, while not being blood relatives, might not spend their days increasing his risk of heart attack. So there we go—in a show that uses the worst of humanity as its main comedy fodder, Mitch Hurwitz and crew found the worst transgression possible: the show is completely anti-family. Genius.