Welcome to our weekly column Can’t Miss Episode of the Week! Every Saturday we’ll be spotlighting a different episode of television from that week that we thought was exceptional and a must-see. Check back to see if your favorite show got the nod — or to learn about a new one! Spoilers ahead.
The first couple of episodes of HBO Max’s Julia were a little slow, a little boring, but since then, the series about Julia Child’s creation of her iconic cooking show The French Chef, has become the delightful, wholesome presence many of us are looking for on our television screens. This is never more true than with the season 1 finale, which aired on May 5.
There have been endless challenges to making season 1 of The French Chef, but none more so than the iconic Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan’s (Tracee Chimo Pallero) harsh words last episode. While Julia’s (Sarah Lancashire) husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce), her producer Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford), and best friend Avis (Bebe Neuwirth) easily brush off Friedan’s scolding, which accused Julia of locking women in the kitchen with complicated dishes instead of freeing them up to spend time on their careers, Julia takes Friedan’s words to heart. It’s sad to see her so demoralized, which only makes it that much sweeter when she rises above the criticism, as we know she must since The French Chef ran on television for ten whole seasons.
The astonishing thing to note in this episode is how much Julia has changed the lives of the people around her with this little cooking show. The head of the network Hunter (Robert Joy) breezes into work on some sort of emotional high about how well the show is doing. He elevates Alice to sole producer of the show, finally acknowledging all the incredible work she’s done to make it a success–huge for a black woman working at a very white, male workplace–and happily gifts producer Russ (Fran Kranz) with his blessing to make documentaries for the network.
It all comes crashing down when Julia announces she’s not going to do a second season after all. Hunter returns to being the cynical, grumpy man he was before Julia, and promptly takes away everything he had promised to Alice and Russ. “That woman came this close to changing us, didn’t she?” he says. We even learn that Hunter’s wife is so upset at the cancellation of the show, that she’s making him sleep on the couch. When Julia ultimately says she will do another season after all, Hunter is buoyant, and the sublime color that Julia brought to everything she touched returns.
Hunter isn’t the only one who’s been transformed. Russ, who hated Julia and The French Chef in the beginning, is so much happier now. He has a camaraderie with Alice, rather than trying to put her down and he expresses how much he’s actually going to miss the show. His greatest scene is when he and his wife, Marian (Erin Neufer), are cooking in the kitchen together, moving like a well-oiled team to make what looks like really fresh and delicious food. This from the woman who made the most disgusting dishes at the beginning of the series, and certainly Russ had never considered cooking, and now it’s clearly something they enjoy doing together. “She taught me how to cook,” says Marian. “And she taught you how to cook, how strange is that?”
Everyone is sad and almost teary eyed at the taping of the last episode, including Julia. She doesn’t really want to stop doing the show, but she’s let Friedan get in her head, and there’s also the matter of the lie to Paul. Upon announcing she’s done with the show, Julia decides she might as well come clean to Paul about how she manipulated him into getting on board, and how she has been paying for so much of the production costs behind his back. And while Paul is initially outraged and hurt, it doesn’t take long for him to realize how he’s been wrong, and how much the show means to him.
As he and Avis sit around one day lamenting the loss of the show, they’re able to get really frank with each other–in addition to hilariously fantasizing about maiming Friedan. To a retired man and a widow, having this show to fill their lives has been a boon. “All this time to ourselves,” says Avis. “Terrifying,” responds Paul. When Paul asks if Avis knew about the lie, she doesn’t mince words: “Of course I did. You told her she couldn’t do it. What choice did she have?” Avis really is my favorite character on the show, and Neuwirth has an incredible ability to deadpan sharply written one-liners.
This leads to the pinnacle of the episode, when Paul convinces Julia to keep doing the show in a beautifully articulated speech. He talks about how important the show is to many people–though not so heavily weighted that it can ruin women’s lives on a mass scale as Friedan suggested. It’s only a joyful little cooking show!–and that it’s not too late to fix it. “You broke their hearts,” he says of their crew. “They’ll be okay if you put them back together.” He continues by saying that at middle age, and watching the people around them retire, she’s got “an offer to go back to France, and to write another cookbook, and to make another season of the show. Let’s say yes to all of it. Say yes to everything for as long as we can. Let’s drop dead someday, saying yes.” This couple is the sweetest, and I will happily watch them for many more seasons.
Other observations we thought made this episode stand out:
- Alice’s new relationship with Isaac (Tosin Morohunfola) is simultaneously exciting–the two have so much on-screen chemistry–and sad, as the long distance nature of it leaves their future hanging in the balance.
- Network rival Albert (Jefferson Mays) is infuriatingly smug when he finds out Julia’s leaving. It’s so satisfying when Julia hands Hunter her signed season 2 contract, and he responds to Alice popping in to say that Albert’s unhappy about something with “who cares!”
- “You’re the parmesan of public television–the big cheese,” as Russ says to Julia, is probably the best line of the entire show.
- Julia’s editor Judith (Fiona Glascott) finally tells her frosty boss Blanche Knopf (Judith Light) off for her dismissal of her work with Julia, but before we can relish in it too much, Judith has to wrestle with Blanche’s confession that she’s going blind. Ooph.
Julia, Season 1 Streaming, HBO Max