Episode 17: Wheel of Pain
By: Carlos Uribe
The Middle is a show about the Heck family, an average family in Indiana.
The only problem with Wheel of Pain is what begins and ends the episode. It opens with Frankie sitting in a bus going to jail. Her opening narration promises to answer how she got there. The plot cuts away to the main plot. So why did Frankie go to jail? While talking about the main plot in the middle of a test for her dental rotations, she accidentally stabs her teacher. Her punishment is to take over the prison rotation. The bookend basically promises that her actions in relation to the main plot is the reason she's on that bus. It's true to a point that she's there because she was complaining about her kids instead of paying attention but it's only tangentially related to the events. It's barely connected and feels like a cheat. The joke at the end-Frankie once again complaining about her kids to her patient-is funny but it still doesn't justify opening the episode with this tease. I'm not even sure that it was necessary at all. Everything that came between it was solid gold so it didn't really need to try and hook the viewers with the idea that Frankie is going to jail. It would make sense if she was sentenced to like a week at the prison for something related to the broken window. I love the Middle but this really bugged me. Look, if you're going to begin an episode by promising something, then don't fall back on it. Have Frankie do something so crazy that she goes to prison for it. If you're not willing to do that then don't begin the episode with it. The good news is that this is only the beginning of the episode because everything that followed was genius.
The episode basically introduces the idea that Sue is excited because she's going to have a sweet sixteen party. When planning for the party, Axl plays a prank on her by making her smell Mike's boot. The shenanigans take a turn for the worse when Sue throws the boot at Axl. He gets out of the way but Brick uses a tennis racket to redirect the boot to go through the window. The three are all guilty of having broken the window. Sue for throwing the boot, Brick for sending it to the window, and Axl for inciting the action. The three of them don't want to get in trouble so they decide to unite. Their going to lay the blame on the Glossner boys. They go as far as to pick up the window shards and bring them inside. They place a rock in the middle of it to make it look like it broke the window. It's all a little too clean which is what makes Frankie suspicious of their cover story. It doesn't help that their lies quickly gets bigger when Frankie and Mike decide to go to the Glossners. Axl and Sue decide to claim that they heard tires screeching in an effort to stop them. They claim they don't know whether it was the Glossners or some teenagers in a car who broke the window. This was supposed to make it difficult for their parents to get to the truth but it ultimately made them more suspicious. It also gave them holes to poke in their story. The last straw that finally convinced her that something suspicious was up? When all of her kids were getting along in the morning. That's just not natural which makes it clear they're in cahoots.
This leads to a great part of the episode where the parents to try to get their kids to crack. Frankie and Mike split up to try and do their best work with regards to each kid. Frankie decides to practice her dental skills on Axl to “torture” the information out of him. She should have known that the threat of the torture is more effective than the actual action. Axl is able to take it and stay quiet. The punishment for Sue is a little different. Mike takes all of the money they've been saving towards their Disney world trip and starts counting it with her so they could use it to fix the window instead. If Mike had learned anything, he has discovered that Sue is willing to admit to anything if the right kind of pressure is applied. That pressure is guilt in this case. Mike tries to use her guilt to get her to admit to the truth. It's a genius way to use her character to try and get to the truth. She manages to hold her own. It looks like the parent's last chance is Brick. Their hope is that they can isolate and get him to tell the truth during an ice cream outing. Brick's reaction? Lying is easier than he thought it would be and he got ice cream out of it. This leads to the titular wheel of pain where the kids basically roll who gets to punished and how. If it lands on Axl, an early curfew. For Brick, no reading. For Sue, no birthday party. All are extreme as they're meant to break them. It lands on Sue's birthday party all three times they spin it. This freaks Sue out but the kids convince her she's going to have her party because Frankie doesn't follow through on her punishments.
Frankie happens to overhear them and decides she's not going to cave. She can't. She has to prove that she still has teeth. The problem? She really wants to cave. She doesn't want to deprive her daughter of her sweet sixteen party. Her solution? Have Mike be the one that forces her out of this decision. She goes as far as to pretend that the two aren’t' even speaking to each other over this. Sue panics because she thinks her parents are going to get a divorce and it's all because she broke the window, lied, and forced her dad to overstep Frankie's decision. This freak-out causes Frankie to admit that Mike and her were only pretending to fight. There's no divorce coming. Sue settles down. The truth has been revealed and nobody gets in trouble. The way the actual plot was developed was pretty genius. It begins with the episode establishing what is at stake for most of the characters. Axl extends his deadline, Sue is excited about her party, and Frankie is stressed over her dental test. All three come into play this episode. The whole situation confuses Frankie and gets her a bad rotation. Axl and Sue stand to lose their deadline and party respectively. After establishing the stakes, the show goes into the problem of the broken window and setting up all the kids so they could be blamed. It then goes into their lying and standing up to their parents interrogation techniques that allows them to be united. That's when their unity is threatened with the wheel of pain that only targets one of them. This stands but Frankie wants to cave on the punishment and it's what ironically leads to the truth.
Wheel of Pain is a genius episode of the Middle that gets all but one thing right: that beginning. It was a tease that ultimately backfired because of how tangentially it was related to the main plot. It's but one flaw in an episode that is simply funny and hits all of the right marks. The Middle continues to prove that it's the best comedy on Wednesday night.
Loved the Castle references but I guess the writers didn't have many shows to pick from if they had to stick with ABC ones. Body of Proof? Ha!