On the path to find a new self, one often relapses, a moment of weakness where routine and complicity sneak in and threaten to undermine any semblance of progress within oneself. In fact, that relapse often becomes an important moment of discovery; it’s only until we return to our old life with a new perspective that we’re able to find closure in who we were, and what we once believed in. Until that moment, any attempt at starting a new chapter will be shadowed by the past; in order to become our true selves, we need to let go of who we once were.
Disguised by a series of rom-com tropes, the two-part Benched season finale personifies this idea of letting go, taking a long, hard look at Nina and how far she’s come since her world fell apart a year ago. She’s finally coming into her own as a public defender, seen in her rapport around the office (particularly her newfound friendships with Carlos and Cheryl in recent weeks) – and more importantly, she’s starting to really move on from her old life and identity, including the now-engaged Trent. For the majority of “Campaign Contributions”, in fact, she’s in pursuit of another man romantically for the first time since her break-up, committing a selfless act (helping Phil schmooze the fancier suit types around town to win Public Defender of the Year over an energetic Chris Parnell) in a genuine attempt to see someone else happy.
Except she really isn’t; she’s just turning Phil into an image of Trent, desperately clinging onto an ideal of someone she knows deep down she no longer wants. Change is a scary, scary thing – and often, it becomes easier to lie to ourselves about making “progress” rather than admit we’re stuck in the same cyclical lifestyle. And in the face of true change (that is, pursuing Phil and actually enjoying her life as a public defender), Nina bails – and at the same time, so does Trent, breaking up with his girlfriend and showing up at Nina’s door.
Yes, it’s a massive, massive plot convenience that all this happens in the space of a single day; however, it’s an important litmus test for Nina as a character, pushing her away from Phil in order for him to have a similar self-examination (though his comes without any rendezvous in the courthouse cleaning closet). It’s both cliche and genius, a contradiction that carries through the second episode, taking a series of rom-com tropes and injecting them with tons of personality. The stories themselves – Nina wins Phil’s award because of Trent, leading to a brief reunion that Nina regrettably discloses to the court – are typical sitcom season finales, turning a series of unfortunate moments (for Nina, it’s some regrettable comments in the presence of an extra-callous Yvette Nicole Brown) into a carefully-orchestrated finale of inconveniences, which themselves reveal the deeper character progressions at work.
It’s a bit of stretch to ask any comedy to maintain that balance for forty-plus minutes; Benched is able to do it, though, anchored by a couple of fantastic scenes to close out the season. At first, it feels like everything is headed towards the typical conclusion; after rejecting Trent, realizing what she was doing, and pushing forward with Phil (helped along by him kissing her out of the blue), Nina’s disclosure paperwork goes through, and spreads like wildfire around the offices of Los Angeles. This includes Phil, who himself ends up meeting his own great challenge of self; not running away from something he really cared about for the cheap thrills of booze and gambling.
This is an extremely important moment for both characters, and the show: neither Phil nor Nina gives up on each other, or themselves. If they had, season one would end in the typical place, with Trent and Nina back together and Phil realizing how much he cared about Nina and needed to win her over (or on a more desperate show, pushing the two together immediately); rather, the closing moments of “Brief Encounter” (a brief encounter all in itself) does neither, ending with Nina apologizing and Phil letting her know that he wasn’t going to get rid of her “that easy”, leaving her – and the audience – dumbfounded by this last twist.
Of all the convenient things that happen in these two episodes, they all lead to that very genuine moment, delivered wonderfully by both Coupe and Harrington; the two are finally in a place where they’re letting the change in their lives re-define them, catalyzed by the clarity they achieve in the middle act of “Encounter”. Without those important tests of faith in themselves, they’d never be able to get out of their own way and see each other – and more importantly, realize that they’re still not quite there yet, as both are dealing with the demons haunting their pasts.
It’s a beautiful closing moment, and closes a pair of hilarious episodes (thanks to Carlos and Cheryl; the kid shadowing Trent, not so much) on one of the show’s single best moments, nodding to the chemistry of the actors and characters, without writing themselves into any sort of corner for a possible (fingers crossed!) second season. And though it comes at the cost of one character (Trent becomes a one-dimensional vehicle of desperation in this hour, a jarring change of character that doesn’t quite work out of context of Nina’s personal story), it builds to an endlessly satisfying – and equally intriguing – moment for the show’s main character, serving both its function as a season finale and an important checkpoint in Nina’s inner rehabilitation.
Photo via USA Network