“One Tree Hill‘s” final season began relatively quietly. A sleep disorder, some figures in the shadows, a fire of questionable origin… these things are small change to the residents of Tree Hill, who have encountered more than their fair share of psychos over the years.
In the third episode, which aired this week on The CW, things took a startling turn — and it wasn’t Dan, the erstwhile villain, or Clay, the newly-minted drug addict who brought Tree Hill to its knees.
It was Julian (Austin Nichols), the man who wore a puppy costume for Halloween and who, just hours earlier, had reenacted a scene from “The Goonies” and perfected the moonwalk to quell his boredom. Julian, perhaps the most harmless “new guy in town” Tree Hill has ever seen. After a frustrating day at work, Julian stopped by his house to say hello to Brooke (Sophia Bush) and pick up one of his twin sons to go to daycare. With things finally looking up at his Hollywood-of-the-East soundstage, he was in good spirits as he dropped by the liquor store to find a bottle of scotch to give a prospective client.
And then, prompted by a concerned phone call from Brooke, he realized that he’d forgotten to drop off Davis at daycare.
The infant was in the parking lot, in the car seat, and when Julian, shattered, rounded the corner to his car, it had been broken into — by the police — and the empty car seat brought the world out from underneath him. A crowd of distraught onlookers watched as the tiny baby was loaded into an ambulance.
“Now what we see, particularly in the US, is that with the length of our
work week, people are crumbling,” Bush told us when we caught up with her recently. “People are one misstep
away from destruction, very often, because everyone’s running themselves
into the ground. A lot of parents have that issue with their children.
They screw up in some way.”
Tragically, it’s not as rare a phenomenon as one would think. A Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post story from 2009 explored the devastating fall-out from parents who, thrown off by a blip in their daily routine or lack of sleep or a seemingly mundane distraction, forgot that their child was sleeping in the car seat in the car. They arrived at work, went about their business, only to discover too late that they’d left their kid to literally bake to death in their cars.
As devastating as it was to watch — thanks, particularly, to a wordless but powerful performance by Nichols — this is one of our favorite “One Tree Hill” stories ever. Not to say we didn’t get a kick out of the psychotic-nanny-in-a-cornfield thing or the doppelganger-with-a-gun-in-a-hurricane plot, of course, but when the show explores the faults of the characters we love, we find ourselves that much more invested. In Season 1, Keith faced major personal consequences when he revealed that he’d had a drink before causing the car accident that nearly killed Lucas. Season 3’s school shooting episode explored the tragic consequences of depression gone untreated and, perhaps more significantly, unnoticed.
Will Brooke and Julian lose a child this season? We doubt it. Davis wasn’t in the car for the length of a workday, but for the time it took Julian to choose a bottle of scotch and purchase it. With only 10 episodes left in the season, we can’t imagine the show taking on a task as ambitious as walking a mother and father through that grief with the kind of sensitivity it would require.
That said, regardless of Davis’ fate, Julian will take a major hit to his confidence and some serious self-loathing will set in.
Nichols tells us that after several seasons of playing the harmless, doting, occasionally coddled Julian, he was excited to explore a crack in Julian’s foundation.
“This year, there’s a major flaw,” he told us when we visited the Wilmington, NC set. “Or, not so much a flaw as an accident. It could happen with any parent. Julian really puts a lot of blame on himself for this thing that happens. As an actor it’s been great. I’ve really gotten to go to a different place that I haven’t gone to before on this show. I’m always pushing and begging [executive producer Mark Schwahn] for stuff like this, just trying to keep exploring. I want him to challenge me, and hopefully I can challenge him in some way, and I think that makes the best artwork.”
An event this catastrophic certainly has the potential to tear Brooke and Julian asunder, but Nichols tells us that it ultimately makes them stronger.
Next week’s episode is sure to be a heartbreaker on several levels, but one thing is for sure — when 8 p.m. EST on Wednesday rolls around, we won’t miss a moment.
What did you think of this devastating and unexpected twist in Brooke and Julian’s seemingly perfect (if sleepless!) family dynamic? We’d love to hear your opinions and predictions in the comments section below.