‘All In the Family’ Sums Itself Up in a Storeroom
‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“And how could any man that loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?”
All in the Family is mandatory sitcom viewing. It came at the perfect time, while dealing with the perfect issues, and it was just the best kind of lightning in a television set possible. Norman Lear’s feather-ruffling comedy ran for nine seasons and over 200 episodes, before it transformed into the less fundamental, but still more satisfying than it deserved to be, Archie Bunker’s Place for an additional four seasons.
Lear was no stranger to controversy, with his sitcoms often reflecting the political activism that dominated the rest of his life, with important programs like Sanford and Sons, The Jeffersons, and Maude spilling out of him. All in the Family was often seen as the jewel in this activism crown, as the series depicted curmudgeons Edith and Archie Bunker. Archie being dead-set in his antiquated ways and how these intermingled with the world around him consistently led to cutting edge comedy being produced. Comedy that took it upon itself to inform their audiences and come from a place of racial and societal inequality, all while making us laugh.
All in the Family was very much about understanding and accepting why Archie acted the way in which he did. We never expected the series to “fix” him, or that a proper series finale would depict Archie as a changed man. No, that’s never what this was about, but rather learning why someone is the way that they are, and loving them in spite of that.
If that’s what All in the Family’s mission statement was, then this episode more than works as the answer to that question. It so succinctly captures the point of the series that many viewers have since viewed it as the unofficial series finale to the show (as well as it being O’Connor’s favorite episode of the series). That’s how satisfying and charged these twenty-four minutes of television are.
“Two’s A Crowd” chronicles the events of Archie and Mike, his son-in-law, getting locked in the bar’s storeroom overnight. When escape begins to seem futile and the two realize that they’re stuck in this situation, the two turn to drinking and the episode slowly turns into an incredibly honest, personal look at who these people are. On its surface level, this feels like a very shallow episode attempt, with people getting locked in an environment being pretty par for the course when it comes to bottle episodes (even the two’s decision to turn to drinking is a move that’s resorted to often, and at several points in the episode I found myself thinking of the similarly somber, liquor-fueled “Art’s Night In” episode of The Larry Sanders Show). That’s why it’s so amazing once this episode starts working its magic and you realize what’s actually going on here.
Part of the joy of this episode is seeing how immediately worn down Archie is by Mike, before they even get into the storeroom. By the time that they do get locked in there, tempers are already high. “It’ll take me until the end of time to straighten you out,” Archie says to Mike, and once they’re stuck in the room together, he might actually have the time to do it. The two are the only characters that appear in the episode, and like most efforts of this nature, it acts as a perfect dissection of their relationship as well as their opposing viewpoints. Even their perceptions of their friendship are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, as Mike thinks Archie’s been rotten to them their entire time together, while Archie thinks he’s been perfectly jovial to his son-in-law. Mike spends a portion of the episode simply yelling to be treated like a human being from Archie, as he sniggers on and pours himself another drink. This point of fracture ends up becoming a crucial part of the episode.
Archie and Mike run through a gamut of topics while locked in the room together while blame is constantly being thrown around. Efforts to break out of their cage only make matters worse, like a great segment that sees Mike shattering a window open only to realize there are bars on the outside, as snow now rains into their predicament. It’s interesting to see how the conversation is always moving as set piece to set piece is adeptly guided through, that by the time we hit the emotional closer, it’s felt weirdly established.
As Archie and Mike’s night in the storeroom progresses, the episode provides the series trademark silliness that’s tinged in sadness, like Archie’s story of his childhood nickname, “Shoebootie.” The anecdote is played for laughs, but it reveals a deeper side in the fact that Archie’s family was so poor that he had to wear one shoe and one boot in order to have a “matching” set of footwear to go out in. All of this is really just foreshadowing the hammer that’s about to fall when Archie begins to talk about his father.
There’s a weird tradition in sitcoms where the abusive father trope is plentiful and appears in places you wouldn’t expect it to (remember that episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, for instance?). So while Archie’s admission of what his father did to him feels a little reductive accordingly, this is still one of the better implementations of the trope, and it feels far from being manipulative.
In fact, Archie’s abusive father seems to be the lynchpin of his whole close-minded persona. His father had these tendencies and so he saw it as only natural to carry them on. If deep down his father loved him — in spite of everything he did — then of course he should be adopting his beliefs as the ultimate form of respect and love.
There’s a powerful exchange of dialogue where Archie talks about getting beat up by an African-American for calling him the n-word, stating that it’s what everyone was calling them at the time, and certainly what his father was calling them. Mike chastises his own father for speaking that way, knowing that it wasn’t right, but then more than earnestly asks Archie, “Did you ever possibly stop to think that your father could be wrong?” Archie nearly explodes at his friend here, spitting venom at him as he barks out, “My father was wrong!? Let me tell you something…You’re supposed to love your father because your father loves you. And how could any man that loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?”
It’s truly a heartbreaking scene that Carroll O’Connor puts his everything into, as you see him tortured over grappling how to love his father, a man who loved him, but also put him through hell. While the moment is illuminating to the audience, it’s simultaneously eye opening for Mike, who has a wholly different opinion on how to honor someone. There’s also the masterful connection to be made when Archie also lets out that his father once locked him in a closet for seven hours to “teach him a lesson.” As Archie and Mike find themselves trapped inside a similar enclosure for just as long, you can’t help but think of the unconscious lesson that Archie might be bestowing on Mike, as hostile as it may be.
The final moments are sublime as Mike slowly realizes that Archie is also telling him how much he loves him — even if the alcohol might be a large factor in the confession. After eight years, these two are finally equals so to speak, and it makes the departure of the Stivics that happens almost immediately after this episode all the more poignant.
So much of All in the Family is predicated on Archie being forced to be around the Stivics when he’d prefer to be anywhere else, but this is the ultimate form of that as the bottle episode truly forces Archie and Mike to be together. This relentless proximity is what also makes the honesty and closeness that they share possible, and without it, we may never have gotten to the depths of Archie that are hit here. It’s a beautiful revelation, and to be coming so late in the series’ life, it’s a surprising reminder of what can be achieved with this device, rather than just churning them out for economical purposes in the infancy of a show’s run. In this case, it was exactly like you were having a drink with an old friend. A friend that you’re comfortable with, love to pieces, and know all too well, and so when a bombshell is dropped, you’re more than equipped to navigate through the debris.
Goodnight, Shoebootie. We still love you no matter what you’ve done.