The Invitations (Season 7, Episode 24)
Original airdate: May 16, 1996
Written by Larry David
Directed by Andy Ackerman
The four main characters of Seinfeld are not meant to be aspirational figures. They are almost warnings about how not to behave in society. Few episodes highlight that aspect as strongly as the finale of season seven. It’s not their ugliest moment, but it is capped off by the coldest reaction we have ever seen them have. This moment underscores how Seinfeld was not like other family-friendly sitcoms and emphasized Larry David’s edict of “no hugging, no learning.”
All season long, George had been lamenting his decision to ask Susan to marry him. By the finale, they are at a stationery store to buy the invitations. In perfect George fashion, he chooses the cheapest they have even after being told they were recalled at one point. George realizes the wedding is now a real thing that will happen to him but can’t find the strength to break it off. He solicits his friends for opinions, and they suggest taking up smoking and asking for a prenuptial agreement. Both are total misfires, and it seems George will be getting married, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
And then the envelopes happen. This was the last episode where Larry David served as executive producer, and he goes out with a bang. Susan spends all day licking and sealing the cheap wedding invitation envelopes, which leads to her passing out. The gang heads to the hospital, where a doctor tells George that Susan is dead. He suspects it was exposure to some sort of toxic glue. George delivers the news to his friends, and they all react with a bit of surprise but more a sense of “oh well, that’s that.”
This ending led to a significant number of letters to the network of some viewers expressing disgust about what they saw as a tasteless end to Susan and the characters’ reactions, making it worse. Heidi Swedberg, who played Susan, would later comment that she thought the ending was hilarious and in keeping with the idea that these are incredibly self-centered people. This ending would become a significant part of George’s arc in the eighth season and ultimately become an essential factor in the series finale.
The Yada Yada (Season 8, Episode 19)
Original airdate: April 24, 1997
Written by Peter Mehlman & Jill Franklyn
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Peter Mehlman always seemed to be on the script when there was some bit of clever wordplay. The Yada Yada has him come up with one of the best bits in the latter part of the series. The story arc for Jerry this episode came from an experience Mehlman actually had. A friend of his made a Jewish joke, and for a moment, Mehlman was offended. Then he recalled that this friend had converted to Judaism twenty years prior, so technically, it was okay. Mehlman began to wonder how long it took his friend before he felt comfortable telling those jokes. That led to the idea of someone making Jewish jokes immediately after converting to the religion.
This is yet another appearance from Tim Whatley, a dentist friend of the quartet, who made five appearances throughout the series. He was played by Bryan Cranston and always seems to have something new going on with him that changed the character’s fundamental nature. Previously, he’d been stocking Penthouse magazines in his waiting room and adopted a swinger persona. In “The Yada Yada,” he’s converted to Judaism and tells jokes that are both Jewish and Catholic, which upsets Jerry.
As Jerry begins to express his anger about Whatley’s joke brazenness, he gets labeled an “anti-dentite” by Kramer. This begins to open up the idea that many people in the Seinfeld universe see dentists as a protected class. When Jerry attempts to tell dentist jokes, he’s met with stern, unapproving faces. In the episode, Kramer and Mickey are dating two young women and not sure which of them is with whom. Elaine is serving as a character reference for her friends Beth & Arnie, who are trying to adopt a child. Elaine divulges a story of getting shouted at in the movies by Arnie and ends up screwing everything up. George is dating a woman who uses the phrase “yada yada” to skirt over the details of stories, but it becomes concerning when the things she’s yada-yada-ing over are pretty severe. Masterfully, the writers tie all these things together in the big wedding finale.
The Betrayal (Season 9, Episode 8)
Original airdate: November 20, 1997
Written by Peter Mehlman and David Mandel
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Seinfeld could do pretty much whatever it wanted at this point, within network standards & practices. So they decided to make an episode told backward. When I originally watched this at the age of 16, I was bewildered and found I didn’t really like the episode that much. Over time, I have warmed up to it and appreciate how complex the narrative is, especially the ending, which winds all the way back to before the first season.
The episode title and construction references the Harold Pinter play “Betrayal,” which also has a reverse structure. The groom of the wedding the characters attend is Pinter Ranawat, a reference to the playwright. The episode has several betrayals from Jerry sleeping with the woman George has expressed interest in, Elaine revealing this to George after swearing secrecy and the revelation that Elaine slept with the groom years earlier. While the wedding in India compromises the main story, the writers have the most fun with Kramer’s storyline.
Kramer attended the birthday party of his friend FDR who used his birthday wish to wish Kramer would drop dead. There’s a sight gag that only works because this episode is backward, showing Kramer’s giant lollipop he’s carrying becoming larger as we jump scenes back. His befuddlement over why FDR would wish this upon him also only works with a reverse narrative as we become aware of why essentially before Kramer ever does. I also love the big jumps back that brings back Susan for one scene and Jerry’s first meeting with Kramer. He calls Kramer “Kessler” as that was the name on the mailboxes. This references the character’s original name being “Kessler” in the script for the first episode.
The Strike (Season 9, Episode 10)
Original airdate: December 10, 1997
Written by Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer, and Dan O’Keefe
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Season nine was undoubtedly not the best season of Seinfeld. It definitely felt in many episodes that the show was running out of fuel. I’d say only seasons 1 & 2 are more subpar in their overall quality than nine. That said, nine did have “The Strike,” which arguably had the most considerable influence on pop culture. It created an entire holiday that people still talk about today and has tons of merchandise centered around it online. Festivus is recognized by many Millenials as a legit non-denominational winter celebration, half-serious, half-ironic, of course. The idea came from an actual holiday invented by writer Dan O’Keefe’s father, Daniel. It was not originally conceived as a Christmas alternative, though. Instead, the elder O’Keefe set it on the anniversary of his first date with his wife, and the family began celebrating it in 1966. In 1976, when Daniel O’Keefe’s mother passed away, he coined the phrase, “A Festivus for the rest of us” as an acknowledgment of family who had died.
Of course, it had to be tweaked for this to be a part of the Costanza family. Festivus became a Christmas alternative, celebrated on December 23 and invented by Frank Costanza. It is responsible for childhood trauma, as shown in George’s frenzied reaction to hearing his father revive it. Instead of a tree, there is an aluminum pole. During dinner, you have the “airing of grievances” where you tell people everything you don’t like about them. There are also the “feats of strength” which involve Frank wrestling someone…apparently? Fans began to jokingly celebrate the holiday, expanding on its mythos and using the tiny bits we get from this episode. We have to wonder if Seinfeld had continued, would Festivus had been a recurring joke each winter?
There is also the amusing subplot of Elaine trying to get back a free sandwich punch card from a man she met at a party. He’s referred to only as Denim Vest based on his clothing and played by Kids in the Hall’s Kevin MacDonald. Elaine gives Denim Vest a fake number which is actually to an off-track betting parlor where she has to dodge the unwanted advances of the creeps who work there. There’s some beautiful building confusion as numbers build upon numbers, and she never does get that card back.