Just to leave no one wondering what Malcolm was all about, the show came right out and said it:
Malcolm: "Most of us have been dreaming of this day for years. The day we leave childhood and achieve independence. But even if we move thousands of miles away, there's no escape. Our families are coming with us. They'll be with us forever, in our habits, our gestures, and in the choices we make. So, we'll never be set free. We'll never be alone."
"The choices we make": There was a basic life-changing choice to be made in the Pilot episode, and another one in this finale, both involving Malcolm and Lois. On the face of it, Lois imposes the choice on Malcolm; in reality, she faces him with a challenge, and, after much railing, Malcolm accepts the challenge. In the Pilot, the challenge was easy to understand. Here, it takes a lot of stretching of facts to buy into the way Lois frames the challenge. For starters, Malcolm is going into Nuclear Biology ("College Recruiters"), yet Lois has him starting out as district attorney. Then there's the surprising view of what awaits Malcolm at Harvard: "Now you're going to learn what it's like to sweep floors and bust your ass and accomplish twice as much as the kids around you, and it won't mean anything, because they will still look down on you. And you will want so much for them to like you, and they won't. And it will break your heart!"
"It won't mean anything" is quite a stretch. Sure enough, a poor kid working his way through Harvard will be looked down on by the rich kids, and Malcolm does have a streak of vanity that will make that disdain sting. But if he indeed outshines everyone and finishes first in his class, his Harvard degree will be a ticket to brilliant success, and that can take a lot of the sting out of class snobbishness. What's at work here is a total reversal of Lois' motives for making Malcolm go the brainiac route. In the Pilot, Malcolm didn't want to be a Krelboyne. Lois chose the gifted class purely for reasons of personal advancement: "You don't understand the world yet. Sweetie, life does not give you a lot of chances to move up." As for making common cause with the humble folk: "Any kid who makes fun of you is a creepy little loser who will end up working in a car wash." What starts out as a plan for joining the elite ends in a stirring outcry against the vanity of elitist ambitions. Why the drastic change? Perhaps it's a rethinking of what it means to be successful, a reading hinted at by the figure of the absurdly egotistical millionaire entrepreneur who delivers the graduation speech.
Malcolm didn't have to accept Lois' challenge. It's Hal and Lois' fault he's going to have to mop floors at Harvard--between them, they couldn't beg borrow or steal $8000 to make up the shortfall in grant money. The fact he could have rejected the challenge is what gives his acceptance its enormous power, what justifies the look of unbounded pride in Lois' face during Malcolm's speech.
In a brilliant stroke of story crafting, the farcical climax of Reese's scheme is what gives overwhelming impact to the dramatic climax of Lois and Malcolm's confrontation. As she delivers her plea for the forgotten downtrodden, Lois is covered in filthy mire, looking like some bedraggled guttersnipe straight out of Les miserables. Reese in the finale is in his customary role as Funny Guy Number Two, sharing with Hal the job of delivering the laughs; he gets the job done here with a classic-Reese deranged scheme. But his story has been carefully crafted to highlight him as the exact polar opposite of Malcolm. His goals are as lowly as Malcolm's are lofty; he achieves at the end a perfect happiness with a secure mindless job and a perfect roomie who loves to eat what Reese loves to cook. And, just as Lois inspires Malcolm to rise above self-advancement, Ida coaches Reese in dog-eat-dog ruthlessness. It's by design that Malcolm is shown sarcastically rooting for Francis to kill Ida. They view her as a demon to be exorcised, the primitive part of their own natures that they wish they could eradicate ("There's no escape"). In sharp contrast, Reese embraces Ida's primeval brutality. Then, in one of those delightful Malcolm ironic twists, the series' final image is the two boys in identical guise as janitors holding a mop. Polar opposites, yet also brothers. Starkly different figures, made from the same clay.
Lots of other stuff happens. By the standards of tightly written Malcolm episodes, this one is overloaded. But it's okay here to pull out all the stops. This finale is a grand display of quirky characters and off-beat themes found nowhere else on television. I can easily imagine some viewer who never watched Malcolm before, looking in just out of curiosity and thinking "Wow! Look what I've been missing!" I can easily imagine such a viewer wanting to get the DVD. Well, then, let's have that DVD!