Sheila Hammond, freshly zombified, seems like a brand-new woman. A real-estate agent, wife, and mother, she’s long adhered to the whole suburban-mom thing: green smoothies for breakfast, a closet full of monochromatic business attire, SAT prep on weekends. But then she comes down with something. She vomits buckets of green goo and coughs up what looks like a small organ. She “dies,” then immediately wakes up. She’s renewed, rejuvenated, and hungry for the delicacies she’s long deprived herself of — not the human flesh she now needs to survive, but spontaneous sex, nights out, morning jogs, a Range Rover.
“I don’t feel dead or undead,” she tells her family and the neighbor boy who diagnoses her. “I feel the opposite: totally alive.”
Santa Clarita Diet wisely shrouds Sheila’s transformation in mystery. Something about a Serbian curse and earlier-reported cases lend a mythology to her condition, but don’t hamper its implications. This is the story of a family grappling with their matriarch’s newly discovered agency. And, more importantly, it’s about how her husband can’t really deal with the sudden shift in the status quo.
Drew Barrymore is Sheila, whose sunny, natural charm makes for a surprisingly compelling suburban “Mombie.” Timothy Olyphant plays her husband, Joel, and though he at first seems a little out of place, his manic, nervous outbursts eventually snap into focus. We see Joel for the insecure, at times downright-pathetic guy he’s become: the type who smokes weed in parking lots and dresses in cargo shorts. Sheila’s zombification is a confrontation for him. Her revived thirst for life is a threat to his apathy.
After Joel befriends a drug dealer he meant to kill for Sheila’s supper, he opens up about how he got to where he is. Joel and Sheila were high-school sweethearts, prom king and queen. They got married, he putzed around for a while — learned guitar, tried improv — but got serious with the arrival of their daughter.
“My wife is a realtor. I wake up one day … and so am I,” he says despondently. “It’s just not where I saw my life going.”
When Joel let’s the drug dealer go, an angry Sheila belittles his life trajectory, citing Joel’s pot smoking and gullibility as culprits for his poor judgment. Though it goes unsaid, this conversation seems to spark something in Joel, who later embarks on the solo mission of finding a cure for his wife’s ailment. She goes on with her life, reveling in her newfound popularity, outspokenness, and strengthened relationship with her daughter. While Sheila finds power in her situation, Joel works to squash it.
Sexual jealousy, also a recurring theme, highlights Joel’s discomfort with Sheila’s newfound agency. In the pilot, a co-worker Gary (Nathan Fillion) attempts to both put the moves on Sheila and steal one of her clients. Joel confronts him in a bar, but backs out before a fight breaks loose. Later, Sheila kills Gary in her garden and eats his stomach. The shift in the expected power play casts a shadow on their marriage, as evidenced later in the season when Sheila befriends a man she bit and transformed. Joel, openly uncomfortable with her new cohort, demands to see Sheila’s texts. “It’s just hard to see you connecting with someone when you and I haven’t exactly been burning up the bed sheets,” Joel says, blaming her for both making a friend and shelving their sex life.
Tensions between the couple climax when, in the season finale, Sheila asks Joel how he’d kill her if it ever came to that. “I’d bash your brains in with a baseball bat,” he admits, as if he’s thought about it. A horror-struck Sheila, expecting something “romantic” like a single gunshot to the head, points out the anger in Joel’s response.
“Where is that coming from?” she asks.
“That’s how they kill the undead in movies,” he responds, trying to move on. But Sheila’s onto something — there is anger in their relationship, as well as resentment. She hasn’t just touched on something: She’s fully pinched a nerve.
Santa Clarita Diet continually returns to the idea of how suspiciously men regard positive female transformation. And more than just showing the dichotomy between suburban men and women, Diet works to subvert the idea that wives should be pretty, quiet things while the husbands win bread. The women behave badly — have affairs with hot oncologists, set off smoke bombs, make threats to rude teachers — while the men embroil themselves in unnecessary crime and chaos, and wind up dead. Though Sheila ends the season in literal chains — she asks Abby to lock her in the basement in case her primal side takes over — she’s finally free of the rigor of a life that expected her to pipe down and take what comes.
Joel, meanwhile, is incarcerated for his pursuit of her cure. At what appears to be a psych ward, he babbles to his doctor about the ways Sheila’s transformation has pushed him to try new things. “When I look back at my life just three weeks ago, I think maybe I was the dead one,” he says with a laugh, before a look of dreadful realization takes hold of his face.