From left: Fred Savage as Stewart, Mary Elizabeth Ellis as Debbie, and Connor Kalopsis as Ethan.
Behold, the show’s best cold open ever: A Grinder episode in which Mitch Grinder is buried alive and re-creates Kill Bill, one-inch punching his coffin until it breaks so he can claw his way back to the surface, rip off his shirt, and scream into the night. It’s amazing, and honestly makes me wonder if I’m missing anything like it on those long-running legal dramas I really don’t watch. If this sort of thing ever happens, the whole genre is suddenly worth it in my eyes.
Unlike most Grinder clips (non-Olyphant division) that are used to open the show, this one actually incites the plot of this week’s episode: Dean is watching it with his therapist, Jillian (Maya Rudolph), and tells her that he’s been seeing this scene in his nightmares, where Mitch Grinder grinds his way out of his own grave. He also answers a burning question:
Jillian: What is that? The grind?
Dean: The everyday struggle for justice.
Her prognosis is that the scene haunts Dean because he’s haunted by the Grinder. Though the character has died, Dean hasn’t yet let him go. She tells him that it’s his job to say good-bye to the Grinder for good.
With that doozy out of the way, we get back to last week’s malpractice cliff-hanger. Turns out it’s an old case from the ‘80s, and Papa Sanderson doesn’t seem to think it’s that big a deal. To Stewart’s frustration, he refuses to do much to prepare. This isn’t really discussed much, however, because Dean wants to make an announcement: He’s been going to therapy.
Just like you and me, everyone at Sanderson & Yao already knows this, but that doesn’t stop Dean from confessing his major fault. “I realize that I can sometimes be …” he pauses while walking over to the window and looking out through the blinds, “… dramatic.” I regularly admire Rob Lowe’s ability to play characters who have no sense of irony. It’s a true gift.
Dean then tells the office about his need to purge the Grinder from within, and asks them to keep all Grinder-related conversation and ephemera away from him. To this end, he starts boxing up all of the Grinder memorabilia in his office, which is where Stewart approaches him to talk about their dad and his lax attitude toward the malpractice case. Dean, however, doesn’t think their dad needs any help. “I cannot participate in this drama,” he says, quite dramatically.
Next on Dean’s list? Heading over to Claire’s desk to continue his therapeutic process — he wants to apologize for his constant will-they-won’t-they jokes. “I was relentlessly sexually harassing you,” he says. “It’s unacceptable, and we really need to start thinking about gender politics in the workplace.”
Dean then makes an offhand comment about how attractive they both are, and Claire cuts him off, and he agrees that he has to work on the sexual-harassment stuff a little bit more. He offers to come back with a new version of his apology speech, but Claire has heard enough. “We’re good,” she says.
This scene is kind of incredible, yet so necessary. There’s no real problem with making fun of an old TV trope, but there’s definitely a threshold to how many times a will-they-won’t-they joke can be used, and it only stays funny if Claire and Dean never get together. That the writers of The Grinder are abandoning this particular well long before it runs dry is pretty impressive, but not without concern. Now, Claire and Dean could conceivably get together in a way that isn’t nearly as egregious a storytelling decision, but it would still probably compromise the show’s integrity. The braver, smarter, and funnier choice is to keep them apart, and I hope things stay that way forever.
Back to the Sanderson family. At dinner that night, Stewart finds that his brother has invited Jillian to their home for a session. Dean confesses that he’s been living a lie and hurting them all, but like most Dean-related things, Stewart finds a way to put himself through the wringer, too. He finally explains that he’s concerned about the malpractice suit, and Papa Sanderson responds poorly to that concern. He doesn’t want to let Stewart’s controlling nature push him around.
Papa Sanderson: I’m gonna sit in the driver’s seat of my life!
Jillian: That’s progress!
Papa Sanderson: Instead of riding shotgun, like a woman!
Jillian [deadpan]: All right.
The next day, Dean holds his big Viking funeral for the Grinder, gathering up all of his Grinder memorabilia in a funeral pyre to build his new home on the ashes of an old life. He is saying good-bye “not just to a multilayered TV character … but to a friend.”
Then he lights it all on fire and shouts, “LIKE A PHOENIX, I RISE FROM THE ASHES A NORMAL HUMAN MAN.”
Somehow, I doubt that.
- Following up on last week’s episode, a subplot sees a now-unemployed Deb getting very bored at home, very interested in her daughter’s dumb boyfriend (whom she breaks up with as soon as it seems like her mother might not hate him), and ultimately agreeing to help her father-in-law with the malpractice suit, since she’s not pushy like her husband. It’s a bit slight, but it slowly moves Deb closer to the action, which is smart.
- Stewart: “Pissy is a psychological term now?!”
- TODD WATCH: Todd gets his best scene yet, wherein Dean visits his apartment to dramatically invite him to his Grinder funeral. Todd does not take Dean’s decision very well. “If you’re not the Grinder, I don’t know who you are anymore,” Todd tells him. “I’m just a man … standing behind another man,” Dean says, as he stands behind Todd.
- Oh yeah, also: The final shot is DEAN AND JILLIAN MAKING OUT, SO EVERYTHING MAKES SENSE NOW.