The structure of this episode is not only different from the previous episodes in this series, but is also quite different from other episodes of this kind. You know the kind I’m talking about, where we learn all about a mysterious figure via a hefty helping of flashbacks. The episode unfolds on two parallel tracks, one from John’s present and one from John’s past. (Was there no room in the budget for a Ghost of Christmas Future?) We learn more about who John is and how he has conned women in the past — but not as Debra in the present learns the exact circumstances of what John did, or through the woman in the past recounting her story. Instead, we watch as both women realize that the man they married is a dangerous fraud.
In the past we’re in Dayton, Ohio in the ’80s. We know it’s Dayton because the screen tells us so, and we know it’s the ’80s because of the awful lace wedding dress that John’s first wife Tonia (Sprague Grayden) wears. It’s the kind of lace all over the front Princess Di rip-off that was ubiquitous for weddings in the Reagan administration. And John’s tux with the tails? These outfits are the real travesty of the story.
Tonia is a nurse anesthetist that John meets in the bar while he’s in law school. They fall in love quickly and get married. John tells her that he’s disillusioned with the law and she helps him enroll in nursing school to do exactly what she’s doing. They settle down and have two daughters and everything seems like a dream until Tonia goes to a nursing conference and meets a pediatric neurosurgeon whom she finds out has been in a relationship with her husband for the past 10 months. When she confronts John about it, he’s pretty bald-faced about wanting to upgrade to a woman who makes a lot more money.
That’s when things go wrong at work. Another nurse catches John pocketing fentanyl that he should be giving to a patient. Fentanyl is some really bad stuff. It killed Prince! We should probably ban fentanyl, but maybe that should be like a policy paper or something for Jared Kushner to handle rather than some TV show recapper and member of the Tom Petty fan club. (Yeah, it killed him too.)
Tonia runs home, worried that the cops might find drugs in the house and that she’ll be implicated too and lose her nursing license. She finds John’s stash in a little toy kitchen set sitting in the garage. What a horrible thing to do to an Easy Bake Oven. You’re supposed to make tiny plates of brownies in there, not ride the white horse. She destroys John’s stash, kicks him out of the house, changes the locks, and waves goodbye.
She can’t stop investigating, though. She talks to John’s law school friend who was the best man at their wedding. It seems like he never liked the guy. Then why show up at the wedding? I mean, my best man was my brother and he absolutely hates me, but at least he’s family. Anyway, this guy tells Tonia they called him “Dirty John” or “Filthy John” because he treated women like dogs and was engaging in all sorts of petty scams and credit card fraud. Then he tells her he dropped out of law school before they even met and that everything she ever thought about him from the very beginning was a lie.
Once she starts poking around the threats start. John’s final phone call to her is harrowing. He tells her that one day he is going to make sure that someone kills her. She won’t know how or when, but, as she’s dying, she’ll know it’s him and that’s all he wants. That’s the kind of terror that you never get rid of, the kind of thing that, even years or decades later, just dawns on you in the shower and destroys your well-being for the rest of the day. John is a really messed up and dangerous man, and we finally know the extent of it.
Debra is starting to learn the extent of it, too. At the end of the last episode she found all of his arrest records and other papers in his secret drawer. She takes pictures of all of those and seeks the advice of a lawyer, who makes it clear that Debra is dealing with a psychopath. Then she asks if Debra wants an annulment. “Oh,” she says, with a little twinkle of recognition. Even then it’s the first time she realizes that she might have to leave, and even then she’s so far under John’s spell she cann’t fathom it. “Maybe it’s another John Meehan,” she says still grasping onto hope like teenagers looking at porn on Tumlbr the day before it’s banned.
Later she gets another call from the attorney clarifying that it is definitely John, and Debra has a panic attack that lands her in the hospital. Veronica comes to pick her up wearing one of the million pleated miniskirts from the Cher Horowitz for Kohl’s collection that she seems to own. Say what you will about Ronnie, but she always looks good. She even schools the private investigator, Quiet Ann from Claws, for wearing such awful pants suits in Orange County. (SNAP! as Quiet Anne said so wonderfully.)
Ronnie takes her mother to see Quiet Ann and even then Debra is like, “What would you do?” I understand she’s confused and in an entirely new and perilous situation, but she’s asking because she wants someone to tell her that it’s alright to stay. Even after they find out that John is a grifter Debra still can’t pry herself away from him. Quiet Ann won’t tell her what to do, but tells her to have a plan.
The best part of the whole episode is when Debra knows the jig is up but is playing along with John. Her fake laughs are amazing, and she strings him along without letting him know that she knows about the whole con. John has turned Debra into a scam artist as well, because that’s who she needs to be to stay safe. I love when she goes to their safety deposit box to check on the $80,000 he put in there for safe keeping and sees that it’s gone. As soon as she gets home he has an excuse for her, that a “friend of his invested it,” which is such a crock of shit that someone with no nose could smell it from seven states away. When he asks Debra why she was there, she says it was to get their wedding rings, and she sells it. She sells it hard. But is that so different from the way we’ve seen her emotionally manipulating her daughters in past episodes?
Luckily, John gives her an opening a few days later when he collapses in the bathroom in a pool of green puke that looks like Hi-C Ecto Cooler with some fruit cocktail chunks in it. (Remember how delicious Ecto Cooler was? I wish the Ghostbusters reboot was more successful just so they could remake that stuff.) At the hospital, Debra finds out that he has an intestinal blockage from abusing opioids. That Easy Bake Oven is up to its old tricks.
John uses his medical knowledge to convince the doctor that he is on a legitimate pain management program and Debra uses her best lie yet to get out of there. “I don’t want you to dumb down the explanation to John because I’m here,” she says, because nothing will win over a psycho like appealing to his narcissism. When Debra leaves she and Ronnie pack up the house and move out in the middle of the night. Damn, moving sucks, but to do it on a tight schedule is even worse. Thank god Debra’s business has a fleet of family vans so she can pack up all of her designer handbags in a few hours.
It seems like it’s over for Debra, but things still aren’t over for Tonia in the past. She reaches out to John’s mother Dolores, who he told her was a monster, to find out what she knows about John. There’s still so much more to the story, both in the past and in the present, and I can’t wait to find out exactly what it is.