A few sitcom-ish beats and a rushed bender narrative for Jen make the fifth episode of Dead to Me the most frustrating so far, but there’s still more to like here than in many Netflix comedies, especially the inclusion of a talented young actor who may now play a major role. This show needed a few more supporting personalities to bounce off of Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. Speaking of that, where’s Ed Asner been lately?
He’s not in Palm Springs, where Judy and Jen are at a Friends of Heaven Grief Retreat. Is this arguably the first major time jump in the chronology of the show? The first four episodes felt like they took place over only a few days, maybe a week at most. But this feels like a jump forward during which Jen and Judy’s friendship has been solidified. The wounds of Ted’s betrayal are still healing, but something about the way Judy and Jen communicate, and the fact that they’re looking for new love — or at least sex — makes it feel like more time has passed.
At the grief retreat, between counseling sessions like “Window to the Widow” and “Lost Angels,” the ladies find a chance to flirt and connect — Judy somewhat reluctantly and Jen with margarita-fueled gusto. The whole retreat feels a little like this show in miniature, exploring the connections that happen while, and even because, people are grieving. Dead to Me is at its best when it’s examining how grief and regret impact human relationships, and the best parts of this episode do exactly that, even if a few of the more extreme scenes feel like they belong in a CBS sitcom rather than this show.
Despite repeatedly putting her foot in her mouth, thanks in no small part to the poolside drinks she’s been slurping down, Jen eventually connects with a hunk named Jason and makes plans to meet up with him at something called “Carry On-Oke.” It’s a funny scene that feels, like much of this episode, a little rushed: Jen and Jason reconnect, dance, and leave for his room before Yolanda can finish singing “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” One thing Applegate and the writers have made clear about Jen is that she acts quickly. Whether it’s throwing a rock at a speeding car or herself at a handsome new guy, she’s always making something happen.
The camera doesn’t follow Jen and Jason out of the bar at first, sticking with Judy while someone sings the awesome Cars song “Drive,” a pointed choice that is clearly meant to recall the secret that’s eating Judy alive. “You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong,” indeed. The singer who strikes this resonant chord in Judy is named Nick, and it’s clear even before the rest of the night unfolds that Judy is about to have a better experience than her pal Jen.
Yes, things go very poorly for Jen and Jason, who seems great at first but becomes obsessed with talking about how he couldn’t save his wife. It’s awkward, and that quick-thinking Jen makes the decision to flee the scene before the crying starts. It’s the sort of insensitive behavior we’ve grown used to seeing from her, but it’s followed by an unexpectedly sweet scene with her and Pastor Wayne in the common area of the hotel. “You use cynicism as a way to deal with grief,” he tells her, correctly, and again the show returns to the idea of how grief warps and shapes the way we deal with one another. It also allows Pastor Wayne a nice bit of humanity and redemption following Jen’s ice-cold smack talk about him to Jason earlier.
Back in Judy’s room, Nick is dropping hints that most viewers probably picked up on a lot sooner than she does, using terms like “serves” and “partner.” Yes, Judy’s new love interest is a cop. Interestingly, the criminal in the room doesn’t run or panic. What is she going to do with a cop in her life? And does it mean something that Nick is dealing with grief too? Most of the major characters in Dead to Me are shaped by their grief. Well, except for Steve. He’s just a dick.
Meanwhile, Jen’s unfortunate bender continues, culminating in what might be the worst scene of the series so far. As she’s walking home from buying cigarettes, Jen drops the pack into the road, nearly getting run over as she reaches down to pick it up. If Dead to Me wanted to send Jen on a self-destructive grief and anger bender that nearly kills her, it should have spent more time than one episode in Palm Springs building up to it. The near accident, so removed from the action of the main story, feels cheap and manipulative in a way this series has mostly avoided so far.
Safely back in the room, Jen tells Judy that someone ripped her life apart, and Judy responds that she hates that person; Jen may not know, but we do, that that person is Judy. This declaration of self-hatred is what frames the final beats of the episode. Nick comes out of the bathroom and Judy tells Jen that he’s a detective. “You ever solve a hit and run?” Jen asks. Nick claims that he has. Judy smiles, which either means she’s pursuing some plan we don’t yet understand, or she wants that person she hates so much to be caught.
• How self-destructive is Judy? We know that she’s flirted with danger just by investing herself in Jen’s life, but what will she do when Nick figures it out? Does she want Nick to figure it out? It might be the only way to get the truth out there, because Judy isn’t strong enough to simply confess.
• As great as Applegate, Cardellini, and Marsden have been, it’s nice to see some new faces, including Steve Howey from Shameless as Jason, and especially Brandon Scott, who was excellent on last year’s installment of Channel Zero: The Dream Door, as Nick. He brings a very different energy from the big three on this show, and it will be interesting to see how they use it if Nick ends up sticking around.
• Judy, Jen, now Jason — what is it with the writers of this show and J-names?
• In case you missed it, Judy is reading Codependent No More by Melody Beattie at the pool, which got me thinking. She was codependent with Steve and then codependent with Jen. What happens if she becomes codependent with the man who may discover that she’s a murderer?
• Can we talk about how good “Drive” still is, even when someone else is singing it? One of my favorite songs of the ’80s.