Dead to Me
The start of the second half of the first season of Dead to Me opens with a solid episode that reveals how poorly Jen has been faring as a mother since her husband passed away … and takes a few digs at how she mothered when Ted was alive, too. Always the more distant of Charlie and Henry’s parents, Jen has been struggling to fill a role that seems like it came more naturally to her spouse. Admittedly, some of the beats feel forced, but the strong cast and clever writing bring it together, and it’s nice to get a glimpse of how grief is impacting people other than Jen and Judy.
An opening scene set at a roadside shrine further clarifies the differences between Judy and Jen. Of the many complicated relationship dynamics in Dead to Me, the most compelling remains this friendship between two people who see the world in fundamentally different ways. Jen hates the entire roadside scene, especially the Cross. (Ted wasn’t religious.) The “to-may-to, to-mah-to” of these two is clear when Judy points out that it was the last place Ted got to be alive, but Jen counters with the truth that it’s also the first place he got to be dead. It’s a darkly comedic moment that serves as a prelude to something bigger, when, post-title card, Nick arrives at the shrine and the case gets pushed forward a bit with the revelation that a 9-year-old named Shandy Adams is the one who found Ted’s body on her way to school.
At this point we have to pause and ask what Judy is up to by bringing Nick to the crime scene. Is she hoping that he will confirm to Jen that the case can’t be solved? Perhaps he can offer closure by declaring that the killer can’t be found. That could be her plan. If nothing else, his telling Jen that any evidence is likely “long gone” serves to remind Judy — and us — that there is one big, dented-car-shaped bit of evidence out there, so this case may not be as cold as it looks. Nick is going to go talk to Laguna PD on Jen’s behalf, and because he seems like a genuinely nice guy, he asks about the kids. Jen says they are surprisingly good and resilient. Jen is wrong.
The bulk of “Oh My God” centers on Jen’s failures as a mother since Ted’s passing (and kind of before too). She’s confronted by the fact of Charlie’s drug-dealing at school, and later by Henry’s hair-trigger anger. Charlie’s principal is taking pity on him because of Ted’s death and not reporting him to law enforcement. (Really?) Instead he’ll be suspended for two weeks; she suggests he talk to Pastor Wayne. Where did Charlie get the pills? He refuses to give up his source. Of course, Jen knows before she checks her medicine cabinet and finds empty pill bottles: He got them from home; Charlie’s been selling his dead dad’s drugs. Later in the episode, Henry lashes out during a choir performance. Dead to Me suggests that if parents don’t model good anger-management skills, then their kids won’t know how to deal with it either. To say Jen is bad at handling hers is a bit of an understatement.
The lie that Jen has been telling herself about her children’s resilience is balanced by the lies that Judy is trying to uphold about Ted’s death. For example, when Judy’s with Nick at the police station, she seems to be talking herself into believing that Shandy’s finding the body isn’t that horrible. While they’re there, they learn that the case is indeed very, very cold. There are no leads, witnesses, or CCTV, nor is there a vehicle. When the detective on the case confirms that only 8 percent of hit-and-runs are solved without a witness, Judy almost seems encouraged. The big question, though, is why Judy seems to be trying to improve the odds by bringing Nick into the situation.
Judy continues her seemingly self-destructive spiral when she goes to talk to Shandy about finding Ted’s body. This could be considered a flaw of Dead to Me — at least if you believe it’s first and foremost a crime story — but one has to ask where this case would be without Judy pushing it along. Jen would still be looking for beat-up cars, which she’d never find, and the detective on the case would still be avoiding her. That Judy is the one pursuing the case of the crime she committed feels strangely self-reflexive in a way that undermines the show’s status as a thriller but also makes it more of a psychodrama.
Speaking of crimes, Jen makes the horrible decision to scare her son into thinking he committed one. When Nick shows up, at her behest, to play tough with Charlie, it’s obvious that it’s going to backfire, yet it doesn’t go in a predictable direction. In character as a uniformed officer come to arrest Charlie, Nick goes through Charlie’s bag and finds a gun with the safety off. And it’s loaded. The writers dropped the fact that there was a gun in the guest house a few episodes ago, but now it’s bouncing around inside a teenager’s bag. All this talk of guns means someone is getting shot before the season is over.
It’s a little disappointing that we then cut back to Jen and Judy drinking wine again so quickly after this scene. It would have been nice to see how Jen dealt with the immediate aftermath of the realization that her son has been armed for days — although maybe it’s meant to be a further indication of Jen’s failures as a parent.
After learning about Ted’s pill collection, Judy talks to Nick again about the case, but she’s really just trying to assuage her guilt. Maybe Ted threw himself in front of the car? Maybe he was high and stumbled? Poor Nick points out that it’s not the hitting but the running that really matters. More importantly, he says something that lingers for Judy: “No car, no crime.”
There may be no car yet, but there is a headlight that the creepy Shandy lifted from the crime scene. After Shandy’s mom makes her drop it off at Jen’s house, Judy enters another panic spiral. It’s time to get rid of the car. Of course, Steve beat her to it.
• Let’s take a little time to give some love to Keong Sim as Pastor Wayne, the kind of character who could have just been the brunt of jokes but whom Sim has imbued with notable character and decency in just a few scenes.
• There’s a great beat in which the principal praises the awesomeness of Lorazepam to Jen. It’s interesting — perhaps important? — that Jen didn’t even know her husband was on it.
• This episode was directed by Minkie Spiro, who has been all over Peak TV, helming episodes of Fosse/Verdon, Barry, The Deuce, Kidding, Better Call Saul, and Lodge 49 — and that’s just the recent stuff. She brings a solid pace and rhythm to “Oh My God.”
• Charlie has to go to therapy with Pastor Wayne for the next ten Saturdays, but Henry’s punishment seems more terrifying: a waking nightmare called Holy Harmonies, a children’s performance troupe that modifies “sexy” to “sacred” in a dance number to “You Sexy Thing.” Henry likes it and wants to join the group. Henry is so sweet.
• Where do you think Dead to Me goes in the final four? More importantly, how do you feel about Judy? Do you want her to get away with it or get caught? The most interesting thing about the show is how difficult it is to answer that question.