While still a strong half-hour of television, this is the first time since the start of the season where it’s felt like we are ever so slightly spinning our wheels before getting to the fireworks. The razor-sharp pacing of the last four episodes or so has gone a bit slack, and the episode feels overall like a transitional one to get us to what is probably an explosive final pair. Still, there’s a lot to like here, especially in the performance department, and the way the writers are leaving so many options open for the final run.
Let’s start there. At this point in the first season, the road map to Steve Wood floating in Jen Harding’s pool was actually pretty clear, especially in retrospect. We knew that Judy would confess to Jen and we knew that there would be some sort of showdown with Steve. Where we’re at in the eighth episode of the second season feels like the season could end anywhere. Yes, Charlie is figuring it all out. That’s a given. But where will this season leave characters like Nick, Michelle, and Perez? What will Ben discover before the end of the season? Anything? And what roles will new characters like Chief Hastings and Eileen Wood play? It almost feels like this season is setting things in motion that can’t possibly be wrapped up in an hour of television. You can almost see season three from here if you squint.
First, Jen and Judy have to explain why Steve’s car was in a storage unit. Applegate’s delivery when Charlie asks her why they had the car is amazing: “Cuz?” Quick talker that she is, Jen comes up with the story that Steve gave her the car because the deal fell through on the house. “I’m gaslighting my own kid,” she says. It leads to a drunken conversation between Jen and Judy about when they should be allowed love with Michelle and/or Ben. Of course, it’s easy to feel sympathy for two people who have had more than their share of issues with love, but maybe wait till the investigation is closed?
It turns out that the malicious character who yelled at Judy for turning in Steve is a police chief named Hastings who clearly served as a middle man between Wood and the people for whom he laundered money, and he’s pushing Nick to investigate Judy more. Nick is leaning toward the Greek Mafia story, but the bigger problem is that a $100k reward leads to a lot of bad tips.
Like those bad tips, “It Had to Be You” meanders a bit away from the focus of this season. Judy gets back with Michelle. Jen goes with Ben over to the Wood mansion and sees photos of a young Ben and Steve. While the plotting is a bit slow, Marsden is great in this scene, his telling of being a kid who went through a lot of surgeries allowing him to be vulnerable in ways that he wasn’t in season one. There’s also a really good line about scars and how they “show you went through something hard and you survived. It’s your story.” This season is going to leave some big ones.
Meanwhile, Judy is grappling with one of her big emotional scars: her inability to have a child, a wound that has started to hurt again for two reasons. One, she knows that Steve was (and is, in a sense) going to have a child with Heidi and not her. Two, Michelle’s mother is in the hospital, which always creates an emotional analysis of the cycles of life and death. And so Judy is drawn to the maternity ward, where she sees a woman who has volunteered to be a cuddler, someone who just takes care of stranger’s babies for a little bit at a time. Sadly, Judy, who would be really good at it, probably won’t pass the background check. Open investigations and vandalism reports aren’t easy things to overlook.
While Judy is looking longingly at the babies of strangers, Jen and Charlie come home to find “I Know What You Did” painted on the garage. Oh no. Jen immediately rushes next door to take a look at Karen’s surveillance and gets a funny scene with Marc Evan Jackson as Jeff. He’s officially splitting from Karen because he’s in love with someone named Sebastian, the gentleman from the hotel in episode four. Karen is going to need a lot more orange wine. More importantly, Jen knows who spray-painted her garage.
It was Parker! It turns out that Charlie has another girlfriend and the Insta-awful Parker knows where to get spray paint. Charlie speaks sweetly of a new girl in his life who also lost her dad, and one has to wonder how that person is going to be connected to all this, given this “small town’s” track record of coincidences like Michelle/Perez. Is it Steve’s illegitimate daughter? Perez’s? Nick’s? Anything seems possible.
The final few scenes really place the logs for things to go up in flames the last pair of episodes. Charlie spots the gas can in the garage, where it shouldn’t be. And then he pulls out what he took from Steve’s glove compartment, including a burner phone that Hastings answers! And he speaks Greek! At the same time, Harper calls the Steve Wood tip line and Nick answers— she’s got some information for him, but we’re not yet privy to what that is. Judy tries to call her mother, only to find out something that seems to upset her. And Ben comes to make out with Jen. He closes the door behind him, having no idea about the chaos that’s about to unfold in his life. Let’s hope the heart that had seven surgeries can handle it.
• The ensemble this season has elevated in every way. Both Applegate and Cardellini are even better than in season one, and they were great last year. Marsden is showing his range, contrasting Ben with Steve. And it extends to the supporting cast. Riva is great and Sam McCarthy deserves some praise for how he’s grown as an actor between the seasons. He’s starting to look like a future star, finding a nice balance in a character that could have been a plot device.
• If you’re wondering where you recognize Jeff from, Marc Evan Jackson has most recently been hysterical as Holt’s husband Kevin on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He was also excellent on The Good Place.
• I love that Eileen calls her son “Benji.” Don’t you think mom is the only one who does that?
• How about that chemistry between Applegate and Marsden? It’s really strong in ways that shows like this don’t often consider. And it will make the ultimate flaming out of this cute couple all the more heartbreaking.