“No, we lied,” Audrey tells a Department of Defense panel about the Homecoming initiative. “The protocol was unacceptable.”
With those words, Audrey gives a master class in the art of fake accountability. When asked about the obviously terrible ethical failure of medicating veterans without their knowledge or approval, one of Audrey’s company cohorts gives a mealy-mouthed response about how all the soldiers signed waivers that presumably protected the company. But Audrey’s answer is far more savvy, because it sounds honest, but sends an unspoken message that’s completely self-serving: The protocol may have been unacceptable, but the treatment itself was not invalid. Those soldiers who unwittingly submitted themselves to Geist’s memory-erasing drugs have not unwittingly made themselves available for redeployment. In other words, this unconscionable experiment was a success.
One woman who appreciates this expert doublespeak is Francine Bunda, a new character played by the wonderful Joan Cusack. Cusack hasn’t gotten enough opportunities to play sinister characters in her career, for the obvious reason that she comes across naturally as a likable, funny, down-to-earth person. Even as an uptight private-school principal in School of Rock — the traditional “crusty dean” type in comedies of that ilk — Cusack just needs a little Stevie Nicks to loosen up and become her daffy self again. Seeing her cast here as Francine, a Pentagon official with an interest in continuing the Homecoming program, what stands out is her imposing height and the firmness of her voice. Francine is not merely taking an interest in Geist as a company. She’s running the show.
Much like the last episode, the timeline for “Soap” takes up a compelling space between the events of the first season and the days leading up to the beginning of the second. The timelines between the two seasons merge around the possibility of a meeting between Alex and Walter Cruz, who has been asking questions about what happened to him. At a visit to the VA office, Walter wants to look at his medical records to find evidence of the brain surgery he allegedly had following a bomb blast overseas, since he doesn’t have a scar where any incision might have been made. The answer he gets from the VA is extremely frustrating: They don’t have record of a surgery, but they do have record of a “treatment” that he cannot access, due to its outsourcing to a private contractor. It’s the perfect 21st-century miasma for the government to favor the privacy of a corporation over a citizen, even when it comes to his own medical records. Walter isn’t willing to wait the eight-to-twelve weeks to see (or not see) what’s on the VA guy’s monitor, and he gets arrested for trying to grab it.
As for Alex, she’s trying to clean up Audrey’s mess for her. Alex is a crisis-management specialist, and this is a crisis she believes she can solve. A handful of important questions get worked out in the process: This is how Alex became Jackie. We see the hotel room she will eventually discover after getting her memory wiped. We see the temporary tattoo that marks her as an “Airborne” veteran. We also see the likely source of her amnesia, a full Geist roller that she takes from Audrey and tosses in the garbage can in her room. Given that she later finds that roller empty of all but a little residue, it’s safe to assume that she ingests the rest of it. Whether she does that by choice or whether it’s foisted on her is an open question. (Side note: One major issue with the Geist roller as an anxiety-reducing consumer product would seem to be the danger of someone popping one open and guzzling it. On the other hand, FDA standards may be a little lax in this reality.)
The relationship between Audrey and Alex is fascinating because they both feel comfortable — or mostly comfortable, anyway — operating in an ethical gray zone. For Audrey, the DOD hearing is great news for the company, a tacit approval of its plans to develop these precious, proprietary berries into more products that will boost the company’s growth. She doesn’t have Leonard Geist’s misgivings about the drug, which he likens to Gollum’s relationship to the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. (And looking at Audrey’s face when Alex takes the roller away from her, he might be right about that.) She’s happy with Francine barreling into the office, asking for a tour, and essentially forcing a partnership between the DOD and Geist, despite its founder wanting to shift back to soap. It serves Audrey’s ambition, which trumps any other concerns.
At this point in the season, it’s hard to even parse the difference between Audrey and Colin, the extremely ethically compromised man she replaced and holds in the highest contempt. The two have essentially the same position on the drug and its efficacy, and it’s not obvious that Audrey would have tried a different protocol on the Homecoming initiative had she been in charge. The only real distinction may be in management styles, because they otherwise have plenty in common. There just isn’t room for two piranha in the same river.
• Wonderfully obscure opening needle drop with Starbuck’s “I Got to Know,” a second single off a 1976 soft-rock record that doesn’t seem to be that well remembered. (The title track off the LP, Moonlight Feels Right, was the band’s biggest hit by far, and they mostly toured as an opening band for more popular outfits like ELO and KC and the Sunshine Band.)
• It isn’t often that the head of a company pumping out a dangerous mind-control drug is a good guy, so maybe another shoe will drop on Leonard Geist. Chris Cooper has been known to put a diabolical spin on his normal-guy image.
• “I deal with the shittiest of people every day,” Alex tells Audrey, without a hint of irony. The shitty people, from what we’ve witnessed, are her clients. The non-shitty people are folks she’s paid to deceive. Walter Cruz is one of those unfortunate non-shitty people.