Note: “Live Free or Die” is currently available to stream on AMC+; its broadcast premiere on AMC is July 4, 2021.
Three episodes in, Kevin Can F**k Himself has been intentional about the distinct boundaries between its sitcom and drama halves. The number of cameras is different, the lighting is different, the writing tone and content are different, Annie Murphy’s performance is different. The Kevin Can F**k Himself that cues up a laugh track for every terrible joke Kevin and Neil make about the New England Patriots or Good Will Hunting is not the same show that follows Allison to Sam’s AA meeting and puts her through the agony of meeting his seemingly perfect wife while Allison emphatically bites into the one food item we’ve seen her enjoy so far: the humble powdered-sugar doughnut. The former scene is defined by irritation, the latter by low-key tragedy, and how the former causes the latter is what creator Valerie Armstrong and showrunner Craig DiGregorio have been emphasizing and exploring with all this single-cam versus multi-cam experimentation.
But so far, neither “Living the Dream,” “New Tricks,” nor “We’re Selling Washing Machines” has spent so much time on Kevin without Allison, and when fourth episode “Live Free or Die” chooses to do so, it makes for a thoroughly unpleasant watch. Sure, it’s purposeful: We have to stand alongside Kevin during one of his idiotic schemes and childish meltdowns so we can compare and contrast his, his father Pete’s, and his best friend Neil’s encouragement and complicity in his behavior, with Allison and Patty’s exasperation, resentment, and ultimate disgust with it. Seeing both perspectives during Kevin’s first instance of relentless calling was effective, hammering home the yawning gap between Kevin’s huffy immaturity and demand to be accommodated and Allison’s traumatized, reactionary fear of hearing the phone ring, and her instinctive belief that she has to answer it right now.
Pairing Allison with Patty has helped clarify that her frustrations with Kevin aren’t baseless, and that her growing anger at how much he’s taken advantage of her over the decade of their marriage is warranted. Cleaning out their savings accounts. Belittling and controlling her. Damaging their home by breaking down doors, as we learn during his casual hostage taking of those escape room players, and damaging Allison’s reputation by getting her fired from her paralegal job and spreading rumors that she was having an affair. First: Who would blame her if she had been? And second: Do the additional details we learn about what Kevin has done to Allison over the years make her desire to kill him … more justified?
I’m not going to answer that one way or another, because I am writing on the Internet for all to read! Everyone can see this! Ultimately, though, while I can grasp the necessity of having us suffer through listen to, watch, and experience all of Kevin’s foolishness so we can understand Allison’s breaking point, spending this much time on the sitcom side of Kevin Can F**k Himself was frankly difficult to sit through. Did we need all the escape room drama? It’s already plain that Kevin is a selfish person who can’t handle women in leadership roles, or even as equals to him, and who acts petulantly and idiotically. At a certain point during “Live Free or Die,” the repetitiveness of cutting back to the McRoberts’ house lost its effectiveness. Why not spend more time with Allison and Patty on the road as they tiptoe closer toward friendship? Or even clue us into how Detective Tammy’s investigation of Terrance is progressing? Please, I beg. Anything but Kevin.
“Live Free or Die” follows Allison and Patty as they hit the road to Vermont to buy Oxy, which Patty thinks Allison is doing because she went on a bender and stole pills from some scary guy named Jason (Sam’s rock-bottom story that Allison stole). What to make of the fact that Detective Tammy tells Patty not to leave town, and Patty immediately does so anyway? I think that’s the first sign from Patty that she feels some guilt for her behavior toward Allison over the years, and she feels a certain debt to her clients, and during the drive from Worcester, the women break some ground. Jokes about dead moms, murder, and father seduction will do that, I suppose, as will the revelation that the women went to high school together. They weren’t friends, but there’s a certain camaraderie in knowing the same people and having the same kind of memories.
Before Kevin Can F**k Himself goes too far down a Freaks and Geeks path, though, Patty and Allison end up in Vermont, where they’re basically stuck on a wild goose chase trying to track down the Oxy that was promised. Patty’s connect misunderstood what she wanted, and sells her cocaine instead; the teenager who tells Patty and Allison that he’ll guide them to the Oxy dealer ends up being a smart-ass; and the “Red Rooster” dealer who Patty and Allison do eventually meet trades them a gun for the cocaine rather than Oxy. Nothing seems to be going right, but to keep Patty helping her, Allison leans into the lie. She says that Jason is now stalking her, and that he won’t leave her alone — and she’s so convincing that later at a gas station, when Allison approaches a truck driver to buy his Oxy, Patty thinks stalker Jason has followed them across state lines, and knocks the man out cold.
The role reversal after this mistake is solid acting from both Murphy and Mary Hollis Inboden, with Allison adopting the take-charge, no-bullshit attitude that Patty had been working during the trip, and Patty freezing in a state of shock at what she’d done. Is this confident, self-assured Allison what she used to be like before Kevin? She grabs the Oxy, she ushers Patty to the car, she takes over driving duty, she shoves the gun down her pants when they get pulled over, and she smiles her way through the conversation with the two cops who come up to ask Allison and Patty why they’re in a car that’s been reported stolen. Because Kevin, rather than, say, calling Patty, or being chill about his wife being gone for maybe half a day, instead went to the police. The zero-to-100-real-quick nature of Kevin’s choice is finally what helps crystallize for Patty that her neighbor and friend is not only “not a great guy,” but a bona fide asshole who doesn’t listen to his wife, remember anything she says, or trust her. The rawness Murphy and Inboden bring to that conversation, in particular Inboden’s chastisement, makes that scene the episode’s best.
But what comes next? Telling Patty about her plan is a leap of faith on Allison’s part, and not a guaranteed wise one. And what Allison said about how Kevin controls their lives again speaks to my question about the rigidity of this show’s presentation of the McRoberts’s existence as a sitcom: “The world revolves around him. It’s not that it does. It’s that it has to. If it doesn’t, he just blows it to hell. It has to stop.” Is that a literal “it has to,” because Allison is stuck in a sitcom from which she has to break free? Or that a figurative “it has to,” because Kevin is used to getting his way through years of reinforced patriarchy, narcissism, and abuse? And if it’s both, Allison has the Oxy, and she potentially has an ally. Maybe Kevin getting stuck in that window isn’t the worst thing that’s going to happen to him.
What Else We Could Be
• Kudos to Patty for stealing those teenagers’ French fries; if that’s “bitchy” behavior, then I guess I too am a bitch for cheering her on. Give me all the starches!
• Neil’s “lunch, some beers, an app, and dinner” meal planning had real Hobbit energy, but I’m thinking Neil would be one of those dudes who never leaves the Shire. Trust Neil with a ring of power? Never.
• Do we think Detective Tammy already knows about the Patty/Terrance phone call, or does that come up later? Terrance was right, though: Never use the phone for criminal activity. That was an amateur move, Patty.
• What exactly about Allison made her look “custy”? Was it the puffy vest?
• Is some of Patty’s dislike of Allison rooted in the girl she used to be — the one who was a star on the swim team, who had a close group of friends, and who was hooking up with Sam in secret? Maybe that dismissive “Barbie” nickname has a different, historical edge.
• Kevin sure sounded more worried about “some thug” stealing his crappy car than he did about the possibility of Allison’s death, didn’t he?
• “Buffalo Wild Wings has good commercials” is exactly the kind of dumb thing that a sitcom husband would say, so kudos to Kevin Can F**k Himself for knowing its enemy so thoroughly.