Since I don’t know what to do with myself after the first season of Physical ended as head-scratchingly as it did — with two unhappily married misanthropes wordlessly indulging in mutual masturbation from afar within the tacky confines of an empty shopping mall at night — I decided to go back to the beginning of the season. I didn’t revisit the premiere, though; instead, I decided to go back and reread Kathryn VanArendonk’s June review of Physical. A paragraph near the end is sticking with me:
“There are gestures at all kinds of bigger things throughout Physical. It’s a show that would love to be about Reaganism, the rise of the American mall, sexual kinkery, bipartisan political bloviating, a Californian obsession with luxury and authenticity and the self.”
I mean, that’s not only the entire show, that’s also the entire final sequence, right? Sheila and Evil John Breem do exactly half of those things — engage in sexual kinkery at an American mall — while back at home, Danny (who Sheila’s ditched for the umpteenth time) and Jerry do the rest: engage in political bloviating about Reaganism while obsessing in their oh-so-Californian way (you know, by snorting rails) about how authentic they are, man; in other words, masturbation of a different, more mental kind. (They got me LOL’ing with that “think tank” idea of theirs; nothing screams mental masturbation more than an idea for a think tank.)
But watching the season finale unfold, VanArendonk’s note of “gestures” feels exactly right. I’ve tried before to coalesce Physical’s subtexts and storylines into big ideas and what’s-it-all-mean morals, but now I’m compelled to ask: Was Physical trying to do likewise? I fully believe the show has a point of view (perhaps too many, as VanArendonk noticed), but does it have a point? Did we really stick with Sheila this whole time just to hear her mind’s voice exclaim, “Look at me! Yes!” as she wacks off to visions of a future aerobics tape with much glossier production qualities than her first one?
Here’s the rest of VanAerndonk’s paragraph:
“Most tellingly, Physical also seems like a show that would love to be about aerobics at least some of the time, the way a group aerobics class can feel like a church, the way it feeds Sheila’s disease even as it soothes her need for control. But it falls short here, just as it falls short in essentially every element of its thematic interests beyond the intense, pathological depiction of Sheila’s bulimia.”
I think I had a lot riding on Sheila; I put a lot of faith in her. It mattered to me that Physical was attempting to dramatize her internal journey, to give voice (literally, figuratively, in all the ways) to the silent, heartbreaking epidemic of women’s feelings of worthlessness. Like I said at the start of the season, I’ve undergone my fair share of therapy, and it’s made me really keyed in to how important self-talk is. Sheila’s self-talk, it seems, was only an important part of Physical until it wasn’t.
After Sheila told Danny at the end of the previous episode that they can leverage the burgeoning popularity of her workout tape to win his electoral race, this episode opens with her giving an open-to-all fitness demonstration at the mall — not in Bunny’s studio, but out in the shopping center’s atrium. Danny’s there too, manning a table with political literature that all of these aerobics acolytes will hopefully read. Danny’s also gobsmacked by the whole display, while Schmidt (his GOP opponent) is steamed, and Evil John Breem looks on with an unreadable expression (although he does smile at Sheila). Sheila instructs her students not to listen to that voice in their heads that’s saying, “Slow down, take a break, it’s a little hard.” She asks the crowd, “Are we gonna listen to that voice? No!”
So, yes: I think we can conclude, based on that line, that aerobics is indeed feeding Sheila’s disease — and that Sheila’s self-talk has been reduced to a narrative convenience to be wielded however it’s needed, whether in service of healthy or unhealthy objectives, in a particular scene. After all, this is the same voice that triumphantly declared last week, “I can’t hide anymore. I don’t want to.” That felt at the time like a watershed reckoning, with Sheila realizing that it’s possible to live a more fulfilled life when your outer self reflects your inner needs. Now she’s not only telling others to STFU about those inner needs; she’s also, in the immediate aftermath of the event, lying to everyone: her husband, Breem, Bunny. I mean, I get it: One step forward, two steps back. But still.
The next day, Sheila makes the front page of the Styles section, but there’s barely any mention of Danny’s campaign. (“A futile but valiant effort,” the paper calls it.) While checking out an apartment with Tyler, Bunny reads the article and sees that she’s also fast becoming yesterday’s news as far as Sheila’s enterprise is concerned. Before she can fully voice her worries, Tyler collapses on the floor. He winds up in surgery with an ear canal infection, putting him and Bunny even further in a financial hole. (Most from-left-field funny line of the episode belongs to Bunny: “You’re not scamming us, Dr. No-Nuts.”)
From no nuts to huge balls: Election Day is finally here, so Jerry delivers one of his self-serving diatribes, calling Danny “a giant among men” while “crying like a little bitch.” (See also: political bloviating, Californian obsession with authenticity.) Danny gets up and says some nice, pat, wife-guy things about Sheila. He repeats those sentiments later on when they’re checking out a polling location, and it all sounds fine and great until later that night when it’s announced that Danny has lost.
What happens during that scene is disturbing. While I have never been diagnosed with a clinical eating disorder (although I’ll count myself among the every-woman-I-know who’s endured a fucked-up relationship to food), I feel this scene needed a trigger warning. Danny forcefully presses a cream puff into Sheila’s mouth while hurling a string of accusatory, woe-is-me, passive-aggressive bullshit at her: “Excuse me for eating something. You should try it sometime.” “Don’t walk away. I need this.” “Eat this … indulge yourself for once in your life. Do it for me.” “That working out that you’re doing, you’re just trying to build up your strength so you can leave me?”
It’s an impactful scene, to be sure, but one that I feel could have been even more impactful had I … cared more, I guess? Danny’s a caricature and an afterthought to Sheila (and us), and because of this, the scene felt to me like straight-up abuse, just one person denying another person’s personhood so he can take what he needs emotionally at the moment. He’s always taken advantage of Sheila’s placid exterior to reflect back at himself exactly what he wants to see and nothing more. (It’s a throwaway line, but when Danny tells Sheila after her aerobics demonstration, “You were really something else,” I felt that and took it at face value. He did not know she was something other than what he always lazily assumed she was.)
Speaking of caring more, Bunny and Tyler then show up at Sheila’s door, interrupting another one of her political get-togethers. (Side note: The same things happen a lot on Physical! Bunny and Tyler show up unannounced at Sheila’s parties; Sheila leaves every party she’s throwing or attending; there are sooo many parties in general; Sheila tells Breem “You don’t know me at all” when he clearly does; Danny acts selfishly and Jerry acts selfishly and so on.) Bunny gets right to the point: She thinks Sheila doesn’t care about them and is gonna fly away on a “rocketship to Money Town,” leaving her and Tyler behind. Now Sheila’s inner monologue comes rushing back. “She has you pegged,” she tells herself about Bunny. “You lying sack of shit. She sees who you are and always has.” Sheila basically gives them the brush-off, then goes back inside and starts shitting on everyone, calling them “big fat losers” in her mind. She grabs the cream puffs and tries to go into the bathroom to eat them (the same behavior she exhibited at that Lea DeLaria party way back in the show’s second episode — and the same bathroom, I believe, where we first saw Sheila during the premiere). “You will explode,” she tells herself in rote fashion as she waits for Greta and Ernie to finish fucking and open the door. But she doesn’t explode… yet. She takes off and heads to the mall and sees Breem running laps, because that is how a guy like Breem processes big news like getting your Mormon wife pregnant. (Breem and his wife always remind me of this line from Sex and the City where puritanical Charlotte says, “My parents believed that any head problem can be solved with physical exercise. That’s why all of us are really good tennis players.”)
Oh my god they’re finally gonna fuck, my interior monologue says as Breem and Sheila stare at one another across the darkness. The juxtaposition between them at the mall and Danny and Jerry back at home is completely hilarious, right up until the point where I realize that is it. That’s the ending? Is this supposed to mean that she’s just giving herself over to the dark side, to Republicanism and capitalism? That’s Sheila’s arc? That’s, like, Emily in Paris levels of shallow.
Unless, I realized some time after I’d finished watching the finale, this was meant to be not a resolution, but a cliffhanger. It was just announced that Physical is getting a season two renewal. At first, I resented this news because I felt shafted on receiving a satisfying finale. But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’m a bit hopeful. Sheila may be a mean girl now, but like all great antiheroes, I know there’s something more, something better, waiting to surface from underneath. I still want to know what Physical can be and who Sheila really is. I know Sheila wants that, too.