One of the things I find fascinating and a tiny bit off-putting about Physical and the show’s protagonist, Sheila (Rose Byrne), is how boring her life is on its face. She’s a housewife and a stay-at-home mom who shows no interest in her husband (can’t blame her) or her daughter (how come?). She takes ballet to stay fit (or at least, talks to herself a lot about going to ballet to stay fit) and runs the family errands and doesn’t seem to have any real friends or hobbies or interests or passions. I don’t want her bulimic issues to stand in as a substitute for a personality, because to me, that’s lazy character development, and also that’s just not something I think is true; a person is more than his or her mental health, and (oftentimes, in my experience) mental afflictions don’t inform a person’s authentic self so much as they prohibit that authentic self from flourishing.
The series has done a great job so far camouflaging this potential drawback with lots of indulgent production design (everything from Sheila’s big head of curls to the hazy beach scenes to Greta and her husband’s Renata-on-Big-Little-Lies mansion to the frequent shots of Danny’s bare ass) and swooping camera shots; the latter, more notably, conveys just how much of a frenetic, calamitous maelstrom Sheila’s life feels to her on the inside even if it looks like nothing much from the outside. (Craig Gillespie helmed the first episode, and if you’ve seen his direction in I, Tonya, this likely makes perfect sense to you).
Still, there are a few things that happen in this episode that made me feel like we’re getting somewhere with who Sheila really is. The half-hour opens with Sheila coming to in a strange place after passing out in her first aerobics class at the end of the pilot. That Rabbit-driving aerobics instructor tells her to “drink your pink” (sugar-free pink lemonade and speed, apparently) and then interrogates Sheila about whether she’s some sort of spy. All the while, what is quite clearly a porno can be heard playing in the next room. The full scope of the situation is cleverly revealed to us: Bunny (Della Saba) and her man Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci) are living in the office of her mall aerobics studio — and cutting pornos there. They overplay their hand trying to shake down Sheila and determine whether she’s snooping on them on behalf of mall magnate John Breem, a misstep Sheila leverages to shake them down for the thousand bucks she needs to replenish her bank account after bleeding it dry from burger runs and motel rentals. The whole scene zings with tension, and I love how it ends with Bunny matter-of-factly telling Tyler, “Get the coffee can.”
Life is once again less zingy back at home, where Danny is stepping things up in his quest to launch a career in politics and chastising his wife for not overreacting to his every thought like he’s the most “brilliant” creature she’s ever known. At the same time, he takes a sudden interest in her life and asks if he can tag along with her on one of her usual days, just for funsies. This is where I realized just how dullsville things are for her, and so yes, it makes perfect sense that the one thing she’s suddenly interested in is recapturing the euphoria she felt during Bunny’s aerobics class. Ditching Danny, she finds Tyler at the beach and tells him she wants to take the class again. “What she does, it’s special,” Sheila tells him. “It made me feel powerful.” (We see her mind’s eye briefly flash back to bingeing, confirming what I’m sure many of us have suspected: that she has a desire to replace one behavior with the other.) Tyler tells her that Evil John Breem (I think that’s what I call him now) is going to destroy the stretch of beach they’re on with more development — and what do you know, Sheila’s instantly more enthused about Danny running for office against that Evil John Breem.
That means hobnobbing with the hubby at Greta’s Huge House of Liberalism, because Greta’s husband, Ernie, is the wealthy wheel-greaser in local lefty politics. Sheila doesn’t remember Greta telling her any of this at preschool drop-offs (I remember!), and the whole outing goes badly for both Sheila and Danny. So Sheila sets out the next day determined to “fix this mess,” which mainly means sucking up to Greta. Sheila stuns everyone by volunteering alongside Greta at preschool (hold up: It’s a co-op preschool and she hasn’t done any helping out until now?), then accompanies her to the mall for a sticky bun. Greta tells her, “Ernie doesn’t listen to a word I say, but we’re working on it in therapy,” and I want to tap Sheila on the shoulder and suggest she pay attention and tell her that here, here is a friend you could make. I honestly want to say something sappy to her like, “I bet you two would get along if you just gave her a chance.” And the fact that Sheila is both so self-loathing and yet so confident in feeling so above Greta is, once again, something that beguiles me and displeases me at the same time.
What with the sticky bun she just downed (“in for a penny, in for a pound”) and I guess her already being at the mall and everything, Sheila tries to sneak into Bunny’s class, but gets kicked out. Instead, it’s back to another party. This one’s not as fancy, but it’s more dangerous for Sheila. Simone’s there, which doesn’t exactly do wonders for Sheila’s self-esteem, as is … a cake. A big sheet cake with Danny’s name on it. (Nice to throw the guy a party while kicking him out the door, I suppose?) Appearing as if she has nowhere else to turn, Sheila turns to the cake, takes it into a bathroom, strips, and eats the whole thing.
Whoo boy, do I recognize this scene on a very personal level. (Let me just put out here that, while I have never experienced a clinical eating disorder, I do believe that many, many, many of us — certainly many, many women and female-identifying folks — contend with all kinds of disordered eating. Like I said in my last recap, thank you for coming to my TED talk.) I know what it’s like to attend a party and focus only on the snack table. You’re either obsessed with avoiding it or you’re obsessed with hovering over it without looking like you’re hovering (and, of course, telling yourself that your obsession is terrible and swearing this’ll be the last time). Physical is also making me stop and think about how we constantly rely on food as a social lubricant and how much we pressure others to accept food they don’t necessarily want. (That’ll be my next TED talk.)
There’s one more threat to Sheila’s self-preservation at this party: a lesbian professor in the form of Orange Is the New Black dynamo Lea DeLaria. Her character might primarily teach women’s studies, but here, she minors in helpful narrative backstory. “If you’re ever ready to resume your graduate work, we can figure that out,” the professor tells Sheila. “It really burns me up that you would give up your own academic prospects for that motor-mouthed potato.” We now have confirmation that Sheila was at one point “someone of consequence.”
So perhaps what’s really going on here is that Sheila’s chasing who she used to be and how life used to make her feel: fulfilled, in control, a person with agency. Perhaps that’s why, still unable (or unwilling) to shake how great aerobics felt, Sheila again tracks down Tyler — this time, with a proposal: If Bunny will let her back into class, then Tyler can direct Danny’s first campaign ad and move on from porn. The episode ends with her back in class, and maybe we’re about to start getting to see the new (old) Sheila.