I liked this episode of Physical, but I’m not sure what to say about it, so I’m going to start by saying two things about it: Wendie! Malick!
Every episode of every show should end with a berobed Wendie Malick opening the front door of some Fresh Prince of Bel-Air mansion and staring daggers at whoever’s on the other side. The best thing about the seventh episode of Physical is now that there will presumably be a big ol’ salty dose of Wendie! Malick! in the eighth episode going toe-to-toe with Rose Byrne. I cannot wait.
When I say I’m not sure what to say about this episode of Physical, I mean that I think I’m in search of a Grand Unifying Theory About What It All Means, but I’m not sure what that is yet. Narrative motifs and parallel plotlines abound in “Let’s Take This Show on the Road,” but it’s been a while since I pulled an all-nighter to churn out a lit-crit paper, so coalescing all of them into a coherent hypothesis is not coming easily to me.
For example, both Sheila and Tyler venture further afield in this episode: she to a hedonistically designed L.A. estate to go see some Berkeley hippies turned La La Land zealots; he to an equally decadent (if less moneyed) courtyard-looking spread to go see his film editor (who’s also a surfboard maker, and also, that was THE MOST AMAZING caricature of a surfer dude I have ever been privileged to enjoy). Both of them also have money problems on their minds, and as a means of coping with those problems, both also end up sliding backward into bad or unhealthy behaviors or vices. Tyler eats an entire pot churro and winds up impulse-purchasing a custom Thruster surfboard (that “TyTy” tag on it will cost him an extra “three hundo” he doesn’t have), while Sheila, frustrated in part by the fact that nobody’s opening up their wallets for Danny’s campaign at her schmoozefest, goes out to their borrowed convertible and binges the contents of some sort of snack bag she finds in the glove compartment.
Then there’s the even more overt correlations between what Sheila does next and the dramatic decisions Greta and Evil John Breem are making back at home. Earlier in the episode, Greta had a very saddening encounter with her husband in their studio-apartment-size bathroom, where she’s shaving her legs (oof, that early-’80s, horribly designed, plastic little shiv of a ladies’ razor made me wince just looking at it) and he barges in complaining of some chili dogs he ate; the whole exchange was just kinda gross and pathetic, physically and emotionally, and for me, it swiftly centered the urgency of Greta’s dilemma. Yes, she’s been a tough-to-like, sad-sack Debbie Downer for several episodes now, but like Sheila, she’s also a woman in flux. She’s on a desperate search to reclaim or reframe who she is after feeling abandoned by the husband who shaped her identity and gave her a purpose for so long.
Greta winds up watching the tape Sheila gave her in the last episode, the one where Ernie secretly filmed several women shaving their heads on-camera. When we first cut to Greta seated on her couch playing the tape on her TV, I was startled and sat up straighter as all of these questions burst into my head. First off, it looked to me for a moment like that was somehow Jerry and not Greta (from the back, they have the same hair!), but even once I realized who it was, I felt like the show skipped a narrative step here. Is this the first time she’s watching the tape after Sheila gave it to her? Or did she somehow already know about Ernie’s proclivities? Her steady facial expression made her seem not at all taken aback.
In either case, she starts to make a choice after that scene, and next we see her, she is standing in front of a mirror with an electric razor, presumably prepared to give Ernie what she thinks he wants. (Or maybe to give him a big “fuck you” before sending him packing, although that doesn’t seem her style, or even like something she’s capable of.)
Speaking of big fuck yous, next up is birthday boy Evil John Breem. His birthday-party scene had me cackling. His cake is marked stoically with “Happy Birthday Father” written on it, and I have not seen such a hilariously sober b-day greeting since Jim and Dwight decorated the conference room for Kelly Kapoor’s birthday with a computer printout that read, “It Is Your Birthday.” (When I realized that we were witnessing his birthday party, my first thought was, well, at least we now know he is a mortal being and not, like, a sentient slab of the finest quartz monzonite brought to life by the Latter-Day Saints.) (Yes, I just looked up what Mormon temples are made of.)
Then Breem slices into the cake like he’s trying to murder it and practically dares his guests to ask for a piece. “Have some cake. Anyone else. Cake,” he monotones as Johnny Mathis softly croons “Wonderful Wonderful” in the background. What has set him off? Partly it seems like he’s just not into birthdays, refusing to play along with the whole make-a-wish-but-don’t-say-it-out-loud superstition. Partly it seems like he doesn’t care for his mother reminding him that he’s now the same age his father was when he was “called back” to God. Or maybe Breem just doesn’t care for his mother, period, and based on this scene, I can’t say I blame him.
Later on, his wife (I’m presuming? I can’t recall what she looked like when we’ve glimpsed her previously) comes into his study to hand him the stack of b-day thank-you notes she’s written on his behalf and to inquire about his satisfaction with the party. (You could tell me this was his secretary and not his wife, and except for the fact that everyone’s in their sleeping clothes, I’d of course believe you.) “It seemed like you were burdened emotionally, like there might be stress in your mind and heart, perhaps because of your father and certain memories,” she states. Breem gives an equally stilted reply (those Breems really do talk like I imagine quartz slabs would), assuring her that his stress is only “external.”
But now it’s his turn to make a drastic choice. He goes out to his backyard pool and stares at it a long while before finally jumping in. For a second or two, I thought this was like a Graduate/Ferris Bueller’s Day Off moment of acute ennui expressed through falling into a pool, except we then see that Breem can’t swim. (There was that moment in the first half of the series, remember, when Breem and Sheila are talking on the beach as the waves lap up, and he kinda scurried away from them, didn’t he?)
So these are the parallels that I’m seeing: To Sheila, making the decision to go see her mother in person is as dire as shaving your head or attempting suicide. (Important side note: Breem needs to survive this, because I need to know from his point of view what’s so awful and unbearable in his world.) In that tightly edited montage at the end of this episode, in which Greta, Breem, and Sheila are all at their wits’ end, it’s Sheila’s voiceover we hear coaxing all of them through this: “You can do this. You know you can.”
Somewhere in there, I picked up what she was getting at. ”Oh, she’s going to see her parents,” it occurred to me. The reason that occurred to me, of course, is because of Belinda Westbrook. Who is Belinda Westbrook, you ask? Well, I quickly jotted her name down because when Tanya told Sheila that Belinda Westbrook was at the party, Sheila reacted like Belinda Westbrook was somebody famous, and since this was L.A., I thought maybe she was about to meet some made-up early-’80s celeb. But it turns out, Belinda Westbrook is just another old Berkeley pal of theirs who’s fluent in narrative exposition:
“You married that Jewish hippie to piss off your parents.” “You are still the skinniest in the room, like always.” “I am the one who taught her how to throw up before ballet class.” “You don’t still do that, do you? Sneak off and barf?” “My psychologist told me it’s never really about food; it’s about control.” “You were always the best at ballet and then you quit and nobody knew why.”
Belinda Westbrook’s first declaration set up the expectation that we were going to meet some parents soon. (Tangent I’m going to throw in here: Speaking of setting up expectations, all that talk about the lack of railings at Tanya’s cliffside manse when she and her husband were giving Sheila and Danny the tour had me absolutely convinced that someone was going to eat it at the party later on. Chekhov would be disappointed that nobody did, although maybe he’d settle for Breem’s literal and figurative downfall instead.) Belinda’s last declaration makes me think we’re going to get to the bottom of this whole ballet backstory next week. (Is Sheila’s aerobics fixation just a transference of her relationship to ballet?) The middle statements made me think about something that I’ve been pondering on and off since the start of Physical: Where are Sheila’s real friends? Why doesn’t she have any? Sheila resents or dismisses everyone on this show; why hasn’t she been given some kind of kindred spirit? That list used to include herself, and I can only count it as healthy that she’s been demeaning herself less and less. Maybe what I’m getting at is that clearly something — someone, specifically — is still missing from Sheila’s life and that’s why she’s still so unfulfilled. Maybe that someone is her mom Wendie! Malick! or maybe not, but I can’t wait to see what we learn when all that plays out next week.