Not a surprise, but: I honestly never cared about the men on this show (except Tyler) until now.
The men have always seemed engineered in a screenwriting lab to be disdained and nothing more. They are self-obsessed, their worldviews so crowded with nothing but their own desires that it’s like an abstract form of manspreading. So imagine my shock when I realized about halfway through this episode of Physical that I was actually liking Danny and Ernie and Evil John Breem. I can’t even call him evil anymore, can I? The dude is showing growth! (And also, he’s married to a lady who is a dead ringer for Alison Brie as Trudy Campbell on Mad Men and I get a kick out of always telling myself when she appears onscreen, “Oh m god, again I thought that was Alison Brie.”)
The episode opens with Breem’s near-drowning and not-Alison-Brie rescuing him from their backyard pool using a killer rescue stroke. (I trained to be a lifeguard as a teenager but never took the test.) Then we’re back at that ill-fated L.A. fund-raising party, and despite the fact that Danny’s friend Jack (Al Madrigal) may have singlehandedly deflated his friend’s political campaign by making him waste precious time raising zero dollars, they’re not mad at each other. Even when Danny reminds Jack that he didn’t call Jack “as bad as Reagan,” he called him “worse than Reagan.” Even when Jack tells Danny, “You were always better at dishing it out than taking it,” to which Danny simply states, “I know.”
In real life, not even scripted TV life, I have always admired how relatively easily men seem to be able to forgive and forget. Sometimes I think that’s a situation where their egos serve them well, the way they’re not inclined to take every slight as an attack on their entire existence.
Speaking of slights and ego, Jack also admits in this scene that he’s “jealous” of what Danny has, and Danny assumes he means Danny’s worldview, Danny’s outside-of-L.A. setup, something like that, until Jack informs him that he’s jealous because “at the end of the day, she picked you.” So yeah, Danny’s ego scored an own goal on that point; not only didn’t it occur to him that Jack might be talking about Sheila, but Danny also never realized that Sheila left the party.
It’s finally Wendie Malick time! Squeeee! Let the gauntlets be thrown, let the games begin! “Are you well? You look well,” Malick, as Sheila’s mom, asks her while seated ramrod a respectable distance from this late-night interloper. “I knitted a hat for her; it’s probably way too small for her by now.” Dagger! Seriously, I thought I had estrangement issues, but not letting your parents meet your now-4-year-old is wow. I feel like I’m watching a Gilmore Girls remake in this scene.
After some evident exposition that I always find a tinge annoying on this show (Mom: “If we could just meet Maya for an afternoon — ”; Dad: “You know she won’t allow that. She’s made it clear over the years”; one of them, I didn’t jot down which: “We both know what the reason is for that, don’t we?”) Sheila ultimately wrings $5,000 out of them with the promise that they’ll get to meet Maya.
This episode is full of unhappy rich people in their mansions — literally, Breem tells not-Trudie after his near-drowning, “I’m unhappy,” and I’m proud of him for admitting a feeling — so here’s two more of those people: Ernie and Greta. When the latter’s attempt at peeling the former’s attention away from his soccer game on TV fails, she tries abject honesty instead. “It’s hurtful to ask a question and not get an answer,” she tells him. (Girl! I’ve been there and I feel that!) “I want you to communicate with me. I’m your wife.” Then she pulls out the Hail Mary and shows him her shaved head. He squeals on himself, admitting to Greta that his shaved-head fetish is “weird and it’s embarrassing and I just like it” before trying to turn the tables on her. “You violated my privacy and you had no right to do that,” he says like it’s a threat, and her face falls as she apologizes in response.
At first I thought she was kidding, that this was a bit of sarcastic play-acting before she bites his head off; a moment later, when I realized she was being sincere, it twisted my insides a bit. Greta needs help, lots of help, just to stand up for herself. And to my shock, Ernie’s the one who delivers that help in this moment. “Don’t back down,” he tells her. She ultimately gathers the courage to tell him, “I’m mad at you.” The simple, declarative statements of feeling are coming out this week, people! Unhappy John Breem, scooch over to make some room for Greta on our consciousness-raising couch! “Say what you are; you have to say it to me,” she tells Ernie. “From now on, whatever it is.” Ernie says what he is, is “so turned on” and she is pleased, because as she just said, we’re all sickos deep down.
And deep down, it seems, Danny is a devout member of Team Sheila — or maybe he’s just devout to his own ideals of youthful defiance, and hating on her parents comes from that place more than one of love and support for Sheila, I’m not sure. Either way, it looks the same on the outside: Danny is totally against Sheila agreeing to give the grandparents face time with Maya in exchange for money. Danny says “that’s not happening,” not even if it’s just Wendie Malick, because “you told her and she did nothing. She could’ve believed you but she didn’t have the guts.”
Then Sheila thinks in her head the line that will stick in my head for a long time after this season is over: “He really thinks it’s that easy for us. And why wouldn’t he?”
Isn’t that the whole show right there? Isn’t Physical really about women overcoming what does not come easy for them? There’s no easy confidence for the women of Physical; what self-worth and value they have managed to acquire has been extremely difficult to earn (see: Bunny’s hardscrabble storyline this episode) and often earned in secret, away from the presumed judgement the men would inflict on them, because the men live easy in a world designed to accommodate them and the women find ways to be accommodating, carving out space for their own needs in the margins (see: Sheila’s secret aerobics habit) and sometimes satiating themselves in unhealthy ways (see: Sheila and Greta’s disordered eating) because living at the margins of your own life can really fuck you up. The patriarchy implicitly tells all of us that men’s desires can and should be boundless and that women just have to deal, which is why Sheila’s dad’s old frat buddy can rape her in her parents’ house and they, in turn, will spend decades denying that fact, even if it means never meeting their grandkid.
In the end, the women take baby steps toward progress in this episode. Sheila doesn’t carry out the vase-smashing revenge fantasy in her parents’ manse that she fantasizes about doing (girl, I feel you; I’ve been there too!), but she does topple over a couple topiaries on their front walkway before bailing on their Maya date, and both Danny and I are proud of her. Greta turns off the TV at breakfast until she sees the respect she wants not just from Ernie, but from their grubby little kids, too; then she goes off and takes a dip in their pool, i.e., does something entirely for herself. And even Mrs. John Breem gets in on the act, popping one of Sheila’s workout tapes into the old VCR. (“How did she get the tape??” I screamed in my head. But I guess we’re meant to infer that the tape is catching on among the San Diego housewife set?) I think we just found out how Sheila’s going to finally solve her money problems and wind up becoming the Workout Tape Queen we were given a glimpse of way back in episode one. I think the only question at this point is, will the men (besides Breem, because he’s gonna invest in her, is what I was just getting at) admire her when she does?