Maria’s troubles have been simmering for decades.
Lady Dynamite’s season premiere promises that sometimes, you can have your cake and eat it, too. Halfway through the season, the proof is in the pinnekjøtt. “Souplutions” (written by Hallie Cantor) continues the present-day arc of Maria wrestling with mundane but crucial relationship milestones and millstones, and simultaneously delves into a chapter of the Bamford family’s history that adds another layer to her own past periods of instability.
As the episode opens, Scott is sick, and it seems like everyone is a natural nurturer except for Maria. Bruce has a file-cabinet fridge full of soups, each one tailored to a specific ailment. Bert and Blueberry tuck Scott in, sing soothing lullabies, and shoo off every disturbance.
One of those disturbances is Maria, who throws open the door, tosses a cold can of chunky clam chowder at her sick fiancé as he dozes, and badgers him to fill out another of her personal-growth workbooks. On the advice of her life coach Karen Grisham and loaf coach Karl Grisham (Jenny Slate and Jason Mantzoukas, returning as the incestuous sister-brother bad-advice team), Maria tries to drill Scott’s fever out of him in more than one way. (“You know that old saying, ‘Starve a cold, fuck a fever.’”) Clearly, Maria’s caregiving skills need a little work, but she shouldn’t need a grid of anyone’s emotional needs and personal preferences to know not to straddling a helpless person and and poke a running drill in their face, and that probably goes double for someone whose father used to throw knives at him.
Most threatening to Maria is Scott’s best friend Jessica Hu (Gabrielle Dennis), who knows exactly what he needs without any love lab notebooks to guide her. She brings him a hot bowl of his favorite soup (wor wonton from The Green Dragon with extra dumplings and wontons), gives him a little quiet company, and leaves before she can tire him out. Jessica’s perfect, and that perfection points out Maria’s flaws.
Her name looks at first like just a set-up for life coach Karen Grisham’s (marvelously labored) “Jessica Who?” joke, but it’s probably a nod to Jessica Yu, who, like Scott’s best friend, is a documentary filmmaker, as well as director of Bamford’s boundary-breaking stand-up special Old Baby and devastatingly intimate Lady Dynamite episode “Mein Ramp.” If so, Jessica’s name benefited from more invention than the actual character.
Throughout “Souplutions,” Jessica’s described again and again as “perfect.” Making her flawlessly kind as well as flawlessly gifted simplifies the narrative by making her as unthreatening as a perfect person can be. She offers nothing but perfect support to Scott and to Maria. She wishes them nothing but perfect happiness. In fact, she seems to have no self-interest at all. Even when Maria barfs all over her big premiere, Jessica handles it perfectly, because Jessica isn’t a character. She’s the blameless instrument used to inject some tension between Maria and Scott.
As the show cuts to 1987 Duluth, Bamford narrates, “They say we learn to nurture from our mothers. In my case, my mom was distracted with problems of her own.” She sure does. When royalty visits Duluth in 1987, Marilyn’s simple rivalry with another member of a Norwegian heritage club over pinnekjøtt escalates in her own imagination until she’s convinced everyone around her is embroiled in a diabolical plot. It’s genuinely unsettling to see Maria’s mother—routinely overbearing and cheerfully caustic, but also deeply affectionate—ranting about poison and devils and evil.
The script doesn’t describe Marilyn’s diagnosis (and the episode seems to be drawn from a similarly brief but much later event in the real Marilyn Bamford’s life), but both her rueful expression and her conversation with her daughter reveal that it stems from a long-standing, well-controlled medical condition. “I figured since I hadn’t had a seizure in 20 years, why was I taking the medication?” she tells 16-year-old Maria, “so I stopped. Not good.”
Marilyn’s delusion, that a competitive friend is actually the hellish accomplice of an inhuman force trying to destroy her, is uncomfortably close to the situation unfolding in the offices of Space Nuts. Here, Maria’s been demoted from the star of an idealistic autobiographical series to a tertiary character begging her former best friend and current nemesis for mercy.
Mo Collins’ portrayal of Susan, always broad, has been even more so in season two, but “Souplutions” shows it’s been building to this peak. Lady Dynamite knows how to soften violence with comical exaggeration, but in “Souplution,” it walks a trickier line. The situation is outlandish, Susan’s violence is overblown and cartoonish, but it’s also terrifyingly real.
When she smashes into the room, wielding the massice pincers of her exoskeleton, the camera lingers on the shattered glass and wood in her wake. Scott flees her approach with frank panic, and the fluid force with which she throws aside the sofa to pursue him is shocking. Collins plays her part with grotesque coyness, but Ólafur Darri Ólafsson plays these scenes as the horror they are.
As relevant as the Duluth revelations are to Maria’s future, they bear little relationship to the present, where Maria is needlessly intimidated by Scott’s friend. Bamford’s voiceover tries to link past to present, but its connection to Maria’s problem in the present is weak. With her empathy for those from troubled backgrounds, Maria must know that plenty of people learn nurturing from someone other than a mother. And if Marilyn hasn’t had “a seizure” in twenty years, why would her condition have disrupted her relationship with her 16-year-old daughter? It’s an attempt to conjure up a relationship between the two stories, but the sleight-of-hand falls a little flat.
Despite the flaws that threaten to make its structure as shaky as a Sling-a-ling hastily mounted by an unskilled hand (“What are you doing with tools, Maria?”), “Souplutions” stands up pretty solidly. It continues the season’s early direction by letting present-day Maria sort out some reassuringly common problems. It builds anticipation and earnest fear for the future in equal measure; leaving Scott in Susan’s literal clutches is the closest thing to a cliffhanger this season. And it subtly adds a new layer to the dynamics of the first season, which candidly (if hilariously) reveals that as hard as Maria’s breakdowns were for her, they were also painful for the people who love her. After “Souplutions,” it’s clear that adult Maria must have had a heartbreaking inkling of their pain, because she went through it herself as a girl.
“There are no shortcuts,” Maria muses as the episode ends. “Best friendship takes time, just like soup. You’ve got to pay attention to it. Otherwise it burns on the bottom.” That’s true of relationships and soup and personal well-being. In the present, Maria is diligently, if not perfectly, balancing her career, her family, her friendships, her marriage-t0-be, and her own well-being. But her psychiatric woes have been simmering for a long, long time—as “Souplutions” shows, maybe since before she was born. And in the future, she’s putting her well-being and her relationships on the back burner in exchange for an increasingly empty career. Here’s hoping they don’t burn on the bottom.
- Here’s a hand for the wardrobe department, who keep outfitting Maria in tiny heart prints to reflect the richly romantic storyline of this season, and who contrast that trend by putting her in bold stars for her meeting with Karen Grisham and Don, Jr.
- And another for the set design and props folks, who contrast the pug portraits, florals and landscapes, and playful swooping patterns of Maria and Scott’s present home with the cooler, blocky abstract prints of their future home. Though the banner describes it as “Maria and Scott’s future home,” it appears to be their current house painted and shot from a different angle, to go with the off-kilter world of Maria’s future.
- “Never forgive me! Never forgive me!” Me, leaving any social gathering.