Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Web Therapy: “Stalk Therapy”

Illustration for article titled Web Therapy: “Stalk Therapy”

There’s still one more episode this season (and hopefully many more beyond), but “Stalk Therapy” has the electric gravitas of a series finale. The first clue is the missing introductory title card. From the first frame of the episode, things are different. The scene isn’t even interested in comedy, offering instead a sad glimpse of real life for Fiona and Kip. That, in itself, is unsettling. Have we ever seen these people so naked? Kip lies about Ben not being with him, but he doesn’t lift a finger to pretend like that’s true. And Fiona is open about her lack of fulfillment twice this episode, starting with this surprise call to a person who is realistically an old friend more than a husband. Everything is just the way they wanted. Kip is about to win election, indulging in a late-night glass of wine with his new lover in a relationship that seems as healthy as possible under the circumstances. Fiona has no obligations at the moment; she’s about to win some unearned fame, and soon enough she can be with Austen full-time. But even she can see she’s not happy. That late-evening contemplation sets the mood. “Stalk Therapy” is a quiet little gut-punch.

Even the funnier scenes in the episode have this surprising tint of comeuppance. First, Gina gets promoted out of Nome after giving Austen “mouth-to-tongue resuscitation.” Fiona’s of two minds about this: She wants to be thanked for her role in the promotion, and she wants Gina to reject it. Even more than usual, “Stalk Therapy” is rooted in plausible psychology. Fiona’s two impulses are expressions of the two obvious facts that nobody says out loud. The first is that, however minimal her contribution, the fact is that Gina may not have met Austen if not for Fiona. And the second is that Austen has a history of fooling around. After finding out that Richard has a crush on someone else (in a sequence that depends on Tim Bagley’s soft delivery and that white-noise drone of the airplane), that makes three men who have moved on from Fiona this week.

The Putsy scenes provide the finale-like, full-circle closure that charges the episode. After a hysterical sequence where Lily Tomlin and her sock puppet are trying out matching prison ensembles (orange jumpsuit, corn rows, a tear tattoo), Putsy plays two cards. She’s been recording Fiona (even e-mailing her a hilariously queued-up sound-bite of Fiona advising her to lie to the police), and she intends to launch a new, sock-puppet-based modality of webcam therapy called Net Therapy. A Net Therapy session will be one minute longer and cost fifty cents less than a Web Therapy session. Everything Fiona thinks she has going for her is being taken away, and it’s all because of her own actions.

At last, Newell explains his story. None of this would have the same power if the cast weren’t so precise—if Lily Tomlin didn’t reveal her punchlines like dessert, if Jennifer Elise Cox didn’t rock a malapropism, if Lisa Kudrow didn’t know exactly how to pack an “oh”—and that’s especially true for David Schwimmer telling a long, strange, moody story. It’s not (just) the story but the way he tells it that’s moving. It’s difficult for him to tell it, and he has to lean on “My therapist thinks” a couple times. He can’t look Fiona in the eye, and he has one hell of a “Hooah!” Fiona says she didn’t know the full story of her fallout, and he bites with a sudden, aggressive, “Why would you?”

It’s another case of Fiona getting what comes around. After walking in on Fiona with his father (her ethics professor), Newell told his mother and everything fell apart. His parents divorced. His mother was institutionalized. His father found a new family and tacitly abandoned Newell. Now Newell seeks out women who remind him of Fiona: “Tall, blonde, statuesque…” “You could do worse.” “…Who treat me dismissively and abrasively and, um, fill me with self-disgust and self-loathing.” He’s impotent unless he can recreate that scarring vision of Fiona wearing a backpack, riding his father, shouting like Al Pacino. And now, he wants to recreate it even more faithfully, with Fiona herself, supposedly at his therapist’s behest. At no point does Newell ask Fiona to explain or defend her actions, but she does jump to a non sequitur when she realizes how serious he is about spending a night with her. “I was 20 years old. What did I know?” Indeed. I mean, many 20-year-olds are pretty aware of the moral lines there—it’s not like Fiona is seriously challenging monogamy or pretending she earned that grade—but it’s also true that Fiona couldn’t reasonably expect to leave such a wake. And now all these chickens are coming home to roost.

Going into the season one finale, it felt like things were this close to falling apart, and it was going to be hilarious to watch Fiona’s cruelty bring her down. But here we are. The scales are finally tipping away from Fiona, but there’s no schadenfreude. For a show this compelled by compassion, that wouldn’t have been as appropriate anyway. Instead of reveling in some delicious just desserts, season two offers up a long, hard look at an empty life. What a coup. Whatever happens will be inevitable, and this is the night Fiona braces for the hurricane. “Stalk Therapy” isn’t exciting at all. And that is exciting.


Stray observations:

  • Are we going to hear about Fiona's appearance on Conan ever? Or is that going to be in the finale?
  • Something else that sets "Stalk Therapy" apart: The title cards are all names (Carrie Underwood, Loretta Young, Al Pacino), although Nanook Of The North is a stretch.
  • Fiona chalks up her stalker to Ben creating enemies for Kip. Which makes no sense based on Newell’s earlier scenes, but surely Fiona isn’t responsible for his behavior.
  • Gina can’t wait for London. “Eiffel Tower, here I come!”
  • In her conversation with Richard, Fiona mocks the idea of flipping a switch from a personal chat to therapy, but that is exactly how she operates. She blurs lines all over the place, with her professor, with her sister, with her mother… The list goes on.
  • She also momentarily reveals some regret to Richard. “It’s just, for me, as well, I wish this campaign were over, too. Get back to some things that I enjoyed doing before.” Although she may go overboard. “I’ve sacrificed everything, my book…”
  • Fiona has a question for her mother in the nursing home. “What’s going on, though, with the pending murder charges?”
  • Fiona can’t get a clear answer from Putsy. “Did Mabel write the note?” “I can’t say who wrote the note. I’m sure it was Mabel herself. She may have dictated to Little Mabel, but I think it came genuinely, authentically from Mabel’s heart.”
  • Another crystallizing thesis moment: “Darling, you must come to terms with the reality of your own behavior and take responsibility for it.”
  • One example of Lily Tomlin’s P.S. punchlines: “I know how much you wanted me to find a hobby… that did not include drugs.”
  • It’s hard not to think of Phoebe when Lisa Kudrow says, “Oh, no,” while talking to David Schwimmer.
  • Schwimmer is genuinely moving. “I was involved. I was there.” It’s not a joke, and it’s not set-up. He’s asserting himself. Meanwhile, Lisa Kudrow is tacitly conciliatory but as distanced as she can reasonably be. Fiona is the personification of “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
  • Fiona fends off Newell: “I’m married.” “Whatever that means. I Googled you. I saw a photo of your husband. The wedding something. Is he gay?” “… Officially, he’s not.”
  • That final, lingering shot, before Web Therapy resorts to the unconvincing frozen-image trick again, is the very image of nervous anticipation. Newell looks a little hopeful for the first time, and Fiona looks politely repulsed.
  • Newell tries to schedule a hook-up with Fiona. “When are you free?” “I’m not.” “I have no STDS, and I promise that I would not try anal.” “How big of you.” “Yes.”