Dead to Me Recap: Dashboard Confessional
Is this the best episode of the new season so far? It brings the wonderful Natalie Morales back to the show as Michelle, Judy’s one-time girlfriend, and gives Linda Cardellini some emotional moments to flex her dramatic muscle — she’s so good at playing a woman who is constantly pushing down emotions that might ruin her rosy outlook, but she allows them to bubble to the surface and be reflected in her eyes, an unexpected frown, or even a tear. Meanwhile, James Marsden gets to display a similar range, showing how the secrets Ben’s carrying on the day of his brother’s funeral are eating at him. And it ends with Ben unleashing his biggest secret on Jen — a very smart move on the part of the writers, because it allows the back half of this season to play out in a way that the season-two cliffhanger may not have suggested.
Judy is back in a doctor’s office while Charlie is at home watching one of those “women behind bars” shows. “Nobody should be watching that,” says Jen, perhaps shaken by a potential vision of her future. She is, after all, seeking help from her son to zip up her dress for the funeral of the man she killed. She calls the Wood family the riptide of problems in their life, but Charlie has already gone back to his headphones and isn’t listening. And Jen is probably the riptide, anyway.
The diagnosis for Judy is bad. She has cervical cancer, and it has spread to her liver. While the doctor explains it’s stage four when the masses are that far from where they started, Judy checks out, staring off at the fountain and photos in the office — including a photo of the doctor’s boat, which looks a lot like the one Judy was on in Jen’s dream in the first scene of the season! How much of that dream was prophetic? Will someone have a piña colada soon? Will there be another jogging dude? Anyway, Judy dives headfirst into denial, noting that she feels fine and that they never would have found anything without the hit-and-run. With everything else going on, there’s no time for cancer.
Cut to Steve’s funeral presided by Pastor Wayne (Keong Sim)! After a quick ceremony, Ben thanks Jen and Judy for coming while Eileen screams at her son’s empty casket. (Frances Conroy is forced to go a little big here, but she’s a good enough actress that she finds a way to ground it.) Steve’s awful secretary from season one who says “girl” a lot made it to the funeral — as did Steve’s father, who turns out to be kind of a handsy creep. (Steve probably took after his pop.) Jen and Judy learn that the casket just contains a suit, because the body was NSFF (Not Safe for Funeral). “You can’t pour soup into a suit,” says the ever-selfish Lorna, who is upset that Eileen’s grief has taken the Wood mansion off the market. To make matters worse, Eileen is insisting that Jen come back for a gathering at the palatial estate.
There, Ben reveals that he’s going to stick around while the FBI investigates, and Jen explores the house enough to find herself trapped in a terrifying room of twin dolls. Ben eventually finds her there and explains that Mom bought the same toys for her twin boys and just kept doing it after they outgrew them. While Jen wonders if a few of the dolls blinked, they have a nice scene discussing the grief they’re carrying. They need to let it out, so they retire to Jen’s car, where she plays her death metal (including “The Thunder of Steel Clouds,” by As Oceans, which kind of rocks). Jen argues that the music helped her cope with her husband’s death, because it reflected how she felt: angry. Ben, on the other hand, likes country music, which mirrors his sadness. He plays the gorgeous “I Fall to Pieces,” by Patsy Cline, and the two share stories about what they do when they’re upset. It’s a great scene — pushing the plot forward while enriching the characters by detailing how they deal with emotion and grief. Receiving the kind of comfort that Ben hasn’t felt in days allows him to do something unexpected: He confesses. “I was driving the car that hit you and Judy,” he says. Jen’s response? A kiss.
While all that is going down, Judy reunites with Michelle, the ex-girlfriend of Detective Perez and almost-girlfriend of Judy. Judy goes back to the retirement home at which she still apparently works (anyone else surprised she was able to hold onto that job until this episode with everything that’s been happening?) and takes Michelle’s mother for a walk, allowing a margarita and some soft serve, which are both against the rules. But the important part is that it reunites her with Michelle, and the two go back to catch up and share some wine over a tarot reading. The first card is Death, but that just means a big change. Sure. “You’ve got a lot of shit going on right now,” says Michelle, and she has no idea how true that is. But since Judy always deflects, we move on from that and learn that Michelle’s restaurant closed but she now has a chance to start her own place in Sonoma at an organic winery. Then they make out.
It makes perfect sense that Judy is looking for something comfortable that feels good on the day she got the worst news of her life. After they have sex, there’s a beat and Judy drops her own confession — a parallel to Ben’s. But Michelle is already asleep when Judy says aloud for the first time that she has cancer. Across town, Ben and Judy are having sex in a car in the rain as Patsy Cline croons. Everyone truly is falling to pieces.
• Why does Jen kiss Ben when he confesses? Does she understand the pain of keeping a violent secret of a regretful, impulsive event? Is it just one less thing to worry about? After all, it’s not the Greeks hunting her down or related to Steve’s investigation in any way. Whatever the reason you land on, it just kind of makes sense.
• There’s palpable sadness in Marsden’s work this year. It’s hard not to feel it in the line “I’m not sure I’m living my best life.”
• The episode opens with another weird, deep musical cut: “Angel Bliss,” by the Peggy Brown Singers. Almost all of the odd cuts this year could play in a doctor’s waiting room. And this one has both the sound of whistling birds and the invocation of the afterlife that comes with the word angel.