The third episode of Dispatches From Elsewhere should come with a warning label: “Still emotionally destroyed by the first five minutes of Pixar’s Up? Keep tissues handy.”
Like the two episodes before it, “Janice’s” focus is on the titular character, and because Janice is a 70-year-old woman who’s lived a life, there’s a lot of that to cover, much of it tied up in her decades of marriage to Lev, her lifelong best friend who now appears to be confined to bed in their home.
So far, the show has been as kind and sympathetic to Janice as any of its other characters, but it has also not shied away from how, in the eyes of her teammates, she’s seen as “just a nice old lady.” Turns out, Janice has noticed, and doesn’t like it all that much — because she might be older, but like any person who’s put in some time on this Earth, she contains unknown potential and hidden depths.
One of the strongest aspects of the episode is how those depths are drawn out, from her casual mention of the time she and Lev accidentally took Quaaludes to the back-and-forth she engages in with her past self, beautiful in her wedding dress and furious about the path taken by her future self.
Getting to this point, though, requires some tricky plotting. Plot-wise, the centerpiece of “Janice” is the previously mentioned shareholders meeting for the Jejune Institute; after Fredwynn sneaks into the trunk of Octavio’s limo, his three teammates chase after him to the meeting’s location. Hoping to find (and potentially save) their friend, they sneak into the presentation, at which point Janice gets pulled onto the stage for a virtual reality experience that transports her back to the day of her wedding.
This sequence represents the first time that Richard E. Grant, as Octavio Coleman, has had any direct in-real-life interaction with our central team. It also, perhaps deliberately, spends the most time asking the question “is this real?” — while definitely deliberately not answering it.
Because of this, it’s easy to dive into nitpicking here. For example, the script finds a clever way to slip in a plausible explanation for how the Jejune Institute (or whoever is behind it) might have been able to create a hyper-real recreation of her wedding: Janice’s son created a Facebook page for her full of photos of the day, which could have been used as references for the simulation. But how did that lead to the subsequent “private” confrontation with her past self? Was this simply a fanciful trip into Janice’s psyche? Was Octavio pumping the amphitheater with hallucinogenic gas?
Also, consider when Commander 14 of the Elsewhere Society leads the surprise raid of the shareholders’ meeting — Commander 14 is also played by Grant, which means that both characters are in the same room at the same time. Having an actor play a dual role on screen goes back to the days of young Hayley Mills; but for the characters within the show, what is actually happening? Does Octavio (or the man pretending to be Octavio) have a twin brother? Or is the same man (or a double) somehow playing both roles? Or is nothing, in fact, truly real?
All of these questions would trouble me a lot more if I honestly felt that solving the puzzles of the battle between the Jejune Institute and the Elsewhere Society was the actual point of this show. But as the clues and mysteries get weirder and harder to explain, they also seem to matter a whole lot less than these characters, who are becoming more and more intriguing.
In a perfect world, of course, these elements would be better calibrated, and there’s a strong chance that as the show ascends further beyond the binds of reality, the bubble will pop. But at multiple points during “Janice,” I was moved to tears, both by the power of Sally Field’s performance and the simplicity of how it exposed the raw truth of this human soul, dealing with perhaps the greatest tragedy of her life. Every member of the team has their reasons for playing the game, and for Janice, the goal isn’t to win — it’s to figure out who she is, without the man she’s been with so long.
Even with this episode’s overt focus on Janice, we also get to know a little more about Simone and Peter, specifically about whether they’d want to relive the past: To Simone, that sounds like a nightmare, while Peter isn’t as horrified by the idea, though he has no photos of the day he’d want to recall. (“What day would that be?” is a question I do hope the show needs to revisit.)
After the raid devolves into delightful chaos, with players from both factions attacking each other with random non-lethal weapons, our gang escapes to the back alley, where they reunite with Fredwynn. Fredwynn reports that he found the script for tonight’s event — but that only means that he’s sure he’s found the next level to the game, one where there are no sides but instead a much deeper truth. However, the team decides to pause until the next day, and after an annoyed Janice takes no shortage of pleasure in revealing that she managed to sneak a secret clue off Octavio, she returns home. As soon as she walks through the door, she starts telling her best friend all about her day.
- The Jejune Institute is very clearly meant to invoke the self-help movements of the 1970s (some of which spiraled into cult-like mentalities). Meanwhile, if someone started a cult devoted to worshipping Richard E. Grant’s green suit in this episode, I’d sign up faster than Sally Field pedaling a five-way bike through Philly.
- For those who also struggle to find the Source button on their remotes (or those who have loved ones dealing with that problem), the latest iterations of smart universal remotes are really quite wonderful. You can program them with the simplest of commands! Technology is really quite marvelous.
- Speaking of technology, the concept of the “time camera” is a fascinating one, as Octavio says it creates “trans-time images of the near-distant past.” So... photographs?
- Tara Lynne Barr, of the dearly departed Casual, guest stars as Young Janice; it’s terrifying to imagine having to go toe-to-toe with Sally damn Field, but the two of them play brilliantly off each other. And while IMDB has definitely been wrong about these sorts of things before, Barr is currently credited as appearing in future episodes.
- While there wasn’t much from Andre Benjamin this week, next week, that will certainly change: Episode four is (you guessed it) entitled “Fredwynn.”
- While I said before that the internal mysteries of the show are beginning to feel less important than the characters, it is important to note that the final moment of the episode introduced perhaps the most genuinely mysterious thing to date: A little boy lurking outside Janice’s house, wearing sad clown make-up with a bit of a smile. According to IMDB, young actor Travis Burnett plays “Clown Boy,” but in the on-screen credits on my screener, he’s credited as The Boy, which will probably be very important by the season finale — currently entitled “The Boy.”