While debates might rage about whether binge releases of TV seasons are ultimately inferior viewing experiences to weekly airings, AMC made the right choice to premiere the first two episodes of Dispatches From Elsewhere relatively close to each other.
The first episode, jam-packed as it was with setting up not just a new ensemble but a mystery that defies easy explanation, felt at times a bit busy. But the second episode gets more of a chance to breathe, while also taking its time to explore what immediately has become one of the show’s most interesting qualities: The blooming relationship between two sad, closed-off people who are finding, thanks to both a game and each other, a new glimpse of happiness.
At the very end of episode one, the erstwhile narrator played by Richard E. Grant (perhaps in Octavio Coleman mode, perhaps not) informed us that it’s time for the story to change focus, and so we begin now in Simone’s head, a place which is often haunted by, as she describes at one point, “that voice that says you’re doing great or you’re a piece of shit.” (One of the episode’s more subtle touches is the way we do sometimes hear that voice, via bus announcements or jukeboxes.)
The first scene of “Simone” captures our heroine doing something that scares her: trying to participate in a gay pride parade, an experience that overwhelms her. “So much love staring her right in the face, and yet she turns and runs away,” Grant says. Of course, on one level that could be considered an experience singular to a trans woman’s life—specifically this trans woman. But the emotions involved, as narrated by Grant, are more than relatable. Who hasn’t ever had a moment where they began “to wonder if you were always going to feel alone”? All of us have been Simone, in some way.
(For the record, at the Television Critics Association press tour this January, Lindley praised creator/star Jason Segel and Dispatches for how creating Simone as not just a lead character, but a romantic interest for Peter, was a collaborative experience. “It was one of the best depictions of a character, of a trans character that I had ever read. She felt so close to me and I felt like I knew her and I felt like I could tell her story. And it was really great because Jason allowed me to interject a lot of myself into her, and you know, we really worked together to bring her to life, I think,” she said then.) After the parade, Simone seems to be having a pretty typical day—going to her job as an art docent and finding herself in fanciful conversations with self-portraits of artists like Berthe Morisot. (According to WikiArt, Morisot’s self-portrait is actually hanging right now in the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, but we’ll allow it.)
But enlivening her day is the appearance of Professor (Big)Foot, who leaves her a clue which reawakens the game and leads her back to Peter, who she surprises at his office. Peter’s initially not thrilled to see her, because “it’s really boring here and I’m embarrassed that you’re seeing me like this,” but when someone unknown delivers a Big Mouth Billy Bass, for which Simone has batteries, they dive back into the adventure.
While the first episode reduced Simone and Peter’s first joint mission to a simple hazy montage, episode two is far more committed to playing out each beat of their experience, from identifying where Billy Bass might consider his home to decoding to the message the missing “Clara” shares via Billy, which leads them to a bodega, a dive bar and the hidden headquarters of the Elsewhere Society.
The latter location is where via a complicated bike-to-headset system, Simone gets to watch a 3D cartoon which explains that, as she explains later, the Erstwhile Society, led by the white-bearded Commander 14 ad the mortal enemies of the Jejune Institute, is a group of “cool kids who care about freedom and beauty.”
But that’s not the major drama of the episode—that comes when another Big Mouth Billy clue leads the partners up to a rooftop, where they’re encouraged to reveal “something scary” to each other. There are plenty of fanciful touches buried within “Simone,” but what makes it such a striking installment is how its most affecting, suspenseful and ultimately haunting twist is when Peter is able to tell Simone, in his own stilted but powerful way, that he really likes her—and she simply can’t handle it, backing away from the moment when he’s at his most vulnerable.
Simone tries to deflect what she’s done, while Peter owns his quiet devastation and retreats; the show wouldn’t have gotten to this place without the fun and games, but they don’t make this scene any less real. When Simone talks to her Nana about what happened, she clearly regrets what happened, which perhaps pushes her to re-engage with the rest of her Jejune Institute team, meeting up with Janice and Fredwynn at their diner.
Peter doesn’t show, but the other pair tell Simone all about their day spent learning about the good works of the Jejune Institute, which they consider to be, potentially, the real heroes of this experience. (Clearly, a classic order versus chaos dichotomy.) Two different events are scheduled for that night, a half-hour apart: The first, a protest at the Jejune Institute headquarters by the Elsewhere Society, and a Jejune Institute shareholders meeting.
The team decides to try to attend both, and at the protest, Simone sees Peter. Summoning up an insane amount of bravery, she grabs a microphone from a protester and tells Peter what she should have told him before: She likes him and his face, she likes the game and she’s a mess who doesn’t want to mess things up. It’s honest and real and an important moment for the show, because calibrating a will they/won’t they is a tricky thing, but the fact that Dispatches is not using outside plot obstacles, but the characters’ legitimate issues, is an important choice.
Simone’s speech means that any forward momentum on their obvious chemistry is on hold for a little while—but now, the game’s afoot! We get our first glimpse of Grant as Octavio Coleman in the real world, getting into a limo! And then Fredwynn, obsessed with accumulating more data, sneaks into his trunk! And Janice ain’t gonna leave a man behind, so now she and her teammates are frantically cycling after that limo, to the Jejune Institute shareholders meeting! Annnnnnd guess what? This next episode? It’s time to get to know Janice.
That happens next week, though. In the meantime, I’ll be shipping Simone and Peter, and how their love story unlocks so many emotions about what it means to connect with another person today.
- This week’s Touch of Philly: The episode features the famous “Rocky Steps,” but more importantly does so because Simone works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which I personally had not known was at the top of them.
- Peter reveals that the only CD he owns (and thus, the only music he listens to on purpose) is the Les Miserables soundtrack (original London cast). Segel wrote this episode, so that has to be a reference to his and Neil Patrick Harris’s occasional duets, right?
- Okay, did this episode take place on a weekday or a weekend? Simone, as an art docent, could conceivably have a Saturday or Sunday shift, but it seemed expected for Peter and many of his colleagues to be at work. Neither of them seemed to have any problem bailing on their jobs, though? This element felt a little underbaked.
- Also, while I’m in nitpicking mode: How, exactly, did the trunk of Octavio’s limo pop open long enough for Fredwynn to hide inside?
- There have been other TV shows where a cis person and a trans person have been in a relationship—the first season of Pose included such a storyline. But while Simone being trans is, of course, a fundamental part of her character, there’s something special about the relationship between her and Peter. In a show where what is real and what is fiction is very often up for debate, it’s lovely that one thing feels truly real.