“It’s called ‘constructing a relatable narrative,’” Bruce Ben-Bacharach says of his Twitter campaign on Maria’s behalf. “First, you get all the sympathy, and then whammo! You let your hero or your heroine have it.” Maria needs a sympathetic narrative right now, because her story on social media and the news is veering out of control. When Bruce shipped 10,000 unwanted Bam! Bam! Bamford T-shirts to South Sudan, he inadvertently made Maria the face of a child army. She’s gone viral, in the worst possible way.
Like Bruce, Lady Dynamite is constructing a narrative from Maria Bamford’s life. And like Bruce, it’s picking and choosing what to tell and when. The show is loosely based on her experiences, but we can’t know how much is fiction. We don’t need to know.
The episode title, “Mein Ramp,” lampshades the fictionalizing of Bamford’s life as blatantly as Bruce’s strategy does. It’s true that during an unstable period, the death of Bamford’s beloved dog Blossom plunged her into deep depression. But Blossom didn’t die from eating discarded mood stabilizers. For dramatic reasons, for personal reasons, for whatever reasons, Pam Brady (Lady Dynamite co-creator and this episode’s credited writer), Maria Bamford, and the writers’ room changed the events leading to Blossom’s death. This episode, and the show as a whole, isn’t reality. It’s constructed to parallel reality. It’s fiction and it’s truth. And whammo, does Lady Dynamite let her have it.
Competing narratives abound in “Mein Ramp.” The BBC reports that Maria’s more than a face on the child army’s shirts; she’s funding their campaign. Rumor has it she’s making money from bloodshed. The warlords convince the children their T-shirts make them invulnerable to bullets. As Maria says, “People are saying mean things about me on social media. And perhaps more importantly, children are dying.”
Bruce is desperate to control Maria’s story online (#redsaddle) and face to face, all while pretending he has nothing to do with this viral disaster. He’s booked her on a talk show to tell her story, a piece of good news he’s “deliberately withheld for dramatic value.” He pumps her up with the promise that her appearance on Kimmle (no, not that one) means hitting the big time.
But Ginny Kimmle (Kerri Kenney) shapes the story to her own needs. She cuts off Maria’s explanations and controls the flow of conversation. She redirects the audience’s emotions: “And we’re back to laughing, which is so important.” With the help of Santa Clarita High’s after-school clubs, she does dig up the truth behind the T-shirts, trapping Bruce into a dramatic on-air confession. But she also takes control of the pregnancy hoax, fabricating an extra layer of theatrics along with her fabricated evidence: “We’re going to fake the DNA results. You’re not the father, so just look relieved.”
In Duluth, Susan’s on an emotional—and narrative—roller coaster. First, she reveals she’s not in love with Paul, and she’s brutally unhappy. After a call mistakenly reporting his death, she realizes she does still love him. When Paul returns unharmed, they’re both ecstatic until Paul announces he’s leaving Susan for Bear Claw, Maria’s counselor and Paul’s guide, “and I have Maria to thank for it.” (“Oh, no,” whispers Maria from her corner of the room. She doesn’t want to be instrumental in this story.)
After breaking into a sustained, terrifying howl, Susan reclaims not just Paul’s future, but his narrative: “Here’s how this is going to go. You’re not moving into anybody’s adorable cabin. If you ever want to see your kids again, you will only see Bear Claw in the summer. And we will never speak of this again.” Paul spent two weeks in guided meditation freeing his spirit, but Susan’s plan boxes him right back in.
In the present, Maria’s trying to control the story of her romantic life. Talking over Thanksgiving plans, she downplays her relationship with Scott, but Dagmar and Larissa don’t let her get away with it: “Way to bury the lede, you whore!” Maria demurs: “It’s just dinner,” she says, and “Has it been that long?” But they call her on it every time. “That’s a serious fucking relationship, Maria,” Dagmar tells her. “Don’t freak out. Because… Maria, serious relationships are awesome.”
Director Jessica Yu makes Maria’s Thanksgiving present an uncomfortable echo of her depressive Duluth timeline: dim, cool, heavily shadowed. The dinner table is downright Kubrickian, a monolith dwarfing her ever-shrinking faith in her relationship—in her ability to have a relationship.
Graham’s abrupt break-up shapes Maria’s response to conflict with Scott; she even uses the same words Graham used to end their engagement. But that loss isn’t the one that haunts her. As she searches “how to break up with someone,” the camera holds on Bert—and, by extension, Lady Dynamite focuses on the absent Blossom. Bamford’s voiceover narrates, “When life gets overwhelming, it’s the ones closest to you that suffer the most.”
“I have very good reasons,” she tells Scott, but she can’t elaborate. Dodging commitment with vague “very good reasons” and escalating lies is an established pattern for Maria. That’s not just because Graham convinced her that fighting is the death knell of a relationship, or because she’s deeply conflict-averse. It’s because, as her voiceover says, “Relationships are hard. As soon as you enter one, you open yourself to loss.”
In Maria’s world, loss is a fiancé walking away when she needs him most. It’s a friend blaming her for the dissolution of her marriage. It’s a professional handler who should be advocating for her instead urging her to place her career over her health. It’s a blossoming career crashing in the aftermath of her diagnosis.
But sometimes loss is worse. One terrible day, loss is the death of someone she loves. And she blames herself, even though it was purely accidental. Having suffered through that grief and self-reproach once, Maria unconsciously strives to insulate herself (and everyone else) from loss. But loss is an integral part of loving others and letting ourselves be loved. The possibility of grief is what gives love its gravity. Maria dumps Scott in a frantic attempt to control the narrative, but controlling the narrative—controlling how the story ends—only means more loss.
Well, that was sobering, much like the ending of “Mein Ramp.” Let’s end on a happier note: the return of the Lucas Bros. Clink clink clink clink clink!
- Today in Lady Dynamite signage (see header image): If a T-shirt can be a sign, so can a dog blanket. “Mein Ramp” makes a simple statement about Checklist’s façade of bargains covering an abyss of exploitation and destruction—and about Maria’s belief that Checklist has driven her to the brink. As she wraps the blanket around Blossom’s lifeless body, its cheery red lettering overlaps, transforming DEALS to DEAD.
- Chantrelle’s son, head of the Santa Clarita High Afterschool Gumshoe Club, is named M’orelle.
- Susan’s attempt at stand-up is a way of reshaping her story, both by co-opting her best friend’s profession (and claiming Maria is jealous of her ability) and by reciting self-praise in place of jokes. Even as she’s lamenting Paul’s death, she lapses into self-aggrandizement about her “ridiculously successful law job, the Lexus.”
- To soften the blow of Blossom’s death, Bert relates the bittersweet story of her last words: “‘Tell Maria I peeked in the fridge, and it was the best dog cake I ever…’ She died right then.”