(Maria Bamford) (Photo: Netflix)
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Mary Kay Place walks a thin line as Marilyn Bamford. In this portrayal, Maria’s mother isn’t coddling, and her attention is often scattered. Maybe she busies herself with other people’s problems—Kristy’s high-school comedy routine, Susan’s marital strife, and her newest project, Big Brother, Big Mother—to distract herself from her daughter’s difficulties. But in the Duluth timeline, she’s dogged and ever-present, peppering her backhanded encouragement with a string of absent-minded endearments.

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Marilyn Bamford’s love is a steady, no-nonsense kind of love. She’s stern. She’s not effusive. She doesn’t hide disappointment. She may not understand. But she’s there, chucking Maria on the chin and telling her to keep going.

“Keep that chin up, little lady.” (Bruce Bohne, Mary Kay Place, Maria Bamford) (Photo: Netflix)

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It’s not surprising that Maria has trouble looking Howard (Bruce Bohne), recovering misogynist and not-exactly-a-sex-offender, in the eye. It’s sadder that she can’t meet her mother’s gaze, not even to tell her which eye has conjunctivitis. (“They both do! You would know that if you weren’t shutting out the world.”) It’s saddest of all that she has to practice on a Hummel lamb, wincing from its inanimate gaze.

Lady Dynamite is great at reproducing the look of love. Not the sentimentalized “trail of rose petals” kind—though it does that, too—but simple, unconditional acceptance. Love is Marilyn Bamford gently raising Maria’s chin and looking patiently at her closed eyes until they open. Love is Joel Bamford quietly suffering in the background as he witnesses his daughter’s pain, not making the moment about himself. Love is Graham gazing affectionately at his fiancée and seeing only the best in her. Love is Scott beaming down at his new girlfriend as she rambles about love and monkeys and handling each other’s shit. Despite her recent fears of isolation, Maria’s life is full of love—in her manic Hollywood past, in depression-ridden Duluth, and in the present.

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New love is scary because it means opening up. Maria’s version of opening up is inviting Scott to hear her Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome stand-up (that’s the name of the album and the disorder), then immediately assuming she’s driven him away. There’s a great touch in the staging and editing here: Seen from behind, Scott is shaking with laughter, but from the front—from Maria’s perspective—he only laughs visibly once. Instead, he’s smiling with what looks to me like affection and acceptance, but to Maria’s anxious eye could look like veiled apprehension.

In a clever, understated piece of writing (like “Jack And Diane,” “Knife Feelings” is credited to Matt Ross and Max Searle), Scott doesn’t try to reason her out of her retreat. He draws Maria back by distracting her from her self-loathing with a bit. “I mean, it’s no backwards smoker,” he says, and begins a pantomime performance. For a split second, she forgets everything and just watches, then mimics him. “Yeah, yeah, you’re doing it perfectly,” he tells her. (She definitely is not). Next, he shows her his sketches of Bert and Blueberry. Only then, calm and seated and connected, do they turn back to the subject at hand. It’s masterful, and it’s effortlessly affectionate. Scott isn’t put off by her compulsive fears of chopping up her family and feeding them to others in the form of a Cobb salad. Quite the opposite.

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Casting Ólafur Darri Ólafsson pays big dividends in “Knife Feelings.” He’s a shaggy bear of a man with a sweet and ready smile. But Scott’s embrace of Maria’s fears plays on his previous role as True Detective’s Dewall LeDoux, a grubby meth cook and would-be mystic capable of deep evil. Ólafsson trips along on that ambiguity, delving with glee into Scott’s childhood trauma. “My dad used to chase us with knives,” he reveals on their nature walk, getting more excited as he continues.

Maria, who doesn’t like knives, starts to panic, but he goes on. “You know who else doesn’t like knives? My brother Dave. Took one in the neck in grade school, just—blurp!—bled all over my lunch box, my sandwich.” After revealing “the hor-rors” of her intrusive thoughts, Maria assumed Scott would “run for the hills,” but she’s the one who goes running—down the hill and all the way to Bruce.

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“Knife Feelings” is as much about Maria and Bruce as it is about Maria and Scott. Previous episodes are laced with hints that Maria’s manager might be worse than just inept. He doesn’t send her checks on time, he hits her up for sizable donations and free performances when he knows she’s broke, he isn’t available for phone calls, and in his very first appearance, he’s scheming up a fraud. So it’s strangely heartwarming to see Bruce isn’t embezzling; he’s just terrible at everything.

Bruce is a lousy manager, and Maria is a lousy client. She goes to the wrong audition, she misses the table read for her biggest break yet, she gets banned from the Fox lot—and she confuses business and friendship. In the meeting that opens “Knife Feelings,” Maria rambles on about her new romance (and her vaginismus) while Bruce valiantly tries to navigate the conversation back to professional matters. Later, she runs up to him on the street where he’s selling his last remaining possessions in front of the van where he’s living, and demands more advice. Bruce finally erupts and puts himself first. “Look, Maria, I just can’t handle your shit now, okay?”

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(Fred Melamed, Maria Bamford) (Photo: Netflix)

As always, Fred Melamed is remarkable here, delivering a rich, varied performance in just two minutes. He’s filled with simmering resentment toward his hectoring customer. He clings to shreds of his self-respect. His long-suffering patience strains, then collapses, and he bursts out in frustration at Maria. Finally, his lips quiver in sorrow and shame as he watches her run away. And he does it all without sacrificing the comedy beats. In less sensitive hands, Bruce Ben-Bacharach could be just a pathetic loser, but Melamed gives him a hard-won dignity along with his preposterous pomposity and his abiding love for Maria.

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Even more than Bruce, the great constant in Maria’s life so far is Bert. He’s there for her in manic Hollywood, in depressive Duluth, and in the present. “Why can’t everyone be like you?” she asks him. “You’re easy to talk to… and to look at.” Once again, Bert has insight into Maria’s heart and mind, because Bert is Maria’s heart and mind, speaking to her through her dog. Gently, he leads her to the truth that no one can read her mind and see the dark, distressing thoughts that hound her. More importantly, the people who love her will love her, darkness and all.

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In the parlance of the nature documentary Maria watches to calm her knife feelings, recovering from crisis means learning to handle your own shit. Trust means looking someone in the eye and letting them see the shit you have to handle. But reciprocating is just as important, and that’s what Maria learns in the present. Like the newly paired capuchin monkeys on TV, Maria has to learn to handle her own shit and to remember that other people have shit, too. Loving people means letting them accept your shit and accepting theirs.

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Scott’s with Maria for better or worse. When times are good, he’ll draw Bert and Blueberry and walk through the hills with her. When times are bad, he’ll shave her medication-stimulated beard. Either way, he won’t run for the hills. He’ll look her in the eye and see her as she is. He’ll handle her shit and she’ll handle his… and, as Maria says, that’s quite possibly the most romantic thing that’s ever been said to her.

Stray observations

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  • Today in Lady Dynamite signage: Is a T-shirt a sign? It is for our purposes. Andy Kindler’s concert T-shirt reads Kindler’s List. Are Maria and Andy Kindler Bruce’s only clients? I’m starting to suspect Artist2Artist is a sadly appropriate name.
  • Bruce’s T-shirts are especially heartbreaking because the printed slogan–Bam! Bam!—is what she yelled at him on the Pepper Stepper set, just before the chorus of “Boo-hoo-ruce.”
  • Much of Bamford’s performance is hilariously over the top, but not all. When she sits and smiles at Bert in perfect peace, when she widens her eyes during Bruce’s apology, when she crinkles her eyes at Scott and says, “Get that shit over here,” she’s so natural and open, it’s easy to imagine we’re watching her in unguarded truth.
  • “Maria Elizabeth Sheldon Bamford, I’d like to see you over by the Hummels, please.”
  • It’s impossible to pick out the best bit of Maria and Bert’s musical interlude playing Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” but Maria’s puppet hand reaching down to grab her guitar is up there.
  • The next episode is entitled “Mein Ramp.” If this is what I’m afraid it is, it will be heartrending, for the fictional Maria and for us.
  • The Wendie Malick Pitchapalooza (“sponsored by a major national sandwich chain, which will go unnamed due to legal reasons”) first morphs into Maria’s reimagining of Apple’s “1984” commercial spot, then ends with Malick cradling Bamford in a recreation of The Pietà.

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(Maria Bamford, Wendie Malick) (Photo: Netflix)