The big revelation of “Enter The Super Grisham”—that Maria’s three advisors, all with the same name, the same unassailable confidence, and the same malignant drive, are representations of her mania—isn’t a revelation at all. It’s been there in the background all along. Just seconds into the pilot, Maria tumbles down a playground slide that’s wearing Hollywood agent Karen Grisham’s glasses; the chute she falls out of is the slide’s mouth, and the swirling spiral ride down is her frantic tumble from energy to insensibility.
Karen Grisham is—all the Karen Grishams are—the embodiment of Maria’s manic episodes, and the glamorous, deluded certainty they bring out in her is a symptom of her illness. Lady Dynamite hints at this in some episodes and spells it out in others; in the season finale, the supporting characters’ role as aspects of Maria’s mental landscape becomes a central plot point.
The flip side of that unearned manic self-assurance, that blithe undertaking of even the impossible, is Maria’s tendency to shrink from commitment, to shut down possibilities. In Duluth, after the crash precipitated by Blossom’s death, her belief in her own abilities is shattered. Her parents won’t allow her a private space in her own childhood bedroom. Maria shies from responsibility, even for a dog (“except for Bert, he’s grandfathered in”), even if the dog’s fate is either to go home with her or be drowned in a bucket, even when Bert pleads for his lady love’s life.
In the present, Maria returns to this paralyzed state of hesitation and withdrawal. She’s broken up with Scott because relationships mean commitment, and commitment means the possibility of loss, and of letting down loved ones. Bruce digs her enthusiasm for his management strategy: “Take anything!” including second banana in an incontinence medication commercial. But like her past reluctance to take on responsibility, the Bruce Ben-Bacharach career plan is a recipe for mediocrity and stagnation, not happiness. For Maria, it’s a way to sublimate her anguish, just “pushing down all the feelings, down, down, down.”
It’s Blossom—sweet, sultry, sinister Blossom—who inspires Maria to trust herself again. In a vision, Blossom (voiced by Bamford channeling a heady blend of Marlene Dietrich and Sally Bowles) urges Maria to embrace life again: to accept the love (and risk) of taking Blueberry home. She exhorts Maria to take herself home, too, by returning to her house, her career, her life in “the scum-filled streets of the city of angels, where you belong.”
“Live, liebchen, live,” Blossom says as her farewell, and Blossom knew how to live. “This girl really knew how to set it on fire,” real estate Karen Grisham says at her funeral. There’s so much Maria didn’t know about her late dog. Blossom was buying a condo where she’d have lived with her hot corgi boyfriend. (Bert is her primary partner in a “a loosey-goosey Kurt-and-Goldie thing.”) She was a recovering alcoholic sponsored by Robert Downey, Jr. She had dual Canadian/German citizenship. And she was locked in a mortal struggle with her oblivious owner. Blossom died in Maria’s care, but she lived her life to the fullest first.
The closest Maria’s gotten to living with zest is living with panicked abandon, and they’re not the same thing. Feigning confidence is fine; feigning confidence by taking on an entirely false persona is abdicating your own life. Moving in your brand-new boyfriend for pleasure is fine; moving him in because you don’t know how not to is a disaster. Undertaking a new exercise program is constructive; setting impossible goals is destructive.
Balance means finding the middle ground between mania and depression, but the Karen Grishams (or is it Karens Grisham, like surgeons general?) don’t want that. When Maria tries to pull back from her involvement with Checklist, agent Karen Grisham rebukes her as a failure. “Can’t or cunt?” she snaps, summing up her disdain of those who won’t keep up with her insatiable demands. (Real estate agent Karen Grisham, wandering into the conversation, seconds that worldview. “Cunt. What are we talking about?”) Speaking both as a professional tyrant and as Maria’s driving mania, Karen Grisham tells her grieving, obviously distraught client, “Okay, so, fuck you, you’re doing it.”
At Blossom’s funeral, the three Grishams collide—yes, even Jenny Slate’s life coach Karen Grisham, whom Maria hasn’t met yet. She arrives from the future to fuse with her counterparts into a single entity. Enter the Super Grisham, a fat guinea pig embodying all three Grishams. The Super Grisham is “a hairy little golem that represents my manic false engine,” and who fits conveniently into Maria’s pocket for her fateful trip to the Checklist Checkdown.
There, at the Super Grisham’s urging, Maria mounts her assault on the giant corporation that masks its depredations behind her cheerful face, that uses her as the voice of oppression, that makes her complicit in global slavery… that, she believes, killed Blossom. “It’s go-time, babycakes,” the guinea pig tells her. “For justice. For Blossom.” In an impassioned speech, Maria condemns Checklist, fellow presenter Mark McGrath, the audience full of employees, and herself.
But we know, and have known from the first seconds of Lady Dynamite, that Maria’s reality is unreliable. Her glossy series-opening sassafras reverie isn’t the show’s reality, and her fiery indictment of Checklist—and of herself—might not be, either. In her head, it’s half rousing appeal, half superhero battle, and entirely the stirring triumph of good over evil. But in the video two hospital workers chuckle over, she screeches nonsensically into the mic, then attacks Mark McGrath and sends Checklist’s comatose founder plunging offstage in his wheelchair.
The visuals of this scene convey its mood as vividly as the performances. A spotlight flickering over the stage leaves Maria standing in the dark or flinching from blinding flashes of light. Maria, founder Ray Banachek, and McGrath are static at stage left, weighting the frame so it’s as unbalanced as Maria’s interior state.
“Press all the buttons! Press every single button,” real estate agent Karen Grisham orders from the command center steering Maria’s mania. “I am!” says life coach Karen Grisham, and she really, really is. All three Grishams lean over the control panel, wildly smacking buttons. Their chaotic commands drive Maria’s imagined heroic figure—her Power Rangers-style Ultra Maria—into a fighting frenzy, then total collapse.
A combination of fear and mental illness is what landed her in Duluth, Bamford’s voiceover narrates, “but I wasn’t going to let fear and mental illness stop me now.” Blossom counsels Maria from beyond the grave to embrace life, but her Abluvia commercial co-star’s (Gabriel Hogan) celebration of pugs jump-starts her reunion with Scott. “I love pugs!” he blurts. “They don’t do anything. At all. And it’s enough!” Their fuck-peppered chatter full of tears and laughter is a stupid, simple jolt of human connection, and that’s the spark that gets her going. This near-stranger reminds her that she is worthy of love and capable of love—that she is enough.
In a big, bold, “really goddamned dangerous” gesture, Maria bikes to Scott’s house to re-enact their first meeting, and their first night together. Heedless of the hazards of electricity, she shears his power line, leaving them in the dark, and asks if he needs help getting get his lights back on.
Romantic-comedy gestures work in romantic comedies, not in relationships. Like Graham’s trail of rose petals, like Maria’s premature proposal, cutting Scott’s power is too much. (Unlike those, it’s also a life-threatening act of vandalism.) This is Maria’s desperate attempt to start over, to short-circuit their conflict and power through to reconciliation. Like Maria’s friends, who won’t let her get away with pretenses, Scott won’t let her disappear into avoidance. Echoing her symbolic use of electricity to force a connection, he uses the language of electricity to take her to task. “You can’t just turn it on and turn it off,” he says. “That’s not how relationships work.”
Maria doesn’t know how relationships work. But Scott does, and he’s patient enough to share. “Maria, you know you can have a fight with someone and not break up? You can’t do it every day, but… y’know, every once in a while, for sure.” A fight isn’t the end; a fight is like a blown fuse, and you can’t be afraid to tinker around in the fuse box of your heart.
This is the real revelation in “Enter The Super Grisham,” and this seemingly small breakthrough is set up as a crucial character arc in Lady Dynamite’s first episode. At first, Maria recoils from Scott’s anger, but he’s right to be angry. And so is she, once she accepts her own feelings. “I am mad,” he tells her, and she shoots back, “I’m mad, too!” And the sky doesn’t fall. The world doesn’t end. Scott doesn’t turn away. She can be angry and people will still love her, friends will still show up, her lover will still listen. The purple van still comes in the morning. At the episode’s (and season’s) end, Maria and Scott and Bert are left in the dark, sure, but they’re together in the dark.
Lady Dynamite is a dynamo of a show. It’s a form-stretching experiment in surreality. It’s an empathetic and sometimes brutally frank portrait of living with mental illness. It’s a reliable narrative from an unreliable narrator. It’s a vehicle for a star with a uniquely distinctive voice and it’s an ensemble showcase where even small roles shine. It’s a hilarious comedy woven through with brilliant touches that reward re-watching. It’s a champion GIF and quote factory. It’s a sweet romance between improbable television characters, and the improbability of seeing them as romantic leads makes them feel powerfully real—powerfully human and humane. It’s a character study that transforms an idiosyncratic protagonist’s experience into a universally accessible story. And it would all be impossible without Maria Bamford’s electricity, without her inimitable spark. This girl really knows how to set it on fire.
- Today in Lady Dynamite
signagehome decor: “Leave the clock. Leave the fucking clock.”
- I love how zealously Bert supports Maria, even when he knows she’s in the wrong. “It’s late, Scott, and she doesn’t want to see your fucking garbage face.”
- Joel: “Where’d he go? He was just here, snorting away.” Marilyn: “Well, let’s not get in a panic. I mean, how far can a pug go?”
- “Blossom never kissed me like that.”