Nearly every week, Stumptown finds a way—thematically or otherwise—to tie whatever case Dex is working to her personal or emotional life. It’s not always subtle, but it always works—that is, until this week. That’s not to say there’s not much to appreciate about “Dex Education,” a mostly great episode of a consistently entertaining and usually thoughtful series. It’s also an episode that kicks a huge hole into its own side, in the form of one character’s absolutely baffling actions.
The stuff that works in “Dex Education,” directed by Lily Mariye, far outweighs its stumbles, but the stumbles are hard to deny—and it’s also possible, as we’ll get into later, that the biggest of them is a feature, not a bug. As has occasionally been the case, the show telegraphs one storyline a little hard, and here it’s Ansel’s (Cole Sibus) plan to move out; he basically makes the rounds to everyone he’s close to who isn’t Dex and asks some piece of advice which, when you add them all together, makes it pretty obvious what’s about to happen. But really, that’s almost a strength in this episode, as Dex’s mountain of shit continues to grow taller and taller; it’s as though there’s an asteroid headed straight for that shit-mountain and we can all see it coming, even if Dex can’t.
So that’s a little heavy-handed, but the good outweighs the bad. The case of the week, too, is pretty good, throwing an old high school rival into Dex’s path for some conversations about bravery and adversity and perspective—and better still, dropping her smack in the middle of a rich-ass charter school where the teens, who are named Owl and things like that, are nightmares, and where one very helpful teacher urges Dex not to take advantage of the rich parents who are willing to do anything to get their kids into good colleges. (Don’t take poor Aunt Becky’s money, Dex, is what she’s saying. But best of all, it gives Cobie Smulders the chance to freak the hell out on a room full of teen girls in full bad teacher mode. It is very, very fun, and I would gladly have watched many more scenes of Mzzz. Parios getting burned by sassy 16-year-olds. Quite a lark.
But the case is far from the main event this week, and it’s in that primary storyline that both the highs and one titanic low of the episode—which, again, I mostly really liked—can be found. The episode opens by following up on that gnarly cliffhanger, which saw Liz (Monica Barbaro) and Dex (Smulders) waking up in bed together, the former without her clothes on. They establish that neither of them remembered what, if anything, happened between them sexually—there were “shots in the kitchen,” Liz says, and then they were laying down on top of the covers, and that’s a wrap on her memories—and Dex, not wanting to involve Ansel in whatever comes next, pushes Liz to leave by jump-and-rolling off the balcony. (It is very funny.) From there on out, it’s pretty much just a matter of if, not when, it all comes out. And Liz is not helping matters.
Which, as it turns out, is intentional. The single best part of this 90 percent good-to-great, 10 percent what-the-fuck hour of television is that Stumptown and Smulders make it perfectly clear that what matters isn’t whether or not Dex slept with her best friend’s girlfriend. What matters is that absolutely no one, Dex included, doubts that such a thing may have happened. It’s a huge betrayal and no one is surprised. So Smulders spends the whole episode playing a person who is just trying to move forward through a day that began with that moment and just got worse, attempting to do her job all the while. It’s never far from the surface, but the show never forgets how good this woman is at compartmentalizing; she takes these massive hits, has almost nothing she can say in her defense. “I feel like I’m being falsely accused here,” she says feebly, before Grey (Jake Johnson, so good in this episode) points out that certainty would be better than all this chaos. And then he boots her out of his life.
It all leads to the two linked scenes that serve as the episode’s heart. First, Sue Lynn (Tantoo Cardinal) tells Dex, not unkindly, that seeing as how they’re standing there watching security camera footage to determine what she did or did not do the night before, it’s probably time to get her shit together. Her advice is practical, a small first step. She tells her to make her bed. And that’s the second scene (it’s a nice touch that Dex makes her bed military-style). The worst has happened, or close to it, and so she takes a shower and makes her bed.
But of course, it’s all a manipulation. Before I mentioned that the episode’s biggest flaw might be a feature and not a bug. Liz sweeps into The Bad Alibi unannounced, hosting a haunted pub crawl; within days she’s straight-up asking the guy she’s seeing for a job, which she then takes, making $20 an hour. The pay thing is on Grey, but asking the guy you just started dating for a job isn’t the most stable choice, so it’s possible that this is an unstable person, and that future episodes will make that clear. But if not (and frankly, even if so) then this is just truly bonkers.
Let’s break it down. Liz is jealous of Dex and Grey’s relationship. Totally understandable. She’s put off by Dex’s energy, which to this point has run the gamut from passive-aggressive to aggressive-aggressive. Also fair. She asks Grey about it and he says there’s nothing to worry about. She remains worried. She wants this relationship to work! She’s all twitterpated! So what does she do? She takes an invitation to socialize with and potentially befriend this woman she sees as a thread, and instead of seeing if that might help, she pretends to get drunk while actually dumping out her own drinks, gets Dex more drunk than she means to be by refilling her drinks without her knowledge or consent (and sidenote, where was casino security?), takes this very drunk woman home, either does or does not fill her with more alcohol in her own kitchen, goes up to her room with her, waits for her to pass out, strips naked, gets under the covers, pretends to have no memory of what happened, jumps off a balcony, goes to work for her boyfriend-boss while making her lies and her discomfort apparent, but never actually fesses up. Instead, she waits for Grey to ask her directly, which he does because Ansel points him in that direction, and then she says that yes it happened, that she didn’t want the night to end that way, but that Dex did. Then she asks if she’s dumped/fired.
The second half of that plan makes no logical sense. Why not tell Grey right away? Did she rely on Ansel’s jungle-cat instincts? What the hell did she think was going to happen? The first half of the plan is straight-up bonkers, but at least the intent is clear: to throw a molotov cocktail, Jason Mendoza-style, right into the middle of the Dex/Grey friendship (and, bonus, into the Dex/Hoffamn romance). It is also, I kid you not, an actual spy mission on The Americans. It was upsetting when Elizabeth Jennings did it to Young Hee’s husband, and it’s upsetting here. It’s a totally different violation than the other possibility, which is that she date-raped Dex, but it’s a violation all the same, a manipulation designed to inflict pain on multiple people and to fill a self-destructive, grief-stricken, mentally ill combat veteran with yet more guilt and self-loathing. That’s the kindest possible interpretation of Liz’s actions.
Can you imagine if it were a man doing that to a woman, what our response would be? And yet the show seems to think she has a point. Liz had two options, really, when it came to dealing with what’s clearly a pretty co-dependent friendship with a lot of repressed stuff on one or both sides, depending on the day. She could have said, “Hey, this isn’t healthy, you’re not in a position to really be with a partner because you’re too wrapped up in this other relationship, I’m out,” or she could have said, “Hey, this isn’t healthy, we need to talk about whether or not you can make room for me in your life and how you can set some boundaries with this person who is obviously very important to you, because it makes me uncomfortable.” Instead, she took another path. And that makes for great drama, but in this case, it just doesn’t make any sense. Everything that happens as a result of her decisions is great. But wow, it’s a lot to take in—and it makes that character, and that relationship, a thousand times less interesting.
It’s still a pretty great little episode, the latest in a string of them. Without that problem, this might have been the strongest chapter to date. But alas. This is our first Stumptown recap. Why did it have to be for this particular hour?
- Welcome to our intermittent Stumptown coverage! I’ll be checking back in on the season finale and watching greedily every week until then. Happy to discuss on Twitter if you, like me, are slightly obsessed with Dex’s slightly psychic car tape deck and Grey’s many Blazers T-shirts.
- Speaking of, the costuming on this show is truly excellent. That oversize coat and floppy pants of Dex’s make her look like a slob, an undeniably cool person, and like someone who doesn’t even sort of belong in that fancy school all at once.
- Music supervision remains top-freakin’-notch.
- Casual did a storyline like this once, only instead if being best friends they were best friends who were also siblings, and it seemed like the Dex in that scenario (Valerie, played by Michaela Watkinds) really was trying to sabotage everyone’s potential happiness. The girlfriend in that equation was Eliza Coupe, who also appeared a few episodes back in “November Surprise.” Also, Casual is very good; the last season in particular is just wonderful.
- I still cannot get over the fact that Liz did an Elizabeth Jennings maneuver. To her boyfriend’s best friend. What? How?