Television

'The Santa Clarita Diet' Realizes, "We Can Kill People", After All

Sheila and Joel are dressed for dinner.

Drew Barrymore does breezy and ballistic in a narrative-heavy episode.


Airtime: Streaming
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant, Liv Hewson
TV SHOW: The Santa Clarita Diet
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 3
Network: Netflix

If the second episode of “The Santa Clarita Diet” was about raising the emotional and physical stakes of its bonkers premise, then the third episode is about navigating the implications of that escalation. Sheila (Drew Barrymore) can no longer eat raw animal meat, her body can only digest human flesh, and she hasn’t been undead for long enough to know what will happen to her if she becomes too hungry. Suddenly, she has been thrust into a world in which the consequences of her actions are literally life and death, which is made worse by the fact that she doesn’t have any guidelines to help her with her recent transformation.

It’s a neat little metaphor for extreme or sudden personal renovation, the point at which you chose to be somebody new without fully grasping what that might mean for yourself and the people around you. Emotional or physical revolution is, at its very core and at the very least, a decision to throw away the predictability of the life you have become comfortable with. Unpacking that through the generic conventions of zombiism/zombification is both astute and illustrative. There has been a lot of internet analysis focusing on what metaphorical value the show may hold, with some suggesting that the show is uniquely interested in men’s distrust of female empowerment, and this episode works as a kind of launching pad for these discussions.

As the episode begins Sheila expresses her concern that Abby (Liv Hewson) isn’t dealing with all the changes in the house well, the night before she crawled into their bed, something that she hasn’t done since she was eight, and she is worried that the role of a zombie is superseding her role as a mother. Once of the things that makes the show such an interesting delight is the fact that it allows Sheila and Joel’s (Timothy Olyphant) domestic life to have equal narrative weight with the more Dawn of the Dead elements. It speaks to the general truth that life goes on, no matter what personal bombs are going off, and the sharp contrast between flesh eating and parenting makes for big laughs.

Indeed, The Santa Clarita Diet is constantly playing with how to ground the characters and action whilst still honoring the oddness of the premise; it’s part domestic sitcom and part relatively gory horror show and the writers make that mix work because they provide such a sense of who these characters are to each other. Sheila is hungry, but she's still excited about a potential home that they may have on their books to sell. Joel seems more interested in working out how they can feed Sheila without going on a mass murder spree. Together, they come to a fairly sensible, at least to Sheila, solution; they will find terrible people with no dependents, kill them and eat them.

Meanwhile, Abby still can’t settle back into the school routine. In a weird way her journey reflects her mother’s; she too has had a shot of adrenaline and discovered that the life she had been living doesn’t particularly suit her all that well. So she's skipping school again with Eric (Skyler Gisondo) who seems less than happy with his newfound rebelliousness. One of the emerging pleasures of the show is the teenager’s dynamic; they are already settled into a hilarious and truthful rhythm. Hewson imbues Abby, who may not have registered in somebody else’s hands, with a lot of confidence and strength, whilst Gisondo manages an awkward comedic energy that makes every line zing.

In particular, Gisondo seems to have a real sense of the tone of the show and is doing interesting things to subvert the traditional ‘nerdy’ prototype; he has all the sheepishness that we have come to expect, but never sacrifices the characters' intelligence or earnestness. Within three episodes Eric feels like a vital part of the narrative, and the writers deserve credit for flipping the script on so many clichés that we have come to know and expect. Whilst playing hooky, Abby and Eric bump into their friend who has just broken up with her much older, drug-dealing boyfriend. Looking for something to do, a way to capture the high of discovering Sheila’s murderous ways, Abby decides that they are going to reap revenge on the waster boyfriend.

Sheila and Joel try to press their policeman neighbor, Rick (Richard T. Jones), about the whereabouts and crimes of local criminals in order to see which ones they could potentially eat. A recently relocated “beefy Italian” pedophile sounds like a solid prospect -- until they realize that he's closely and constantly monitored by law enforcement and concerned parents. By accident, they hear Abby and Eric talk about their friend’s sleazy ex. Overhearing snippets of conversation, they learn that he has been sleeping with a minor, sells weed to students, and dumped the friend callously. Near starving, Sheila decides that they have finally found their target and she convinces Joel to join her in killing the drug dealer. In preparation, they go to a superstore to pick up cleaning supplies where Sheila has a realization whilst looking at frozen fish. We know from the last episode that she cannot eat the flesh of a cadaver because it's not fresh enough, so she rationalizes that if they store the corpse in a freezer, she may be able to dine for weeks on a single kill.

Joel is still acting erratically, clearing not acclimated to his wife’s need to eat people. He refers to helping Sheila as “feeding” her (one of the first suggestions that he is resentful of her transformation) and shouts about why they are buying so much bleach. Timothy Olyphant’s performance is bizarre in such an interesting way -- there's clearly more to Joel than the show is letting on and his tightly wound physicality is one of the show’s chief oddities. It's saved from being cartoonish by the genuine love that Joel and Sheila so identifiably share and his chops as a romantic leading man, but his performance is a fascinating mix of wild and contained.

The story very much belongs to Sheila, but in a lot of ways Joel is the showier role; she is fairly comfortable, if perplexed, by her newfound zombiism, so he's the one who's having to sort out his feelings about it. His life, at least in some ways, is the most changed by his wife’s undeadness. Subsequent episodes will explore how Sheila feels more like herself, that by subtracting a heartbeat she has gained a deeper understanding of who she wants to be, and that means that Joel is the one who is having to live with change. For audience’s with a taste for the absurd, which is necessary to plug into the show overall, Olyphant may be the best thing about the episode; he's both eminently readable and admirably weird.

They use an empty house as the site for the potential murder/feast; Joel has posed as a potential client wanting to pick some drugs up before the weekend. In one of the episode’s funniest scenes, the couple open the door wearing plastic ponchos, ready for the onslaught. Barrymore’s unwavering breeziness is a lot of fun when paired up against the sheer calculated violence that she is planning; she makes for a gleeful villain, sinister and sunny. Just as she's about to eat the drug dealer, her phone goes off (improbably with a duck quack ringtone) and, anticipating a new property client, she leaves the scene to take the call. This leaves Joel to do the dirty, but after a quick conversation and a shared joint, he realizes that the subject of their crime has a story that's even greyer than he first thought. The potential dinner didn’t know that his girlfriend was under 21 and he dropped out of college to help his sister financially; he has become a drug dealer so that he could help his family financially. Nobody is all good or all bad and Joel is forced to wrestle with the idea that anybody they kill, no matter how awful they look on paper, will have relationships, hopes and dreams.

Tellingly, Joel is asked how he achieved the life he has; in other words how he became the poster boy for comfortable, aspirational suburbia. We learn that he started dating Sheila when they were in high school, where both of them popular and happy and that he wanted to be a musician -- a dream that Sheila helped him pursue financially and emotionally until he had to face the fact that it wouldn't come to fruition. When his dream died he studied to be a realtor and carried on until Sheila woke up dead. It’s hardly a revolutionary backstory for a male protagonist, but it does provide some shading to his character.

When Sheila gets back to the scene of the crime, she finds that the drug dealer has left (very much still alive) and Joel is high. On the way back home they have a minorl car accident and whilst they are arguing with the other driver Sheila jumps on his back and rips out his throat. It’s a moment of shocking violence and once again destabilizes the tone, reminding the audience that, despite the sitcom hijinks, there's still the prospect of horror. Sheila was pushed to her limit and it had explosive consequences, whipping the episode back into shape. Everybody has a lot to lose here, even, not particularly innocent bystanders (they learn later that her dinner was into some shady business dealings).

The episode ends with Joel, Abby and Sheila sitting around the dinner table; Sheila's munching on what Abby believes to be beef. It’s an interesting image that crystallizes a lot of the central themes of the show. How are they going to maintain a family when one of them is a step away from eating the others? How honest should you be when your whole life is changing? When does supporting someone take the dark turn into enabling them? Is feeling good and being empowered a distinction without a difference, or do you need one to achieve the other? “We Can Kill People” doesn’t keep up the rollicking pace of the previous episodes and it still hasn’t completely settled into its goofy groove, but as a baseline for the show to unpack a lot of interesting dilemmas, it’s, well, meaty.

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