After last week's preview, I was wagering I'd have to watch "Hell on Earth" through my fingers, because of what seemed to be planned for Ivy and Julia in the episode. On-stage slip-ups? Infidelities coming to light? Uh-oh. I thought for sure this would be a difficult slog. But there were plenty of lighter moments in "Hell on Earth," and while Julia's storyline was just as depressing as I anticipated, Ivy's was loosened up by a happy redirect towards bonding with Karen. Sure, they're still not friends, and they only behaved as such when they were completely incapacitated, but for a starting point - I'll take it.
Ivy begins "Hell on Earth" down and out, depressed over losing her role as Marilyn after investing so much research, effort, and emotion into it. Her prescription list is not looking terribly dissimilar to Karen Walker's, and she's starting to tear at the seams. Not only is she back in the ensemble of Heaven on Earth, she's ostracized from Tom, and auditioning for the same roles as Karen - and losing them. Naturally, all of this just piles onto the self-medicating spiral, and before we know it, Ivy's performing high and takes a fall onstage. I wish the writers had found some way to steer this away from comedy without it becoming melodramatic. Yes, it's funny to see Megan Hilty blow raspberries onstage and slur through her singing parts, but it's actually quite disturbing to see Ivy unraveling like this. The sequence in her dressing room was hauntingly poignant - the aerial shot of Ivy and her angel wings, as she's on her knees and slipping in and out of focus was phenomenal. But then it all got traded in for goofy jokes, and drawn-out tension as we just waited for her to slip and fall and embarrass herself.
In a bit of slightly-forced plot, it just so happens that Ivy and Karen have gotten their sunglasses swapped. Naturally, Ivy (being the Grade-A, threatened, jealous bitch that the narrative wants us to believe she is) threw Karen's shades in the trash with a chuckle. Karen, however, with her earnest smalltown manners that are making me wonder if she's somehow related to Kenneth the Page, goes to see Ivy at Heaven on Earth so she can return them. It's a bit of a clunky set-up, but it's a minor offense, because it actually puts these two women together for an extended period of time, and allows them more than just claws and snarls. And we were treated to an exploration and extension of the Karen-Ivy dynamic that has long been eluding us. I'll take a Parent Trap-esque sunglasses swap if it means we can get to the good stuff.
I don't expect Karen and Ivy to be BFFs immediately, doing each other's hair and trading lip glosses between auditions. I like that there will always be some measure of competition there, which complicates things. So I appreciated that "Hell on Earth" let Ivy and Karen have an actual argument, where Ivy actually insults Karen right to her face, and Karen actually snipes back. It was great! Of course Ivy wants to think that Karen is nothing special, and ouch, no one wants to be told that. And the writers did Karen a service by steering her away from doe-eyed high ground, and let her react like any human being would: by throwing Ivy's relationship with Derek in her face. Remember: Derek tried to sleep with Karen before he even showed interest in Ivy. Ouch. Low blows on both sides, but I appreciate that this wasn't manifested in unspoken bitchiness, but rather outright harsh honesty, understandably delivered from both parties. Yes! Let's get this out in the open and move forward!
And move forward they did, as Ivy took advantage of Karen's Midwest sympathy and got twenty bucks for some alcohol - which, might I add, she had the decency to share. Before we knew it, Karen and Ivy were stumbling through Times Square commiserating over their dumb auditions for dumb TV commercials. Then the greatest thing happened of all: a duet! Okay, so it maybe wasn't the greatest thing, but it was still pretty damn great. It's clear that Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty have a great time together, and the number was fun and infectious and a bright little beacon of hope that these two ladies could also be excellent friends as well as complete bitches to one another. Of course, Ivy had to immediately point out that they're not friends now, just because of one musical romp in Times Square, but I'd like her to be proven wrong. The current dynamic of Ivy playfully sniping at Karen and Karen just ignoring it is ridiculously amusing, and harmless when it's shared between them instead of played out in competition and others' judgement. At the very least, these ladies should start busking to make some extra money.
In the end, Ivy's pill problem got side-stepped for fun, though, and so I'm curious to see where they're taking this - and how seriously. If I had to guess, involving Karen in Ivy's storyline means that Karen's probably going to be the one to step in and pull Ivy back from the edge, which... I wouldn't mind, although it depends largely on how it's handled. It'd be nice if Karen weren't painted as Ivy's savior or the only one who cares, but rather someone who's there and willing to help and might just be in the right place at the right time. After all, both Sam and Tom stayed up all night waiting to hear from Ivy, so she's not lacking in friends. Hell, she even had a cute scene with Derek at episode's beginning. Ivy's not an island here, with only Karen as a possible lifeline for her addiction. But it'd still be interesting if Karen's somehow able to interfere, perhaps without meaning to. I did really enjoy that the writers included a scene where Karen was able to see the inside of Ivy's apartment - a metaphor perhaps for Karen finally getting the chance to get a glimpse into Ivy's real self without all the hostility covering it up. Even stronger was the moment where Karen sat in Ivy's chair, in front of the mirror, and looked at all the clippings of Marilyn adorning it. It was a small, simple action that conveyed a bulk of emotion about Ivy and Karen being let into her life a little bit - more than any drunken jam session ever could.
As Karen and Ivy cavorted with tourists and street performers, Sam and Tom stayed up and shared a meal. Their (I'm guessing inevitable) relationship was forwarded by genuine conversation and not just their bewilderment at how gay/not gay the other one behaves. Their banter about going dutch was cute, and Smash also slipped in a little metaphor about Sam and Tom being Ivy's parents. Yeah, I'm guessing we're full steam ahead on Sam and Tom. Which isn't unpalatable to me, but they best get Tom out of his relationship with John before anything serious happens. Smash does not need to keep on with the cheating storylines, no thank you. Also, this is a terribly monosyllabic love triangle: John, Tom, Sam! It's like a Dr. Seuss poem.
Regardless, Smash developed Tom and John's relationship simultaneously with Sam and Tom's. I will say, I appreciate that both pairings moved forward. With less-sophisticated writing, if the purpose was to put Tom in a coffee shop with Sam all night, there would have been some sort of fight with Tom and John - or a setback at the very least. But Smash propelled Tom and John forward, even with the reveal that John is a Republican. Tom, being of Broadway and the performing arts, is flabbergasted, and immediately expressed his distaste for the political right. But even with this contempt, Tom shelved his opinions in order to support his boyfriend at a political fundraiser, and this too was done with sophistication: there was no hiding their sexualities at the fundraiser, or pretending they were anything other than in a relationship together. And how great was Tom in this environment? His snarking was hilarious, and I loved that he still chose to leave when Ivy needed him, despite John's protests. Tom respected John's political affiliation and chose to support him, and John respected Tom's relationship with Ivy, and chose to support him. It was well-handled all-around, and Tom's storylines continue to be the best-written in the ensemble.
Of course, "Hell on Earth" needed to deal with the fallout from "The Coup" in terms of Marilyn herself, and it did so with a fair amount of panache. Eileen set up the goals: Tom and Julia needed to deliver a title, and she and Derek needed to find a star. Nobody's really on board with the star idea, and Derek in particular bucks authority and tells Eileen that he won't even consider casting until Tom and Julia get a finished script and a year's worth of preparation. Yeah, okay, Director McGrumpypants. Eileen completely rejects the idea, and moves forward in the sneakiest of ways: she shops around for another director. Even better yet, Smash pulled a switcheroo on us. Eileen met with Doug Hughes in public, and was spotted by a Broadway gossip columnist - who took the story to print. It seemed like plotted conflict, leading to some sort of eyeroll-inducing consequence of Derek finding out. But instead of a director tantrum, Derek falls into line in order to protect his job, and with a single smirk, we realize that Eileen planned the whole thing to keep Derek on a short leash. Hee! How great is that? I'm loving seeing Eileen come into her own in her solo producing role, and while the tricksy behavior seems to tread backwards on her arc from "The Coup," it was still delightful to watch - especially when it was doubled up on Ellis.
See, Ellis continued to be a Schemy Schemerson, as he cashed in on contacts of contacts (I have no idea who he got those numbers from, even with the full scene devoted to it - who was that guy??) and weaseled his way into meeting with Rebecca Duvall's agent. Ellis played every card right, with a little hinted seduction, and got a phone call from Ms. Duvall as a potential star for Marilyn. Sure, Ellis is still a sneaky bastard, but he's clearly one you want on your team. Just don't be surprised when he plays for both. (Heyo! Double entendre alert!) Basically, I don't mind seeing Ellis be slimy and manipulative when it's against outside parties - just keep him away from successfully manipulating any of our main cast, most of whom are technically his superiors, no matter how much he'd like to think otherwise. And so, when he tried to leverage a co-producer credit from Eileen, she shut him down in the blink of an eye, and it's becoming clear that only the Rand family is able to put Ellis in his place. Maybe it's some sort of gene. Regardless, I'm officially on board with Eileen and Ellis' scheming duo, as long as Ellis now realizes he can't play his boss and is actually loyal to her. And I'm always on board with Eileen being competent and savvy. Don't mess with that lady! She'll throw a drink in your face. Now answer that phone, Ellis!
Finally, this leads me to the final piece of "Hell on Earth," and the most depressing one: Julia's secret affair revealed to her husband Frank. I'm not going to devote too much time to it, because it's my least-favorite thing going on with Smash right now, especially given how the actual onscreen affair was handled. The reveal came when Frank found sheet music for Marilyn about meeting on the Brooklyn Bridge - à la the brief glimpse into happiness we saw of Michael and Julia, way back when. (Way back before it got terrible.) Somehow, this was enough for Frank to put two and two together, which frankly I question the logic there, and Julia was in for a surprise when she came home to find him playing the song on the piano. Oh dear. From there, the episode just spiralled into a lot of Frank yelling at Julia and Julia crying and Leo yelling at his dad and me cringing at how this has all gone down. It just got worse when Frank went to see Michael, and Michael revealed that there was more history between him and Julia than Frank knew, which only resulted in a thrown punch and more guilt for Julia. Ultimately, Frank walked out, and Julia was left with a broken family, her own blame, and an appropriate title for Marilyn sown from her own life: Bombshell.
The title bit was a nice touch, and an appropriate piece of wordplay for Marilyn as a hot blonde and a bit of news that destroys everything in sight. I'm curious to see how the new play reflects this title, though, in particular with that latter definition. As for the Julia storyline itself, I will say that I hated to see Julia get yelled at for a solid hour. It's not that I condone cheating, or don't think that Julia deserved what she got, it's just... I don't like when characters just get yelled at by other characters. It seems like poor writing, and terribly one-sided, no matter how much our hearts break at Debra Messing's fractured face and desperation. I appreciate that Michael tried to apologize, and that Julia took her half of the responsibility of their affair, but I still couldn't shake the memory of Michael pressuring her to meet him and threatening to cause a scene if she didn't. The whole thing leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The storyline with Michael, the storyline with Leo, and now the storyline with Frank have all taken power away from Julia. The men in her life have been shown to have the upper hand in her interactions with them, and Julia can't seem to win for losing. Frank even raised a hand against her in "Hell on Earth," and Smash is really walking the line in terms of communicating the pain of betrayal effectively without completely destroying Julia's place in the storyline. The sooner we can be done with this, the better. I would much rather see Julia interacting with any other character in this ensemble.
Aside from this heavy storyline blotting out "Hell on Earth," the episode managed to be one of Smash's better offerings, with enjoyable storylines, a few poignant character moments, and more sophisticated plotting than we've seen from these writers in a while. We're finally to a place where I'm looking forward to seeing where these relationships are heading, and the ones presented in "Hell on Earth" were portrayed interestingly and handled well. Now that Marilyn - er, Bombshell has splintered so much in nine episodes, we're at a rare point where I care about these characters and their dynamics just as much as the musical they're putting on. Hopefully this is Smash finding its footing, and we can sail smoothly with the show's renewal and enjoy a good Season 2.
The Report Card:
Musical Numbers: B+
Episode MVP: Eileen Rand