Smash's latest episode, "Understudy," had a clear theme easily available to it after the climactic events of "The Coup" and "Hell on Earth" - the maddening concept of waiting. What do you do with the "in-between," while Rebecca Duvall is held up in Cuba and you need to push forward on Bombshell? How do you direct a show led by a temporary understudy? What can you do to mend your broken relationship, when your husband won't even speak to you? Nearly every character in "Understudy" had to deal with the repercussions of the recent changes, and for many of them, this involved navigating through an awkward "middle." Unfortunately, Smash didn't really capitalize on that commonality, and while they attempted a thematic wrap-up with Katharine McPhee's lovely version of "Never Give All the Heart," the similarities never quite bridged where they could have. That being said, "Understudy" provided a further look into how a Broadway musical can turn your life upside down - and the changes rolled on.
I will say, I do think that Smash is hitting its stride in these episodes from "The Coup" onward, and there's something to be said for the fact that the writers are simply shaking things up and not afraid to force changes in their characters' environments. Beyond that, they're finally digging into these relationships and letting the characters demonstrate their different dynamics, which knits the ensemble together more tightly. "Understudy" in particular wove a storyline where Julia and Tom's dynamic acted as a mirror on Julia and Frank's, Tom and Sam's caused problems with Tom and John's, and Derek and Ivy's had effect on Derek and Karen's, which in turn ruffled up Karen and Dev's. There was a nice intersectionality with these relationships that made the dynamics - and participants - feel more realistic and fleshed-out, even with their flaws.
Of course, Eileen is still steering the Bombshell ship, for better or for worse, and struggling to hold onto investors as Rebecca Duvall takes her sweet time showing up for rehearsal. While it's a bit on-the-nose to give dialogue like "Jerry would never put us in this situation!" to dubious financiers so that Eileen has a clearly-constructed obstacle in front of her, I still like the idea behind the premise. Eileen's a scrappy broad, and I love that her arc is about her coming into her own and learning to produce a show come hell or high water. And how great that she's assembling the most unconventional type of investor for a Broadway show? It was a bit laborious (read: dull) to get Eileen and Nick the Bartender to Randy Cobra and his oodles of money, but I still loved the payoff. Eileen is putting this musical together the only way she knows how, and she's not apologizing for it. And she's still yelling at Ellis! Her insistence that he stop being a nosy snoop about Nick and put his co-producer credit to work by tracking down Rebecca Duvall instead was so delightful. Eileen Rand continues to earn her place as Queen of this whole operation.
Meanwhile, as Eileen tries to secure money, Derek is faced with a star-less production for a week. Naturally, he asks that Karen step in. Because unlike "fetch," Karen is destined to happen. But honestly I didn't mind Karen's storyline because it wasn't about her triumphing over the material: she's simply the Marilyn of the Week. And in that temporary concept, it allowed for her storyline to be more about her relationships with Dev, Derek, and Ivy. Karen's novice comes to light as she can't remember to bring pencils and which way is downstage, and Derek yells at her a lot. So because of this, Karen lets slip to Dev that Derek sexually harassed her, and Dev flips out. The wedge is driven further between them when Dev loses a promotion and possibly has a job offer in Washington DC - aka "Not-Broadway." Adding that with Ivy's insistence that Derek be nice to Karen and baby her, à la Marilyn, and we get a gentler Derek, an apology scene for aforementioned transgression, and Dev punching his face in. Phew, that's a lot.
But this quadrangle of character interactions was pretty compelling, perhaps because the conflicts were well-reasoned and emotionally-resonant - instead of Ivy suspiciously side-eying Karen who's suspiciously side-eying RJ who hugs Dev perhaps more often than coworkers should. There was much more depth in "Understudy," and it all stemmed from Smash rehashing something I wasn't sure they would: Derek and Karen's late-night song and lap dance from the pilot. It was indeed sexual harassment, but situations like that often get played out on television to demonstrate "sexual tension" to the audience and create a scenario where two people who shouldn't be together are made more titillating because it's taboo. (Katharine McPhee in a men's shirt doesn't hurt the constructed appeal.) So I thought it was just Smash trying to pique our interest with a Derek/Karen romance, and chalked up the power play to baser storytelling and let it go. But no! The scene boomeranged back with consequences, as Dev found out and blew into outrage, Karen thought it was nothing to make a big deal over, and Derek conveniently apologized for it by episode's end. I do wish that maybe someone else in the industry could have weighed in on the incident, in contrast to Dev's inexperience with showbiz and Karen's naiveté: Ivy, perhaps, or even one of the nameless ensemble dancers that pirouette through when needed.
But, even as is, each aspect of this four-way character tangle found interesting notes to play. It resulted in Derek softening around the edges, Dev and Karen having a real argument about issues with their relationship, and a strangely appealing Derek/Karen dynamic. That last one I find particularly intriguing: she clearly doesn't bend to his bluster easily (as evidenced by their scene in the pilot) and he clearly goes all gooey in the face when she sings. Also weird-yet-fantastic was his hallucination of Karen-as-Marilyn and the subsequent reaction. Who knows what Derek might do to secure Karen as the lead, but if his dumbstruck expression is anything to go by, I wouldn't put anything past the guy.
Ivy's part in all of this was half-fascinating, half-idiotic, as she apparently is playing Ms. Nice Gal so that she can get back in the good graces of Bombshell's Powers that Be. I don't get why Ivy couldn't just be reasonably nice, and let her build a prickly relationship with Karen without chalking up kindness to duplicity. Do the writers just not intend to make Ivy a nice person? Do they not think a slow-burn progress towards real yet complicated friendship would be superior to a hastily-and-thinly-written frenemy dynamic? Especially when there doesn't seem to be any actual benefit for Ivy being sugar-sweet to Karen or Derek or even Tom and Julia! Can't she just tell Derek to be nice to Karen because Derek directed her rather brutishly and she hated it? I don't get why she has to play an angle.
Regardless, one thing is sure about Ivy Lynn: she is old news. If Karen is the Marilyn of this week, Ivy is the Marilyn of last week, and "Understudy" did well communicating that disappointing sense of disposability in Ivy's character. We even got an angsty-yet-eager solo to "Breakaway" - usually reserved for Karen! - as Ivy witnessed the people of Bombshell continuing their routines without her. I do wish there had been more emotional build-up to this performance, simply because it had all the trappings of an emotional moment, without any emotional cues before it to set the stage for Ivy pouring her heart out. I got whiplash: I wasn't with Ivy at the start, but then my heart broke for her when I realized she was fantasizing about putting all the Marilyn makeup on and being received with open arms and applause by the people who fired her. Even more painful was the moment where Ivy spied on Karen's final Marilyn solo, and passed by Rebecca Duvall in the hallway. Ivy is officially out of the picture, and I'm excited to see what that means for her relationship with Karen now that they have both been dumped by Bombshell's neverending changes - did I spy a quick peek of them talking together in the preview? Scorned actresses bitterly griping about the same show that screwed them over? Sounds like a place to find comedy, drama, and unlikely friendship! Sign me up.
Of course, commiserating a little too much got Tom and Sam in trouble with John, who picked up on their connection and called Tom out on in pretty immediately. To this, I say: smart choice. It's best not to let John be seen as a doormat by the audience, and it was a lovely gift of maturity for the character to simply tell his partner that he sees how he lights up with someone else. Is this it for John, though? Honestly, the fact that this scenario has dodged the cheating plague while simultaneously abbreviating the love triangle makes me intrigued to see a Tom/Sam pairing happen. But will Tom let John go without a fight? The Tom/Sam thing seems like a crush, and Tom/John appears to be more of a secure relationship. So I'm duly interested, Smash. Let's keep it way, shall we?
Even with all this romantic change, though, Tom was still loyal to his one true significant other: Julia, with whom he was celebrating ten successful years together as writing partners. Julia, of course, is mourning the loss of her actual marriage, as Frank has moved out and won't speak to her. As such, it's an awkward time to have a publicized-for-funsies work marriage talked about like it's no big deal. Especially when Julia storms out of an interview with a smile on her face and runs out on Tom's (public) anniversary speech with tears streaming down her face. Sure, they seem like slight overreactions, but as an audience we get her POV. So when she finally tells Tom about Frank's exit and accepts the reality of the situation, mostly I just want this character to see happier days. Her personal life has fallen apart disastrously, and her professional life currently consists of a musical she's had little control over and that brought a piece from her past back to haunt her.
And, here we are, ten episodes in. Bombshell has devolved from a twinkly magical Broadway offering with all the potential in the world to a down-but-not-out stage show limping along to the needs of the wallets and egos in charge. Now that we know this is how it's going to be, it's a pretty fascinating devolution to witness, and I almost hope Smash keeps it dark from here on out. It'd be strange and false, frankly, to see a glossy and perfect Bombshell triumph with a curtain call, and no bittersweet layer of the "could-have-beens" that were shed along the way. "Understudy" certainly presented some darker and deeper moments in conjunction with progress made by Eileen's perseverance. Even though it missed some easy commonalities in theme, the character dynamics and consequences were interesting, well-founded, and continued to create questions for next week. So we'll just have to see what fresh hell Rebecca Duvall will bring into this equation and how it upsets the balances that have been evening out in recent weeks! Surely things will shake up - again - and Bombshell will continue to change, and cause change.
The Report Card:
Musical Numbers: B+
Episode MVP: Eileen Rand. Again.