By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
ABC, Wednesdays, 8/79/8 E/C
Written by Lisa Joy
Directed by Brian Donnelly
It’s traditional for a season finale to end with a cliffhanger, and that’s what “Corpsicle” felt like last night. Since the writer’s strike has forced a premature halt to production for Pushing Daisies, this is the last episode we will see until the strike ends. Creator Bryan Fuller has said that this episode was “tweaked” to make it seem more like a season finale, and it certainly felt like one. One startling revelation was capped by another, and the load of secrets, lies and guilt carried by this collection of quirky characters approaches the breaking point–for them, if not for us.
The usual recap opening the episode this time emphasizes Chuck’s childhood trauma: the loss of her father, the horrible hours between his death and the arrival of her aunts to take her in charge, her last sight of Ned in her (first) life as his father packs him off to boarding school. Her resurrection into a second life at Ned’s hands (or rather, finger) seems to redeem all of this unhappiness–until Ned confesses that he accidentally killed her father. We then cut to scenes of Ned wandering the streets calling her name–romantically, albeit (as Olive points out) undignifiedly. Woeful Ned begs Olive for help, unaware that in fact Chuck is hiding out in Olive’s apartment, trying to figure out what to do. The amity of the two women is strained at this point–Olive is desperate to find out Chuck’s secret, but won’t accept the truth about Chuck’s death and life when she tells it. Chuck doesn’t know what to think about Ned, and seems completely adrift without him to anchor her. Olive is still not over Ned. There are so many excuses in this setup to have Chuck and Olive at one another’s throats, but once againPushing Daisies eschews the obvious and the clichéd, and allows us to see this friendship between two women in a more humane and realistic light.
This is the most complicated episode we’ve seen since “Bitches”. There were three, or perhaps four, overlapping storylines: Ned and Chuck, the murder mystery, Olive and the Aunts, and Chuck and olfactorist Oscar Vibenius (Paul Reubens, from “Smell of Success”). The parallelisms were both subtle and profound: Chuck is mourning her father all over again, Emerson reveals that he has a daughter he seems to be mourning. Ned relives his mother’s death; Aunt Lily reveals that she is actually Chuck’s mother. Ned revives a series of dead insurance adjusters who denied a young boy a new heart, but refuses to ease the ache in Chuck’s heart by reviving–if only for a moment–her long-dead father.
The person who has the most secrets to carry in this show is now Olive Snook. Not only does she know Chuck has returned from the dead (although Olive does not believe this), she knows that Chuck has been dosing the Aunt’s pies, and that Aunt Lily is actually Chuck’s mother. She keeps Chuck’s whereabouts secret from Ned (briefly), keeps Chuck’s existence a secret from the Aunts, and keeps Aunt Lily’s secret from Chuck. She tells no one that Chuck has been dosing the pies. For a woman as open and honest as Olive, holding back all these truths must be a painful experience. She handles it with her usual charm and grace, however, and manages to infuse every moment, no matter how awkward, with warmth and honesty. This was Olive’s night to shine, and Kristen Chenoweth, as usual, handled it with aplomb.
Just when I think Chi McBride can’t get any better, he finds a whole new way to steal a scene. Emerson, who is perilously close to self-parody at times, tells Ned during a stakeout that he has a daughter. With tears in his eyes, McBride establishes in only a few lines a new version of Emerson, one whose cynical exterior we now know hides a broken heart. Our mystery-busting private eye has a mystery of his own. Who’d have thought that Emerson would get the most poignant scene in the episode?
As usual, any cliché that wanders into Pushing Daisies territory gets relentlessly skewered. In this episode, the target is both self-absorbed charity patients and self-sacrificing do-gooders. Young heart patient Abner Newsome (Colby Paul, Ghost Whisperer) is as pitiless and scornful as Emerson Cod himself, cynically accepting all the goodies showered on him by well-wishers while mocking Madeleine McLean (Audrey Wasilewski, Big Love), the Wish-a-Wish lady, who only wants to give him what he wants. Unable to get what she wants from Abner (a joyful response), she desperately embarks on a series of murders to give him the heart he wants–by offing the insurance adjusters (from Uber-Life Life Insurance–again with the repetitive names) who have denied him a heart, time after time. She “hides” them inside snowmen (hence the episode title) while she tracks down the last remaining adjuster. It’s not much of a mystery who he is or what will happen to him (thank goodness–we could not have handled much more complexity). Emerson and Ned race to save the last agent, Steve Kaiser (Grant Shaud, Oliver Beene) from Madeleine’s Kindness bat. While Madeleine holds Ned and Emerson at gunpoint, a bonobo monkey named Bobo drives a van over her, making her an instant heart donor. (Well, really, what did she expect? Name an animal “Bobo” and it will get its revenge, sooner or later.) Abner gets his wish, and the Wish-a-Wish lady gets hers: dark humor at its darkest. Christmas miracles, indeed.
Far more complicated is the delicate emotional tightrope Ned and Chuck are dancing on. Chuck wrestles with some truly deep conflicts in her feelings for Ned. In one brief but brilliant scene, she tells Ned that she “has to hate him for a little while before she can hate him again”–a remarkably honest insight. She broods on the roof of the apartment building, as Oscar visits her, trying to figure out what her secret is. He knows she has one–his nose tells him that–and he knows it’s something about death. Chuck almost confides in him, but in the end realizes that she can only share that secret with Ned. Ned finds the strength to refuse her request to resurrect her father. He won’t go through the pain of killing the man a second time, not even for Chuck. Most couples at this stage of a relationship would soothe their wounded feelings with sex; denied that, Ned and Chuck must work things out verbally, and it gives both characters a deeper sense of realism. These two lovebirds are growing as people, and are ever more endearing.
But what an ending! Will Olive tell Chuck about her mother? Will Olive tell the Aunts about Chuck? Will Chuck reveal herself to her Aunts/Mother? Who is Emerson’s daughter, and why does the thought of her make him cry? Escapism should not be this heart-wrenching, this insightful, this much fun. But when it is, it’s great.
Ironically enough, the very Writers’ Guild that has frozen production on this show has also nominated it for a WGA award for Best New Series. In addition, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has nominated Pushing Daisies for a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series. Lee Pace and Anna Friel have been named as Golden Globe nominees for Best Actor and Best Actress in a Comedy Series.
While I’m fairly certain the WGA will grant its own award show a waiver, allowing writers, actors, and other union members to accept awards without having to cross a picket line, so far there’s no word that such a waiver would be extended to the Golden Globes. That would mean that the January 13 broadcast could be pretty empty, with only a few actors, writers or directors showing up to take home their statues. During the actors’ strike in 1980, Powers Boothe was the only actor to show up to collect his Emmy during the boycotted awards, and he hasn’t heard the last of it yet. Yet if the WGA does grant a waiver to the HFPA for the broadcast, NBC might feel a little awkward about airing a platform for actors and writers to speak out against the network. Stay tuned to your TV, where the best dramas in town next year may be ad-libbed.