What to Watch Verdict
"Under the Yum-Yum Tree" brings us closer to seeing the true past of Lisey Landon and her husband, but the possibility that the answers will disappoint persists.
🩸A trio of great performances from Julianne Moore, Joan Allen, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
🩸Helpful backstory provided through a harrowing flashback.
🩸The suspense of a possible confrontation.
🩸Some of the supernatural elements remain goofy and impenetrable.
🩸The more we see of a crazed fan, the less enjoyable it is.
🩸The pacing remains a bit too glacial.
Now that we’re three episodes in, Lisey’s Story is continuing to follow in the established template that the two-episode premiere set in place. Just as was the case there, “Under the Yum-Yum Tree” hops back and forth both between reality and fantasy, and between present and past, with layered flashbacks within flashbacks. The first two episodes made it clear that this jumping through time was necessary to establish the heartache and grief that Lisey (Julianne Moore) feels after the loss of her famous husband, but this one uses the template to fill in a little bit of necessary backstory, while also feeling slightly stuck in place.
The episode begins with our resident Extremely Crazy Person Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan) staring at a cardboard cutout of his idol, the late Scott Landon (Clive Owen), and by the end, he’s inside the very farmhouse where Lisey is keeping Scott’s unpublished manuscripts. So on the one hand, Jim is moving up in the world. But it’s more painfully, laughably established here exactly how disturbed the young man is. Lisey, for her part, spends most of the episode either reminiscing about a very key moment in her relationship with Scott, while on a snowy honeymoon, or finally making the step to visiting her catatonic sister Amanda (Joan Allen) for the first time since being committed to a local institution.
Let’s start with the Jim Dooley side of things, as it becomes more and more obvious that Lisey and he are headed for a violent confrontation, and right quick, too. Though the episode ends with the cliffhanger that Lisey has entered the farmhouse while Jim stealthily stalks around inside, Lisey gets a helpful glimpse at Jim earlier in the episode thanks to the help of local cop Dan Boeckman (Sung Kang). Not only does she get to see what he looks like for the first time, but Lisey is also shown a couple of telling videos, one of which she finds funny, while the other one is likely only funny to the audience, if only for its on-the-nose writing.
In the first video, Lisey watches Jim attack an academic critic of Landon’s by shoving a whipped cream pie in his face. Aside from being a weirdly childish way of getting back at anyone who doesn’t worship at the altar of Scott Landon, Lisey explains to the baffled police officer that it’s a reference to one of Scott’s books, and a magician who would use the Pie of Death to kill his enemies. (Sadly for this writer, hearing the phrase “Pie of Death” only inspires the image of the brilliant British comedian Eddie Izzard and her “Cake or Death?” routine. Moving on.)
The other video, a kind of self-filmed manifesto, makes clear that Jim may have a strangely playful side, but he’s also truly unhinged. If you’ve made it this far into the series, you already know that Jim’s got his targets set on Lisey, seeing her as the sole remaining obstacle to reading Scott’s unpublished papers. But the manifesto makes it so thuddingly obvious, with Jim saying in a monotone voice, “No wife!” and “Stay single”, that it’s difficult to grasp if it’s meant to be as funny as it plays. (King’s no stranger to comedy, but the surrounding events in Lisey’s Story are fairly dour, so the comedy is either an accident, or poorly handled.)
Aside from gaining this valuable context -- Lisey already knew Jim was disturbed, but the extent of it is useful, if nothing else -- we learn a good deal more about Scott’s past, through a nested series of flashbacks, first to his honeymoon with Lisey and then to his own childhood, with his equally disturbed father (Michael Pitt). It doesn’t exactly help the Booya Moon side of things (the fantasy world Scott and his now-dead brother either concocted as an escape from their abusive lives, or a magical locale they tapped into through their shared experience, and one in which Amanda now partially resides), but again: context is helpful. This extended sequence -- one that takes up the bulk of the middle of this installment -- is helpful for another reason. The first episode, especially, but even part of the second of Lisey’s Story don’t do much in the way of giving Scott Landon much shading. He’s simply this iconic author with a worldwide following (one who is certainly not in any way reminiscent of Stephen King himself, no sir), but also an enigma of a character. Though a good chunk of the Scott we see in this episode is a child, the few glimpses we get of Clive Owen are once again a reminder that he’s an excellent, underrated actor, and his typically reserved and taciturn exterior crumbles effectively as he lives out Scott’s memories of his dark past.
Amanda and her tenuous grip on reality is the other big focus of “Under the Yum-Yum Tree” (a title, by the way, referring to the tree under which Lisey and Scott sit during their honeymoon as he walks her through his childhood past). It remains delightful to watch Joan Allen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Julianne Moore on screen together, even though Allen’s got the least meaty of the three roles. As Darla, Leigh is doing an excellent job of continuing to ground the story in reality. She’s cutting through the nonsense of the story in a way that frankly feels most relatable; during a late-episode conversation with Lisey, she bluntly says “I can’t follow you” as her sister tries to explain the “bool” hunt she’s on and Booya Moon and everything else. We’re right there with you, Darla.
But that speaks to another strength of “Under the Yum-Yum Tree”, which is those solidly fleshed-out performances from Moore and Leigh. Their dialogue scene is one that feels most apt in building out the sisterly bond between Lisey and Darla, as fractured as it may be. And as Darla, Leigh’s also able to channel extreme emotion -- right as Lisey arrives for her first visit to see Amanda at the institution, Darla is horrified to find Amanda having cut huge gashes in both her arms. There’s supernatural wonder and terror permeating Lisey’s Story, but Leigh’s performance is proving to be one of the most deeply felt and intense on its own.
Even those of us who haven’t read Lisey’s Story have good reason to be wary of where this adaptation is going. Yes, it continues to look impressive, and yes, the performances are mostly quite good. But there’s a nagging sense of curiosity here -- where is this story going? Presumably at some point, Lisey will find herself in Booya Moon (a concept she accepts but doesn’t fully understand, per her conversation with Scott on her honeymoon). But more pressing, and something the next episode is sure to handle quickly: Jim and Lisey are in the same house right now, and no amount of flashbacks is going to get her away. Hopefully their first in-person confrontation will be worth the wait.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.