What to Watch Verdict
As 'Lisey's Story' reaches the halfway point, a satisfying conclusion is getting harder to envision amidst the dramatic muddle.
🩸Julianne Moore's performance remains multi-dimensional and captivating.
🩸The episode wastes no time in dealing with the confrontation between Lisey and Jim.
🩸The balance of past and present is more effectively handled.
🩸Jim's viciousness lingers and is more unpleasant than necessary.
🩸The story has begun to feel like it's spinning its wheels.
🩸The supernatural elements are too silly amidst the show's attempts at a profound tone.
The third installment of Lisey’s Story, “Under the Yum-Yum Tree”, promised a big confrontation between Lisey (Julianne Moore) and Jim (Dane DeHaan), the unhinged super-fan of Lisey’s late husband, celebrated author Scott Landon (Clive Owen). Lisey was wandering through her farmhouse, the very one with plenty of Scott’s unpublished writing, while Jim was stalking in the background, having snuck onto the property. The good news about “Jim Dandy”, the fourth episode of the limited series, is that it pays off on the promise of the previous episode’s cliffhanger. But it’s also a fine case of being careful of what you wish for.
After Lisey plays a recording of Jim threatening her -- reminding her that a dead crow in her mailbox ought to be a hint as to his general inclinations -- he reveals himself and strangles her in a plastic bag. But as grim as that is, things get grimmer. The first 20 or so minutes of the 50-minute episode are, in a rare case for the series so far, fully focused on Lisey and Jim in this moment. There’s no cutting back and forth between timelines, and just barely one glimpse of the fantastical Booya Moon, where Lisey’s sister Amanda (Joan Allen) remains perpetually stranded and appears to have the ability to see, in a manner of speaking, what’s going on with Lisey at the moment.
But while it’s somewhat bracing and unexpected for the show -- written, as ever, by author Stephen King, adapting his own novel -- to stay put in one moment for an extended period of time, the confrontation we get is both unpleasantly brutal and fairly unwilling to raise the stakes beyond Jim being disturbing and violent. Lisey, unlike in her previous phone call with Jim, tries very hard to placate the young man instead of getting him madder than he already is. Jim shows off a prop tied to one of Scott’s books, a yo-yo he bought off eBay, and talks incessantly about how little Lisey really knows of Scott’s extraordinary talent. Oh, and then he not only beats up Lisey with a spray of fists left and right, but then he takes a pizza slicer and slices up her chest.
After this opening chunk of the episode, Jim leaves -- he mentions that he doesn’t want to linger about five minutes into the episode, before proceeding to do exactly that -- and yet doesn’t truly abandon his presence, heading to Amanda’s house and leaving behind a pile of dishes that Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh) comments upon in a text to the badly wounded Lisey. From this point forward, “Jim Dandy” steers away from the title character, instead shifting back into a very familiar structure now. Yes, that’s right, it’s back to the extreme timeline-jumps for us. As Lisey sits by the pool at her expansive country house, she’s all but living through her memories. She imagines that she sees Scott by the pool, sending her back into a reverie of sorts. Part of the flashbacks follow up on the honeymoon scenes from “Under the Yum-Yum Tree”, as Lisey tries to get a better grasp on Booya Moon, how it is that she’s able to travel there with Scott, and how she can bring him back to reality when he slips into a form of catatonia.
The problems cropping up here are becoming a little too hard to avoid. The pedigree of Lisey’s Story is undeniable. A handful of incredibly talented actors are working with a script from one of the most famous authors living today, they’re being directed by a very distinctive filmmaker, and the production team is top-notch too. (Alongside director of photography Darius Khondji, Guy Hendrix Dyas of Inception is the production designer.) You cannot ask for a better cast and crew than what we have for Lisey’s Story. But...all of these enormously talented people are working in service of a story that is gradually becoming far less worthy of their skills.
The purely real-world half of the story is primarily focused on Lisey trying to avoid the now very intense machinations of Jim, and apparently on her own entirely. (After the attack, Lisey is contacted by the cop we saw last week, portrayed by Sung Kang of the Fast and Furious franchise, but she deliberately avoids mentioning the whole “getting attacked by a lunatic” thing, especially now that Jim has given her an ultimatum of when to share Scott’s unpublished work.) But that storyline seems vastly less interesting now that Jim and Lisey have come face to face, and he’s proven to be as monotone and cartoonishly crazy in person as he was over the phone and in his recordings.
And on the other half of the story, we have the flashbacks tied to Booya Moon, the bool hunt, and other truly ridiculous touches that simply feel out of place in such a grim-toned story. Without the grounding presence of someone like Darla -- Lisey’s sharp-tongued sister is only very briefly in this installment -- we have just Lisey talking in the past to Amanda and the smarter but no less knowable Scott. It’s somewhat refreshing that Lisey and Amanda get to have a scene where they’re both talking to each other, Allen proving to be sharp herself when given the opportunity to perform that way.
We’re now halfway through Lisey’s Story. And halfway through, it’s hard to see how effective the latter half is going to be. Presumably, Lisey will have to return to Booya Moon, and this time fully on her own. We’ve seen that she’s inexplicably got the power to do so, without having had the mental and emotional hardships that Scott and Amanda have respectively suffered in their lives. Is it too easy a guess to wonder if the point of the bool hunt on which Scott has sent Lisey is to get her to Booya Moon, hopefully to rescue her sister and possibly get closure for the loss of her husband? And is it too easy to guess that Lisey will take down Jim? For all we know, the mysterious creature that Scott and Lisey encounter in Booya Moon near the end of this installment is either a manifestation of the evil Jim represents...or could well spell his doom.
The point is: Lisey’s Story started out intriguingly, not just because of its cast, but because of its opening stretch. After four episodes, the intrigue is turning into something of a muddle. It’s most concerning because while Stephen King is often excellent at set-ups for his stories, the endings aren’t always as consistent a strong suit. Here’s hoping this one turns around, and soon.
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.
Thank you for signing up to Whattowatch. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.