Dull Freudian jokes drag down Lucifer, saved by some decent gender subversions and a more engaging plot around Amenadiel.
There are a few arguments that may persist in my reviews:
First, the police procedural in Lucifer is a mandatory story structure whose quality varies by episode.
Second, I am really tired of the “naive innocent fanservice female character” trope.
Third, Amenadiel (DB Woodside) may be the through-line for this season, far more than Lucifer’s (Tom Ellis) relationship to his mother (Tricia Helfer), and which may attract more of my attention.
Let’s go through these three arguments as pertains to “Liar, Liar, Slutty Dress on Fire,” Lucifer‘s second episode for Season 2.
To the show’s credit, this episode managed to make the police procedural integral to the plot, as Lucifer has to discover more about the identity of the dead woman his mother is now occupying. Last week, his mother came into his apartment, passing out from blood loss. After tending to her wounds, most of which heal thanks to her inner-divine nature, Lucifer listens to her account, how she awoke inside a hotel room in the corpse of Charlotte, a corporate executive played by Tricia Helfer.
(And, it seems, “Charlotte” is going to be the name we’re using to describe the Mother-in-Charlotte. It’s not much of a step-up from naming her “the Mother,” seeing as the door can be opened for the Mother to possess another dead person, but it’s what we get for this episode: Charlotte it is.)
After a change of clothes–and obligatory remark about Helfer walking around in Maze’s (Lesley-Ann Brandt) revealing attire (that gives this episode such an awful title) and the Mother’s naive fixation on how tight Charlotte’s backside is–Lucifer follows her directions to the hotel room, and discovers another dead body. They escape before the cops arrive, with Lucifer keeping her locked in his apartment with an ambivalent Maze assigned to watch her, while he ingratiates himself to Detective Chloe Decker’s (Lauren German) investigation to determine how to get Charlotte off from murder.
This week’s procedural, while tying into Lucifer’s hunt for his mother, is still a case of connect the dots with little intrigue: Charlotte was a corporate executive, she has a stay-at-home husband, she hid cocaine in her husband’s little-used suit–
Okay. That part at least varied the plot, and provided a funny visual gag of Lucifer covered in an explosion of cocaine, making Tom Ellis’s wide-eyed smiling face look all the more apt.
But back to Connect-the-Dots: Decker’s ex-husband / fellow investigator Dan Espinoza (Kevin Alejandro) learns the deceased man was working for the FBI in a sting operation to stop a cocaine racket. Charlotte was working with him to hold onto the cocaine as evidence to bust the racket. The gang leader in charge of the racket tends to use a screwdriver as his murder weapon. But it turns out the FBI contact wanted the cocaine for himself, so he killed Charlotte and the deceased man, using the screwdriver to throw the police off the scent. Lucifer and Decker arrive in time to stop the FBI agent from killing Charlotte again, Lucifer stabs Charlotte to open a new wound as her old ones healed thanks to divine power and to explain why her blood was all over the crime scene, and the procedural for this week concludes.
As a police case, it’s dull, with some opportunities to diverge for decent sight gags. In addition to Lucifer’s cocaine-covered face, we have Bradley, one of Charlotte’s employees with whom she was sleeping, who dissolves into a GIF-worthy sobbing face within seconds. Some decent humor is mined from Charlotte’s stay-at-home husband, whom Lucifer refers to as emasculated given his closet full of Crocks, Hawaiian shirts, and a Dave Matthews tank-top. The emasculation humor is returning to a dry well, yet the potentially sexist gag is mitigated by Lucifer admitting that he admires a stay-at-home father–given his own conflicts with God–but just not the idea of sacrificing one’s style, integrity, and self-care in the process. A smarter story may have paused at this moment for a reverse-gender The Awakening plotline, but this is Lucifer, not a Chopin novel. So, instead, we get cocaine-face Lucifer.
A few other gender-related jokes fell flat for me. The running joke for Charlotte is that, as she is the Mother, ignorant of humans’ ways, she is a fish out of water. Lucifer, Maze, and Amenadiel have had years to be accustomed to life on Earth; the Mother has not. The trouble is that the jokes tend to fixate on Helfer’s body, risking a loss of the Mother’s agency, and most definitely a loss of agency for the deceased Charlotte. The jokes repeat themselves around Lucifer’s discomfort with the entire situation. The Mother wants to be physically close to her son in embrace; Lucifer therefore freaks out over a buxom, attractive woman around his age hugging him. The Mother is struggling to get used to occupying a “flesh-bag”; the humor therefore tends to circle back to the firmness of Charlotte’s backside, again bothering Lucifer, especially as exposed by Maze’s revealing wardrobe that Lucifer uses to replace her blood-covered executive attire. (There is something troubling about shifting from corporate attire to club attire for the sake of making Charlotte into this kind of one-note.)
Finally, Lucifer complains that they’ll have to get Charlotte out of Maze’s clothes when a random perverted man mistakes her for a prostitute–and the next scene, Charlotte took the advice literally, disrobing in public. That last joke could work better as an allusion to the Mother’s innocence about nudity, a la Adam and Eve. Instead, it’s more of the same tired humor, only to reinforce Lucifer’s Freudian nightmare that he finds his mother’s new form hot. These jokes seem less to be about the Mother’s own personality and more about the men around her: it’s allegedly funny because a man thought the way she was dressed meant she was a prostitute; it’s allegedly funny because Lucifer finds his mother attractive.
I write this all from a position of privilege, as a straight man, about a script written by Lucifer showrunner Ildy Modrovich, who happens to be a woman. I don’t know what to do with this insight: maybe the problem is something larger, about writing to appeal to a certain audience where the jokes centered around naked bodies of certain conventionally attractive women are treated as sites for comedy, especially if the female character is ignorant as to feeling embarrassment. This innocent fanservice trope, as with any trope, works depending on how creatively it overcomes the cliche that is inherent to it–and I just did not find the joke very creative. It draws upon the same poor brand of humor from another comic book show this season: Agents of SHIELD already started its season with a fembot pretending to be a Life Model Decoy (LMD) popping up for ridiculous jokes about having an attractive, young, and naked woman, as designed by a creepy old man, lacking the social awareness to be clothed when offering a handshake to a surprised young man. The joke thankfully avoiding shaming the LMD, Aida, but the damage is done: it’s engaging with the work to reduce a character to just a body, in this case a robot with barely any agency, for the sake of a tired joke and some titillation now that SHIELD was moved to 10:00 PM. “Sexy” is not the word to use.
Some better humor was mined from Charlotte in terms of another tired trope centered around women: maternity. The Mother claims she wants Lucifer to forgive him. While locked in Lucifer’s apartment, supervised by her one-time warden and torturer in Hell, Maze, Charlotte is fixated on television shows–a funnier, more subtle focus on the Mother’s surprise with modern technology–and watches an old 1950s broadcast about domestic housekeeping. Seeing a mother make comfort food in the form of cheesy noodles, Charlotte calls to Maze for an explanation about “this gooey stuff this young man is obsessing over.” Maze’s expectation that Charlotte is watching porn helps diffuse the outdated quality of that kind of domestic femininity, and Charlotte’s later purchase of an entire shopping cart of cheese and poorly preparation of an overly cheesy dish of noodles for Lucifer is too over-the-top not to laugh at. Those moments felt more like an aware mockery of old tropes rather than, as with the “naked people are funny” gags, reinforcing that staid humor.
Also funny was the montage at the beginning of this week’s episode revealing the previous bodies the Mother occupied, albeit with some flaws. First, she possesses the body of a man who had a heart attack, only to fall back into traffic and be hit by a bus. Next, she possesses the body of someone in a shoot out, only to be shot again–and the show just happens to make the person shot and the person shooting Latino, because that’s the extent of diverse casting in this episode. As well, the humor of the Mother’s ignorance about human ways is a bit too fast and maybe too subtle: she does not think to look for the bus before backing into the street, or running from the gun. When she awakens in Charlotte’s body, she dumps her ringing smartphone into an ice bucket to silence it–and give Lucifer the clue the police need to learn Charlotte’s real identity. Finally, I dislike how Lucifer forecloses options of having his mother arrive in the form of someone atypical to the motherly role, depending on how well the humor could be mined from the previous two host bodies–but I am also grateful that at least the brief occupation of a divine mother inside a male body did not lend itself to gender cliches or transphobic gags.
Enough about the Mother, though: let’s get to that second point I was going to raise, regarding Amenadiel. The benefit to Season 2 is that, even if Charlotte’s portrayal pulls upon some of the worst gendered tropes without a sufficient mockery of those same tropes, Lucifer’s psychiatrist Linda Martin (Rachael Harris) is getting to make up for lost time in telling off both him and his brother Amenadiel for abusing her trust, Lucifer for blurring the distinction between client-professional relationships, Amenadiel for pretending to be a fellow psychiatrist–and thereby risking her career. Amenadiel, avoiding Lucifer and hence unaware of their mother’s return, has locked himself back in the fake therapist’s office he set up in Rachel’s building, and his reappearance annoys her. The scenes are brief, but Rachel gets to express her frustration and begrudgingly accept Amenadiel’s apology. Her face as he leaves her room, as well as her sigh, demonstrates a dissatisfaction with that apology, however sincere Amenadiel may have been.
And the reason that apology seemed so insincere again ties into why I think Amenadiel’s plot may be a better glue for Season 2 than the Mother’s arrival. After his apology, Amenadiel returns to his office, disrobes–and sees his wings are being putrified. While Lucifer lacks the style and maybe the effects budget of fellow Vertigo Comics TV adaptation Preacher to have such moments occur more frequently, congratulations to the special effects team for not only making wings that look as good as something out of Angels in America, but also making that putrefaction look real. Woodside’s performance makes the moment feel real: his brief look of anguish is interrupted by what looks like revulsion, not only at the sight but that small wrinkle of his nose at the smell of his own decomposition, excellent acting that is concluded with a scream and tears.
Last week showed Amenadiel losing his abilities to manipulate time and humans’ perceptions; this week, his body is falling apart. I had written last week that I thought the shot fired at him in the Season 1 finale was the cause–but that ignores that Lucifer was shot as well, then healed by God. I think a commentator wrote to me that it could be Amenadiel intercourse with Maze that infected him, but that storyline is ripe with unfortunate implications. Maybe his guilt over his sinful actions, like lying to Rachel, caused his condition and motivated his dissatisfying apology to her? Or, to propose another hypothesis, perhaps the Mother’s release from Hell did more than just free her. The show has unfortunately confirmed that the Mother is responsible for the plagues and floods, enacted by her out of jealousy of humans for taking her husband’s, God’s, attention–a whole mess of bad gender assumption loaded into that detail. But what if her release also infected Amenadiel, or worsened his condition? This episode concludes with the Mother convincing Lucifer not to return her to Hell, for now: she explains that his father wanted to destroy him, yet she urged leniency to convince God to only condemn Lucifer to Hell. While there may be truth to her remark, that smirk Charlotte gives up to the sky hints at a bigger scheme. Lucifer may be warming up to his mother, but if he were to learn, or suspect, that her return is dooming his brother Amenadiel, I think that this season could have a more interesting structure that has Lucifer torn between not his father and his mother, but his mother and his brother. This conflict would keep make the brief attention given to Amenadiel last week and this week greater purpose, as well as keeping this character relevant for the rest of the season.
- There were two other plotlines that I did not give much attention to: Decker struggles with her daughter’s desire for a new doll, which parallels Lucifer’s frustration with parents not giving satisfaction to their child (’cause they can’t get no), and Maze debating whether she really does want to leave Lucifer behind. The former plotline is a quick gag that barely clarifies Lucifer’s own problems in contending with a mother who did not give him what he wanted, a difficult parallel since what Chloe’s daughter wants is a doll, while what Lucifer wanted was not to be sent to Hell. The latter plotline seems like additional setup for Maze’s journey this season, as a demon with no interest in serving Lucifer again, yet with an interpersonal relationship, thankfully platonic, that has her coming back for his friendship. As Rachel now serves as one new friend for Maze, potentially to guide Maze in understanding these conflicting desires for autonomy from Lucifer and a desire to be his friend, I hope that plotline is handled well for the rest of this season.
- “Guess you should’ve been slipping the boss your top gun.” Forget context–at least most of Lucifer’s one-liners tonight were decent. Also: “It depends on what type of package,” or reading Charlotte’s shoe size to her employees. Or Lucifer thinking Amenadiel was out of long-distance prayer contact because “he must have gone for a wank or something.”
- The jokes about Charlotte in Maze’s clothing were not funny; Maze’s self-awareness about how revealing are her outfits was better, since it is her awareness, not a mockery against her.
- Lucifer also had a rather well choreographed bit of fighting in the spa, whether using the tanning bed as a torture device, or slapping around a lackey before tossing him through a wall.