“Big pipe’s easy. Dry land’s hard.” –Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood)
Concurrent with the moment in John from Cincinnati’s ninth episode (“His Visit: Day Eight”) when Mitch Yost makes contact, on the U.S./Mexico border, with his old friend and shaman Erlemeyer (Howard Hesseman), the inevitable happens: Mitch’s wife Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay) awakes back in Imperial Beach to find their grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) vanished without a trace.
This sets off a viral chain reaction, with Cissy’s fear and paranoia infecting everyone in her path, a surge of emotion that reaches its apex when drug dealer Steady Freddy Lopez (Dayton Callie) goes all Death of a Rat on a leather-jacketed teddy bear belatedly gifted to him by his knockaround sidekick Palaka (Paul Ben Victor). “You do not buy a gift and not give it. That’s the oldest bad luck in the world,” says Palaka before Freddy callously tosses the bear into the Snug Harbor Motel parking lot. Palaka immediately retrieves the gift and timidly pleads with his boss to take it. “For the boy,” he finishes.
This unlocks something in Freddy, an inward sense that a vicious cycle must be broken in order for the residents of Imperial Beach to meet this new challenge in the best way possible, though he’d be loathe to outwardly express it. Freddy’s a creature of threatening habit—the minute his soft side starts to show, he must reassert his manliness. Holding the bear after Palaka’s heartfelt entreaty, Freddy seems on the verge of tears. Then he violently zips up the bear’s leather jacket, as if to regain control of his own perceptual reality. He can only step so far out of the confines of his god-given role. At least subconsciously, Freddy understands that he’s little more than a messenger and a muscleman in this particular narrative, though, as his subsequently bullying stride, teddy bear in hand, towards Snug Harbor Motel owner Barry Cunningham (Matt Winston) suggests, it in no way precludes his resentment of that fact.
Barry’s own vision of Shaun in the episode prior—sitting stoic in the decrepit Snug Harbor Motel tavern, a Roy Rogers in hand, Patti Page on the juke—is revisited, this time with the added presence of Gilbert Rollins, the long-dead pedophile who molested Barry as a child. Initially, Barry seems not to notice these apparitions beyond the queasy dream-sense of a somnambulist; he practically sleepwalks through his vision, helplessly succumbing to its unpredictable rhythms. (Winston’s stiff tenor and puppet-like movements in John from Cincinnati make him seem, at times, like one of his famed father Stan’s grotesque horror-film maquettes.) Exiting the bar, Barry runs into Dr. Michael Smith (Garret Dillahunt), currently setting up private practice in a run-down building across from Snug Harbor, and similarly plagued by bad dreams. Barry recoils from him, lost in deep-rooted feelings of loneliness and repulsion, until Dr. Smith extends a calming, steady hand. “You’re crazy,” shrieks Barry. “Definitely,” replies the doctor.
John from Cincinnati delights in such moments of folie à deux; to creator David Milch, shared madness is one of the keys to community. Left to their own devices, the inhabitants of Imperial Beach wallow in their own despair, and in the complete and total absence, this day, of the harmonizing influence of John Monad (Austin Nichols), they are finally forced to fend for themselves. The signs of purpose are everywhere, and the residents of IB, even if unwittingly, are rising to the occasion: Ramon Gaviota (Luis Guzmán) stops to smell the flowers of Rosa the Avon Lady and is given a catalog similar to the one previously gifted to Dr. Smith; a video message from John (showing two size-disproportionate stick figures on a black curtain) sparks an impromptu message dictated by Meyer Dickstein (Willie Garson) that receives an enlightening reply; Bill Jacks (Ed O’Neill), distraught over the disappearance of his resurrected parakeet Zippy, finds a new confidant in a suddenly chatty cockatoo (“Never once communicated previous fifteen years,” he observes); and Mitch returns to an unwelcoming Cissy, Erlemeyer in tow, with a newfound determination (“I’m just saying give me the weight. That’s all I’m saying: I’m here. Let me take it.”).
Yet these varied impressions of a discordant society finally banding together are offset by a concomitant sense of purgatorial limbo. To this end, the episode’s most telling music cue is Sam & Dave’s cover of “Hold On, I’m Coming”, which plays over a scene of Shaun’s father Butchie Yost (Brian Van Holt) sitting impatiently on his surfboard, gazing out to the horizon in search of a, thus far, nonexistent perfect wave. (The constant promise of salvation. The continual uncertainty of its attainment. Faith, and all that that implies, in an aural/visual nutshell.) Dwarfed by the forces set in perpetual motion around them, what is left for the IB community to do? The answer may lie in-between the lines of a tossed-off exchange between Freddy and Palaka, a case where a verbal misunderstanding cuts deeply to the bone. “What do you see?” asks Freddy of his henchman as he gazes out the door of their room. Palaka turns to his boss mid-question and replies, simply, hilariously, profoundly, “You.”
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.