Ralph gets a message he can no longer ignore, as Holly begins to draw together a most interesting pattern.
Warning: don’t read until you’ve seen the episode!
Is the Grief-Eater intelligent? It keeps being compared to a virus or a plague, but there’s a cruel purpose to its work, a method that guarantees the maximum amount of pain and suffering. When it threatens Ralph directly by way of Jeannie, is it because it feels genuinely threatened by Ralph, or because it knows that the foundation he has with Jeannie is weakened by the loss of their son? In last week’s episode we got a name (one of many) for the being that’s wreaked so much destruction, now, in “Tear Drinker,” we start to get an idea of how it works.
Though not as jam-packed with information and twists as “Que Viene El Coco,” “Tear Drinker” spends a little more time with the key players. We learn that things with Ralph (Ben Mendelsohn) and Jeannie (Mare Winningham) may not be as stable as we thought they were, while Holly (Cynthia Erivo) isn’t quite as out there and on her own planet as she might appear to be. There are cracks in Ralph and Jeannie’s life together that could be used to wreak the same kind of havoc on Terry’s family, and every other family the Grief-Eater has touched. Holly, on the other hand, with her firm belief in the impossible, and unshakable confidence in her own intelligence, is a far more formidable opponent. It doesn’t even seem to be aware that she exists yet.
Jeannie, who works at a narcotics recovery center, has a bad scare when she encounters a menacing figure in a hoodie sitting in the waiting room of her office, and a worse one when he appears in her house later the same night, giving her the same message that Jessa Maitland received: “Tell him to stop.” Like with Jessa, Ralph is comforting but dismissive of her fears. In a flashback, we see that it’s at least it’s an improvement over how he treated Jeannie in the weeks following their son’s death. Though he’s still not handling it great now (he can’t even use the word “died”), then Ralph was shockingly insensitive, drunkenly haranguing Jeannie for wanting nothing more than to sleep and be left alone.
While it’s unclear if things have truly returned to normal in their relationship (note they appear to be sleeping in separate bedrooms), one thing that’s certain is that Ralph is carrying so much guilt about his son’s death, his treatment of Jeannie, and, of course, what happened to Terry, that he looks like he’s about to fold in half from the weight of it. It may be because of that guilt that he decides to take Jeannie’s fears seriously, to the point where he notices something slightly familiar about the blurred features she describes of her midnight visitor.
Holly, with her firm belief in the impossible, and unshakable confidence in her own intelligence, is a far more formidable opponent.
Ralph thinks it looks a little like Claude (Paddy Considine), who might be in the early stages of…well, how does the Grief-Eater form itself? Is it in some sort of pupa stage, similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers? We know that, up to a certain point, a person and their evil “other” can exist within the same time frame, if not ever crossing paths with each other. But is the person the Grief-Eater mimics aware that something is amiss? Claude certainly seems out of sorts, and given that “Tear Drinker” brings us to halfway through the season now, it’s assumed that much of the action for the second half will focus on him, a character who, up to this point, seems somewhat superfluous.
We’re also still learning what purpose Jack (Marc Menchaca) will ultimately serve, and what role he’ll play in the next round of mayhem. The blistered marks on the back of his neck are getting worse, and he’s alternately frightened, angry, and eager to please the Grief-Eater. He begins following Ralph and the team, minus Holly (who hasn’t even set foot in town yet), and later has a heated exchange with Ralph at a coworker’s baby shower. Jack seems too dumb and temperamental to be of any use to The Grief-Eater, but maybe that’s what it needs, to create distraction while the real malevolence happens in the background.
When he shows up at Ralph’s house later to apologize, you can all but see him crossing his fingers behind his back, and Ralph isn’t terribly enthusiastic about his offer to join the team. It’s likely that choosing Jack (who, to be fair, just had the bad luck to show up at the barn) might prove to be a rare misstep, one that will undoubtedly lead to gruesome results.
Of course, the biggest threat to the Grief-Eater is the one it hasn’t met yet — Holly, who returns to Dayton, still on the search for more push pins and threads to add to her mental evidence wall. While enjoying a brief but sweet fling with Detective Andy (Derek Cecil), who seems utterly besotted with her, Holly discover two more most interesting details. The first is that someone at some point returned to Heath Hofstetter’s now-empty house to lay out clean sheets on his bed, as if in remorse for what happened to him. The second is that Heath and the murdered girls’ burial sites are near abandoned structures – perhaps good spots for the Grief-Eater to lay low when it’s not nourishing itself on misery.
Though one suspects she already knew the answer before sending him there, Holly tells Ralph to go to Terry’s grave site and see if there are any abandoned places nearby. Indeed, there is — the barn where Terry’s clothes were found, and where Jack had his first encounter with the Grief-Eater.
While visiting the cemetery where Heath is buried, Holly spots a young man (Dez Ryan) paying respects to his grave. He doesn’t have much to say to her, other than “He fucked him over good. He fucked me over too.” It’s the same man we see earlier in “Tear Drinker” putting those clean sheets on Heath’s bed, in reverence and remorse. Later, when he commits suicide by cop, he has the same gruesome blisters on the back of his neck as Jack.
Everything comes together. Nothing is coincidence. Holly accepts this. Ralph needs to accept it too, or else pay a terrible price.
- The highlight of “Tear Drinker” is Holly’s conversation with a bartender (Genevieve Hudson-Price) who helps her work out some of the more fantastical elements of the case. One of Holly’s strengths as a character, both in the book and in the show, is her assured, straightforward manner of speaking. What she says seems impossible, but makes a strange sort of logical sense and leaves you wanting to know more.
- I did say that the Grief-Eater doesn’t seem to be aware of Holly’s existence yet. However, before the young man in the cemetery is killed, he takes a hostage, creating a traffic jam nearby and causing Holly’s car to overheat and stall out, delaying her drive to meet Ralph. It’s a subtler menace than showing up in the Andersons’ home to terrorize Jeannie, but it’s menacing all the same.
- Holly and Detective Andy’s low key romance was invented entirely for the show (and I worried that it would result in a signature HBO gratuitous sex scene), but in “Tear Drinker” it’s a surprising bit of sweetness in an otherwise bleak and foreboding show. When last we saw Detective Andy, he appeared to be picking up one of Holly’s clues and doing his own research, so presumably we’ll hear more from him.
- A minor criticism that will likely (hopefully) resolve itself in the second half of the season is the surplus of characters who haven’t been given much to do yet, including the aforementioned Claude, Holly’s fellow PI Alec Pelly (Jeremy Bobb), Ralph’s partner Yunis (Yul Vazquez), and fellow cop Tomika Collins (Hettienne Park). All of them are giving solid performances, despite having at most a handful of dialogue per episode so far.
- I’m dying to know the significance of Jack bringing hardware store supplies to the Grief-Drinker as an apparent offering. This is another diversion from the book that seems to be taking the story in a different, interesting direction, and I’m eager to see where it goes.