“Mommie Dearest” is an episode that proves it’s not just impossible to hold Scream Queens to the standards of normal shows—the only way to evaluate it without throwing up one’s hands and quitting entirely (and more than halfway through, that’d just be a waste) is to treat this series like a visit to TV Bizarro World, where everything bad is good and everything that should be good just doesn’t quite work.
“Mommie Dearest” is, semi-objectively, a far better hour of television than last week’s “Beware of Young Girls.” Where “Beware” was a mostly self-contained guest star vehicle that existed more for Tavi Gevinson to give the word “bologna” the best line reading it’ll ever have than to advance the plot, “Mommie Dearest” eliminates a Kappa sister, fills in relevant backstory, and even gives us that rarest of treats in a Ryan Murphy show: believable emotion. But it’s just not as…well, fun.
The glaring exception, of course, is the cold open. As the common denominator between the fight scene and last week’s A-plot, Jamie Lee Curtis is swiftly (and unsurprisingly!) proving herself the MVP of this show, though credit where it’s due: both the meta reference to Psycho‘s shower scene and Dean Munsch’s Liberal Avenger spiel whilst beating up a Scalia-masked Gigi were inspired bits of writing. The total commitment to a ridiculous three-on-one axe, knife, and Eurasian martial arts fight, though, is all Curtis’s own. The whole “This school could survive a few serial killings, but I really don’t think this university could handle losing me” line may be a joke, but when it comes to Scream Queens, it’s basically true. Let’s hope she won’t be killed off, or at least not until the end.
From there, however, we segue straight into the Cringeworthy Line About Women’s Bodies of the week, in which Chanel number six claims that Grace and ZayDay’s birth control packs prove that “those who pill together, kill together.” The ever-shifting alliances, and never-ending yell summits, between the Chanels are the least interesting part of this show, and “Mommie Dearest” mostly keeps them to a minimum. Instead, this week is all about Grace, Scream Queens’ hypothetical star, and Denise Hemphill, its real one.
The title refers to Grace’s serious mom issues, both with her actual mother, who she learns was Kappa’s resident “Waterfalls”-lovin’, cold-hearted bitch and not the doe-eyed innocent she’d previously thought, and her maybe-soon-to-be stepmother, who is a crazy murderer. The Gigi situation is decidedly less nuanced: the convenient plot device who lives in the insane asylum reveals that a) Gigi is the Shady Lane hag and b) she took care of two babies, not one. Grace really Ned Starks the situation and confronts Gigi way too early in the game, thereby setting her on the war path before she has enough evidence to put her away.
The information about her biological mom comes to Grace by way of Chanel (and the Scotland Yard detectives she hired). As Chanel astutely points out, being the scion of Kappa’s bitchiest sister of all shatters Grace’s sense of self as Kappa’s conscience. It’s both selfish and self-righteous, adding some much-needed nuance to Grace’s goodie two shoes persona, and leads to a genuine apology from Chanel, who shares her own nightmare mom stories. (“I was a prodigy at firing nannies.”) On paper, this is great! But in practice, it’s too little too late for a show that’s several weeks into establishing its brand as a hot mess of one-liners. It’s not enough to make the show traditionally good, yet it is enough to feel tonally off.
Which brings us to Denise’s storyline, exactly the kind of nonsense this series does best. Mozzarella sticks fried in face oil! A G-string that makes her feel “like angels are flossing my buttcrack!” A coup to become house mother that has zero reason to work but somehow does! Bored of a fruitless search for the killers, Denise seems to have given up her vendetta against ZayDay entirely to concentrate on making Kappa a better sisterhood, starting with Chanel’s apology to Grace. No one expected or even wanted a secondary character’s mid-season pivot from security guard to 40-year-old sorority sister, but we got one anyway. That’s the Ryan Murphy logic we know and love.