At the end of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) returned from a brief, and briefly disastrous, sojourn in Paris to the embrace of her friends, the familiarity of her apartment and the love of her on-again-off-again boyfriend Mr. Big (Chris Noth). Viewers were left, until the ill-begotten movies, with one of her infamous monologues and the image of her striding down the New York streets that she’d become so synonymous with, all set to “You’ve Got The Love” by The Source and Candi Stanton.
As Carrie said goodbye to fans, the lyrics “sooner or later in life, the things you love you lose” swooned in the background, and that’s absolutely central to what makes “Next Day”, the second episode of Divorce, so much better than the first. If nothing else, getting divorced means losing something into which you poured your love, your hope and your faith. It might be a fresh start or the beginning of a whole new life, but at the very least, it’s a loss. That idea came through so much more powerfully this week than it did in the pilot; towards the end of the episode when Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) finally get to talk to each other as adults, the show reveals what it was always supposed to be. Robert admits that he doesn’t know what he wants or how he feels, and Frances is forced to question what the words “it didn’t mean anything” actually mean.
Before the audience gets the pitch-perfect grace notes of the conclusion, the show must deal with the immediate aftermath of last week’s infidelity revelation. Frances is still locked outside of the house, with Robert refusing to let her back in. As she scrabbles around to get into the warmth, she’s finally seen by her daughter, who lets her in despite disbelieving Frances’s story about getting locked out whilst trying to frighten an annoying raccoon.
This provides ample room to show off Richard Rutkowski’s crisp, gorgeously chilly cinematography (it’s not a leap to draw parallels between the expertly saturated white, blue, and gray palette and the general coldness between Robert and Frances) and the enviability of their home. Robert, under the guise of not upsetting the children, tricks Frances into talking on the porch and locks her back outside. Thomas Haden Church nails the comedy of the sequence, his deadpan delivery of “I feel more comfortable talking you through this door” is much funnier than it must have read on the page.
In fact, this will become a recurring element of what makes the episode work so well; Church displays his strange ability to turn sad lines into funny ones and funny ones into sad. His monosyllabic cadence is adroitly used throughout the half hour, in contrast to the pilot, which made his delivery feel curiously detached from the world of the show. Frances is eventually saved from marital warfare by her children, who need her to walk them to the school bus. At the bus stop, she learns that Robert informed the kids that she stayed at her friend’s house and got so drunk that she couldn’t get home; it’s a funny line and gives Sarah Jessica Parker her own comedic beat as she tries to explain why drinking and driving is wrong to a bus full of children.
Robert and Frances’s children are an interesting, but unknowable, motif to unpack; Frances is constantly saved by them, and Robert continually uses them as an excuse to not have to talk about his feeling. It’s hard to escape the feeling that when Robert says he doesn’t want to hurt the children, he’s really saying that he doesn’t want to be hurt himself. His obsession with the welfare of his son and daughter reads as a defense mechanism, which is fitting considering how he has been characterised as an enormous child so far. By providing the teenagers with no defining characteristics, they can step in as sound boards to, and reflections of, Frances and Robert’s anxieties. It’s off-putting — if he cared about his children so much he wouldn’t have told Frances that he was going to make them hate her at the end of the pilot — but it’s very human and very real; two things that the show does well so far.
Frances is unable to get her purse because she’s been locked out for a third time until, with the help of neighbors, in an excruciatingly awkward but funny scene, she finds out that Robert has put it and her mobile in the trash underneath banana peels. When she gets access to her phone, her realtor tells her that she’s late to see an office space that would be perfect for her business venture: an art gallery that will display local artists and sculptors.
This is a frustrating but revealing plot point. In one sense, it reinforces how badly the pilot set up these character’s lives, the audience doesn’t know what Frances does for a living, what her passions are, or what makes her qualified to open a gallery. Has it always been her dream? Is she an artist? What are the personal stakes for her if she doesn’t get to open it? In fairness to the screenplay, it answers more questions than it throws up. We learn that Frances has been keeping the family afloat financially, that she’s invested in Robert’s construction business, and that she’s put aside her career aspirations in order to leverage his. Sarah Jessica Parker does a precise job of embodying a woman who is standing in the middle of a dream that she doesn’t understand the viability of, but the scene makes the lack of backstory glaring.
Frances visits her friend Diane (Molly Shannon) in the hospital, as Diane watches over her husband who’s been put into a medically induced coma after suffering a heart attack at the same party that inspired Frances to announce her desire to get divorced. It’s an awkwardly staged scene, sometimes purposefully so, and sometimes simply to reinforce the idea that these characters aren’t particularly likable, but it does move the plot forward. Robert arrives, reveals the depth of his anger in front of Frances’s friends and announces his intentions to inform the children that they’re getting a divorce and that it’s Frances’s fault. As Diane feels unable to care for her dog, Frances is forced to adopt it and embark on a race to the school so that she can stop Robert from destroying the family. She succeeds, appealing to the children with the new dog, and then forcing Robert to speak to her in the privacy of their bedroom.
That leads us to the sad, funny, intimate, and open-ended denouement. One of the things that sets this show, and arguably most of HBO’s output, apart is its willingness to lobby around opposing ideas and characterizations. Frances begs for her marriage back and tells Robert that she loves him, perhaps more than she ever did before. Robert tells her that she sounds like she’s trying to convince herself more than him. This astute suggestion is neither confirmed nor denied; she is trying to convince herself and him and work out what getting her marriage back would mean for her dreams. A life that she thought she might have will die if they remain married, a life that she always had in the past will die if they don’t.
As for Robert, he has to put his anger, his obsession with the sexual details of Frances affair, and his faux concern for his children aside, and admit that he doesn’t know how he feels. It’s both a childish admission and a mature one. Sharon Horan’s scripts get the beats of natural conversation so beautifully right. It’s a discussion that alternates between deep and shallow, wry and heartbreaking; it’s also a conversation between two people who aren’t exactly sure that they believe what they’re saying. Sarah Jessica Parker has never been better, toeing the line between sincerity and desperation more effectively than she ever did when her most famous character went through the same situation with better-than-Mr-Big Aidan (John Corbett). Thomas Haden Church plays Robert’s nonchalance and barely concealed adolescent anger as tempered for long enough for his confusion to be genuinely affecting.
“Next Day” offers the audience so much more than the pilot did; for a start, it’s genuinely funny. Parker gets the chance to show off the mix of tautness and clownishness that makes her such an odd and indelible physical comedienne. Church warms his performance enough that he expands the emotional landscape of Robert, and the protagonists feel more like real people who have things to gain and things to lose. For what promises to be a show about the negotiations that breaking a life apart demand, this episode took the conversation down meaningful, fascinating avenues.