In the beginning of “Counseling”, the third episode of Divorce — which, incidentally, finally makes clear that Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) is an executive recruiter — asks a potential client, “Doesn’t it make more sense to hold onto what you’ve got? Because if you lose it you might end up with nothing at all… Nothing.” It’s a kind of thesis statement for Frances’s story; she isn’t happy with what she has, but the prospect of having nothing looms large over any decision that she wants to make. It’s the catch 22 that almost everyone finds themselves in at some point in their lives: should you hold onto something that isn’t working, because at least that way you have something?
Frances quickly turns a discussion about her client’s future prospects into one about her own stagnant present; a switch that’s completely in line with the characterisation of Frances thus far. It’s simultaneously poignant, understandable, and deeply selfish; a tightrope walk between meaningful and infuriating that the show is constantly toeing, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so.
Settling on the idea that they want to save their marriage, Frances and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) agree to go to couples counseling in a desperate bid to repair what’s been torn apart over the last two weeks. During the session, Robert expresses his need to know the minute details of Frances’s affair with Julian, who he mistakenly believes to be a French lothario. When it’s revealed that Frances slept with Julian more than 30 times, Robert is horrified; his estimate was two.
The scene just before this one is the darkest that the show has yet attempted. As Frances waits for Robert in the reception area, she sees a couple in the corner, the woman’s face bruised from, the show makes clear, an act of domestic violence. During their next visit, the couple is shown giggling together, the physical results of the altercation less visible. On Frances and Robert’s final visit to the therapist’s office, the couple isn’t there; their future unknown to the audience, but presumably not filled with rainbows and long walks on the beach.
This chilling motif serves multiple purposes; it shows how, relatively speaking, lucky Frances and Robert are that their dynamic is one in which there’s still some respect, it shows how hopeless the protagonists’ marriage is, and it reveals to Frances how fragile and destructive the relationship between two people who profess to love each other can actually be. It’s a gut-punch of an image that’s looking for a narrative turn to justify its existence; it’s unclear what relevance it has to their storyline, whether it’s supposed to support Frances’s anxieties or trivialise them.
As we see Frances at work for the first time this episode, we also see Robert on a typical workday at one of his investment properties. We learn, from Frances’s friend Dallas (Talia Balsam), that he’s started a construction company that forced them to sell their home in the city, and meant that Frances had to take a job that she hates to bankroll the venture. Sharon Hogan and Paul Simms make it quite clear in the script that Robert is neither qualified nor adept at dealing with the demands of owning a business or of renovating houses. This opens up a lot of opportunities for comedy; one of the pleasures of the episode is Robert trying to explain his relationship problems to his employees, but somewhat reinforces the idea that Robert is some kind of buffoon who doesn’t really know how life works.
Once again this raises the question as to how the marriage at the centre of the show came about; Frances seems to know too much about how life works, so much that it has stopped her from living it. There’s still a fundamental disconnect at the core of Divorce; it would help the audience understand the landscape of the show if they were allowed to see Frances and Robert reminisce about the past, or at least talk about what they loved about each other. In the pilot, Frances told Robert that they could “get back to just liking each other again” but it’s hard at the moment to believe that they ever did. It would bring higher stakes to the proceedings to see just what they’re losing by losing each other.
In their second therapy session, Robert admits to Frances that he’s had multiple opportunities to have an affair, one of which became a relationship, although not, Robert takes great pains to add, a physical one. It’s always a fascinating question to ponder: what exactly constitutes infidelity? Can intimacy extend beyond the bedroom? If you fall in love with someone but don’t have sex, is it an affair? One of the screenplays most excellent flourishes this week is that it shows you the damage that Robert’s “emotional affair”, as the show dubs it, inflicted on the relationship despite Frances’s ignorance of it. Frances visited a therapist because she felt foolish for being jealous of Robert and his old-classmate-come-potential-lover and guilty that she would question him.
This tells the audience so much about what their marriage has been like for the last decade; there’s a tacit suggestion that Robert was stopped from consummating the relationship because of the attacks on 9/11. Frances’s announcement that she wants to get divorced in the pilot is much less abrupt and out of the blue than it first appeared; their marriage has been in trouble for a long, long time. Parker and Church are both great in this scene: she sells Frances’s frustration and sarcasm, and he has the funniest lines of the episode as he discovers that his own example of his virtuousness is actually incriminating.
As with last week’s episode, the ending is infinitely better than what comes before it; once again at the therapist’s reception room, Frances tells Robert that she’s decided to rent the space that’ll one day be her art gallery. It’s the only hopeful note that Parker allows her voice to adopt in the whole 30 minutes of the episode, and it’s undoubtedly affecting. Robert dismisses the idea and calls it a store rather than a gallery. Just like that, Frances realises that the dream she put aside in order to support Robert’s will never be a priority for him. Her dream will never become their dream.
The negotiations and re-negotiations that they have been having, the ever-changing parameters of what they mean to each other, aren’t ever going to mean that they’re on the same page. After affairs, both physical and emotional, confrontations, and in-house warfare, their relationship is finally blown apart by one little word: store. They both agree that therapy is a waste of time and leave, barely able to look each other in the eye. Throughout the episode, Robert and Frances are shown taking great lengths to avoid touching each other; they take separate elevators, live in separate rooms and shuffle past each other as if one seconds contact would result in catastrophe. It’s a recurring visual that, through repetition, carries with it a lot of power.
The camera focuses in on Robert as he puts his luggage in the back of his pick-up truck, and then cranes back up to Frances as she sits in the bedroom looking down at him. In the final few minutes of the episode, Frances sits at the top of the staircase and Robert stands at the bottom of it. They are a few feet and a million miles away from each other. In a moment that is beautifully realised and painfully quiet Robert tells Frances that he always loved her and she repeats the sentiment. The word loved is important and well-chosen: it’s the past tense of a word that’s always so loaded with nostalgia for what’s gone, joy with what’s happening, and longing for what will come.
“Counseling” ends by making good on the promise implicit in the show’s title. Their marriage ends not with a bang, but with a whimper; a moment that feels oddly right for a show that gets the small things right but often loses sight of the bigger picture. It’s pretty clear, even this early on in the show’s run, that the two main characters are simply not supposed to be together; that zaps some of the tension out of the program but also sets up an unusual dynamic. Divorce stumbles on real moments of beauty when it anchors itself in the authentic pain and humour of removing yourself from someone else’s life.
In the closing moments, Robert says Frances’s name out loud, to her, to himself and to the ether. She asks him what he wants and he replies, “I just wanted to say your name again.” It’s writing and acting at its most fine-tuned; so believable, so moving and so aligned with how so many people feel when the life they once knew is receding into the rear-view mirror.
As a whole, the episode feels like a small step back from last week’s. It’s less sure-footed and more caught up in tonal limbo, but does pull the trigger of that proverbial gun that’s been sitting on the table since the opening moments of the pilot. Sometimes, the most excruciating thing in the world is to say goodbye. Sometimes, it’s the most freeing. In Divorce it is, as often in the world outside of the television screen, both.