Communication Becomes a Lifeline and a Death Knell in the Newest Episode of ‘Divorce’

Just as things seem on track for an amicable divorce, the specter of money threatens to throw everything off the rails.

Whether or not we like it, our relationship with money is one of the most defining of our lives. Often, money dictates the parameters of the world we live in; it provides us with freedom or restraint, it offers us opportunities or limitations, it means that we can step forward or be forced to retreat. For so many of us, money’s both a source of unique pleasure and genuine fear; an undulating point of access to our most extreme emotions. The amount of money we have, and the way that we earn it, is often wrapped up in the way we see ourselves and the way people perceive us. Unfortunately, it can also decide how we behave, whether we do the harmonious, amicable thing, or come out fighting with as much vitriol as we can muster.

Up until this point, Divorce has largely concerned itself with the emotional aspects of breaking up. Each episode has represented, by and large, a single day; they’ve all focused in on what it feels like to announce that you are moving into the future as a single person. Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) have run the gauntlet of emotions — plowing through sadness, forgiveness, anger, and, when we last saw them, acceptance.

In its fourth episode, “Mediation”, these emotional considerations are replaced by logistical ones. It makes sense, because when you break up with somebody you actually have to, you know, break up. “Mediation” opens up on Frances and Robert as they sit in the office of a professional mediator, expressing their desire to split their assets equally and ensure that the divorce is as congenial as possible. When the mediator tells them that they can no longer go about the divorce proceedings without telling their children about the impending breakup, they agree to have dinner with the kids and break the news.

We learn that Robert’s been living in one of his investment properties, telling the children that he’s staying there to stop any intruders from using it as a public toilet. This is yet another example of Robert’s scatological obsessions; in this episode, he’s shown peeing into a bucket and uses the word “twosies” about defecation, appropriately enough, twice. It’s a strange and highly specific character trait that’s hard-wired into his characterisation. It feels a little shocking, considering the fairly weighty subject matter, and it isn’t always clear what, exactly, this does to help the viewer understand Robert on a deeper level. Does it show us that he’s somehow more authentic than others around him? Or, maybe, that he’s completely ill-equipped to navigate the choppy waters of a modern-day divorce? It was strange in the pilot and it continues to be strange, without much payoff.

Frances, after leading an important business meeting, asks a lower-level colleague to pull her financial history with the business and compile all of her pay slips. When pushed to give a reason why she needs the information, she has a small but significant breakdown: announcing that she is getting a divorce and that she was the one who cheated. Parker sells Frances’s frustration and selfishness as she demands that a coworker, who has reserved the room for a birthday celebration, stay outside. This sequence reinforces what the viewer already knows about Frances; that she’s incredibly myopic and that she feels things very intensely. When she discusses the dwindling closeness between her and Robert, she cries that his mustache is always damp and she doesn’t know why. It’s the biggest laugh of the night, and a weirdly intimate insight into their forsaken marriage, which Parker provides a surprisingly emotional and comedic depth.

This look into Frances’s lucrative career is juxtaposed with Robert’s discovery that he has no money and is shouldering a hefty amount of debt; a discovery that comes, somewhat improbably, as a complete surprise. Robert’s newfound fiscal prudence ruins the couple’s attempts to inform their children of their looming divorce. Frances suggests that they each have an ice cream sundae, to somehow soften the emotional blow of what is to come, but Robert blanches at the price. They don’t get to deliver the news because Robert argues that his salad should’ve been part of the discounted meal deal, and then has to vomit. Once again, Robert’s body lets him down when he needs it the most. It’s a neat reflection of the end of last week’s episode when he needed the toilet at the exact moment when he admitted he still loved Frances in some meaningful, but useless way. It’s the opposite of what Frances says she needs from Robert in the preceding scene when she asked him to be strong and to be a teammate.

Frustrated and reading in bed Frances receives a text, a Facebook message, and an answerphone message from Julian (Jemaine Clement). This barrage of technology helps the audience plug into (pun somewhat intended) the feeling of isolation that Frances is feeling. Reading is often a direct attempt to escape life and this is a pleasure that’s denied her; she can’t outrun her affair and is forced to live with the wreckage that it caused.

In a clandestine meeting with Julian, Frances begs him to let her go. It’s a pleasingly layered sequence. Her plea for independence is impassioned but unconvincing; she’s still caught up with the romanticism of their rendezvous. This is cut short when Julian informs her that he wanted to meet so she could stop Robert e-mailing, phoning, and messaging him. He hasn’t thought about her any more than as an inconvenience in the last couple of weeks and she storms out; the dream, even though it had become a nightmare, has clearly died. Love doesn’t live there anymore — if it ever even did.

On his way home, Robert sees a huge abandoned warehouse that’s available for lease. In a short scene, the show makes it clear that this will be his new endeavor. A wonderful piece of camera work pans out, placing Church in a sea of gray concrete and steel and then zooms in on his face. In a split second, all of Robert’s aspirations and misplaced dreams are frustratingly visible. He puts in an offer that he knows he can’t afford. Then he rushes home, determined to tell the children about the divorce, emboldened by his reckless decision.

As your life changes, so does your role in it; one moment you’re the hero, the next you’re the villain, and most often you’re something in between, neither as smart nor as stupid as you think you are. Robert steps up as the adult when the announcement of their divorce is revealed to their fairly uninterested children. It’s a powerful moment of transformation, considering the fact that he’s most often presented as an infantilised fool.

Divorce does a stellar job of revealing how, in times of distress, the dynamics between two people are constantly shifting. When it comes down to it, Frances is unable to open the wounds that divorce have inflicted; she doesn’t know how to approach the subject, wrapping it up in a meandering monolog about being a better family. Her children have become, whilst she was busy fearing their childish reactions, adults. The whole time, they’d been acutely attuned to the ups-and-mostly-downs of their parent’s relationship. Robert interrupts Frances and assures the kids that they’ll always be loved, that their family won’t be destroyed, and that things will stay mostly the same.

It’s a pivotal and genuinely moving sequence that constantly plays with the audience’s expectations and desires. The kids’ nonchalance forms the comedic kicker, but the tone is maintained beautifully; it’s convincingly sad, simultaneously hopeful and helpless, and funny. Frances’s relief that Robert took the lead is palpable, writ large of Parker’s face, and Church’s idiosyncratic line reading makes a declaration of parental devotion seem both extraordinary and commonplace.

Unfortunately, the children are still non-characters, and a little more shading to them may have made the scene land even harder; a spark of emotion would’ve reestablished the stakes of the series. When the kids leave and Robert puts his hand on Frances’s shoulder, it’s the most touching gesture of the whole series, a small reminder of the support system they once represented to each other. Frances wipes the tears from her eyes and thanks him, her voice breaking in the way Parker has perfected in her career, and then they separate.

In a leap of implausibility, Robert finds out that his divorce may represent a financial windfall for him rather than the splitting of his assets that he’d imagined. Frances has earned “a heck of a lot more money” than him for a long time, partly to keep his business afloat, so if they were to get divorced the traditional way, he’d be entitled to a portion of her earnings as spousal support. This feels a little hollow, and like a logical misstep. It’s hard to imagine that Robert has reached 50-something without knowing anybody who went through an acrimonious break-up, or at the very least read something about how assets are usually accrued from the most financially capable party.

“Mediation” ends with Frances waiting in the mediator’s office whilst Robert hires a lawyer. Just like that, the prospect of money broadens the horizons of the show and sours it at the same time. It’s hard to imagine how the show could build on the premise of a couple who split everything equally and then move onto separate but interconnected lives. This financial battle will renew the narrative thrust of the show. The phrase “thank you” felt so powerful and meaningful five minutes before the episode’s denouement and the word “acrimonious”, which ends the episode, feels like a bomb. Money may make the world go round, but it looks like, in Divorce, it may also burn it to the ground.

RATING 7 / 10