Television

Frances and Robert Can't Put Their Feelings Into Boxes in a Punishing Episode of 'Divorce'

Jay Bamber
Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) takes revenge on Robert (Thomas Haden Church) as their dog watches.

In "Gustav", Divorce can't seem find its feet as Frances and Robert lose both the battle and the war.


Divorce

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Tallia Balsam, Molly Shannon
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 5 - "Gustav"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2016-11-06
Amazon

Divorce is a challenging show. Not just because it can be difficult to watch, which it absolutely can be, but also because the audience can feel it straining to maintain its tragi-comic tone. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; an integral part of prestige and complex television is a kind of uncomfortable acknowledgment that all genres exist together. At its best, this melding of tones and influences reveals something completely new or unexpected, it illuminates what makes each genre thrilling.

The dramedy, however, is a famously difficult thing to pull off; comedy instills levity into a narrative, and drama offers up density. If the balance isn't right, everything can feel half-hearted: neither funny nor sad, meaningful nor frivolous. In its fifth episode, somewhat perplexingly called "Gustav", Divorce gets this balancing act mostly wrong. It pitches itself as a dark comedy, but it's difficult to see where the humor is supposed to be coming from; there are no compelling comedic set-pieces, or any of the awkward verbal ticks that have made some of the previous episodes such delights. Largely, "Gustav" feels like a shaggy-dog story, a long set-up searching desperately for a punchline.

As the camera holds steady on Robert's (Thomas Haden Church) face, the audience is made immediately aware that they're back where the last episode left them. Robert is sitting in his lawyer's office, about to declare financial war on Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and slowing realizing that his choice of legal representation is suspect at best. Gerald (Geoffrey Owens) is a property lawyer, one who works out of his home and gets yelled at by his wife during meetings, yet promises Robert that he's up to the challenge of arguing his case in a divorce court.

One of the only truly funny moments of the episode is how Church sells Robert's immediate acceptance that property law is transferrable to divorce law; he's so attuned to the bone-deep ignorance that can make Robert a frustrating protagonist. In sequences like this, it's clear that Church does a lot to stop the narrative of the show going completely off the rails. Robert is, almost always, a deeply unbelievable character, a satire of clueless upper-middle class dopes.

This isn't inherently a bad thing; it's fairly easy to see a show that thrust him into an equally satirical world that reveals something about a class of people who are seeing their way of life slowly shifting away from them but, in the realistic milieu of the show, his buffoonery can feel incredibly isolating.

Church does a lot to sand away some of the most clownish characterization, mostly by augmenting the character's stupidity with a persuasive mix of barely concealed anger and unceasing hopefulness. It's easy to tap into his performance because he oscillates between two extremes of emotions with an unpredictability that makes him seem more complex than the script actually dictates. On paper, Robert, at least in this episode, feels like a dud; wounded but wooden. It's such a shame, because this immaturity was counteracted beautifully last week when he was shown being strong, thoughtful, and capable of making a genuinely meaningful contribution to difficult conversations. It can't help but feel like a step back, a rejection of the nuance that can make this show so interesting.

Frances is in the process of folding Robert's clothes up and putting them into boxes when Gerald rings her to tell her that Robert has hired him as legal counsel. Gerald, clearly conflict averse (perhaps not the best quality for a professional arguer), begins to falter when Frances challenges him and ends the conversation by saying that it has all been an elaborate prank.

In the few moments that the audience gets to see Frances packing, the show generates an interesting mix of tones and emotions. Parker looks alternatively despondent and optimistic as she stares at her suddenly more empty closet; she has more space, but the clothes she saw every day for decades are no longer there. Frances now has more room to breathe, but nobody with whom to share the oxygen. It's a tightly packed little metaphor that comes to its fullest fruition in the closing moments of the episode, and really brings forward the melting pot of fear and exhilaration that inevitably comes with packing a life -- your own or someone else's -- into a series of cardboard boxes.

Frances responds to Robert’s about face by contacting her own lawyer, one who's semi-famous in the community of Westchester for his aggressive tactics and ability to win difficult cases. This service obviously comes with a hefty price tag that Frances agrees to after a few moments of hesitation. When pushed to document anything which may be used against her in court, Frances admits that she made out with another man at a party, deleted his favorite shows from the DVR, cheated, and never faked an orgasm with Robert. This isn't, she's quick to clarify, because their amorous pursuits were always satisfying, but because she liked emasculating him and making him feel that he was inadequate. This is a hard scene to swallow and seems counter to the Frances who was worried about her teenagers bursting into tears, or let her voice break apart as she thanked Robert for showing her kindness.

This kind of razor-sharp unlikeability is pulled off better in a conversation between Frances and her friend Dallas (Talia Balsam), who reveals that she can only cry when she's being observed, because that’s how she used to get her father’s attention. That is the kind of squirm-inducing black comedy that provides insight into a character as well as a cultural milieu; these children of absent parents have become absent parents themselves.

A lot is made about female characters being deemed unlikeable. Those critics who do it, and therefore show a preference for female protagonists who are meek, uncomplicated and civil, are diminishing the full range of roles for women to play. Some of the great dramas of the modern era are about very unlikeable woman (HBO’s own Enlightened comes to mind), and the great dramas about unlikeable men are simply seen as about men. It's laudable that Divorce is confident enough in its own narrative voice to construct itself around a woman who would say these things, but it rocks the foundation of the show. It brings into questions the moments of tenderness that have so far elevated the acid of the show. Did Frances ever love Robert? If not, why did she stay? Was there a point in which she woke up and realized that she was stuck?

Robert tries to sell the idea of Fun Space, his indoor children’s play area, to his friend Nick (Tracy Letts) who is recovering well from the heart attack that kicked the show into high-gear in the pilot. In Fun Space, Robert wants areas called Fun Space Food Space and Fun Space Ball Space; a lack of creativity that brings into sharp relief, as if the audience needed reminding, that Robert is a commercial disaster and all-around ticking time bomb.

At this point, the show has made it so clear that Fun Space is an non-viable and financially ridiculous endeavor that it would be genuinely subversive for it to become a huge success. It feels like a narrative nail that's been hammered too hard to not have some kind of payoff. Nick refuses to invest any money in the enterprise, and explains the failures that Robert has endured in business. In a genuinely surprising and smart piece of writing, Nick reminds his friend that he only ever invested in one good thing in his life: his marriage.

This revelation sheds some light on all the characters involved, positioning Robert as someone who's desperately looking around for a safe bet now that the safest bet in his life has fallen apart. It also makes a retrospective sense; Robert probably started his construction company at the same time that he sensed Frances disengaging. He has to funnel his energy into something; he can't allow his life to enter any kind of stasis. This also lends credence to Church's sometimes frantic physicality; he's a person with too much energy to contain or negotiate in any meaningful way.

Frances, on the other hand, gets the keys to the art gallery that she’s been dreaming of owning most of her adult life, and looks around it with her friend Diane (Molly Shannon) remarking that it looks so much different in the daylight. As with all dreams, when they become concrete rather than abstract, the work that they require becomes painfully clear. Parker does a sterling job of showing the nervous energy that accompanies getting the thing you wanted. Diane shows Frances a list of artists who owe her a favor because of the paintings she and Nick have purchased from them. The list has works that Frances couldn't even dream of stocking in her gallery, so when Diane explains that there is an exhibition launch in the city, Frances jumps at the chance to accompany her friends.

Robert, in a car outside of his Gerald's home, because his wife has banned him from having business meetings in the living room, attempts to pull his army of a property lawyer and unqualified accountant into some kind of battle formation. When he mentions the name of Frances's divorce attorney, Gerald's awestruck saying that he would be willing to take a cut in his usual rate just to watch him perform in court. Besieged with worry and unwilling to let his dream of the Fun Space disappear because of his awful financial position, Robert fires them both in a fit of pique that's completely characteristic of what we have seen of Robert so far. Hopefully, this doesn’t mean the end of Gerald in the show, because he's funny and somewhat touching as a man who's equally bumbling as Robert, but more willing to accept his lot in life and find peace within its constraints.

Next, we see Robert in a completely different setting, one whose glass walls and view of the city is a direct and deliberate juxtaposition of Gerald's musty wooden shack office. Robert's meeting with a new lawyer, played by the always wonderfully sleazy Dean Winters, who's clearly awful and consistently refers to Frances in derogatory and sexualised terms.

Frances goes to the gallery with Diane and Dallas and quickly begins speaking to the artists about commercialism, the tendency to glorify artists once they die and the relative merits of cultural criticism. It's interesting to point out that Diane chooses not to have any champagne after an extended, high-energy monologue about achieving sobriety after she attempted to shoot her husband. (This is definitely something I think we should keep in mind; Molly Shannon brings her kooky and intense Saturday Night Live energy into a few lines that could've been filler, which makes me think that her clearly precarious abstinence is going to be a plot point.

That being said, it's hard to gauge whether the conversation between Frances and the artist is supposed to be a critique of the pretentious way that the cultural intelligentsia says a lot without saying anything at all, or if it's just how these characters talk to each other. If it's satire, then it isn't pointed enough to make any impact. The young artist gets into a verbal sparring match with an older artist who's drunk, which escalates into a fist fight that doesn't seem to involve Frances in any significant way, making it feel as if the show has suddenly dropped into a whole other series.

On the way home, Frances receives a phone call from Robert's new lawyer, who promises her that she's heading for a bitter and bloody fight. Sideswiped by this revelation, she throws the boxes with Robert's belongings into the back of a van as her dog watches. The things that she'd taken such care in preserving, a symbol of the couple's attempts to sail the choppy waters of divorce through mediation, are now ruined and ragged.

As with every episode of Divorce thus far, another piece of the dream has died and, once again, so has the chance at a life that isn't completely governed by the divorce proceedings. Frances's tragedy is that she didn't know how to have her life defined by marriage, and Robert's is that he doesn't know how to live a life that isn't. It's hard not to think that they've simply replaced one label for another -- still bound to each other, still the predominant factor in the other's emotional well-being, just now with a lot more fallout.

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