Robert (Thomas Haden Church) and Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) try to keep up appearances over the holiday.

The Night Before (and Morning After) “Christmas” Offers Drama and Insight Into ‘Divorce’

By forcing Robert and Frances together over one eventful Christmas, Divorce hits its comedic and emotional peak.

“Christmas” is Divorce‘s best episode because it snuggles against, fights with, and eventually forms a détente with the central question that’s been lying under the show’s surface: how do you make a huge life change while keeping the tears in that life from showing? It’s the show at its most complex and daring, rubbed raw at the same time as being quietly graceful. The dynamic between Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) is always the one that offers up the most space for nuance and interpretation and, by forcing them together over one eventful Christmas, Divorce hits its comedic and emotional peak.

One of the most infuriating, and fundamentally insane, aspects of divorce is that it forces people to share plans and a future even though they are trying to separate from each other. Especially if children are involved, the other person is the captain of a ship that you never really get to jump from.

This is captured pretty perfectly in the opening sequence of “Christmas”, when Frances informs Robert that she plans to take the children to her parent’s house for Christmas: the continuation of a tradition that was established when they began dating. Both Parker and Church sell the awkwardness of two people who’ve forgotten how to speak to each other; they dance around each other and begin sentences that they don’t know how to finish. Robert expresses his horror at the idea of being separated from the children on the holidays, despite the fact that he spent the last holiday fishing (an indiscretion that has been mentioned multiple times throughout the last six episodes).

When he learns that Frances hasn’t told her parents that they have broken up, Robert sees it as an opportunity to have one last Christmas as, at least to the outside world, a solid family unit. Frances tries to protest, saying that splitting the kid’s schedule would be “the easiest way”, but it’s hard not to hear a tacit acceptance that she’s lost sight of what constitutes the mingling concepts of easy and difficult in her voice.

Parker seems to have settled on presenting Frances as a woman who can be assertive in every area of her life except when it comes to telling the truth about her feelings. This can make Frances a somewhat evasive figure — a tough protagonist to pin down — but it provides her with a compelling ambiguity that plays off Church’s more effusive performance. It’s a strong moment and a weak one and the show, much to its credit, never really pushes the audience to feel either way. Time and time again, Tom Scharpling’s script does that rarest of things for television: it offers two possible interpretations or emotions and posits that they’re equally valid. In a narrative about two people trying to negotiate the gulf between them, this is especially refreshing; “Christmas”, when it’s at its best, feels like a conversation rather than a lecture.

When the audience is introduced to Frances’s parents, some light is shed on the most perplexing element of the show. One of the most frequent criticisms against Divorce is that it’s always been next to impossible to see why Robert and Frances ever loved each other. They seem so different, so at odds in both aspirations and loyalties, that the pain of their divorce hasn’t always had the impact that it should have. When Frances explains that the hardest she ever heard her father Donald (Robert Forster) laugh was at the Budweiser frog, and that he thinks Robert is a “hoot”, it’s somewhat easier to imagine Frances falling into a romance that felt familiar to her.

There’s a smart metaphorical doubling of Robert and Donald throughout the episode; they frequently offer each other drinks, both refer to whiskey as medicine, and are often shot in the same frame. Lengths are taken to hammer home the idea that Robert represents two past homes to Frances: the one she grew up in and the one that she’s extricating herself from in the present.

After a brief argument about where Robert will sleep, they ultimately decide to share Frances’s teenage bed under the sound logic that they’ve slept together thousands of times without having sex. As Frances looks at her bedroom ceiling and, the show makes clear, at her uncertain future, she explains that she “spent so many hours lying in this bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what my grown-up life would be”. It’s a melancholic and nostalgic musing that’s followed by a brief moment of silence before she asserts, perhaps resolutely or perhaps unconvincingly, that she “wouldn’t trade any of it for the world”. This is the match that lights the most tender moment and biggest gut-punch that the show has pulled off so far: a moment of honesty from Robert and a moment of acceptance from Frances. He says into the dark, as if he’s speaking to the ghost of the person he’d always thought he’d be, “I just wanna say I always try to do the best for our family. But no matter how hard you try, mistakes get made.”

It’s unclear what this actually means, or if it means anything at all. Is it forgiveness? An admission of guilt? A last grab at nostalgia? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. All that matters in that moment is that Robert and Frances know how to have some kind of contact, even if it has to be in the dark, in a room and a home that doesn’t belong to them. Frances is a million miles away from the girl who’d laid in that bed and dreamed of a life in New York that we know both did and didn’t come true, and as a couple, they’re a million miles away from the couple who’d shared that same bed two Christmases ago.

This is then followed up by what feels like an uncharacteristic smash-cut edit for this show: the Dufresne family singing in church. Robert is typically boisterous, joining in and gesticulating as if he’s a rock star. All of a sudden, he’s again the fool we’ve come to know and, perhaps, not love, a transformation that’s reinforced by his mistaking the term “may peace be with you” with “pleased to meet you”.

“Christmas” also takes a brief but very dark swerve into the lives of Diane (Molly Shannon) and Dallas (Talia Balsam), revealing the alternatively shocking and satirical ways that they’re spending their Christmases. Diane is having dinner with her husband Nick (Tracey Letts), his teenage children, and his ex-wife. In what turns out to be a bruising and uncomfortable sequence, they eat an elaborate meal and argue about how Diane spends Nick’s money. The screenplay seems to suggest that Diane lives the life of luxury that Nick had always denied his ex-wife, a cliché that feels a little well-worn for this show.

It’s hardly a stunning revelation when a wealthy man treats his significantly younger wife better than the woman who came before her, and the scene does little to reveal anything new about the characters. Molly Shannon brings her usual mix of earthy and madcap, but the show is still struggling to embed Diane into the narrative in any meaningful way. Dallas’s Christmas is even darker: she sits in her living room watching television whilst her teenage son is fondled by his seemingly uninterested girlfriend. Dallas is an interesting character; the more we learn about her, the more harrowing her life seems to be, even with the financial stability that she experiences. Talia Balsam hasn’t had a lot of screentime, so it’s hard to gauge her performance, but she brings with her a dead-eyed, world-weariness that resonates.

Robert, a little drunk and angry at Frances for not telling her parent’s about their impending divorce, clinks his scotch glass and begins a speech in front of what seems like the whole town. His speech is long and filled with divergences, starting with a quote from Gordon Gekko and ending with a long piece of scripture that extols the virtues of honesty. Understandably, Frances assumes that Robert is about to lay their marital troubles bare and jumps in, telling everybody that they’re getting divorced but that they’re still a family. It’s a funny, if predictable, narrative twist when Robert reveals that his meandering monologue was heading to a stirring rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy”. Church does good work in this scene; he looks genuinely surprised at Frances’s reaction despite the fact that her interrupting him seems like a perfectly normal response. As Frances continually tries to interject into Robert’s bellowing, it becomes more and more clear that he’s leading up to a revelation that’s different from the one Frances assumes, providing a dynamic comedic tension that really works.

Now that everybody knows, Frances and Robert sit down with her parents to discuss what lead to what’s turning out to be a fairly acrimonious divorce. Her mother dismisses it as a bump in the road, a telling foreshadowing of what’s to come in the next scene, and seems to diminish Frances’s feelings pretty quickly. Her dad tries to run away from the conversation and only stays when Frances begs him to.

It paints a picture of a somewhat privileged home, but one where emotions were swept under the rug, and where aspirations were stifled in favor of the status quo. It’s actually fairly revealing of Frances’s character, who’s too invested in how she feels that she can’t seem to process the actual world around her. Her constant, almost pathological, inward narrative is partly explained by an upbringing in which external feelings weren’t ever validated.

This idea is reinforced when Parker goes for emotional broke, saying, “Can we not pretend that nothing has happened here?” It’s telling that it’s the idea of silence that makes her eyes well up. Robert, in one of his random displays of heroism, says that he had an affair, repeating Frances’s sentiment in the pilot that it “meant nothing”. We’re so used to Robert being shown as a kind of court jester that when he does something this selfless it sends ripples throughout the show. When Frances asks him why he incriminated himself, he simply says “Merry Christmas”.

Frances’s mother’s dismissal of the divorce is provided context when it’s slyly revealed that she too had an affair, which was never discovered and therefore never discussed. When Frances tries to explain why adultery’s more complicated and more representative of hidden wounds in a relationship than it first appears, her mother counteracts with the idea that affairs are sometimes “just fun”. Once again, the show offers an alternative without judging it; perhaps adultery doesn’t have to be an explosion, maybe it doesn’t have to be anything at all.

This sequence is subtle but meaningful, unpacking Frances’s memory of her own life and making her question the choices that have lead to her divorce. As they leave to drive home on their final Christmas as a family, they’re left with questions and accidently reveal to their son that Frances had an affair. It’s a disclosure that’s both huge and tiny, met with a shrug from a son who just wants to get back to watching John Wick. Christmas is over for the Dufresnes, but the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future will linger around long after the tree has gone.

RATING 8 / 10