Television

'Divorce' Gets a Lot Wrong in Its Seventh Episode, but Ends With an Emotional Gut Punch

Jay Bamber
Frances' (Sarah Jessica Parker) gallery plans hit a snag.

Frances and Robert unearth even more secrets, personal and financial, that drive them further apart.


Divorce

Airtime: Sundays, 10PM
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Talia Balsam, Molly Shannon
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 7 - "Weekend Plans"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2016-11-20
Amazon

"Weekend Plans" starts in a place that I think few audience members would’ve expected; Robert (Thomas Haden Church) is on a sort-of date with Kathy (Mary McCormack) at a local Starbucks. Kathy is the woman who Robert admitted to having an emotional affair with in episode three, an affair that was interrupted by the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Goaded on by his new, misogynistic lawyer (Dean Winters) and trying to explore the dimensions of singledom, Robert's gone back to the past in the mistaken delusion that it'll help him move into his future. It's a very human moment on Robert’s part. It's obvious that Kathy won't want to start a relationship with someone who represents one of the worst periods of her life, but Robert has no vantage point from which to view a romantic life. He doesn't know how to start dating, or who he would be if he was actively pursuing romantic relationships.

Church really holds onto the idea that Robert is an inherently childish figure who's been shielded from the world by his wife and his children; adopting the labels of husband and father meant, perversely, that he never had to grow up. Mary McCormack isn't given a huge amount of screentime, but she does some good work as an outside party who can see the absurdity of Robert's behaviour, an absurdity that she had wilfully ignored when she has felt lonely and desperate. It's a breath of fresh air to have a character in the show that recognizes, and is quick to run from, the level of toxicity and selfishness that characterises the Dufresne's divorce.

Robert’s desperation takes on a more troubling edge when he orders a coffee from a barista and attempts to expand on the connection that he sees between them. At first, the interaction seems fun and flirty, but it quickly turns sour when she mentions her fiancee’s love of skiing. Robert accuses her of leading him on, wasting his time, and displaying her body inappropriately.

It's a pretty shocking change in tone, and one that doesn't necessarily jibe with the character we've come to know. Whilst Robert has been shown getting angry, he's never really been demonstrably cruel. It's neither funny nor truly believable; as a scene, it occupies the weird middle ground that’s always Divorce's Achilles heel. What this sequence does reveal, though, is that Robert has no idea how to not be married; the opportunities that he assumed would be available to him aren’t there. He can't seamlessly swap one life for another, and it makes a strange sort of sense that Robert would be surprised by this -- the show has repeatedly taken pains to show the audience how ignorant he is.

His vicious streak reemerges later in the episode when he confronts Frances's (Sarah Jessica Parker) friend Dallas (Talia Balsam) in a men’s clothing store. In a bid to make himself a more viable suitor to the opposite sex, Robert decides to change his wardrobe, but is flummoxed by a hipsterfied world where thick glasses and retro blazers rule. Spotting Dallas, he unleashes his pent-up anger, accusing her of being a bad mother to Cole (Alex Wolff) and a bitter spinster. Unlike his conversation with the barista, Robert is instantly regretful and becomes much more human because of it.

Talia Balsam continues to impress as the icy but vulnerable Dallas; it's so easy to connect to her heartbreak as she hears Robert accuse her of things that she knows, deep down, are probably true. With little material, Balsam has painted a vivid portrait of a woman who’s found ways to chip away at her own esteem and happiness. "Weekend Plans" suggests that there's an interesting and entertaining dynamic between Robert and Dallas; when they're together, they always bring out the worst in each other. Whether this suggests a shared history that the show hasn't explored yet, or whether it hints at future plot developments, it's definitely a power struggle that brings some sparks to the proceedings.

As Robert is trying to dip back into the dating pool, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) is shocked to hear that Robert is deeply in debt and, as the primarily earner, she's partly responsible for it. Frances tries to convince her lawyer that he must be wrong, that Robert must be hiding cash somewhere or that their assets haven't been accounted for. Even after she's repeatedly told that Robert has sunken them into a financial hole, she still holds out hope that somewhere down the line there's been a mistake.

Parker isn’t a particularly subtle actress and this scene, despite the fact that it's excellently written by Adam Resnick, plays against her strengths. Here, Parker goes broader than she ever has as Frances, and the fact that she must be deeply scared of her future doesn't land or have any resonance. Her desperate scrabble for alternative explanations for Robert's behaviour should reveal how much faith she still has in him, or how unbelievable she finds the whole situation. Instead, it reads as slapstick, an impulse that feels odd and disconnected from the tone of the show. Incensed, Frances leaves the office and rushes to the fixer-upper that Robert is staying in, and apparently losing enormous amounts of money on. When she realises that he isn't in, Frances smashes a window and attempts to flood the house with a disconnected hose. It's a funny scene and shows off the off-kilter physicality that Parker's been mining since L.A Story.

The future of Frances's art gallery looks bleak if Diane (Molly Shannon) is to be believed; she remarks, perhaps to get a rise out of Frances, that the area is a no-go area for new businesses, and that without a café there'll be no source of income. Since the pilot, Diane and Frances have had a prickly, complicated relationship. It isn't immediately clear why they're friends, they certainly don't seem to enjoy each other's company, and their interactions are never less than uncomfortable. Shannon plays Diane with a kind of easy, unexamined meanness that wrings black comedy from all of her lines. The sharp, stilted relationship between these two women needs to be unravelled if the audience is ever going to have any kind of emotional connection to Diane, or even an understanding of who she actually is; instead, in "Weekend Plans" she serves as a narrative device. It's Diane that reveals the true extent of Robert's unchecked spending when she laments his plans to build Fun Space, an enormous play area for children in an old parking lot. Frances hasn't heard about this financially unviable endeavour, and it fuels her anger even more.

At dinner, Frances confronts Robert, listing off the unsound investments he made with their money. These include buying a property that was the site of a triple homicide, some buildings adjacent to a dump, and the aforementioned Fun Space. Most egregiously, he refinanced their house to fuel his aspirations. It’s a little hard to believe that someone as smart as Frances would be completely oblivious to Robert's behaviour, but this interaction makes it clear that she has been focusing on keeping a roof over their heads rather than having any kind of future plans. She's been paying the mortgage, without putting her name on the property.

As opposed to the earlier scene, Parker does some of her best work here as a woman who’s staring down the barrel of a gun she's spent her whole life avoiding. Where before she went broad, in this scene she goes deep. Frustrated, incredulous, horrified, and still a little hopeful that it’s all an elaborate prank, Parker delves into the interconnected emotions of the scene and spars well, as always, with Church.

Their confrontation is interrupted by the show’s best visual joke to date; instead of a seedy bar, Robert and Frances are at a restaurant celebrating their son's birthday. Divorce always has a strong hold of how fundamentally strange parenthood is, especially in the midst of breaking up, because it reveals it to be inherently performative. The show doesn’t go very far in dissecting and questioning the need for adults to perform a role for their children, but it's a dynamic that's always mined for laughter.

In an excruciatingly awkward scene, it is revealed that Max (Jeffrey DeMunn), Frances’s lawyer, has suffered a mild stroke but refuses to give up the case. He mixes up names, hands Robert’s lawyer the incorrect paperwork, and at one point can't work out how to open his briefcase. It's unclear what this adds to the narrative, other than putting Frances on the back foot and perhaps putting her at a disadvantage. This would make more sense if the script established what the stakes are; what does either character now have to lose? Neither of them has money or liquid assets. Are they simply looking to win some kind of moral victory? At this point, both have behaved in ways that surely discounts them from the spouse of the year award. As much as Max assures Frances that his display of senility is an "act", the fact that he leads them to the staff room rather than the elevator doesn't bode well for her financial or legal future.

Outside his children's school, Robert finally gets the opportunity to have the no-strings sex that he's been seeking throughout the episode. A mom, who we later learn is known for having affairs with stay-at-home dads, comes onto him and they have sex. It's a cold, sterile scene, and it's obvious that Robert doesn't enjoy himself. As soon as it's over, the mom gets back to her daily routine, rushing to a yoga class and organizing what her family will eat for dinner. For her, the encounter meant nothing other than the temporary rush of illicit human connection, but for Robert, it means that he has to view himself and his life through a whole different lens. He's left sitting in the bathroom of a strange house, facing the fact that his life has changed completely and will never go back.

In keeping with nearly every episode of Divorce, "Weekend Plans" triumphs in the last few minutes. Robert drops the kids off at the house he once shared with Frances, and tells her about his amorous adventures. She doesn't know what to say, she's neither interested nor completely nonplussed. Frances asks if he's telling her to hurt her and he replies, "probably, but I knew that it wouldn't… And that's the worst part". It's so sad and well-acted; a complex layering or emotions and intents that manages to make no sense and complete sense at the same time. He wants a reaction from her so that he knows she still cares, and she can't bring herself to give a reaction because she doesn't know if she does. It's muted and mellow, but the most emotionally resonant the show has been.

Having sex with someone else forces Robert to rethink Frances's affair; he doesn't understand how she could've played the role of mother, wife, and sexual partner after having sex with Julian (Jermaine Clement). By having his own indiscretion, it's made hers even more crushing to him. The parameters of the betrayal have been refigured, and he doesn't know how he could've never suspected of her of being unfaithful.

The episode ends with Frances saying that, as much as he was never suspicious of her and her physical affair, she was never suspicious of him and his financial one. Both of them made mistakes, big and small, that forced them to become liars and actors. Neither of them brought their true selves to the relationship, so when it ended they didn’t know who or what they were supposed to mean to each other. It's rough stuff, and is getting more painful by the episode, but as long as the show keeps getting the heavy stuff right, it remains an interesting and propulsive show.

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