Television

"Church" Is the Most Awkward and Odd Episode of 'Divorce' Yet

Jay Bamber
Drinking seems to be the most appropriate response to the latest episode.

Divorce suffers from an identity crisis as it shuffles towards its finale.


Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Molly Shannon
Tv Show: Divorce
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 8 - "Church"
Network: HBO
Air Date: 2016-11-27

Divorce is in the middle of an identity crisis; on the one hand it's a complex look at modern-day divorce, and on the other, it's a brittle farce about difficult people being backed into a corner. Both of these are equally viable narratives, but together they all but cancel each other out: one requires empathy from the audience and the other demands that they have an ironic detachment. It's like being told the best joke you've ever heard and then immediately punched in the face; there's no room to register the humour or the hurt, and for the show it means that that the characters, and the situations they find themselves in, are irritatingly opaque.

"Church" opens with Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) looking around an art gallery in order to get a deeper insight into who would fit a senior management role that the owners are looking to fill. It's a nice reminder that she's an executive recruiter; her work life hasn't really registered on the show other than as something she was forced to do when Robert (Thomas Haden Church) gave up his job and started a property development business.

When Frances talks about her own gallery and provides biographical detail about the Lucien Freud portrait "Reflection with Two Children", she puts herself forward as a candidate for the job. The vice-presidents of Sotheby's seem interested and impressed, and she's quickly offered the role whilst driving into town with her friend Dallas (Talia Balsam). It's a reprieve from the grimness that often characterises the show, and it's nice to see Parker and Balsam play light and excited for once. It also works to show why these two women, who've largely been cold to each other, are friends; they’re in similar positions at work, share an interest in the corporate world, and have a stilted banter.

Just after hearing the good news, Dallas notices Robert leaving church with his children and points out the odd turn of events to Frances, who seems genuinely shocked. It reads as a little odd that Frances's first reaction is to ring her son (Charlie Kilgore) and grill him about the day's events. Her assumption is that there's been a death in the family, or that they were there for some kind of party, and when she's told that they went of their own volition, and even enjoyed themselves, she's put through a loop.

The screenplay, by Hayes Davenport, is pretty cagey about why this is so perturbing to her, but Parker's performance suggests that the idea of her children having a life with their father that she's not part of somehow rocks her understanding of herself as a mother. On the other end of the line, the kids are having a good time with an increasingly manic Robert at an archery field. He's acting strangely, bringing an abnormal amount of energy to the proceedings and professing his love to his children like a drunk at a bar. Church is so good at navigating the contrast between his atonal delivery style and Robert's newly discovered pep that it smoothes over what a weird transition this is for the character. By the episode's end we'll learn what the impetus for this transformation is, but at this point, it feels a little like the show has introduced a whole new character.

Meanwhile, Diane (Molly Shannon) is giving her on-the-mend husband Nick (Tracy Letts) a sponge bath in the most sexual way possible; it's cold rather than erotically charged, revealing the fractures lying under the surface of their marriage. Divorce hasn't spent enough time with these characters to warrant significant emotional investment from the audience, and they can feel like a distraction, but as a pure acting showcase this sequence is gold. Nick suggests that they try to adopt a baby, and Diane tries to get shampoo out of a bottle with alarming determination. She clearly doesn't want to have children, a point that's maybe punctuated a little bit too hard, but Shannon nails the moment; there's a direct connection to her anxiety and anguish. It's not a subtle performance, but it's not a clownish one either; she occupies the space of someone who's brittle and broken with aplomb.

When Frances gets home from work she's greeted by Robert's latest acquisition; a pet snake. Her reading room, the space that she's mapped out as her own personal haven, has been turned into a mini zoo, and her children couldn't be any more excited. Obviously, she's initially perplexed, then horrified, and is forced into become the villain of the piece; she's the one who has to suggest that getting a snake without any knowledge of how to look after the animal may be a bad idea. It's a reasonable thought process, but Robert's relentless optimism and the gusto with which Church embodies him is sort of irresistible in the fact of Frances genuine concerns.

Her children are disappointed in her, as they so often are in situations like this, and Beth McCarthy-Miller's direction successfully shows how penned in Frances feels by utilizing some tight close-ups and emphasizing the architecture of the house. Frances has to navigate the spaces between being a mother, an ex-wife, and a woman in her own right in ways that'll mean sacrificing elements of each role; a personal dilemma that hasn't yet infringed upon Robert's life. He's afforded the role of the "fun" parent because he has no understanding of the personal consequences for Frances or their children. It's pretty tightly aligned with how these characters have been developed since the pilot; Frances worries so much that she ruins her happiness, and Robert pursues happiness at all costs, then is blind-sided that his good intentions may have negative outcomes.

In an effort to de-stress, Frances goes to Dallas's house for some good old-fashioned day drinking, a meeting that's fleetingly interrupted by the girlfriend of Dallas’s son (Alex Wolff). There's obvious animosity between Dallas and her son's partner that has an unpleasant edge of intergenerational warfare; it would be interesting to peel down the layers of this fight and in the process deepen our understanding of Dallas's bitterness and bleak world view. This episode doesn't touch this potential intriguing dynamic, but Dallas is definitely a character that's primed for further exploration. After talking about Frances’s new job, Dallas casually suggests that it's a good idea Frances will be earning six figures, because Robert will be entitled to half of her salary. As she got the promotion whilst still technically married, he could have a legitimate claim to her income. Frances rushes out in a rage and gets confirmation from her lawyer that this is indeed the case.

So begins the most perplexing encounter that Divorce has ever shown and it serves as a stake through the heart of the episode, draining it of any realism or maturity: Frances goes to Sotheby's and gives them an outrageous proposal; she offers to work for free for six months and then receive the unearned income back as a lump sum when her divorce is finalized.

It's excruciating; Frances flails around trying to find justifications for what's clearly a ridiculous suggestion as her potential employers watch on in horror. It's such an egregious misstep for the show that it's hard to understand why it made it through the draft stage; it's labored and awkward and, try as she might, Parker can't make Frances seem like anything but unhinged. If this is the case, then the show hasn't laid down the groundwork to make this feel authentic. Frances talks and talks, and the scene is pushed so far past the point of credulity that it feels like an absurdist sketch without a punchline.

Frances has always been shown as weirdly taut, but here she's like Lucille Ball on steroids and it just doesn't work; there's no motivation established for her to behave in such an odd and destructive manner. Later, she calls to say she's rescinding her acceptance of the job, at which point her not-boss accepts and says that they'll be using a different recruitment firm to fill the position. In a single five-minute conversation, she's lost her dream job and her company a huge account.

Perhaps Frances can't bear for her new job, and therefore her new life, to be so connected to Robert. Perhaps she just doesn't want Robert to prosper because of her success. Maybe she's even scared of getting what she wants and so engages in some first-rate self-sabotage. All of these are viable narrative avenues, and subtext is a great and rare commodity in popular television, but when the subtext is so invisible that that it's impossible to work out how a character is feeling or what lens they're viewing the situation from, it becomes narratively redundant. It's easy to lay the blame on Parker's over-the-top performance, but it's hard to imagine any actress making sense of what feels like an alien's interpretation of what a human may behave like.

And that's basically where the episode leaves us, except for Robert's bizarre decision to hand Julian (Jermain Clement), Frances's one-time lover, a gun and a hug. It's an equally mind-boggling scene, which is only given some context in the very last couple of seconds. Robert's been injecting himself with testosterone, which he keeps in his refrigerator. It's hard to know where exactly Divorce is going, and it's getting more and more difficult to see where this particular story ends.

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