Television

'(Another) Party', Another Episode That Touches Greatness and Frustration in (Almost) Equal Measure

Jay Bamber
Another of Diane (Molly Shannon) and Nick's (Tracy Letts) parties go awry in the latest episode.

This episode has some of the very best things that the show's capable, with some truly graceful little detours; ultimately, it reveals its fundamental faults.


Divorce

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Talia Balsam, Molly Shannon
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 9 - "(Another) Party"
Network: HBO
Air Date: 2016-12-04
Amazon

Divorce continues its recent trend of being one of the most frustrating television shows on air with "(Another) Party"; it's hard to think of another series that get some much incredibly right and so much incredibly wrong, often in the space of a single narrative beat. This episode has some of the very best things that the show's capable of providing -- there are some truly graceful little detours -- but it ultimately reveals its fundamental faults; a lack of cohesion in its characterisation and a tendency to lean into cartoonish behaviour. If Divorce was simply bad, then that would be one thing, but it's actually, and often, incredibly good, littered with moving insights and dramatic urgency.

Where it goes wrong is in its adamant desire to make these characters feel like cartoon characters, if you'll excuse the pun; many of the motivations and some of the dialogue feels divorced from reality in ways that are meant to be comedic but have the cumulative effect of being dumbfounding. It's becoming easier and easier to disregard the good-will that Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church provide, simply by virtue of the fact that the show makes them all hard edges. This isn't to say that they have to be likeable, but rather that they have to be authentic, rooted in the pain and anguish, the excitement and peril, that the slow unraveling of a divorce and the oncoming freight-train of a new life provides.

Take, for example, the cold open. Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) is running late for a meeting between herself, her lawyer (Jeffrey DeMunn), Robert (Thomas Haden Church), and his lawyer (Dean Winters); she runs to get a cup of coffee and prepares herself for the onslaught of legalese that is coming her way. They start talking about the snake that Robert bought in the last episode and the conversation quickly spirals into, sometimes fair and sometimes not-so-fair, accusations that Frances is a bad mother. All of the very fine actors are firing on all cylinders, but their dialogue is delivered in a way that the lawyers speak for their clients, a joke that's funny the first time round, but kind of excruciating in its many iterations.

Frances has a litany of motherly offences thrown at her: she doesn't pick the children up from school, she doesn't take them to the paediatrician, nor the allergist, nor the dentist. When she protests that she may not take the kids to the dentist, but writes the notes from the tooth fairy, she's met with chagrin from the males in the room. This actually plays better than it reads; Frances's contributions, which are emotional rather than physical, are shot down. In this homosocial environment, the role of nurturing, rather than service, is seen as unimportant. There's some kind of feminist argument bubbling under the surface -- that transport is seen as more important than emotional development -- but it loses its bite because the polemic isn't hit hard enough.

As they leave the office Max, Frances's lawyer, is in anguish. Frances has lost the points that most mother’s "win" in divorce proceedings; she's forced into the role that fathers often occupy. Frances works, and is almost single-handily funding Robert's ill-begotten business, their mortgage, and general bills. It could be subversive to represent the contemporary economic status of woman in this way (certainly on message boards about this show there are many mothers commenting on how this interaction, in particular, spoke to them and represented their frustrations at having to be a perfect homemaker and a breadwinner) or it could be a cheap irony that adds nothing to the texture of the show. Divorce really doesn't parse out the intricacies of these gender politics enough to make a case either way. Max advises Frances that divorce is less about the truth and more about perception; a sharp, gross joke that genuinely lands. Frances is advised to be more active in her children's high school so that she’ll look more motherly when the divorce settlements come to ahead.

So Frances goes to the planning room for the high school Spring Carnival, where she's judged instantly because all of the parents love Robert. Straight away she doesn't belong: she makes suggestions that've already been done, she says "think globally, act locally" to a group of people who've never been in business, and ultimately, reveals herself to be detached from the PTA milieu. The head of the PTA is Janice (Gillian Vigman), with whom Robert had sex with in "Weekend Plans"; an awkward discussion occurs between her and Frances, but it doesn't add anything to the plot in a significant way, other than reveal Frances's verboseness.

This transitions to Frances taking her kids to her friend Diane's (Molly Shannon) party. This is a good reflection on the pilot; it's the exact same circumstances that set up the show's declaration of divorce in the first place. Robert's also there, with his lawyer, in one of the screenplay's smartest moves; getting all the protagonists in a room makes for a dynamite dramatic premise. Interpersonal dynamics have changed since the pilot, so taking everything back to square one reveals stark differences and brings a certain level of roundness to the episode. Having everyone in one room also provides an adequate level of cabin-fever for the episode to kick into high gear; we still don't have a strong sense of how they function together, but this party gives the characters a context in each other's lives.

Robert's lawyer, Tony, flirts with Dallas (Talia Balsam) by licking a turkey leg suggestively and calling her a "bitch" and a "slut", a technique that gets her to go into his precious new car with him. They drive to an abandoned car lot and masturbate in front of each other; this isn't 100 percent clear because the show keeps the mechanics somewhat suspect. It's easy to understand the screenplay's impulse; it's going for fellow HBO stalwart Girls-style sexual intimacy, but it doesn't work as well as it does on that show because it doesn't reveal an emotional content.

In Girls, however, awkward sex scenes invariably tell you something about Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her friends; here it simply reinforces what we already know. Dallas is so removed from her own sense of pleasure that she's the sole arbiter of her own physical excitement, while Tony believes himself to be such a prize that his own touch trumps physical or emotional intimacy. It's an interesting scene, but doesn't offer any sense of revelation; when Dallas drops a candy and Tony is angry because he has to valet his car, it just re-establishes the emotional status quo.

Dallas is one of the more intriguing characters in the show, a woman who has consistently proven herself incapable of intimacy in any of its forms, but the audience needs more than this to get a true reading of her personal landscape. She makes bad decisions, which is fine as an introduction, but it doesn't introduce new or dynamic personal qualities. Tony drops her back off at the party and then rushes to the valet service, which serves as the underwhelming, denouement to this particular plot thread.

It's finally revealed that the party is for Nick (Tracey Letts) and Diane’s vow renewal. Nick is prepared and Diane is less so; when the speeches end, she's unable to get her hands on sparkling apple juice so drinks champagne instead, for good luck. This emphasises an interesting plot point from "Gustav": Diane has quietly (and not so quietly) been going T-total since the pilot. Shannon is, as always, fantastic at embodying Diane's peculiar mix of unrelenting dynamic tension and quiet insecurity, a balance that gets tipped over when she drinks. Both states are heightened when alcohol gives her inhibitions a break, and when she ends up slumped in a corner, inebriated and almost comatose whilst drinking her way to oblivion after seeing Nick dance suggestively with another woman, it's genuinely heart-breaking. Frances wrestles a champagne glass from her hand and implores her not to have another party again, a suggestion that has ramifications for all of the characters in different and profound ways.

Here's the thing about Divorce: it has such moments of beauty. In a quiet moment, Frances stands outside, away from the action, looking at her soon-to-be ex-husband and children dancing. She can't hear anybody or anything and she holds her glass up and says "cheers, somebody". The somebody is herself, no one, the dream of someone and the memory of someone, the lives as a wife and a mistress that she gave up, and the one as a single woman she's embarking upon. In this one minute, Frances sees Nick and Diane fighting, her son resist dancing, Robert being paternal, and acknowledges the joys and sorrows of being alone. Parker is good, the cinematography is good, the message is clear but multi-layered, and the sense of connection and isolation heartfelt. In a tiny amount of time the episode says more than it does in the rest of its 29-minute runtime.

Frances goes in and Robert suggest that he takes the kids home so she can stay longer; an offer she refuses because she knows her staying at a party with alcohol will be put against her in the divorce hearings. They've become adversaries; even their little acts of kindness have turned into peculiar, wounding weapons. It's an acknowledgement, finally, from the show that divorce is about two people who once wanted the best for each other; it's, inherently, hoisting yourself on your own petard, for better or worse, because you aren't going to come out of it without being wounded and wounding the person you, in big ways and little ways, loved.

This scene is Divorce at its complicated best; Robert apologises, Frances apologises, yet neither of them can stop what they're doing. Parker is great, defying the critics who accuse her of being too cold, with a rubbed raw vulnerability that sinks in like being trapped in quicksand, and Church expresses internal strife like it's his own personal beacon. Frances is forced to give up her lawyer and get a new one, a woman who specialises in getting good settlement for working woman. Frances is with her family, all of them, at a school basketball game that Robert is coaching, and for a heart-stopping moment everything does just that: it stops. Robert is served right then and there, in front of all the kids and their parents.

Frances delivers divorce papers that she didn't know she'd be delivering, in a way she didn't know was possible. She runs to Robert, weary and horrified at the behaviour she didn't know she'd be performing. The next episode is the finale, called "Détente" (the easing of hostility or strained relations) but "(Another) Party" makes it difficult to see how any of these hostilities will be resolved in the space of 30 minutes.

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