Television

There’s No Real "Détente" In the Finale of 'Divorce'

Jay Bamber
Robert (Thomas Haden Church) leaves Frances' gallery party.

Divorce reaches anything but detente in its fitfully moving, but ultimately sour and reticent, finale.


Divorce

Airtime: Sundays, 10 pm
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Molly Shannon, Dean Winters
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 10 - "Détente"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2016-12-11
Amazon

Divorce’s season one finale, "Détente", went the same way as most of the episodes that preceded it. It’s fitfully moving, consistently frustrating, wildly inconsistent and, ultimately, a jumble of good and bad elements that work on a scene-by-scene basis but flail when trying to hold up character or narrative arcs. Unfortunately, where the show could have used its final episode of the year to tie up loose ends and double down on examining who these particular characters are whilst laying the groundwork for the already green-lit second season, it instead worked as a de-facto new pilot.

One of the biggest criticisms of the season, and strangely, one of the things it has been so highly praised for, is the fact that it always at least tries to strike a balance between the two central characters. When the show is at its very best, it unpacks who these people are to each other and how occupying different roles in each other's lives shakes their worldviews. Quiet has always been better than loud in Divorce, but unfortunately, it dedicated a lot of its first run to broad acts of childishness that sometimes led its stellar cast down clownish avenues that they couldn't get out of.

"Détente" ended with neither a whimper nor a bang, but a reworking of its premise; gone are the uneasy reconciliations, the baby-steps towards new lives and the moments of hesitation. In the last five minutes, Robert (Thomas Haden Church) declares war in quiet, but spectacular, fashion and Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) makes her intentions to nuke him into oblivion clear. For better or worse, there's no going back as we move forward with this story.

"Détente" opens up with somewhat of a surprise, and the re-ignition of a plot point that’s been running idly for a couple of episodes: Robert's plan to open a children's play area called Fun Space. It looks like he's having success and has convinced some of his friends to become investors. Nick (Tracy Letts) seems as shocked as the audience, explaining that he's tried his hardest to find a flaw in Robert's business plans but hasn't been able to. At the beginning of the show, the episodes tried so hard to establish how misguided and stupid is this whole endeavour that this particular turn serves to make a lot of the first half of the show seem narratively redundant.

Robert was ridiculed for his willingness to raise funds for the project, Nick outright said no to giving money towards it, Diane (Molly Shannon) pointed out that the personal and business insurance necessary would be crippling, and Robert bought a series of investment properties that were dumps. There's definitely comedic and dramatic irony in making the show’s most ludicrous character the one who has the strongest and most viable business vision, but it feels like a cheat on the show's part that it didn’t show the audience how these investors suddenly changed their minds so drastically. During his speech, Robert ignores his mobile phone; a little moment that'll prove to be important later.

At the same time, Frances is at her new lawyer's office, arguing that she didn't agree to serving Robert divorce papers in the cruel and public way that ended last week's episode. Elaine (J. Smith-Cameron) pushes back, saying that Robert's lawyer (Dean Winters) will be sitting in his office thinking of ever more inventive ways to destroy her financially and emotionally. Smith-Cameron is pretty great in this scene; bullish and unapologetic without turning into a caricature. Frances agrees, and her desire to be civil all but, and somewhat unconvincingly, evaporates when she's assured that Elaine will make Robert's life a "hard eight" on the misery scale.

In "(Another) Party" it looked as if she would call off her plans to take him to the cleaners, but there's still definite bitterness there, and the idea of Robert's life being ruined doesn't fill her with horror. This is a pretty clear indicator that they shouldn't be together, or at least if they were to attempt getting back together it would require a lot of internal work. Just like Robert, Frances is ignoring her phone as she hashes out the smaller details of the upcoming divorce plans.

Their children have been abandoned at school due to a mix-up in the schedule, so they decide to walk home, unsure of where their parents are or why they are so difficult to contact. On their way back, Lila (Sterling Jerins) is hit by a reversing car, leaving Tom (Charlie Kilgore) reeling as he tries to get his sister to safety. In a show that's low on incident and high on internal drama, this lands like a sledgehammer and introduces genuine stakes to the proceedings.

Finally, and after a lot of episodes that felt aimless in their impact, this moment of genuine shock adds a narrative thrust. The consequences of Robert and Frances’s behavior suddenly have context, their infighting doesn't just affect their emotional landscapes but can leech into the physical and mental health of those around them. One of the things that can make Divorce feel punishing is how myopic it is when it zeros in on the protagonists; the show never pulls away from the central conflict to provide a richer sense of the world these people live in or make the side characters anything more than window dressing. By forcing the narrative to kick in some sort of high gear (it isn't exactly life or death, Lila is revealed to be fine) the finale gets somewhat of a storyline.

"Détente" finds it most real moments, and therefore its most interesting, in the hospital waiting room where Frances waits with Tom. Robert rushes through the door, seemingly still out of the loop. The adults excuse themselves and start talking, Parker gives a lovely, authentic monologue about how she can't escape the image of Lila lying in the hospital bed thinking she’s less important than her parent's petty squabbling. It's moving and hushed; Robert holds her hand as they promise each other to be better parents.

Divorce is generally better at drama than comedy and this is a prime example of why; when the main characters are at war, the nuances of the situation get lost, but when the show is about the private pain it reveals its layers and contradictions. However acrimonious their divorce may be, they have two children walking around in the big bad world that they are both responsible for and to. Their connection is deeper and more important that their own personal needs, and that's a perspective that the show would do well to explore in the second season, with some remove Frances and Robert feel more like real people.

Meanwhile, Diane reveals how far off the wagon she’s fallen when she empties her shopping cart of necessities in order to fill it with more and more alcohol. Whilst shoveling booze into the cart, she's interrupted by a young boy who mistakes her for his mother. He says that Diane looks like his mom, so she feels an instant connection and agrees to look through the store to help him go from lost to found. As they wander around, Diane talks more and more, laying out some of her anxieties and confiding in the young boy more than we've seen her confiding in her friends or husband.

This is revealing in two ways; it shows the audience how far removed Diane is from the people in her life and speaks to an inherent childishness that gives context to her issues with public displays of hysteria. Diane has always been characterized as a woman on some kind of edge, either a breakthrough or a breakdown, and Shannon consistently knocks it out of the park. As she unloads her stream of consciousness to a child who has no interest in or context for her plight, it becomes easier to understand the fact that she has nowhere to shuffle her feelings about motherhood and wifedom unless she drinks. In an easy joke, the boy's mother is a flustered, hurried, overweight woman who looks nothing like Shannon but speaks to her insecurities about aging.

Meanwhile, all of the investors in Fun Space are sitting around the table ready to celebrate their new business ventures; everybody's cheques have gone through and it's looking more and more like a viable endeavor. Everything changes in a second when Robert learns that his investment in the business has been blocked and his minimal finances frozen.

Frances, whether knowingly or not, has scuppered the one plan that may have worked as some kind of life raft to the drowning Robert (and could've perhaps given Robert the financial freedom to pay back the children's college money that he squandered on unsuccessful starter homes). Robert is broken, seeing his future pulled from underneath him and runs off to the body of his now lifeless dream, the warehouse that would have become Fun Space. It's a beautiful piece of cinematography and an uncomfortably tight close-up; Church is almost drowned out by the gray and steel of the building. The shot is washed out and grim and the extreme close-up means Robert's pain is squirm-inducing in its intensity. It’s a nifty piece of pathetic fallacy that reaffirms Robert's lack of options; as he tells Tony Silvercreek (Dean Winters) that he’s going to make Frances experience the pain she's caused him, and is encouraged not to if not for her sake, then for his legal standing, Church rediscovers the impulsive, petulant edge to Robert that's been in the background for a while.

Frances finally opens her art gallery, an opening that is met with a good review in a national magazine. Whilst Frances is making a speech, Diane reveals to her husband Nick (Tracy Letts) that her interaction with the young boy in the supermarket reinforced her desire to stay child free, a neat little subversion of the traditional dramatic arc. Whilst the grand opening is going well, a culmination of a dream that's been put on the backburner too many times to remember, Frances can't help but mix in her own drama. She tells her father that she, not Robert, had the affair and put the kibosh on their marriage, to the contrary of what they said in "Christmas". Her father confirms that he knows about the affairs Frances's mother had and that he has, in huge and insignificant ways, learned to come to terms with what that means about his marriage. In another little dramatic moment, Julian (Jemaine Clement) shows up unannounced, telling Frances that he Googles her every night in a stilted attempt to get her back.

Truly, though, the scene doesn't click in any meaningful way until Robert walks through the threshold and steals Frances attention for a private moment. Instead of blowing up, as he most certainly would have in the pilot, he tells her how proud he is of her and what she has built whilst keeping their finances afloat. It's hard to not feel that Robert is actually talking about himself whilst probing her for information about her complicity in freezing his bank account. Every sentence feels like it lands in that hazy space between sincerity and interrogation; Robert's love of Frances has never really been called into question, but this latest blow makes it hard to believe that he's being totally earnest.

Instead of mentioning her lawyer's swift action or sharing some of the credit for the families' successes with Robert, Frances simply says "I've waited a long time to hear you say that." Frances has been so desperate for positive affirmation that she can't hear the questions hidden in Robert's words. They kiss and it reads as passionate but reserved, something they both want to do but know is wrong; a retreat into a past that didn't ever really work. When they're finished, Robert leaves immediately but looks on at Frances from outside, disappearing just before she turns around.

That night Robert rings Frances in the middle of the night but doesn't make the reason clear, except to say that he wanted to tell her how proud of her he is. Frances accepts his compliment as read and asks whether she can take the kids skiing for the weekend, even though it's meant to be his weekend. Robert agrees and after a few moments of silence, which seems heavy with either a potential reconciliation or hundreds of recriminations, Frances puts the phone down. The camera pans outside into the cold and reveals Robert smashing up his apartment, like a shadow play, a moment of restraint that works very well. The next morning he makes a phone call to the police.

As Frances drives the kids to the ski resort, she's stopped by the police and accused of kidnapping them. She rings Robert and threatens to destroy him. The season ends. It feels like the second season is ramping up to be a more straightforward War of The Roses-style bitch-a-thon, which may be more entertaining if less nuanced. As a capper to the first ten episodes, "Détente" doesn’t really fix any of the problems that have plagued the show, but it does let some of the dynamics bubble up and reach natural and satisfying conclusions. The chance of Frances and Robert finding love ever again is gone, their children have been genuinely rocked by the divorce, and the idea that what was broken can somehow be fixed into something different but equally beautiful is destroyed.

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