If last week’s game of kick the can was a turning point on Togetherness you’d hardly realize it as such in the events of this week. Sort of. “Ghost in Chains” was the kind of episode shows need every once and again to set the stage for episodes to come, strategically moving the characters into position like so many chess pieces, and it suffers as such. But even while everyone is being shunted around for the final two episodes of the season, each relationship bears the strain of the events of last week.
But before we get to all that, let’s talk about the week in Brett. Or, more appropriately, let’s talk about Jacob Marley.
How much time do you spend thinking about Jacob Marley? Probably not much. Marley, a key character in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, was always kind of a bit player, given he was dead long before the story began. Marley was a hardhearted man who cared only for his work; had a single, sole friend; and spent the afterlife doomed to wander full of remorse, weighed down by the chain he forged in life. So when Brett comes across a disheveled Linda (Mary Steenburgen!!!) playacting her own death in the middle of the forest, who abruptly informs him he’s like a ghost in chains, she probably didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Brett has a problem, and, as much as he’d like to tell himself it’s his wife or his marriage or his situation, that problem is himself. Brett doesn’t know what he wants any more than Michelle does, but he props himself up with his work, telling himself that it’s what must be done in order for them to survive. But in reality, regardless of whether or not their family’s survival is tied wholly to his employment or not, Brett gives himself over to the work because he cannot find peace anywhere else in his life.
This is, of course, the appeal of Linda. A free spirit, Linda doesn’t appear to be tied down by anything so boring and conventional as work or family. She’s seemingly able to see through to the core of who Brett is, something he hasn’t experience in ages, when in reality she’s not telling him anything that his wife didn’t say to him just last episode. Brett is wound tight. He can’t relax. He’s burdened. He can’t have fun. He can’t let go. But it’s one thing to hear that from the woman you love, the woman who feels like yet another burden to you, and quite another to hear it from an ethereal stranger who seems not just a little bit mystical.
Linda’s effect is immediate. Faced with another soul-crushing 16-hour day with the director from hell, Brett snaps. He rages against the machine, his bosses, his snacks, the fact that, despite all of his rage, he’s still just a rat in a cage, before finally impotently crying, “I’m a ghost in chains!” spurring not-so-sympathetic guffaws from the aforementioned director. It’s humiliating in that way that so much of Brett’s experience is humiliating, so he takes that humiliation out to the woods to Linda, whose offer of a late-night moonwalk he belatedly accepts. But he’s hurt and he’s frightened and he’s still fed up; he refuses to get in the death hole just because she wants him to. He wants to put his foot down. He wants people to stop bossing him around. He wants to stop it, stop it all.
And then he gets in the hole.
So much for progress.
Alex and Tina don’t make much progress, either, in the wake of their ill-advised kiss at the kick-the-can game. Alex throws himself into his workout routine, still determined to follow the path that Tina set him on so many episodes again, and Tina, well, Tina throws herself into Larry. The problem arises when Tina, desperate to save a party booking, offers to throw in a free clown, assuming she can strong-arm Alex into filling the role for her. Alex balks and they argue, accusing her of being a user. She’s hurt, but she tries to smooth things over by getting Alex an audition for a great movie role. Rather, she tells Alex that Larry wants him to audition for a major role. It’s only upon arrival at the audition that he realizes that the role is as the chubby best friend who is immediately killed and, in reality, Tina was the one that cajoled Larry into offering Alex the audition.
It’s then that the tensions that have been brewing between the two fully explode, with Tina accusing Alex of being a loser who doesn’t want to try and Alex telling Tina that she’s the loser because she has no principles. Alex has made a good faith effort to invest in what Tina told him, that he was capable of being so much more, only to have her throw that all away at the prospect of getting anything at all. Like with so many other issues on the show, the conflict comes down to balancing our dreams with reality and establishing whatever combination of the two we can live with.
In this case, Alex sticks to his guns, walking into the audition and informing them he’ll be auditioning for the villain, not the sidekick. He immediately walks out afterward, informs Tina that their relationship is over, and adds that he wants nothing more to do with her. As gut-wrenching as the moment is, it’s not entirely surprising. Only a few scenes earlier, Michelle had been begging her sister to take more care with the people in her life, only to be rebuffed with “go flirt with your boyfriend.”
Michelle does just that, actually. This episode has Michelle in a completely different world from the rest of the cast, one that’s full of legitimate promise and opportunity. She puts in several long hours trying to determine if the building she’s examining, along with David and a crew, is acceptable for a potential school space, and she seems to come alive, merely by having a purpose. Which is to say nothing of her connection with David: Even when the two are doing the simplest tasks, rote manual labor, their energy is suffused with potential energy. Michelle’s arc in this episode is the least riddled with conflict, in that she’s doing nothing but investing in something that could improve her neighborhood and the lives of so many. But her arc is also the most deeply conflicted, because every move she makes she becomes more embroiled in a relationship that offers her all the things that she’s not supposed to need as a married woman. Her will to do good, to feel good, isolates her with a man who wants to do good and furthers the possibility that they could do something great but that would turn out so poorly.
The tensions are everywhere, and the chains are real. It’s not just Brett who’s tethered by a chain of his own making. Every person on this show is. The question is, what happens when we start breaking those tethers? And is what happens next guaranteed to be any better?
Togetherness Life Lessons:
If you see a body in a hole, just keep walking. Particularly if you live in L.A.
You know you have good chemistry when a road trip to Sacramento seems sexy. Nothing about Sacramento is sexy.
Never go with a hippie to a second location. And never ever let them hold your burrito.