Sarah Jessica Parker as Frances.
As “Counseling” opens, Frances meets with a new client looking for a mid-career change. He wants a new challenge — never too late for a fresh start, right? “Right,” she says, then pauses. “Maybe. But if you lose it, you might end up with nothing at all, and then what is there to do but wrestle with regrets while you wait around to die?” The client, understandably, is taken aback.
Robert, meanwhile, is being obnoxious and pushy during an open house at one of the homes he worked on: “Holy shit! Is this Corinthian granite?” Hey dude, your former finance bro is showing. Vicki, the humiliated real-estate agent, tells him to stop. He hits on her, then plays it off as a joke. When it’s clear she’s not having it, he snaps that if he wanted “my balls crushed and stuffed up my ass,” he would’ve stayed at home. Frances may have been the one who was unfaithful, but Robert’s burgeoning misogynistic attitude is even more unsavory.
They arrive — separately — at the office of their couples counselor. The main problem in their marriage, according to both Frances and Robert, boils down to trust. (This is obviously not true, but pinning it on trust is a lot easier than saying the last decade-plus of your marriage has been one long, silent queef of despair.) Again, Robert demands every detail of Frances’s affair with Jeremy, who he refers to as “the French douchebag.”
“First of all,” she says. “He’s not French.” Even this petty detail sets Robert off, sure she’s lying from the top. But they move forward, Robert getting increasingly explicit: “How many times did you have intercourse with his French penis?” She thinks about it, then estimates 30 or 32. He’s furious. He’d guessed two. Then he asks if she’d ever told Jeremy that she loved him. She says no, but doesn’t make eye contact with Robert. (When she and Jeremy had their final tryst in the pilot, she’d said, “I love you … I think.”) It’s fair to estimate that couples counseling isn’t a walk in the park, but this isn’t going well. On their way out, Robert refuses to let Frances get in the elevator with him.
Frances puts the final touches on her future gallery space, as Dallas watches. Dallas hates Robert now; after last week’s episode, it’s hard to blame her. She’s been through this already and has evident battle scars. “You need to destroy him,” she tells Frances. “Unless you want to end up with nothing.” When Frances demurs, Dallas points out that he’s derailed her own ambitions significantly: He made her move out of the city and get a headhunting job to support their family while he got his contracting business off the ground.
Robert is supervising work on a new house, making bad judgment calls and refusing to take input from his (probably more qualified) employees. Last week, we got a glimmer of his lack of friends when he visited Nick in the hospital, but here we see just how lonely he is, desperately trying to find someone to talk to. At least Frances has Dallas and Diane to confide in. (As another famously solipsistic leading man on an HBO show once said to SJP: “We’re middle-aged men. We don’t make friends.”) He winds up spilling his guts to his Latino construction-worker employees on their lunch break.
At home, Robert eats sad microwave dinners and leaves a stack of dirty plates and soda cans outside his door for Frances to pick up like a hotel maid, which is super-charming and a great way to make your marriage work. He also blasts “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, a deep cut from Now That’s What I Call Baby-Boomer Existential Crisis Music! Vol. 6. (Actually, I’m pretty sure that my dad did this right before my parents got divorced.)
Neither Frances or Robert seem to understand that being elliptical about their issues is hurting the kids more than it’s helping. Lila washes Hannah in an attempt to make Robert less allergic, so that Lila could have her own room back and Robert could sleep in her parents’ bedroom again. Sad face.
Time for the second appointment with the counselor. Robert says that he’d once had the chance to cheat on Frances with a close female friend. They’d discussed their feelings for each other, and she wanted to “take things to the next level,” but he didn’t. Frances points out that he’d had an emotional affair, which is just as hurtful as a physical one. Besides, she knows who this mystery woman is. She tells the counselor that she’d actually been suspicious at the time — but Robert convinced her that she had trust issues. She even saw a therapist. This gaslighting is just as damaging as an actual affair, but Robert won’t acknowledge any nuance. As far as he’s concerned, if there’s no P-in-Va-G, it’s no harm, no foul.
She turns the tables on him by demanding every detail of the emotional affair, starting with who ended it. “It was mutual,” he says. “It’s never mutual,” she scoffs. The details unfold: She’d invited him to her hotel in New York and he was (allegedly) on his way to end things when 9/11 happened. Frances is stunned: “When I asked you about the dust on your car, you said you’d driven down to Ground Zero to deliver water to the first responders.”
At the hospital, Robert blathers about counseling to Nick, who’s still in his coma — or is he? “Robert,” Nick gasps. “Shut up. Please just shut the fuck up.”
Nick and Diane have a tearful, loving reunion, as Robert tries to kill their buzz by reminding Nick that Diane shot a gun at them.
In the waiting room before their third counseling session, Frances mentions she’s about to sign the lease on a gallery space. Robert disapproves: “There are more important things that we [read: you] should be thinking about.” We know, of course, that Frances has spent years thinking about these things — like being a supportive spouse, raising the kids, dealing with finances — while Robert was free to focus on his ambitions. Finally, she comes to terms with the fact that he’ll never support her own dreams. Then and there, they mutually (!) decide that counseling is pointless.
Robert packs up his truck, preparing to move out. In the bittersweet final scene, he tells her to remember that he always loved her. It’s a rare moment where Robert isn’t painted as a one-dimensional buffoon, and Divorce could use more of them. And then there’s a poop joke at Robert’s expense. Natch.
- In the waiting room before the first session, Frances glances at a woman with a fading black eye and her husband’s arm around her. Before the second session, they seem happier. Third session, they’re not there. Dark.
- Best line of the episode goes to Robert, during the first session with the counselor: “I know you’re not here for value judgments, but from a clinical standpoint, I mean, a pure medical profile of the moment, doesn’t it sound like they did a shitload of fucking?”