Scenes From a Marriage Series-Finale Recap: The Monogamy Problem

Scenes from a Marriage

In the Middle of the Night, in a Dark House, Somewhere in the World
Season 1 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

Scenes from a Marriage

In the Middle of the Night, in a Dark House, Somewhere in the World
Season 1 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 5 stars
Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO

Mira and Jonathan will cradle each other in a twin bed by the end of the hour, compacting themselves into the smallest measure of space two people can take up. They’re not wearing clothes. When they talk, they almost breathe the words. They blew up their lives and sold their house. Now, they’re paying a nightly Airbnb rate to sleep amidst the well-appointed rubble. It’s a metaphor that lends their recklessness the patina of romance. Jonathan has a second kid at home and his first wife in his bed. He has less to give Mira, but isn’t that what she ultimately wanted? Jonathan without the devotion, without his unrelenting expectations. The final image of their bodies tangled in the dark poignantly suggests that Mira and Jonathan’s peculiar love story will never be through. They can’t move out of each other’s lives any more than they can leave the house. Let the camera run a few minutes more, though, and they will put on yesterday’s clothes and leave the house.

What’s less romantic than equivocation?

Jonathan’s at the unveiling of his father’s headstone when the episode begins, but he can’t stomach the deliberately inoffensive engraving — “loved and loving.” His dad was a dick. He presses his mom to admit there are upsides to the death of her judgmental husband, and she, fairly enough, wants Jonathan to shut up. Intriguingly, he’s behaving as moralizing as Mira always insisted he could be. At least we stayed together, his mother points out. They didn’t get a divorce and pretend it was for their kids’ sake. Even following 30 days of shloshim, Mom can land a punch. It occurs to me that Jonathan hasn’t gotten new eyeglasses in four years.

Mira is back in Boston having a business lunch with Poli, who is incredibly good-looking. She looks like the median of all the Miras we’ve met. Somewhere between the staid-mom button-downs of episode one and the knee-high boots of the Poli era lies this Mira, smiling with her hair in a carefree ponytail that hits the Crazy, Stupid, Love exacta: the perfect combination of sexy and cute. She seems breezier, too, and her answers uncalculated. Poli wants to hang tonight, but Mira has plans with Ava. He tells her that she doesn’t know what family means or how to be in a relationship, which is a stone-cold salutation, but she doesn’t bother defending herself. It’s curious to watch her give Poli a pass that she’d never grant Jonathan. Maybe she wasn’t pathologically defensive, just extremely invested in Jonathan’s good opinion of her.

She’s still a liar, though. When night falls, she pulls her family-unfriendly vintage Benz into a train-station parking lot. Hair down, makeup did, Ava at a sleepover. She picks up Jonathan, straight back from his mom’s, on a night that happens to be a few days before the 17th anniversary of the first time they had sex — an unimpressive milestone to almost be passing. He drives; she calls him “mister.” The dynamic is more flirtatious than romantic, more silly than sensual. He surprises her by parking in front of the old house. They’re clearly having an affair, but this gesture feels like love. When he says he’s rented it for them for the night, she doesn’t balk at the sentimentality.

I’m disproportionately fascinated by Mira in this episode. The way she lingers, arms folded, in the foyer — the tight space where she signed her divorce. She reluctantly walks the rooms as Jonathan moves ahead, anticipating the light switches. She’s waiting for him to show her how to be in this foreign, familiar place where they’ve come to seek out their own ghosts. After all, this was Jonathan’s idea. The office is now a sitting room. Ava’s bedroom belongs to two brothers. Jonathan and Mira drink and tease and touch. Whatever they’re doing, they’re having fun.

For the most part, conversation flows unguardedly. Jonathan is something of a success now, but his mom won’t acknowledge that she’s proud of him. Mira thinks his mother suspects what’s been going on between them for the last few weeks, that she’s known from the moment they didn’t answer the bedroom door when they were supposed to be sitting shiva. Is this a fling? A second chance? Mira says she prefers hotel rooms to houses for these assignations: “It is what it is, it’s not what it’s not.” A cryptic warning shot in her signature style.

When Jonathan pries about her dating life, she stonewalls him. She’s happy alone. She tells him she got married, in part, to prove to her own thrice-married mother that she could do it — a mean and entirely unrevelatory admission. Jonathan can’t understand, she argues, because he needs a “witness” to his life. Negging is Mira’s aposematism, but Jonathan insists he’s unbothered. Maybe he’s secretly satisfied by the way her justifications jump around uneasily. Being single is “refreshing,” she says. She doesn’t have the monogamy gene or whatever.

When they go up to their old bedroom, though, the situation deteriorates. They can’t get comfortable cosplaying the Jonathan and Mira who shared a last name. Instead of sex, Jonathan has the first asthma attack we’ve seen since Mira left him. He’s putting on his clothes and looking for his inhaler when his new wife calls. HIS. NEW. WIFE. Their baby, Ethan, is teething. Jane thinks Jonathan is still with his family. It’s fitting to find out that he’s the one with something to lose here. Would Mira be so keen if he were more available? She explores the attic, renovated into a teenage-girl paradise of Polaroids and string lights. “This is what I missed out on,” Jonathan says when he joins her. “You could have done it yourself,” Mira tells him, a veiled reminder that she’s not to be relied on.

For once, though, it seems that Mira’s mistaken. Jonathan confesses that this isn’t his first affair. He feels guilty about the infidelities, but the guilt isn’t enough to dissuade him. Jonathan didn’t want to marry Jane, but she got pregnant, and he wanted the kid. Which is not to say he doesn’t love her. She’s the first Jewish woman he’s dated since college, and there’s consolation in a shared set of customs. Since Ethan was born, though, they stopped fucking, and oh my God, please listen to yourself. It’s embarrassing.

“What if she finds out about us?” Mira asks plainly. WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL HAPPEN, MIRA?

Jonathan isn’t especially fussed. He knows something will break them up eventually. Maybe it will be this affair; perhaps it will be some other solipsistic choice he makes in the partial hope of getting caught. “I’ll never love anybody the way I loved you,” he tells Mira. It’s a sad notion, unknowable and yet self-fulfilling. What’s gross to me is how it intersects with this conversation about integrity within his marriage. The promises he made to Jane weren’t conditional upon him discovering his love for her is qualitatively different from other love he’s touched. Perhaps Jonathan was always selfish in this way, even when he was married to Mira. The difference wasn’t that he didn’t want to cheat. How easy it is to be moral when our morals align with our preferences.

Mira’s teary listening to Jonathan diminishes his experiences of love. If even Jonathan has given up on love, how can anyone expect to find it? Maybe they only love each other because there’s no risk left to it: What can be worse than what they’ve already done? She calls the trauma of divorce “endless” — a loss profound as death. She wants to sit shiva for it. No one leaves the house; everyone consoles them. The mutual experience of their divorce is more bonding than Jonathan’s marriage. Jonathan and Mira pet each other’s faces. They have sex in the attic bedroom, a level of their house they never unlocked when they owned it. They keep each other close until a nightmare shakes Jonathan awake.

Maybe it is real love? Mira invites Jonathan to tell her his tedious dream, which is among the most selfless things a lover can do. She’s interested in his secrets again. She’s thrilled to pick up all the clues even though, a few years ago, she tired of knowing the answers. In the dream, Jonathan, Mira, and Ava are stuck in traffic when they decide to walk home. As dream-logic permits, Ava and Mira push the cars out of the way, but Jonathan’s hands dissolve into stumps, and he can’t do the same. In his nightmare, he can’t cross the road to his own family. It’s the last half-decade of his life distilled.

Mira offers to get him some water, but Jonathan just wants to stay in bed. Sometimes he’s afraid that he’s never truly loved anyone or been loved. His wife left him, his mother didn’t comfort him. But Mira loves him, however deranged, and he’ll always love her, however complicated. They hold each other, presumably into sleep. But sleep will eventually lead to the next day, and the next day, the house won’t belong to them. Maybe the idea that they belong to each other is just as temporary. Jonathan says he’s comfortable that there are different types of love, but what about different types of love between the same two people? How can he feel about Mira now how he felt before?

We don’t find out. Someone calls “cut,” and Mira and Jonathan become Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. They put on robes and walk off set together, hanging on each other like old friends or people who know they made something incredible, or, maybe, like two people who are playing Jessica and Oscar. These grainy glimpses of cinéma vérité have nagged at me all season, but in this episode in particular, I hated it. What Chastain and Isaac created was claustrophobic, exacting, awful, and hot. The IRL coda yanked from the bath when really I wanted it to gradually cool over the stretch of the next hour. I wanted to soak in the same liminal space that Jonathan found so profoundly painful and ultimately irresistible, to convince myself it’s possible that true love can be so damaging and discontinuous. I wanted to find myself shivering.

Instead, I’m left with the barbs of Poli and Jonathan’s mom echoing in my head. Maybe Mira doesn’t know love. Maybe Jonathan only has himself in mind. What about Jane? What about Ava? What does it matter, and what was any of it for?

Scenes From a Marriage Recap: The Monogamy Problem