Scenes from a Marriage
Watching this show grows more taxing by the episode. Jonathan and Mira’s marriage survived on curated conversation, with Mira keeping especially private. The end of their marriage is verbose. They say unkind things that will surely remind every viewer of something unkind they’ve said or thought, or, perhaps worst of all, heard.
Scenes From a Marriage is also becoming its own recap. The camera drops in at irregular intervals in consequential moments — a decade of love distilled into a handful of days. The premiere episode captures Jonathan and Mira as they learn they’re expecting a second child. In episode two, called “Poli” for her new lover, Mira decides to end their marriage. Episode three is called “The Vale of Tears,” and locating its significance is impossible, even after it cuts to black. Is this night crucial because it cracks open a future in which Jonathan and Mira reconcile, or is it simply the closest they’ll ever come to agree on what went wrong? The title is apt. I cried as I watched them wrestle the facts of the years into narratives that help them cope. Marriage is a story that two people agree to live into; divorce is a simultaneous but not shared experience. Mira and Jonathan take separate exits.
A year has passed since Mira confessed her affair, and she’s invited herself to Jonathan’s house, which used to be her own house, to talk. She turns up in full makeup and beautiful clothes, with hair dyed more richly red than it grows. It looks like a glow up, but she’s self-conscious. Jonathan and Mira have known each other for half their lives, but they fumble their hellos and end up in a charged Eskimo kiss, grabbing each other’s elbows. They don’t know how to touch.
That’s not all that’s changed. Mira’s beloved Henningsens have been traded for a cozy Ikea sofa that I don’t immediately recognize (I question this sofa’s true provenance, as well as Chastain’s vaguely Swedish pronunciation of the brand). Jonathan is updating the living room to suit his new life as a bachelor; Mira sees a downgrade. She also notices the remnants of Shabbat dinner on the table, a tradition Jonathan hasn’t kept in ten years. Ava likes it, he says. She likes seeing her grandparents and the sense of belonging. Mira nearly rolls her eyes. The shiksa isn’t hungry for leftovers, but she’ll take a glass of wine. The chasm between them widens even as their bodies keep finding each other. Suddenly, Jonathan and Mira are hugging, mid-conversation, for no apparent reason. They don’t know how to not touch.
Eventually, Mira comes clean with why she’s called the sit-down. She’s been offered a promotion in London, and she’d like to take it if Jonathan, currently on sabbatical, moves, too. Yes, that’s right. She’d like her soon-to-be ex-husband and their kid to move to Europe with her and her boyfriend. She’s asking that. Like out loud to another human being. Jonathan laughs at the audacity. Mira’s only been back from Tel Aviv a few months, and Ava’s still adapting to a life split between two bedrooms. Ava has a “community” in Boston, he says, but Mira seems to snigger at the quaintness of the concept. “You think we’re just a suitcase,” Jon accuses, but baggage, I suspect, is the word he can’t quite utter.
The conversation bears the hallmarks of their breakup talk. Mira is continually assessing, pronouncing Jonathan’s feelings on his behalf: “I don’t know if we can be in the same room yet without, you know, hurting each other.” Jonathan is reluctant to say much at all. When he brings up divorce, it’s almost accidental. “While we’re on the subject,” is all he offers by way of segue, but they weren’t on the subject. Mira, blindsided, wants to know if Jonathan’s getting remarried, but he just wants finality. “We can get it done in a day,” Mira tells him, capable of making a conciliation sound like a taunt.
But the coolness she’s affecting evaporates when she goes into Jonathan’s office and finds Ava asleep. This isn’t a one-off — her entire bedroom has been relocated. On the far side of a bookshelf-cum-divider, Mira finds Jonathan’s bed. Jonathan and Ava share a room, nestled together in the same office Mira was always threatening to renovate. The realization is a gut punch. Mira asks permission to poke around upstairs; before peeking into the office, she didn’t bother. I basically hate Mira, but, man, oh man, is Jessica Chastain incredible at playing her. Since entering the house, she’s been variously uneasy, brazen, philosophical, and, now, timid. What did Mira think was going to happen? Perhaps that life would continue as it did when she was there, with a Mira-sized hole in their old routines. Instead, Jonathan and Ava’s world seems to have collapsed into the vacated space.
Mira moves to go home to her luxury condo on a nosebleed floor of Millenium Tower but can’t make it out the front door. She has another glass of wine and another; she unzips her knee-high boots. “Soon, there won’t be any trace of me here,” she says, knowing that every change is still a monument to her absence. But Mira can’t yield to the anguish of the moment. She pivots to the script that helps her make sense of the end of her long marriage. The Henningsen armchairs were just props in “the myth of the home”; the home was just a prop in the myth of the family. Now, she lives in a high-rise, impersonally furnished. By her logic, it’s a sad metaphor, but Mira claims she’s liberated. “There’s no place in the world that would make me feel secure,” she says. The liberation she feels is the freedom to stop searching for what doesn’t exist.
Listening to her talk, I was struck by how young she sounded, so it’s interesting that Jon accuses her of recycling bullshit she spouted in college. Mira wants to make peace with her own ennui, to quit the ceaseless work of figuring out what could make her happy. Jonathan thinks she’s diminishing what they had as a defense mechanism; she’s upset he’s pathologizing her insights.
But when he brings up his own healing — seeing a therapist, writing morning pages — Mira actually yawns. Then she has the nerve to beg him to read the “morning papers” to her aloud. THIS LADY. This is how we come to learn Jonathan’s script, the story he tells about their breakup that assigns him some of the blame and, by extension, some of the agency. Jonathan wasn’t moral enough to please his father; his mother was too anxious for him to ever be himself. Mira was his “miracle,” but looking back, he sees he was never fully present. She was lonely. He’s not just the rubble. He made the wreckage, too. Mira comes over and kisses him. It doesn’t matter what’s the truth is; Jonathan’s story and her own interlock in a way that satisfies them both.
But Jon pumps the brakes as they round first base. Mira, fickle and demanding, needs to hear why. What follows is a slow, grim account of his life immediately after Mira left that’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard on television. One advantage of the series’s grazing plotlessness is that there’s no important action to get to, no rushing. The characters speak at length with excruciating exactitude. When Mira left, Jonathan wanted her to die. He wanted to die; he even wanted Ava to die for an agonizing instant so that Mira would suffer. Progress has been glacial. At first, he might push Mira from his thoughts for a few minutes, then a little longer and a little longer. He learned to live without his wife the way a person learns to hold their breath, numbing himself to the sensation of suffocation. If he sleeps with Mira now, the clock resets.
Have I conveyed my dislike for Mira? She insists that she felt the same when she left, insists that she never stopped loving Jonathan or wanting him, and persists in seducing him. He stops her again and somehow ends up the one saying sorry. She’s almost out the front door — please, Mira, just walk out the front door — when she asks again if Jonathan will come with her to London: “If Poli wasn’t coming would that change anything for you?” LEAVE US ALONE, MIRA. Jonathan technically says no with his mouth but invites her to stay the night. They slip into bed a few feet from their daughter, who they must actually want to wake up so terrible is her sleep hygiene. It’s genuinely distracting to me how cavalier they are about her sleep. There are lights on and they’re talking. Jonathan doesn’t even silence his phone, which goes off when his girlfriend, Laura, texts and then maybe texts again and then calls (I think).
Jonathan decides to conspicuously break up with her. Mira listens, grimaces, gets out of bed, and goes into the kitchen. Critically, she brings her pretty clothes with her. She won’t stay. There’s a number of ways to read what’s happened, but my uncharitable interpretation is that Mira has proved to herself that she can have Jonathan if she needs him — that the Ikea sofa can still be put to the curb. Maybe there’s even something unattractive to her about how easily he gives up Laura just to sleep beside her. Mira worries aloud that there’s something “fucked up” with her, and I believe that is a valid concern.
Jonathan has secrets, too. He pulls out his phone and plays Mira a voicemail that Poli left for him earlier in the day. Poli doesn’t give Mira up, but he’s clear that he won’t fight to keep her. It’s humiliating for Mira, and it’s a power-play from Jonathan. He knows she’s not as detached as she pretends to be and that it’s poisoning her new life at Millennium Tower. He’s determined to dismantle Mira’s theory that she’s just not as human — as needful or as nostalgic — as everyone else. But as they gear up to retread the same ground for the fourth time in as many hours, Ava wakes up — an event I consider overdetermined. She sees her mom and wants to know where Poli is; she asks to sleep in her mom’s bed, but it’s in a different house. Ava’s presence shatters the night’s boundaryless quality. Before she appears, the only limits on Jon and Mira’s behavior are what their own scripts, which is to say their own egos, can accommodate. But their 5-year-old daughter isn’t even sure who belongs in what house.
We don’t know what happens next. The episode ends with Mira eavesdropping again, this time on her husband singing their daughter to sleep. It might be the last time she’s ever in the house to hear it.
This series is so good at physical objects. The living room, once exquisitely decorated, is a confected hodgepodge of the things Mira chose and the things Jonathan needs. Ava’s sound machine bounces between bedrooms; they almost have sex on the ugly new carpet. At one point in the episode, Jonathan wordlessly rifles through drawers; instinctively, Mira brings him his inhaler. She brought it to him in episode two, as he has an asthma attack over the kitchen sink; he needed it in episode one, as they considered the possibility of another baby. I could write a thousand words on the depth of that inhaler as a symbol, but that’s not even what he’s looking for. Jonathan needs a cigarette, which is more or less the opposite. The confusion between Mira and Jonathan at that moment is a metaphor for the other 55 minutes of “The Vale of Tears.” Once upon a time, Jon couldn’t breathe. In a million, zillion years, he would never have left Mira, but now he can’t remember the last time he had an asthma attack. We can choke on the things we love. The things we love can be very dangerous.