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Divorce pulls off a superlative episode about the concept of worth

Above: Sarah Jessica Parker, Roslyn Ruff. Below: Becki Newton. (Photos: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
Above: Sarah Jessica Parker, Roslyn Ruff. Below: Becki Newton. (Photos: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
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“The part that you just can’t explain, you just have a reaction.”

The best sitcoms take the situation of the comedy and use it to dig even deeper into various human truths. The Good Place pulls this off regularly with its high-concept afterlife, and Will & Grace recently drew on its show’s lengthy legacy to expose a new window into Will’s emotional past. But Divorce shows us this week that even a series with a fairly limited viewpoint—the breakup of a marriage—can offer much more than appears at first glance.


It’s all right there in the episode title, but “Worth It” depicts a number of ways to look at this concept of what makes something (or someone) valuable to some, less to others—in a mere half-hour. Frances is now a gallery owner, and finds a painting that so captivates her, she goes on a search for the artist. Meanwhile, Diane secures a million-dollar sculpture for the gallery, which means nothing to Frances but everything to getting the gallery on the map.


In fact, here’s where Frances’ own sense of value and worth may be a bit off. She somehow believes that just selecting art that she likes will make the gallery a success. A gallery in Hastings, some twentysome miles away from Manhattan needs a little star power, and the Peltz (?) sculpture Diane procures will provide it, much as Frances hates it. But there’s that value thing again: The two-million-dollar sculpture is worthless to Frances because of her disdain for it, even though it brings actual traffic to her new gallery. She has much more regard for the portrait by the unknown Sylvia Donaldson (Roslyn Ruff), for the very simple reason that she loves it and thinks it’s beautiful. So Frances has more respect for the one customer who agrees with her about Sylvia’s painting than the passersby who traipse in to look at that hideous sculpture.

For Sylvia, the less-than-positive reception of her work in the art world has cause her to doubt the value of her own work, so that she can no longer finish a painting. She’s unable to objectively look at her work and think it’s good, so she has given it up completely, moving into a job that clearly doesn’t mean as much to her. It’s the thing about loving your work so much, as Andrew notes that Frances is in a similar boat: It gets harder to separate your sense of self from your work, as well as other people’s reactions to it.


Diane has tied up her own worth in that pricey sculpture, but for a different reason: As her husband appears to have lost interest in her in favor of gourmet cooking, she pours more of herself into the gallery, but is reduced to asking Frances to evaluate her cleavage. In a really beautifully shot scene, Diane gets the validation she’s looking for by revealing herself to a stranger from her house made of windows. The tree branches artfully cover her revelation, but the positive effect on her psyche is clear just the same. Still, her value is in how others see her, not how she sees herself.

Robert has a similar situation with a house he’s renovated, engaged in a pricing standoff with an attractive real-estate agent (welcome back to TV, Becki Newton!) She low-balls him for $100,000 under his asking price, but it has nothing to do with her actual perception of the house: She loves it, just like Robert does. In fact her estimation of him—as well as his opinion of her—are both tied to their alignment over things like double sinks and cabinet fixtures. Interestingly, Robert’s value and appreciation of the house has strong emotional ties, but the fact that they both appreciate the same things and find similar things valuable makes both Robert and Jackie realize that there might be something there past a mere real-estate transaction.


In a perfect world, everything we value would just be dependent on what we thought of it. But other people live in the world as well. Robert has comparable price sheets and the like to help evaluate what his house is worth, to let him know if his emotional tie to it is causing him to elevate it. But the value of something like art—like that horrific sculpture and Sylvia’s painting—is much more subjective. If we’re strong enough in ourselves, like Frances appears to be (possibly too strong: invading Sylvia’s home and work were way over the top moves), other people’s opinions won’t matter, even if everyone else tells us we’re wrong. Frances tries to convince Sylvia of that very thing—but that’s a very difficult self-esteem trapeze leap to pull off.

Stray observations

  • Just saw The Post and didn’t even recognize Tracy Letts or his wife Carrie Coon.
  • Thank God, no surly Lila this week. I saw in an upcoming preview that a future episode will feature her 13th birthday party. So she’s only supposed to be 12? (The actress will turn 14 this summer.) As the parent of an 11-year-old daughter, that nugget of information filled me with absolute terror.
  • “I just thought you were being you. A dick.”
  • Molly Shannon whispering “Harlem” was priceless.
  • I think I was the only person who liked Becki Newton’s last TV show, Weird Loners.
  • Thing I had to look up: pasta faucet.
  • Shouldn’t Frances have a better elevator pitch for fancy prospective buyers and investors than just “contemporary art” that she happens to like?
  • Next week: Amy Sedaris as Robert’s overbearing sister? IN.

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.

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