When Russ and Lina are almost creamed by a truck on their way out to see the band Shep is managing, their thoughts turn to who gets their kids if they die. Amped up further by the symbolic fact that the girls were home alone for the first time without a babysitter, Lina makes a spreadsheet listing the pros and cons of everyone they know, her separate column for comments dismissing their small talent pool as: “Too bitchy, too crazy, too broke, too sleazy, too in jail.” While we haven’t been introduced to their “too in jail” friend, and there’s a lot of overlap amongst the other categories and the likes of A.J., Abby, and Bernie, clearly the one friend disqualified by the most checkboxes is Jess. “Guardians” marks Jenny Slate’s return to Married, and most likely her final departure as well, and, tonight, Jess’ exit signals the series’ summation of the sad, lonely process of growing up.
It’s tempting to attribute Shep’s eventual rejection of life with Jess as Married kissing off a co-star who had the temerity to leave for her own series, but, mandated by real world necessity or not, Jess’ sendoff tonight is right in line with Jess’ arc as written from her very first appearance. Married has always been about Russ and Lina (largely Russ) resisting adulthood, and his friendship with restless former party girl Jess has always represented his escape from fatherhood, monogamy, not leaving your kids alone so you can do blow with your DJ ex-lover, and the like. Jess, prone to telling Russ things like, “We both married the wrong people,” has been the funny, sexy, irresponsible devil on Russ’ shoulder for years. Slate—like the rest of this hugely overqualified cast—always made her character more than her sitcom outline suggested, but, as Jess’ dissatisfaction in her marriage and her own skin led her further and further away from Shep and her toddler son Harrison, her role as Russ’ cautionary tale became clearer. Russ’ eventual decision tonight, after a late night phone call from Jess about the end of her marriage, to go out to comfort Shep instead of Jess is a nimbly handled surprise, but also an inevitable one. Married has always been a show about the compromises you have to make to be, well, married. Jess, ultimately deciding she can’t or won’t make those sacrifices any more, just has to go.
There’s the temptation further to see Shep (and, by extension, Married’s) rejection of Jess as more judgmental than it is. Apart from the fact that Slate—a revelation on this show as much or more so than in Obvious Child—makes Jess’ irrepressible antics both hilarious and deeply sad, her departure here isn’t a condemnation of her (or even her infidelity or drug use, both of which Paul Reiser’s Shep clearly understood were part of the bargain). Married has, from the start, been about how people are deeply fucked up and how the idea of marriage is where a lot of people look to provide what they think they’re lacking. For some people, the attendant compromises and disappointments they find there are worth it. For others, marriage is a bad choice, and a dead end. Tearfully trying to explain how she’s arrived at the end of her marriage, she tells Shep, “I’m really just not trying to, like, tear the world down, but I want to be happy. I just want to be happy.” For Jess, that means taking the exit Russ ultimately decides not to take. Shep’s response is, for the first time in their final fight, touched with bitterness, sure. (“Everybody wants to be happy but it doesn’t just come. I want you to be happy, I really do. Go be happy. Hey, if it gets too hard you can run away from that, too.“) But, as Married has always shown, being married means your happiness can be the cause of someone else’s pain.
The other irresponsible outsider of the group is A.J., who, like Jess, manifests his seemingly bottomless pit of self-loathing in a manic, inappropriateness that drives away the people they most want in their lives. Tonight, Lina, responding to A.J. and Sarah Burns’ Abby teaming up to mock her quest for suitable guardians, quips ruefully, “I’m starting to think you two are good together.” She’s not wrong—in her sporadic but welcome appearances this season, Abby’s attraction to A.J. has sprung from their similarly weird senses of humor as much as their wounded natures. But, as ever, A.J. is driven to destroy everything good in his life, waylaying Abby and her son outside of the kid’s karate class alongside his mortified daughter and wheedling an afternoon of mini-golf from the pissed-off Abby. The A.J.-Jess parallel tonight is explicit, as Jess, giving makeovers and bad advice to the Bowman girls, similarly can’t keep from projecting her own insecurities about being rejected to someone else’s children in a passive-aggressive rant of squirmy inappropriateness. Both A.J. and Jess are incapable of reining in their own pain and fears—and they both end up alone. It’s just that A.J., rebuffed back to ”let’s just go on a few dinners” distance by the still-interested but sensible Abby, can retreat back the the solitude he’s been living in since his divorce. Jess, forced to wrench herself out of something more permanent, is shattered, without even A.J.’s pizza-sized cookie for comfort.
In choosing Shep over Jess, Russ and Lina (who clearly adores him as well) run the risk of choosing dull stability over youthful adventurousness, a choice that Married, nearing the end of its second (and perhaps last) season is making as well. Just as the show has largely moved away from the more sitcom-style plots of its early episodes (remember when Lina gave Russ a “hall pass” to cheat in the pilot?) to a more thoughtful, even somber, comic tone this season, The Bowmans have become more settled, and sensible. That might not sound like the formula for big laughs (or, sadly, good ratings), but it’s appropriate to the sort of story Married has been telling all along.
- Both Jenny Slate and Brett Gelman excel at finding the core of pain inside their characters’ often cringe-worthy behavior. Tonight, both Jess’ complaints to the girls and A.J.’s relentless appeals to Abby’s adorably uncomprehending son are as affecting as they are deeply uncomfortable to watch.
- That’s some stellar framing of the fight between Shep and Jess, director Nisha Ganatra isolating them in the frame, often with a foreground object cutting off their open spaces even further as the inevitable end closes in.
- Shep, on the band he’s currently working with: “They’re young, so the asshole-to-talent ratio is still manageable.”
- A.J.: “That’s what makes divorce great, you’re less likely to die together.” Abby: “Maybe you and Russ should just get divorced.” A.J.: “For the kids.”
- Abby: “You’re crazy.” A.J.: “I’ve been very up front about that.”
- Jess, still at a rave at 6 a.m.: “Oh shit. Shit on my life. I have to take my kid to daycare.”
- Jess, after Shep asks her when she got a tattoo: “Oh, I don’t know—I’ve had this for a while, I think.”
- Lina, always being the responsible one in the Bowman’s marriage, has ever been wary of Jess’ wildness, but her dig at Jess shows how deeply resentful she’s become of Jess’ absences: “They’re in Ella’s room—end of the hallway, in case you forgot.”
- A.J. remains incapable of not telling children about the various challenges posed by his newfound sobriety/celibacy, but the whole Cookie Monster run with Abby’s son sets up the final reveal of his big cookie beautifully.
- And his metaphor explaining his impending absence to the kid is equal parts sweet and creepy: “Cookie Monster’s on a diet right now, lean meats and veggies only. But I’ll see you when it’s time for a cookie.”
- Lina, on her job as teacher’s aide: “I used to hate 12 kids, now I’m down to seven.”
- Sure, it’d be nice if Married could keep both Slate and Paul Reiser, but, as Reiser’s controlled and heartbreaking delivery of Shep’s big scene tonight shows, Shep is always welcome. “I don’t need it either. I’m tired of being treated like an asshole. I’m not an asshole. If you want a new life with someone else, fine. Go get it. Just stop blaming me. Stop blaming everyone else in the world. Take some responsibility, be an adult, and own it.”
- The same goes for the pairing of Nat Faxon and Resier in their final scene—these guys have comic rhythm. Russ: “Wow, she’s pretty hot, right?” Shep: “I’ve been single eleven minutes.” Russ: “So check back with you over the weekend?” Shep: “That would be better.” Russ: “So, this might not be the best time to bring this up, but, if Lina and I were to die, how would you feel about taking our kids.” Shep: “I’ve been single eleven minutes. Let me enjoy this.” Russ: “So, after the beer then?” Shep: “Bring it up.”