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Scenes From a Marriage finally hits its stride in its penultimate episode

The limited series delivers its best episode in a battle of blood, sweat, tears, and divorce papers.

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Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in Scenes From A Marriage
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in Scenes From A Marriage
Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO

Last week, Scenes From A Marriage centered on revealing secrets, and its fourth episode “The Illiterates” twists that tone by delivering fakeouts. Director Hagai Levi is finally doing something with the assumptions the series has stoked, making us invest by doing the opposite of our expectations.

Not necessarily the opposite of what we want him to do, however. After a brief pseudo-respite from my personal torture device, Levi continues needlessly shattering of the fourth wall to open the episode, this time showing Jessica Chastain being driven to set and running lines in her solitude. Watching the actress prepare, much as Mira herself probably rehearses in her mind how to approach Jonathan, makes some sense. But in taking the Scenes of the title so literally as this, the show remains incapable of fully immersing us in the drama of Jonathan and Mira. How is this ever to feel like more than spying on an acting exercise?

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It remains a huge disservice to the performances of Chastain and Oscar Isaac, delivering here in this episode the kind of emotional dexterity and rigor that this pairing of performers and material promises. For “The Illiterates,” it’s no longer just promise, but potential mostly fulfilled.

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Chastain’s Mira returns to the house as it’s filled with moving boxes, on the phone with her daughter. Ava is beside herself, frantic that her doll will disappear in the move. Since Ava has been the thematic reflection of the marriage’s plainest truths all season long, naturally Mira and Jonathan will be revealed as feverishly hunting for what has already been lost.

With the house completely in boxes and movers arriving soon, the immediate question is whether or not this means Jonathan is London-bound after Mira’s hard sell the last episode (and their potential to get back together). But those suspicions are just a fakeout, as they are back together only to finally sign divorce papers just as the house is being sold. As you might imagine, Mira is in less of a rush to sign than the decisive Jonathan. After some flirtation relating this formality back to Jewish ritual, they finally come to a sad embrace amidst all this hectic process.

Which naturally cascades into sex on their plastic-covered couch, the most erotic of furniture. The sexual possibility in the show has been building over the episodes, whether in discussing their sex lives pre-split or in Mira and Jonathan’s near-tryst in the last episode. But just because it’s the first time we are seeing them reignite things does not mean that it’s their first time, because by the looks of things... well, they are comfortable with each other again.

And yet, the second fakeout of “The Illiterates” is the false sense of catharsis from the sex scene. Jonathan takes a quick shower, which immediately breaks the mood and only returns them to tension over the divorce contract. Mira gets Jonathan to allow her time to simply read through the document, but the knives really come out at the subject of Ava’s overpriced dance classes. These two subjects will be the vessel for two final reveals that Jonathan and Mira have been withholding.

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For Mira, it’s that she basically got fired earlier that day from her lucrative tech job for choosing her family over the London promotion. This is about as quickly as she has revealed what is impacting her decisions all season. For once, she comes out with something before she can formulate a master plan, and it has to be seen as some kind of growth even though she’s facing such a diminishing experience.

One of the best things about Scenes From A Marriage is how it allows its characters to be contradictory, leaning in to their moments of hypocrisy rather than avoiding them. Jonathan meets Mira’s career news with a patronizing monologue about how he feels nothing for her and has moved on, and she responds with a slew of insults. This burst of anger is less shocking because they just had sex, and moreso they fly past sharing the kind of vulnerability and frankness they both said they wanted at the start of their breakup. Their guards were down (and not just because of the physical act) but they can’t recognize it. The show has relied so much on their internal calculations and with little payoff, that this unguarded explosion of their most brutal sentiments finally feels like the narrative moving in a decisive direction.

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Mira does finally confess to feeling conflicted about making the divorce final. Nothing could be more clear to the audience after all these episodes, but Jonathan is the hypocrite to pretend he doesn’t have the same pull to reunite with her. Mira’s habits (and Levi’s desire to ignite our judgment) resurface, with another reveal that Poli is finally out of the picture. She’s more certain about that than she has ever been about the end of her marriage, so we can believe her. But since Poli left weeks ago, could dragging her feet with signing for her divorce be another fallback plan to be with Jonathan? I’m not sure it’s that simple, especially since Mira acknowledges how this appears.

Instead, Jonathan is the one with a big plan that he has been keeping from Mira, and it’s what is making him so demonstrative over her signing the papers. He’s entering an “elective co-parenting” arrangement with a surrogate for a new baby, but the legal wrangling would become a lot easier if he was legally single. It stirs up one of the most long-festering wounds of their marriage, and again things get nasty.

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The foyer has been the playground of some of their most significant moments, a cage that turned their shared pain elliptical. But this time, it’s Mira who is trying to block Jonathan from leaving, and it becomes uglier than ever before. Coming to physical blows, Mira begins hitting him until she’s knocked him over, his head slamming against the bench. If you have seen the original and remember the gender swap happening in this iteration, this has been a will-they/won’t-they-go-there expectation looming ahead for a few episodes.

In shame, exhaustion, and defeat, she signs the divorce papers. “You should’ve done that a long time ago,” Jonathan says. Does he mean her outburst of violence or signing the divorce papers? He drives off, finally taking us away from the house and its ghosts.

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In this penultimate episode, Scenes From A Marriage has dodged many of its problems, from its lack of purpose to the thematic pallor in comparison to the depth of the Ingmar Bergman original, by finally breaking its sense of static momentum. This was the series at its best with its characters at their worst, finding new and more surprising notes to its circular rhythms that we might be able to recognize in ourselves—no matter how uncomfortable or unflattering.


Stray observations:

  • Ava’s handwriting on her box of toys—“favorit things”—exactly matches the boxes in Toy Story.
  • Mira’s costume evolution has been: grey suit and white turtleneck in episode 2, white coat and black high-neck top in episode 3, and now a black trench and grey top in episode 4. It’s like a shedding of skin in neutrals and outerwear.
  • Does dumping Poli mean that Mira is no longer Poli-amorous?… Look, don’t be mad at me, be mad at the show for basically asking me to make this joke.
  • Kudos to the sound design team for all of the work the putting into making the sounds of the plastic on the sofa Mira and Jonathan where have sex as deeply uncomfortable as possible.
  • Maybe I’m just wildly unaware of how much dance lessons cost, but a $5,000 dance class had better be taught by no less than the ghosts of Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham.
  • They sure do diffuse their barbs once that pineapple vodka comes out. Like I said last week, they’re drinking buddies now!