Even an affair can’t keep the Scenes From A Marriage couple apart. Separated at the end of last week’s episode, Oscar Isaac’s Jonathan and Jessica Chastain’s Mira are reunited this week for a late night visit, shedding not only the ferocity of last week’s dark night of confession but its propulsive narrative momentum.
Thankfully we are mostly spared another aggravating installment from Home Box Office Repertory Theatre Company Presents: Scenes From A Marriage, and the series’ recurring behind-the-scenes framing device is limited to 30 seconds of unremarkable setup with unspecified crew members. Even Brecht would be over this by now. I could argue that this episode’s opener makes the best case for why this silly device should but also could have been easily excised from the series, but let’s just take the opportunity to quickly move on.
“The Vale Of Tears” is an episode that hinges on slowly measuring out all of the changes that have happened in its characters’ lives, and some fresh secrets they keep. It’s been a year since Mira left, and despite the fireworks of her departure, we’re back on calmer footing with the now separated couple as they meet. Last seen together in a tense embrace in their foyer mudroom, tonight they first share a tentative one in the same space, a ghost of their most painful moment.
But their changes aren’t yet out in the open, with their daughter Ava playing witness to their separate evolutions over the past months. Ava is “about the most discreet 5-year-old on the planet,” Jonathan describes her. He means to say that she stifles her feelings, but the suggestion is that she keeps both of her parents secrets. This will be important, as both Mira and Jonathan are holding cards they are keeping close to the chest. But little do they know, it is the same card.
The biggest sign that Jonathan is trying to start fresh is spread out on the table: the remnants of a seder dinner, affirmation that he’s reengaging with the Jewish practice he shed during the college years when he met Mira. Her open but tender skepticism and his relaxed confidence is a new dynamic between them, one that they spark to quickly with pops of flirtation. After he breaks out the wine, they share a real embrace this time. In very short order, their apprehension has yielded to teasing and then to affection.
Mira reveals why she came to the house to talk: She’s been offered a promotion that would force her to live permanently in London. Jonathan is immediately on the defensive at the assumption that Mira intends to take Ava with her, more assertive than we have seen him before. In a flash, Mira relents with an “okay” that recalls her former habitual sublimation of her needs to Jonathan’s. But she already has it all worked out in her head, offering that Jonathan move to London as well to continue his sabbatical and share custody of Ava. “Aren’t you dying to get out of this place?” she pitches him with the pointed panache of a used car salesperson. It’s a bracing amount of change for both of them from the beginning, far from the shattered people we saw at the end of the previous episode. Jonathan is relaxed and Mira is unafraid to pursue what she wants, even if she has to persuade.
Full honesty, however, is elusive for the both of them. Mira hasn’t given full context to what Jonathan following her to London would mean, and by now we know what it looks like when she’s holding back. Jonathan has taken up smoking, insisting that his asthma attacks are gone (obviously a lie if his inhaler is kept within reach in the dining room). If it has appeared like a weight has lifted from Jonathan’s shoulder after Mira left, he is certainly downsizing, carving a life-sized figurative hole out of the house. His office now doubles as a bedroom for him and Ava, with a partition between their bed spaces. They have ceased using the now ghostly upstairs rooms, looking as if they had been quickly abandoned in the night. You can’t blame Mira for thinking Jonathan might be ready to shed this house and its memories.
This revelation leads to a few more glasses of wine. As their marriage is coming to a close, they are entering a new stage together as drinking buddies. At this stage of the visit, the vulnerabilities are coming out: Jonathan’s growth in therapy and exposure of his fatalistic emotional fallout after she left, Mira’s unabated love and sexual desire for Jonathan. The inevitable happens, and she’s staying the night and Jonathan immediately dumps his girlfriend.
And finally that card is played by Jonathan. He plays a voicemail from Poli, stating that he is leaving Mira. All of their behavior throughout the visit is now recontextualized with the idea that they both might have the potential of reuniting on their mind, but have kept it from one another. Was Mira trying to incept Jonathan, or was she just sussing him out? Was Jonathan really all that reluctant to go to bed with her if he allowed her over in the first place?
Though director Hagai Levi’s take on Scenes has had so little to say about contemporary marriage, there does appear to be something intentional in how it invites our assumptions and judgment of its characters. We are meant to question Mira’s motives and hidden intentions for giving Jonathan a hard sell on relocating to London, her withholding the Poli breakup, and her over-imbibing. Similarly, we are meant to judge Jonathan for his readiness to dump his girlfriend when the slight glimmer of a reunion with Mira presents itself, his perhaps false apprehension at reading his story to Mira, and, of course, also the Poli thing. They both enter the evening knowing that Poli has left, and keeping that from one another implicates them both in the eyes of the audience. Or the watchful eyes of anyone willing to assume how another marriage functions.
But the reality is much more complicated and, like Jonathan and Mira, our decisions are often mired in mountains of context influencing us, no matter how reducible our impulses may seem to an outsider. In this way, the series is somewhat post-divorce, where we’re so familiarized with all of the reasons marriages end that we presume their motives. For Mira and Jonathan, they can’t unpack each other enough, ready with as many accusations as white lies. It’s cynical to view them as calculating, but the human truth is that they don’t know what they are doing, they are just caught in each other’s gravitational pull.
But for us, the series still feels like tire spinning mechanically. Even with the specificity of its character arcs and the great performances from Chastain and Isaac, Scenes From A Marriage still struggles to develop an engaging narrative rhythm from its best attributes. The effect flattens the truth of the character study, and “The Vale Of Tears” is less believably messy than it is meandering through inevitability.
- Mira drags Jonathan’s redecorating taste when she arrives, but she’s right about his ugly new rug.
- Mira keeps her coat on for most of the evening, a subtle running reminder that she is now a guest in her former home.
- Ava once again appears at the end of the episode. If there are any real stakes to the show, it’s that we are constantly reminded of how screwed up this kid is probably going to become.
- Can Oscar Isaac sing me to sleep with Monster of Folk’s “The Sandman, The Brakeman and Me” too?