Sunday, November 13, 2016

REVIEW: 'Divorce' - Frances and Robert Head to Her Parents' House for the Holiday Traditions in 'Christmas'

HBO's Divorce - Episode 1.06 "Christmas"

Frances and Robert try to set their differences aside and make their annual Christmas trip to her parents' house with the kids.

Divorce took a wonderful turn for the nasty in last week's episode. Hiring lawyers amplified the stakes of this war between Frances and Robert. It was an action that turned them against each other. They were hoping to exploit each other in order to get what they ultimately want while also hurting the other. It was a solid storytelling shift. This show works best when it's about these characters being absolutely awful to each other. When it gets too lost in the moral ambiguity, things get murky and less compelling to watch. All of that wonderful momentum from last week is basically derailed in "Christmas." This is yet another episode where Frances and Robert try to keep up appearances. It's weirdly placed in the season. It doesn't make sense for this episode to follow what happened last week. Robert hired a lawyer who is determined to attack Frances and make her pay for everything. But here, the lawyers just disappear. It's once again just the family together over-analyzing every single decision. It's so agonizing and annoying without being all that funny in the process.

Basically, Frances hasn't told her parents about the divorce yet. She has just been searching for the right time. It hasn't been right so far. Robert had no problem telling his parents the truth. But then again, he's not the kind of person who can keep his issues bottled up inside. It makes sense that Frances would internalize all of this. She is constantly worrying about things and how they'll appear to the outside world. She's more introspective in that regard. She has analyzed why she cheated and what that said about her marriage to Robert. But now, all of that is coming into question yet again with this visit to her parents' house for Christmas. It's just so unclear what the audience is suppose to feel during the events of this episode. Are we suppose to be torn about this divorce? Up to this point, the show has done a great job showing why Frances and Robert don't work as a couple. But here, the episode wants the audience to question that which is just so odd. It's as if the show really isn't that sure about it at all.

So that leads to yet another episode of Robert getting involved in some broad hijinks and Frances quietly standing aside not sure how to talk about anything. It's a weird and unnecessary pattern for the show. It has gotten incredible one-note as the season has gone along. No matter what, you can expect Robert to have this big and broad reaction. It's that kind of behavior that has gotten him into such a bad situation financially. That's a character detail that works in those tragic circumstances. But when the episode just has fun showing how big a character he can be, it just feels too hollow and less genuine. He doesn't see the error of his ways. And yet, it's suppose to be a big deal when he falls on his sword to protect Frances' parents from the truth about their divorce. It's weird and doesn't work at all. Again, it's suppose to be funny. He gets drunk at the party and starts to make a toast. Frances believes he's telling their secret to the entire party. So, she does it instead. Except that wasn't what he was doing at all! Isn't that funny? No. It's more predictable and lazy than anything else.

But again, this episode is calling Frances and Robert's relationship into question. Robert decides to go along to Frances' parents' house because it's a tradition. He believes that families need to be together on the holidays. It's a norm of society that one simply doesn't change. He has this high reverence for tradition even though he has no fundamental understanding of Christmas or family. He's doing this because it's what he thinks society expects of him. It's these pressures that he puts on himself. And yet, the real world isn't as simple as that. He puts Frances in this awkward position. And then, he's the hero when he shares that he had an affair and not her. He's suing her to take half of her money. That's certainly not doing right by her or his family like Frances' father expects Robert to do. So again, it's all just a little too muddled to actually work at all. Robert gets along great with Frances' parents. Frances is worried he'll share their secret. But he's just having a good time. Except when he isn't. He complains about being torn up inside because he's lying to people he likes. But that's never really an important part of the story.

What is important is that Frances and Robert share a bed together despite their divorce. They know how to sleep next to each other with no expectations of sex or intimacy. They've been doing it for a long time. They have genuine conversations with each other as well. They agree that their kids were the best two things they ever did together. Frances is also appreciative of Robert lying to her parents about their divorce to protect her. All of this stands in stark contrast to what is happening back in the city between them. The holidays offer a vacation from the realities of divorce. They don't have to think about lawyers. But it's just so startling to see them having conversations with respect and understanding. When they leave, they will more than likely go back to hating each other because that's what the story will dictate. They are in the middle of a contentious divorce. For some reason though, they are together for the holidays and sharing the same bed again. There is never any kind of renewed spark between them. And yet, this episode seems to suggest that divorce may not be the answer to their problems even though that has been painfully clear since the beginning of the series.

Frances' mother believes any marriage can get past any ordeal. She doesn't believe that people have affairs because they are unhappy. She doesn't think it is as simple as that. So, she believes that Frances and Robert will find a way to work things out between them. That seems difficult to do - especially since they are now just openly discussing their issues in front of the kids. They are completely oblivious to the fact that the kids can hear everything they are saying. They aren't great as parents or a couple. And yet, Frances' mother is still holding onto this ideal. She infers that she had an affair just for fun. She wasn't trying to leave her marriage. It's still a secret. She doesn't trust her husband with the truth. But she doesn't believe her marriage is bad. It just shows how complicated all marriages really are. There's nothing stable about the lives of any of the characters on this show. And yet, that doesn't quite make an entertaining episode here. It builds to the moment where Frances wants to tell her parents the truth but ultimately doesn't. And then, Frances and Robert's son learns the truth. That could be a big deal. It's played more for laughs than any serious change of the status quo though.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Christmas" was written by Tom Scharpling and directed by Jamie Babbit.
  • Remember how there was so much snow in the series premiere? It's not surprising that the show did a Christmas episode after that. But now, all of the snow is gone. And yet, the show is still suggesting that the characters are in New York. That makes no sense at all - except in highlighting the realities of the production schedule.
  • It really wasn't necessary to break away to brief scenes depicting how the rest of the characters are spending their holidays. It just shows that they are all basically miserable because none of them like the families they have to spend time with at Christmas.
  • Robert is all in on Christmas this year. And yet, it's apparent that he knows next to nothing about the holiday. He believes people are saying "Please to meet you" instead of "Peace be with you."
  • Could Frances really not think of anything to tell the other guests at the party about what her life was like now other than "same old, same old?" That was a running joke that didn't work at all. She was so not prepared for this despite it being something she knew was coming.
  • It's amusing how Julian answers the door during dinner with his family and gets punched in the stomach and no one reacts to what has just happened. They just continue eating their meals as if this isn't out of the ordinary for them.