An Extraordinary Series. I Couldn’t Bear Watching it Again
Precisely one month ago I gave a very detailed synopsis of HBO’s remake of Ingmar Bergman’s classic Scenes from a Marriage — what the original was about, how great the actors playing the leads before were in general, and I what believed might come of it. Having now gone through the entire series — and that’s the best term for it ‘gone through’, I can now say with little fear of contradiction that this truly is one of the great accomplishments of 2021. That being said, I think the Emmys are going to have a really hard time giving this series recognition because its not the typical Emmy fare, or even the typical HBO fare.
Everyone knows that HBO can really go into dark, dark territory in its dramas and limited series. One need only mention titles like Sharp Objects, Chernobyl or last year’s Lovecraft Country just to give a few of the most obvious examples in recent years. But usually in these series, you can get some kind of release in watching it — there will be stunning visuals or brilliant visual tricks to distract you from the darkness you are entering. There’s really none of that in Scenes from a Marriage. And I have a feeling that Hagar Levi has done this more or less by design. In my review of the first episode, I said that the story was as much an emphasis on ‘scenes’ as it was ‘marriage’. If anything, all the episodes that followed stayed firmer to that mission statement. The three episodes that followed and almost the entire finale were basically one-act plays between Jonathan and Miri as their marriage unraveled. Considering that there were almost no obvious cuts in the entire series, the viewer couldn’t look away. You spent each episode basically watching every possible bad scenario between the two of them unfold. And because Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are, as I made clear in my first article, two of the greatest actors working today, you couldn’t look away from them as their performances were as raw as the viewer was.
In the second episode, we witness Miri say that she was leaving Jonathan because she was having an affair with a man named Pauli. As raw as this was, she then told us the scene we’d seen at the end of the first episode was, in fact, an abortion and that as she put it: “What kind of marriage needs an abortion to save it?” Jonathan went through every single attempt to try and convince Miri to stay in the marriage and was left shouting into a phone at the episode’s end.
In the third episode, there had clearly been a passage of time and now Mira was living with Pauli. They had separated and Jonathan seemed to be going therapy which made him feel better. Halfway through the episode, Miri initiated contact and they ended up making love. Jonathan kept trying to tell Miri that he didn’t want to be with her anymore, something she kept denying. The episode ended with one of the harshest moments I’ve ever seen on television: Jonathan playing a voicemail from Pauli telling her that he thinks Miri’s going to come back to him and that he has no problem with it, which threw all of Miri’s actions in the episode into contrast.
Episode 4 was one of the great accomplishments arguably in television history this century. It showed Miri and Jonathan in the final process of getting a divorce and moving out of the home that they’d spent their married lives in. As they went through the process, once again the two ended up making love. When it was over, the realities were even harsher than before: Jonathan basically told her he felt nothing for her at all, even during the sex. Rawer secrets about their lives — Miri had her lost job, Jonathan wanted to have kids and did not want to have one with Miri — came out, and they physically came to blows and were in tears by the end of it. It ended a truly harsh moment with Miri signing the divorce papers.
The final episode was the only other one — outside the premiere — where we saw other characters or indeed even left the house. Jonathan was at the funeral of his father, and driving his mother home, trying to convince her about the awfulness of the marriage that had just ended. (In a brief scene, character actress Tovah Feldsuh makes a memorable impression as the mother) We see Pauli and Miri together for the only time in the show, and it’s clear that while Miri has moved on, Pauli hasn’t and a part of him will always hate Miri for it. It was clear about four years had passed. The rest of the episode took place with Miri and Jonathan meeting up and driving back their old house which is now occasionally rented out as a bed and breakfast. I will not reveal the rest of what unfolded in that episode (because even after its over, I still don’t see quite the point in spoiling it) Suffice to say, it reveals that the love between Jonathan and Miri, despite all the scars we have seen them inflict on each over the years, has never quite gone away and maybe never will, despite all the changes in their lives. There’s a certain ambiguity in the last scene, but for a change for an HBO limited series I don’t think it’s the kind of ambiguity that will necessarily call out for another season. I am reminded, in a way, of the final two episodes of Levi’s The Affair, which involved another complicated marriage scarred by so many wounds and yet tells us that even so, love can not truly be suppressed.
Scenes from a Marriage is a great accomplishment. I seriously doubt anyone who experienced it would be willing to deny that. Unlike so many of the other great HBO productions — or even some of the darker limited series I’ve seen over the past few years — it will not be one I want to revisit even after many years have gone by. For all the beauty and majesty of the production and its performances — its going to be really hard to find a way to deny Isaac and Chastain Emmy nominations, if not the prize itself — its just ultimately too sad and painful to imagine wanting to go through again. In one of the last reviews of his I ever read, Roger Ebert said of the dark drama Shame that it was one of the most powerful experiences captured on film, but that he couldn’t imagine watching it again. Having seen this limited series, I believe I finally comprehend how you could have that experience with any great work of art.
As to whether a married couple should see it together: A warning. Be very careful if you choose to. This series may raise issues you may never want to consider. No matter what you think of the ending, your problems don’t get solved when the director yells: “Cut!”