Claire Danes is not a revelation in Fleishman is in Trouble. She doesn’t use the role of recently divorced theatrical agent Rachel Fleishman to remake herself as a performer. In fact, her work in FX’s sensational limited series, whose penultimate episode airs December 22, draws so obviously on her familiar skill set that even those who haven’t seen it can predict some of its ingredients: a trembling chin that dissolves into a full-faced cry; a tilted head and closed-lip smile; a bark of laughter that mixes mania with joy.
But Claire Danes isn’t a limited actress. Rather, she’s a genius with an ideal mode of expression. Since 1992, when she portrayed a teenage murderer on Law & Order, she’s been a master of the thinking woman’s breakdown. Give her a clever person pushed to sudden vulnerability, and she will thrive.
She made this clear on My So-Called Life, the ABC series that earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama when she was only 16. As Philadelphia high school student Angela Chase, her face is always alive, practically vibrating with the excitement of discovering things for the first time. She also gives Angela an essential wariness that requires her to be subtle, letting things flicker in her eyes that she would never say to the cute boy leaning against his locker or to her parents, trying to let her grow up.
Compare that with her work in HBO’s biopic Temple Grandin, which won her an Emmy in 2010. Where Angela is reserved, Temple is boisterous and free. A woman with autism and a groundbreaking animal behaviorist, Danes plays her with unencumbered passion, particularly for her scientific ideas. But when people are dismissive or rude, she shades that zeal with frustration until, eventually, she can’t put up with their hatefulness anymore. She’s a brilliant woman at the end of her rope, but the exasperation of being overlooked makes her formidable, not weak.
Then there’s Carrie Mathison, the CIA agent with bipolar disorder that Danes played for eight seasons on Showtime’s Homeland. In this role her emotions regularly run riot, so that the struggle between control and collapse informs almost every scene. Layers like this helped Danes win two Emmys for the show, and it may always be her signature role.
But in Fleishman Is In Trouble, she reaches yet another peak in her career. Rachel stays on the edges of the story until Episode 7, “Me-Time,” when she finally tells a friend why she vanished for several weeks, leaving her children with their newly single father. As Rachel’s life is depicted, Danes highlights the flintiness of her intelligence, the calculations she has made to protect herself from a lifetime of rejection and neglect. At dinner with her husband Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) and his family, she registers the impact of casual comments about how sad it is that her mother died when she was young. Danes lets her eyes show Rachel’s discomfort with that benign compassion, but the rest of her body goes still. She’s like a trapped animal, hoping to be ignored until she can run to the bathroom and breathe through her anxiety. Similar moments occur with her so-called friends, who don’t realize they constantly hurt her feelings because she never lets them see it.
These buried emotions have to go somewhere, and they first explode after Rachel has a traumatic experience with a doctor while she’s giving birth. In a support group, Danes wails with inchoate grief, almost like she’s surprised by the power of what’s spilling out of her. The camera lingers on her, body and face contorted, while a group of women gather to lay on hands. It’s a stirring moment of compassion, made all the more poignant because it’s coming from strangers who see more of Rachel than she ever shows the people she loves.
And then, just a few scenes later, Rachel snaps back into warrior mode. Danes makes that decision as brisk and immediate as her previous collapse was raw and unmoored. There’s an essential artificiality about this shift from “vulnerable Rachel” to “formidable Rachel” that suits the wry storytelling style of the entire series. The show dismantles the patterns and behaviors that we often think protect us in middle age, and Danes needs to push her performance to a gestural place in order to clarify how her character functions.
The tension between containment and release also predicts the arrival of a nearly wordless climactic scene, when Rachel goes to a scream therapy session. She does this during a spa retreat with her lover, but she isn’t with him when she sits down for the treatment. Instead, she’s utterly alone. She’s left the support group, left her family, even left her fling somewhere else at the hotel. Her isolation is so complete that it’s reinforced by a disorienting bit of costume design: The t-shirt she wears at the retreat keeps shifting messages. Sometimes it says “You Can Go Home Now.” Sometimes it’s “You Should Go Home Now,” and sometimes it’s the garbled phrase “You Now Home Can Go.” At one point, while Rachel is walking through the woods, the shirt simply reads “This Is Terrifying.”
This is a window into Rachel’s mental state, which rockets obsessively between her desire to belong and her fear that she has some fundamental flaw that will doom her to exile. In some ways, she’s even more distraught here than she is in the support group scene, because in her effort to protect herself, she has evicted herself from her entire life. Danes conjures this while she screams, expelling her fury and pain with animal sounds. It’s an elemental performance, colossal in size. Framed in a tight close-up, her face red and a sun-blasted window hovering above her head, she takes on mythic proportions. Danes has been preparing for this the entire series, and perhaps her entire career. She gathers the force of all that intelligence and all those buried feelings and hurls them at the camera like hammers.
New episodes of Fleishman Is in Trouble stream Thursdays on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: Fleishman Is in Trouble, FX, Homeland, My So-Called Life, Temple Grandin, Claire Danes