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HBO's Scenes from a Marriage Is a Captivating, Bruising Drama

The new limited series is a worthy sucessor to Mare of Easttown and The White Lotus.
  • Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in Scenes from a Marriage (Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO)
    Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in Scenes from a Marriage (Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO)

    It may not have found its next Game of Thrones just yet, but if 2021 has taught us anything, it's that HBO — more than any other TV channel or streaming platform — continues to really excel at weekly hourlong dramas. While the streaming era has normalized the binge release, where audiences consume entire seasons of TV in one weekend, HBO has managed to continue capturing the zeitgeist with its traditional weekly releases for shows like Mare of Easttown and The White Lotus.

    The premium cabler's latest dramatic miniseries, Scenes from a Marriage, is another hourlong drama whose episodes will release once per week, and that's a particularly good thing in this case, because while this is a captivating story featuring brilliant performances by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, it's also so emotionally draining to watch that it could be harmful if taken in larger doses. I'm exaggerating, of course, but not by much.

    If the title Scenes from a Marriage sounds familiar, it's because the series is based on the 1973 Swedish miniseries of the same name, one of the crowning achievements from master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Bergman didn't have anything to do with the remake (despite what the show's trailer might lead to you believe, he's been dead since 2007), but the new series stays true to its roots while gender-swapping some of the major character beats.

    Now it's Chastain's Mira who is the family's breadwinner, an account executive at a tech firm, while Isaac's Jonathan is an academic on sabbatical while he raises their daughter. The simmering conflicts and resentments that arise from that are only a few of the things bubbling underneath the calm surface of their marriage, including Jonathan's tendency to make grand theoretical statements about relationships and capitalism, Mira's insecurities about motherhood, and their shared tendency for passive-aggression.

    Chastain and Isaac fit frighteningly well into their roles, which is doubly impressive considering Chastain was a late replacement for Michelle Williams, who had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. The two are apparently old friends, going back to their Julliard days; this isn't even the first time they've played a married couple, having co-starred in the 2014 film A Most Violent Year. Their clear familiarity and fondness for one another even caused a gossipy stir when the two were "caught" being affectionate with one another on the red carpet in Venice, but after watching their screen chemistry in Scenes from a Marriage, it's hard not to simply chalk that up to the two of them being incredibly good at their jobs.

    While the series itself is only five episodes and takes place largely in the couple's home, the emotional terrain that the actors cover is vast, and they do it almost entirely on their own (Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie appear as the couple's friends in the first episode; Tovah Feldshuh shows up as Jonathan's mother in the fifth).

    Experientially, Scenes from a Marriage's episodes unfold like acts in a play. Each time we re-join Jonathan and Mira, the audience has to take a moment to reorient ourselves. How much time has passed? What's the status of their relationship now? What's going on that they're not saying? Isaac and Chastain dole out the emotional map of each episode like a breadcrumb trail of small gestures and inflections.

    It's not a spoiler to suggest that the problems rippling beneath the surface of the marriage will end up expressing themselves in hurtful ways, and given that the trailer includes a shot of divorce papers on the kitchen table, it's also fair to mention that much of the series concerns whether the marriage can or even should survive. It would be easy to paint this story in crumbling-marriage cliches, and indeed there are familiar elements that present themselves. But writer-director Hagai Levi (The Affair), with a big assist from Bergman's original, and an even bigger assist from his two stars, pulls incredible tension out of the smallest of moments. Mira's sublimated anger gets harder to ignore; Jonathan's passive-aggressive conversational tactics, too. Sometimes they seem to be battling one another, other times they're grasping in the dark but can't seem to find each other.

    If this all sounds like a rather grim character duet, well … yeah. For those in the know, the phrase "based on the TV series by Ingmar Bergman" tipped that hand. Even before Jonathan and Mira's micro-aggressions graduate to actual aggressions, the show's episodes are rather bruising. I personally don't have any post-traumatic baggage from a failed or failing marriage, but after watching this series I think I've developed some. It's a credit to Chastain and Isaac that they're able to inflict these kinds of emotions on their audience simply by their fierce commitment to their characters, but they're inflicted just the same.

    In a way this puts Scenes from a Marriage in perfect company with HBO's other 2021 highlights. Neither Mare nor The White Lotus were built for the bingeing age. Not only were they shows that benefitted from continued week-to-week attention in the press and social media, but they also benefitted in that they gave their viewers a week to recover from subject matters that were unsettling (Mare) or anxiety-inducting (White Lotus). Scenes from a Marriage will also benefit from letting Isaac and Chastain's performances breathe and their wounds heal over six days before we get plunged once again into their tense emotional tug-of-war.

    Scenes From a Marriage premieres on HBO Sunday September 12 at 9:00 PM ET.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Scenes From a Marriage, HBO, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac