Halfway through its first season, HBO's Mrs Fletcher is delivering on the promise of its title. Eve Fletcher (Kathryn Hahn), having just sent her only child away to college, is dealing with being a single mother in an empty nest, looking for ways to fill up her life. And fill it she does! The hook of the show is that Eve gingerly begins to develop an affinity for internet porn, fantasizing about herself in any of the myriad scenarios porn can provide, many of them dealing with dynamics of power and control that you could easily imagine someone in her shoes would respond to. But Eve's journey is more than just her trying out some porn scenarios. She's seeking out fulfillment and experience in a number of ways. She signs up for a writing class. She goes out dancing. She kisses a woman. She flirts with a younger man. She flirts with an older man. The older man dies.The younger man turns out to be a kid that Eve's son, Brendan (Jackson White), bullied in high school only a matter of weeks ago.
All of this has been rich and rewarding television, with Hahn — the undisputed queen of Peak TV — delivering another impressive performance as Eve. But equally impressive is writer/creator Tom Perrotta's choice to hand half of the show over to another character altogether. Because even though Eve left Brendan behind on campus (and has had limited contact with him since), the show has continued to follow his story. It's a development few saw coming, and one that's incredibly bold.
Demographically speaking, of course, that's a bunch of hooey. Hollywood is littered with stories of young white men tossed out into the world, looking to make their way. On the surface, there are no degree-of-difficulty points for telling the story of this handsome, athletic, white kid whose parents have and will continue to support him. In fact, there's a surface reading of Mrs. Fletcher that says handing half the show to this male character is hedging the show's bets against making a series purely about a woman. But dip beneath the surface and think about this from a storytelling perspective. In 2019, Eve's story is far richer in possibility, if for no other reason than fewer stories of this type have been told. When you factor in the fact that Kathryn Hahn is playing her, there is more than enough rich and thrilling ground to cover in her life. Meanwhile, Brendan… how do you tell the story of a shithead white teen who over the course of four episodes has proven himself to be the most infuriatingly awful person on TV? Thus far, we've seen him be repeatedly ungrateful for his mom's considerable generosity towards him. He's been degrading to women, outright bullying to weaker teens, and the picture of unearned privilege, looking askance at every opportunity that might broaden his horizons. He'd be the worst in a lot of contexts, but for the HBO audience of 2019, he's utterly unsupportable.
Which is exactly what makes his character, as performed by Jackson White, such an admirable dare. The temptation to either soften Brendan — to give you a wink or a glance to know that he's really good once you look past everything about him — or to spin him out into villainy so cartoonish we don't need to take him seriously, must have been great. Instead, White keeps Brendan exactly who he is. In the series' fourth episode, after a scene where we see that even Brendan's bro-y roommate is getting sick of his dumb, lazy ways, Brendan gets a visit from his dad, Ted (Josh Hamilton), who is taking Parents' Weekend solo, per a previous, contentious conversation with Eve.
Ted's Parents Weekend visit is a disaster, but it explains a lot about what went into making Brendan. As the pair tour the campus and make their way through a public-space art exhibit, Ted scoffs at the overtly feminist art, then initiates a disrespectful game of catch with some pink-painted footballs that were part of another artwork. Ted's influence isn't some baroque legacy of abuse, it doesn't have to be. It can simply be this unremarkable passing down of casually toxic masculinity, combined with Brendan's obvious neediness for his dad's attention. When Ted shows up with his new wife and their autistic son, Brendan is immediately put off to have his Dad-time encroached upon. You feel for Brendan, but then he turns around and acts out, to the point where he tosses his little brother's stuffed animal/security blanket in the trash rather than return it and be a hero.
Mrs. Fletcher isn't going to make it easy on us. While we thrill at watching Eve open up to the world, it's going to be equally challenging to find the empathy to follow Brendan on his mirror journey. But these stories are parallel for a reason. For both characters, the scariest places for them to exist are within themselves. Eve has decades' worth of piled-up desires and wants that she's neglected, while Brendan doesn't seem nearly prepared to take a look at just how little of him remains when his old privileges are confronted. If you look at it from just the right angle, their stories line up exactly, like a lunar eclipse.
So if Brendan is infuriating you on Mrs. Fletcher, good. Same here. A good woman went and raised the worst boy in American and sent him out into the world. The least we can do, while she's busy finding herself, is keep an eye on him while the world attempts to straighten him out.
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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, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.