The first episode of HBO’s new limited series Scenes from a Marriage premiered last night, bringing with it a wave of charged emotions to set the stage for this five-part story.
Adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s classic Swedish miniseries and developed, written and directed by Hagai Levi, Scenes from a Marriage explores love, hatred, desire, monogamy, marriage, and divorce through the lens of a contemporary American couple.
Warning: Spoilers for episode 1
“Innocence and Panic” opens with behind-the-scenes footage of star Jessica Chastain as she arrives on set. The crew flurries around her, props coming in left and right, and then the camera flips in an almost seamless transition once the episode truly begins. In a series that aims to have its leads bare themselves with naked honesty while exploring the complicated facets of their relationship, the quiet and unrefined frankness of these opening moments is both fitting and appropriate.
The pacing of the episode has long, continuous scenes that rely heavily on dialogue. In both film and television, this can be a hit or miss move, because added pressure is placed on the actors and the script. Chastain and Isaac’s real life friendship, which is over two decades old, is the driving force of power behind the success of these scenes. There’s a palpable familiarity and trust that lingers unspoken between breaths when Jonathan and Mira communicate.
At times, there’s a level of discomfort for the audience when watching some of the more difficult scenes between Jonathan and Mira play out. Rather than panning away when the conversation grows awkward or heavy, the camera remains rooted to the spot as the moment continues to unravel. We as viewers have become detached from the whiplash of instantaneous problem-to-solution scene jumps presented in modern media. And it’s why it feels jarring when this doesn’t happen, when the scene holds us underwater as both we and the actors begin to flounder. Scenes from a Marriage disregards this formula because taking a breath for air defeats the purpose of the emotional impact that the series is aiming for. There’s an irony in finding yourself shifting uncomfortably in your own seat at home as you watch Mira doing the same exact thing from her place on the couch beside Jonathan.
As the episode winds down to a close, there are two scenes that stick out in particular: the way that Jonathan pauses and almost crumples in front of the vending machine and Mira’s breakdown once she finally finds herself alone in the exam room. After the hopeful highs and poignant lows scattered throughout their conversation in bed as they discussed their options, seeing them both fall apart individually in the aftermath is heartbreaking. Isaac and Chastain convey their inner turmoil throughout the episode in different ways — Isaac moving fluidly with his deeply expressive eyes and body language and Chastain with the stoic attitude of a woman who’s slowly collapsing from the inside out.
Overall, the first episode of Scenes from a Marriage was a promising introduction to the series, offering a somber and intriguing taste of what’s yet to come. Chastain and Isaac will undoubtedly continue to flaunt their chemistry as scene partners as the storm brewing between Jonathan and Mira rears its ugly head, splintering hairline cracks into deep, vulnerable chasms.
The second episode of Scenes from a Marriage, “Poli,” will premiere on HBO next Sunday, September 19 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.