Togetherness, Season 1, Episode 4, “Houston, We Have a Problem”
Written by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass
Directed by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass
Airs at 9:30 PM (ET) on Sunday on HBO
One thing Togetherness does so well each week, without even seeming like it has to work that hard to achieve it, is the way each new detail or drip of backstory about these characters seems completely natural as it is introduced. Even when an insecurity or personality tic arrives without prior discussion in previous episodes or allusions from other characters, everything melds together in a way that reflects lived experience. The best example of this is the gradual return of Tina’s Texas accent as she gets closer to Houston, beginning with the surfacing of “y’all” on the plane and culminating with her drunk Southern drawl. Not one character knows or expects everything that comes out of another’s mouth and to pretend otherwise would not be an honest representation of interpersonal relationships. Even Michelle and Brett, together for a decade or more, are continuously finding new ways to speak their minds that shocks their partner and, at points, even hurts them. In “Houston, We Have a Problem,” all of the tiny messages these characters have been sending each other and all of the slight developments only the audience can see finally come to a head and Tina, Michelle, Brett, and Alex are exposed to the dark underbellies of their ongoing relationships.
Tina and Alex’s trip to Houston results in the less agonizing of the two main fights that happen in this episode, but is painful enough to watch in its own respect. The audience is inserted into the situation for the most part through the eyes of Tina’s friends as they witness the oncoming train wreck but can do nothing to stop it. There have been signs of Tina’s inability to handle jealousy already, most notably in her “breakup” in the pilot episode, but the scene she makes in the honky-tonk bar is not only enough to remind everyone of her frequent immaturity but also to give Alex enough evidence to blow up at her on the way home with complete honesty. With each successive move to compete with Alex and Pam, who are hitting it off quite nicely on the dance floor, she proves more and more that when forced to confront emotions she would rather resort to petty contests and sophomoric attention grabs than admit her jealousy (even though she is “with” Larry). Alex grabbing her cowboy hat is meant in jest, but she snags it back in a petulant manner befitting a child. As he later calls her out on, Tina completely blocks his pairing with Pam on the grounds that Pam is her friend rather than the truth that she can’t see him with someone else when she goes home alone.
That this is enough to make Alex drop all pretense of an amicable outing and angrily confront her about things so soon after confessing his feelings for her to Brett says a lot about how obnoxious her actions are. Even this down on his luck man, who flies all the way to Houston just to help her pack because he promised he would do her this favor, is too proud to take her behavior without speaking up. Alex is clearly in the right this particular time, which is what makes their argument sitting at a green light so engrossing. Watching Tina try to drunkenly dig herself out of a deep hole is something many people have seen before and probably even attempted to do themselves. Their apology to close the episode doesn’t heal the divide completely but does enough to smooth things over for the time being that they can move forward. Tina’s use of sexual humor to reach that point is a familiar refrain, and it is easy to see that this method won’t continue to guarantee her forgiveness for much longer.
The fight between Brett and Michelle is a deeper confrontation, one that, by contrast, stems from years of unspoken concerns. Melanie Lynskey and Mark Duplass’ performances bring out the ache in the situation from both sides and in doing so make this episode the best so far and the first to make Togetherness feel like a groundbreaking representation of middle-aged romanticism. Brett’s attempts to organize a romantic evening away from the kids for his wife is sweet on the surface, and surely something many married couples have tried at least once in their relationship in order to reignite a forgotten flame, but the gesture has some obvious selfish undertones. Even if it is important for them to spend quality time together just relaxing, Brett’s aim is so obviously to get laid that Michelle is unsettled from the start and driven to call Tina for support. His disappointment when she opts to simply watch a movie is unseen by his wife but comes off as entitled, expecting intimacy in return for a surprise night away instead of simply allowing the night off to do some healing in their relationship.
It is all the more realistic because neither of the pair is explicitly in the right or wrong during the argument. His concerns over not being able to fully perform in bed as he nears forty are valid, as are hers regarding his repetitive lovemaking and lack of spontaneity, if not in bed, than at least in life. Balancing major fissures in a marriage with a desire to stay together and in love is a tough thing to crack when neither person is willing to speak their mind, which has been the case with Michelle and Brett up to this point. If the explosion in the hotel room means one thing, it is that they can finally start to be more honest with each other in service of a more open relationship, even if there is no way to tell if this openness will actually make things better or merely serve to expose their opposing points of view.