For a group of adults with careers and children of their own, the core four of Togetherness are rarely honest with each other. Their relationship problems, work issues, self esteem difficulties, or otherwise are for the most part worked out within their own tired and overworked minds. If they ever look to each for advice it is taken with a hundred grains of salt and a healthy dose of rationalization, and even then, none of them ever follows through with much success. So when “Ghost in Chains” blows their self-built barricades to smithereens, it’s a welcome and momentum-building moment. From the opening scene, wherein Brett comes across Mary Steenburgen’s possibly unhinged Linda lying in the forest, honesty becomes the watchword.
Michelle is the most open-minded and self-acknowledging of the four leads, yet still can’t bring herself to admit that her feelings for quote unquote platonic friend David are purely innocent. Tina calls her out on her flirtations with him in advance of their most recent hunt for a charter school location and she dismisses it out of hand. Yet there is a realization in Michelle’s expression as she agrees to take the trip to Sacramento with him that makes it obvious that even though she won’t say it out loud to her sister, she is finally admitting that she and David may be close to being more than flirtatious friends. It’s another great moment from Melanie Lynskey, translating every thought of Michelle’s with a single pained expression or eye twitch. Michelle and David’s broom closet ballet is oddly sexual in that way that only two middle aged people lifting chairs in an enclosed space can be. Their chemistry is not that of a nighttime soap opera or cliched middle-aged romance movie, but of two people who understand the stakes of getting close as friends (or more) and actively resisting it by opting to lean into their responsibilities.
With Tina and Alex, the outburst of honesty is a long time coming and more satisfactory than anything else in the episode when it arrives. In its succinct half-hour runtime, “Ghost in Chains” manages to recap their entire relationship and implode it with finesse. She asks too much of him and doesn’t give enough back. He is getting sick of this behavior but can’t bring himself to say no to her when she calls. Her relationship with Larry might help him get work. His continued jealousy towards their relationship only barely outranks the awkwardness of their current interactions. It’s all a mess, and the fact that Alex reaches his true breaking point after a semi-manipulative audition set up by Tina should be no surprise, yet it feels momentously spontaneous. The audition scene’s tension builds with each passing second. At first, Alex is excited at the opportunity he thinks he’s getting, then sees his spirits plummet as he realizes how marginal a part he is trying out for. His confidence to go outside is beaten out only by the confidence it takes to yell at Tina, which is then eclipsed by the moxie to audition for a part much larger than the one being offered. It is a marvel to watch unfold and a captivating escalation by Steve Zissis, culminating in a final showdown with Tina that puts their friendship on hold for good. Everything each of them has wanted to say about the other in the last few months pours out in a stream of consciousness which lasts under two minutes but feels much longer. It is the most confident Alex has been during this small snapshot of his life which, in a humorous twist of fate, is largely due to the belief Tina instilled (or re-instilled) in him that he could do anything. Even if he isn’t granted the part of the movie’s villain, this is a major step for Alex, and maybe one that he is better off taking on his own, regardless of whether or not he and Tina are able to make up.
Brett’s breakdown in the control room at work and then again in the woods with Linda mirrors Alex’s arc in a more spastic and out-of-control way. Alex is aware of every word he is saying and means them, while Brett seems to have no idea what he is spouting, yet still has all the conviction of his best friend. Tellingly, this is the first episode where Brett and Michelle don’t interact at all. Brett is left to his own devices completely in the eyes of the audience, separating him from the rest of the core players in order to make him as isolated from the show’s normalcy as possible before he breaks. He is a caged animal in the control room, scavenging for food and stalking about restlessly under the concerned eye of his boss. His solo sojourns through the forest contributes to this portrayal and makes it less shocking when he lays down in a hole in the ground to be covered with foliage by a possibly crazy woman. Brett is now a man who has kept his feelings and worries bottled up for so long that their expulsion may be the signal of a legitimate mental break, not just the quaint yelling of a white guy who lives in Los Angeles and works in the entertainment industry. His possible loss of a job (he will either get fired because of the outburst or quit because of his own altered awareness of his life) and new, possibly-deranged friend Linda probably won’t do wonders for the state of his marriage, but speaking his mind and exhibiting actual emotions see like positive steps, compared to the vanilla Brett that has been walking around for the majority of the season. Crazy Brett seems like he wants to have some fun.