Scenes from a Marriage episode 2 recap – “Poli”

September 20, 2021
Jonathon Wilson 1
HBO, Weekly TV


“Poli” is a gratingly self-serious hour of television that can’t help but ring false at every turn.

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“Poli” is a gratingly self-serious hour of television that can’t help but ring false at every turn.

This recap of Scenes from a Marriage episode 2, “Poli”, contains spoilers.

Scenes From a Marriage is, fundamentally, about two awful people. So awful are these people, in fact, that it takes the prestige of an HBO drama for right-minded viewers to spend even five minutes with them, let alone an hour a week. In my recap of the premiere, I suggested the show, with its fourth-wall-breaking bookends and impeccable acting, had been designed primarily for the appreciation of critics. I still think that, but now I also think I know why. A positive critical reception still means artistic validation to some. It can still translate into public interest and revenue. But in this case, I simply think critics are the only people willing to put up with this show’s horseshit.

It makes sense when you think about it. Only critics would bother to analyze every actorly flourish and stylistic choice as though it implies some hidden meaning. Only critics, for the sake of a word count or a reputation, would comb through the wreckage of an on-screen car crash to take forensic accounting of what caused it. Why bother? Who cares? It’s probably only critics who won’t just come out and say: These people are horrible. Whatever happens to them, they deserve it.

Scenes from a Marriage episode 2 recap

That’s the truth of the matter. Scenes From a Marriage is all about the potential answers to complex questions. When’s the right time to end a marriage? Whose fault was its collapse? The question I kept returning to throughout “Poli” was what if none of that even matters? Increasingly, I’m inclined to believe that Mira and Jonathan never loved each other in the first place, and if they did, only in some warped, self-serving way, like the other was the key to unlock the gates of idyllic middle-class nuclear family suburbia. Jonathan probably fantasized about being a shaggy academic with a rustic home office. And if he did, why should anyone be surprised that his marriage failed? His wife having left him for a younger Israeli start-up CEO is probably the most interesting thing that has ever happened to him.

When you start to look at Mira and Jonathan this way, Scenes From a Marriage becomes remarkably tedious. The premiere at least had the decency to try and create some mystique. There were things we obviously didn’t know. In “Poli”, Mira comes right out and says them, doing away with what I think was the show’s strongest element. If nothing else, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac were very good at play-acting a performance, two people putting on a happy, united façade while trying to steal moments of honesty at every opportunity. Watching them try to deal with a world-shattering revelation is like watching two video game characters kiss. They’re in the right positions, they’re making the right moves, but the last thing it seems is real.

Set several months after the abortion that neither character wanted to get in the premiere, “Poli” finds Mira returning home a day early from a work trip to tell Jonathan that she’s in love with someone else. That’s a blow on its own, but she has several more, including the fact that she’ll be moving to Tel Aviv the very next day for at least three months and will only be seeing their daughter, Ava, every other weekend. This is so absurdly cowardly and childish that it doesn’t make Mira seem like a woman at the end of her rope but a kind of aimless automaton who doesn’t know how human emotions are supposed to work – or, perhaps, a character in a television show trying to give a co-star something to act against. I’ve thought a fair bit about the smug way in which these episodes open on-set, as though by seeing the artifice we’re supposed to let out a deep sigh of relief that it wasn’t real after all. It’s the opposite effect for me. Exposing the construction just makes scenes like Ava fretting over whether mummy will be home in the morning feel cheap and inauthentic.

I know how we’re supposed to take that scene, by the way – as the understandable anxieties of a child with a parent who is often away from home. But it’s the same thing with Jonathan’s home office being partly under construction after Mira lost interest in renovating it. That only works as a metaphor because people like me think we’re supposed to take it as such. But what if it isn’t? What if Mira simply has no interest in her husband’s working environment because he’s a boring layabout who eats pasta like a dog? The guts of a house hanging through the wounds cleft into a marriage feels like a nice, arty way of putting things. But it’s all nonsense. When the washing up isn’t done in my house, it isn’t a metaphor for anything – it’s just a mess.

As in the first episode, Mira’s confession becomes one long, protracted conversation, and then it continues the next morning. She thinks what she’s saying sounds stupid in large part because it does. The titular Poli is a 29-year-old CEO whose start-up has been acquired by Mira’s firm. He’s single, and “not an intellectual”, which she says to Jonathan in a sort of apologetic way, as though if he was a bookworm her husband might approve of her sleeping with him behind his back for months. Mira’s adamant about loving Poli, which is probably just what she has to tell herself to justify abandoning her infant daughter to live with him halfway across the world. Mira tries to rationalize this by assuring Jonathan she’ll support him financially; that she’s not leaving Ava, she’s leaving him, though without paying much mind to the fact that when Ava wakes up she won’t be there either way.

At first, all Jonathan seems concerned about is why Mira’s in such a rush. Can’t they wait a day, or a week, or a fortnight? Can’t they talk about this? Frankly, after just two hours, I’ve had more than enough of these two talking, so I understand why Mira doesn’t like the idea. But you can see his point. Even in film and TV, this isn’t how relationships work. You can tell Mira has rehearsed her speech, her excuses, her justifications. You can tell she has been waiting to tell Jonathan that she has been considering leaving for eight months and had the abortion because she was terrified of the idea that another child would keep her tethered to him. You can tell she anticipated how he’d respond; that he’d tell her she was pathetic and spoiled. But Jonathan is too boring to even give her the satisfaction of being right about that. Instead, he just wants mundane facts of what Poli looks like, how they met, and how their relationship began. Mira wants to spare him the grisly details, which is weird given how eager she was to dispense various other body blows, but Jonathan is adamant. His response to figuring out that their own sex life started back up right after her fling began is pathetic. “Does he know that?”, he asks, as though his wife keeping quiet about using him as an intellectually serious d***o is a sign she cares.

It’s worth noting that the acting in Scenes of a Marriage is phenomenal. A part of me wishes it wasn’t, since then it would be easier to make fun of. Chastain and Isaac being so committed to the material suggests it’s worth the effort. It prompts a level of analysis and consideration that it doesn’t deserve. By the time Mira was trying to reframe her decision as in the best interests of everyone, including Ava, I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. When Jonathan let her snuggle into him and sleep fitfully at his side after saying all this, I was incredulous. No human being has ever behaved this way. But there was no greater proof than the next morning when Mira wakes up frantic and starts packing a suitcase with all her clothes still on wooden hangers. This is a woman who apparently travels frequently. Again, we’re to assume that Jonathan calmly folding her clothing so the case will close is him making a point about what a swell, helpful guy he is, but the situation is so ludicrous that it’s impossible to read that way. It’s more like watching a puppy’s owner dutifully scoop its mess up.

The most truthful part of “Poli”, at least for me, is the moment just after Mira leaves, which takes longer than necessary since Jonathan desperately clamps a hug around her that she has to physically fight her way out of. But once she’s finally gone he goes to pieces, screaming and biting his fist, calling Peter and Kate – who knew about the affair – to berate them, and just generally acting like a real human being might. I was doing much the same at home, though admittedly for different reasons.

You can watch Scenes from a Marriage episode 2 exclusively on HBO.

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1 thought on “Scenes from a Marriage episode 2 recap – “Poli”

  • September 28, 2021 at 3:49 pm

    … before their marriage she was in several abusive relationships
    … now she’s leaving him.. entering into another one (“you have marks on your back”)
    … he asks questions to know about Poli… yet totally ignores expanding-asking about this aspect of her new love interest
    … this would appear to be a most important discussion that’s well-needed when talking about these two (three)

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