“The Illiterates” is too little too later, but it’s a dynamite episode of television all the same.
This recap of Scenes from a Marriage episode 4, “The Illiterates”, contains spoilers.
When it comes down to it, marriage is a piece of paper. It’s more than that emotionally, obviously, and culturally, and in some cases religiously. It’s certainly more than that symbolically. But as a legal union, marriage is that piece of paper. It’s a contract, initialled here and signed there. You can scrunch a whole life in the palm of your hand, ball it up and toss it away like any old garbage. Maybe it was always trash. It certainly was in the case of Jonathan and Mira, which is why it’s so puzzling that the period at the end of their marriage has been left undotted for so long. It’s just a piece of paper, after all. With the same ease it was drawn up, it can be erased. That can be it. The end.
But nothing’s ever that easy, is it? Because the simplicity is an illusion. Signing a piece of paper is one thing, but there are many more to sign when it comes to moving into separate homes and hiring companies to move all your boxed belongings between them. There are no pieces of paper that explain how to deal with a young daughter who is developing an unhealthy fixation on her things, the only constants in a life that has come to be defined by massive changes in routine and environment.
Scenes from a Marriage episode 4 recap
The root of “The Illiterates” is in those things, not just Ava’s, but Jonathan and Mira’s too; the stuff that life accumulates. With vows having long since been broken and separation fully in effect, it’s now time to divvy all this stuff up. But figuring out who wants what in a physical sense works as a metaphor, too. Since Mira and Jonathan now only seem to communicate in second-hand platitudes and mantras regurgitated from therapists, neither seems to know what they want on any level. Jonathan thinks he wants Mira to sign the divorce papers ASAP, like right now, so that he can travel to Europe for lectures and know that he’s not leaving an open wound to fester in his absence. But he also wants Mira to peel her underwear off and bend over the sofa that started the episode with a yellow sticker, denoting it was his, and ends it with a red one, having been claimed by Mira. If these two can’t even decide who owns the furniture they can’t stop having sex on, how can they decide what’s best for either of them?
One of the selling points of this redo of Scenes from a Marriage is that the roles were reversed, gender-wise. Here, Mira is the breadwinner and the cheater. But “The Illiterates” reworks that dynamic. Mira is – was, I suppose, since two years have passed – the cheater, but she’s no longer the breadwinner. In fact, she has lost her job. She’s agonizing over the cost of Ava’s dance lessons because she can’t afford them anymore and doesn’t want to say so. Jonathan, meanwhile, is in the middle of a career-high, jetting all over the world for lectures, and he has allowed that success to con him into believing that he’s in as high-demand maritally as he is professionally. It’s him who initiates the sex and takes control, and while Mira doesn’t exactly resist, you can tell by her face that she’s surprised by his forthrightness. This isn’t the usual version of him. That’s the one who sprints to the shower afterwards and urgently showers his junk down because he’s repulsed by bodily fluids. The fact he still does this proves he isn’t the changed man he’s pretending to be.
These things happen because we understand love as a primal concept, something that happens to you largely without your say-so. If you stop loving someone, that feels like a failure, almost on a biological level. Your instincts were wrong. Your feelings betrayed you. All your life’s structures lose their solidity; what was once dependable and immovable begins to sway in the competing winds of a husband and wife, a father and mother, who don’t know how to wear those labels anymore. Mira, on some level, delights in the uncertainty of all this. From the beginning, she has kept her options open. She carried on an affair behind her husband’s back, and then when the affair was on the rocks, she immediately tried to seduce her husband. He rejected her then. But now, having realized that the pain of being without Mira is lesser than the pain of being at her beck and call, he sleeps with her in a cold, unemotional way that he later explains to her face that he could easily live without. Jonathan has already checked out. But he needs Mira to sign the papers to let him start believing that she’ll let him go. And she won’t.
She won’t because letting Jonathan go would mean acknowledging that her own decisions destroyed her life; that the grass on the other side of the fence wasn’t as green as she had been smug and adamant about it being. Throughout Scenes from a Marriage, I’ve disliked Mira intensely. In “The Illiterates”, though, I felt sorry for her. There’s a moment when Jessica Chastain curls up on the sofa and sobs uncontrollably at the depths of her losses that, surprisingly, moved me. Her daughter hates her. Her boyfriend doesn’t want her. Her husband feels nothing for her. When they argue, she keeps returning the conversation to sex, in part because they’ve just had it, but more because that’s the weapon she has always been able to wield. Now, even that doesn’t work. Poli doesn’t want sex that doesn’t end with pregnancy; Jonathan seems to be getting himself off by how much he doesn’t need Mira for that anymore, and he almost literally sprints to the shower to wipe any traces of her off his balls when they’re done. It’s a brutal reversal of the power dynamics.
In the previous episodes, Jonathan has begged Mira. We all remember that horrible cuddle in the hallway that almost devolved into a wrestling match as she tried to wriggle her way free. Back then, Jonathan wanted to hit the reset button that we all reflexively grope for when we realize things are going badly wrong because of our choices. But Mira wouldn’t let him. She had the upper hand. Now, though, she doesn’t have that leverage. So, she begs. She begs to “come home”. But Jonathan doesn’t care. His word choices are savage. He’s “sober” as if going cold turkey from a class-A substance; he’s “inoculated”, as if against a virus. For perhaps the first time since the series began, I believe Mira when she says that all she wants is what she used to have, even if she still doesn’t seem to have acknowledged that losing it in the first place was her own doing.
What Jonathan wants is more kids, so he’s planning to have them with a colleague via “elective co-parenting”; he wants the fruits without the labour, basically, which is understandable, if naïve. He thinks he should be divorced to enter that kind of arrangement, which I’d say complicates the arrangement before it has even begun, but what do I know? Obviously, Mira uses it first as an opportunity to suggest they have another child together, an insane Hail Mary play if ever there was one, and then to attack him on a fundamental character level when he says that’s a terrible idea. Eventually, when the argument spirals even further, she attacks him on a physical level, and he attacks her back.
This is obviously a turning point that can never really be looked back from; it’s a terrible moment of frantic weakness for both, their anger and resentment made manifest. It doesn’t really matter who threw the first blow (Mira), or the last (Mira), only that they allowed themselves to become so untethered from reason that they laid hands on the person with whom they share a child, and once shared a life and a home. It’s bleak. It wasn’t necessary. And yet after, when they both silently sign the divorce papers on the floor, Jonathan snaps, “Should’ve done that a long time ago.”
Done what? Hit her? Signed the papers? The ambiguity is deliberate because a barb like that works by prompting a thousand questions you’ll never get a real answer to. When the dust clears, Jonathan himself probably won’t remember why he said it. All that will matter is that he did.