By Brandon Nowalk
February 16, 2015 at 12:05 AM EST
Prashant Gupta/HBO
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Where do things go wrong for Brett and Michelle? In “Kick the Can,” I mean. To figure out where things went wrong in their marriage would keep us here all night. But in “Kick the Can,” things were going so well, or at least it seemed that way. After a brutal off-screen therapy session—the first line of the episode is “Well, that was horrible”—the unhappy couple decides to table all that drama and just spend the day doing something distracting. Brett’s initial response is to curl up with Dune and peppermint Starbucks in his favorite chair at Barnes and Noble, and the look on Michelle’s face says it all. Doesn’t she know her husband by now? Brett is not a thrill-seeker, although you’d think his morning hikes would indicate at least some sense of adventure. Instead, Michelle chooses their afternoon activity: kickball. She invites all their friends, including Alex and Tina, who brings Larry, to meet for a game in the park. It ought to be a fun day with good company. The episode title alone signals how well those kickball plans work out.

“Kick the Can” sneaks up on us, but already the sirens are sounding. Michelle asked Brett what he wants to do more than anything in the world. Regardless of his answer, he’s set up for disappointment. On top of that, his wife gets to do her thing, so their leisure activity feels unbalanced. Brett’s too much of a pushover to say no. And worst of all, Michelle’s idea involves a whole bunch of other people Brett now has to perform for. All of which is in keeping with the characters we know. Michelle can repress how upset she is about therapy, because she’s been repressing her marital distress all this time. But Brett never really knew anything was wrong between them, so he doesn’t have much experience bottling it up. Long story short, the deck is stacked against him. Michelle’s going to have a fun day, or at least a truly fun moment, and Brett’s very much not.

Tina offers some very Tina advice to Brett: “Just fake it. I mean, do you see this smile? I’m dead inside.” That and a bunch of beer helps for a while. Brett’s just trying to get through the day. He’d like to talk some more about everything that happened at therapy, and he’d like to relax in a more enjoyable way that a game of Kick the Can against some twentysomething hipsters, but for now his only goal is to fake it for his wife.

But what does Michelle want? At first it seems like she’s just trying to distract herself, but by the end the game this means something bigger. When she’s the last woman standing, she vents to David, who just happened to be at the park. He quit his basketball game to come talk to her, too. She wants to surrender to preserve her honor and end this nightmare of a day. “Listen: We are old, we are tired, we don’t know this game.” He says, “But you’re still alive… You want to win, don’t you?” Michelle’s ready to give up, and David inspires her not to. If this is all about her marriage, and I think Togetherness is drawing that connection, that’s some seriously mixed messaging. But there’s a more immediate meaning. Michelle appreciates that David takes the time out of his game to help her. He’s the guy who’s there for her. He’s the one who indulges her. He’s the one who gets childish with her, turning on the sprinklers to scare away the other team so that she can steal her moment of glory. It’s not necessarily that he’s inspiring her to keep fighting for her marriage. It’s that he inspires her period.

“Kick the Can” is a deepening of “Insanity,” the episode where Michelle started to stray, emotionally, and Alex and Tina realized they liked each other but Tina went home with Larry. In “Kick the Can,” both triangles dig in. Alex negs Larry and goes for Tina, and David, not Brett, gives Michelle her happy ending. The equanimity of the triangles is what’s so moving. When Alex kisses Tina—after a tense moment hiding in the closet from an opponent—he gets a dashing romantic peak. They’re crammed together in the closet, and she just laughs at the big goofy grin on his face. “You’re so drunk.” She starts to leave when the coast is clear, but he grabs her wrist and yanks her back around toward him, and they kiss. The episode builds up to it, but it still manages that little jolt of surprise. Way to seize the day, Alex! But then—well after long enough to decide whether you’d like to be kissing someone—she pulls away and slaps him, walking off pissed. Suddenly the whole scene sours. The episode dramatizes Alex’s dashing point-of-view and Tina’s frustrated one. They don’t speak for the rest of the episode, but even the way Alex describes his crash landing to Brett sounds pretty cool.

So why is Tina so upset? I have no doubt that she’ll chalk it up to the fact that she’s seeing Larry, but come on. From what we’ve seen, Tina likes Alex more than she likes Larry. It’s more like she’s upset that such an option presented itself, because now she has to actually examine herself and think about what she wants. Larry is rich enough that Tina would never have to question her values. He’s the kind of guy she sees herself with. Alex is the kind of guy she actually wants. And imagining herself with Alex challenges her view of herself. Not to appeal to her vanity, but hey, Alex has already lost 10 pounds!

Tina and Alex feel like a teen soap couple with a temporary obstacle, and not just because of the presence of Peter Gallagher. Brett and Michelle are the heartbreakers, because their road ahead is long and tough, and it’s hard to imagine the season ending on anything other than a small step forward, if that. Their big argument in “Kick the Can” hits hard because each of them is trying, but neither can give the other what he or she wants. He doesn’t understand how she can go from therapy to having fun, and she points out he is too. “This? I am faking this whole thing… I’m doing it. But I feel awful.” He’s drunk, so he’s just letting it all out, but she’s less so, so she’s the one who winces at how heavy this seemingly light conversation is. “I want to have fun with you,” she says. He replies, “I can’t,” but he’s perfectly genial about it with his fake smile and “what are you gonna do?” attitude, which reads to her as passive-aggression. When she says he may as well be at Barnes and Noble, that’s his last straw. He may not want to be there, but he wants her to want him to be there. And she wants him to have fun with her. Brett and Michelle both want things from the other that they can’t give right now.

“Kick the Can” ends with this blissful moment for everyone. David turns on the sprinklers, Michelle races through the water to get to the can, Tina and Alex run out of the jail to defend her (I think under the premise that neither was ever officially tagged by the other team), and Brett even manages a smile from the jail. But the longer it goes, the heavier it gets, with Michelle standing there in the middle of her husband and her new friend. In a way both Brett and Michelle got what they wanted. He got to go decompress, and she got to have some fun. Unfortunately that might not be what either of them needed.

Dead soldiers:

  • The episode is so fair that even the hipster kids are presented as perfectly reasonable. They reserved the field. They shouldn’t have to share with Michelle. One of the highlights of the game itself is an insert of one of the hipsters chasing one of the olds. The old stops to throw up—there’s a lot of shotgunning beers in this episode—and the hipster is such a good sport he pauses where he was. Once the vomiting is over, the chase commences. How fair!
  • Tina tells Brett to fake his way through the day and asks for a smile. Brett flashes this enormous, off-putting closed-mouth smile. She responds, “Is there any way you can get some alcohol?”
  • Eventually Michelle wears down the hipsters. “Get ready,” they say. She replies, “You get ready… to get your asses kicked by a bunch of old people.” Everyone laughs, and the she adds, “Thank you so much.” In a way it reminds me of when she bummed a cigarette from those skaters. She plays it all cool, but then at the end she breaks a little bit. And seriously, she’s the one who’s crashing some girl’s birthday party. A little thanks is the least she could do.
  • Alex tells Tina he wasn’t negging Larry by dismissing Larry’s negotiation with the kids for the field. “I thought it was a little weird that he offered money, but I don’t think I was rude about it.” That’s the episode in a nutshell, two perfectly reasonable viewpoints in opposition, neither one privileged.
  • Alex asks Brett, “You voluntarily put yourself in jail? I’m not a big metaphor guy but it seems like it might be a big metaphor for your life right now.”
  • The Duplass brothers take their talents to HBO, where their sitcom explores the lives of four adults under one roof. Think of it as Girls for the middle-aged.
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    • 01/11/15
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