A week ago the Togetherness gang was tearing itself apart, but it’s true what they say: Skipping over vague amounts of time between episodes heals all wounds. One week Brett has an epiphany, and the next he’s the exact same Brett, which might sound like a meaningful Sopranos-style point, but it plays like airy pretension. In Togetherness‘ defense, it only has eight episodes this season, and the ellipticism draws us in. So now Alex and Tina are on speaking terms—hell, joking terms—about the kiss in the closet. Larry’s down with Alex, too, even though last we saw them, they were pretty prickly. But that’s all about to change, and this time, for good. Probably. At least for a week.
“Ghost in Chains” is directed by Nicole Holofcener, a perfect choice for Togetherness as her movies (Please Give, Enough Said) demonstrate a knack for satirizing privilege with compassion. It’s a noisy, aggressive episode where everyone calls one another out. The yelling between Alex and Tina gets weary, but overall there’s a smart variety to the callings-out. Tina whines, “Why is he so mad at me?” “Tina,” her sister replies, “I mean, come on.” Tina eventually changes the subject to David, a man she calls Michelle’s boyfriend. Later Brett gives a speech to a stranger about how frustrated he is with the people who don’t appreciate him (explicitly his bosses, but implicitly his wife?) and himself for becoming a doormat. And Tina and Alex are at each other’s throats off and on throughout. With just two more episodes this season, “Ghost in Chains” might be a more pivotal half-hour than “Kick the Can.”
There’s one person nobody calls out who desperately needs to face up to himself: David. Just what is this guy doing? The producers stack the deck toward him, romantically speaking, with costume (like last week’s gym shorts to contrast with Brett’s dorky vest) and scenarios (basketball versus Brett’s pouting). This week he gets all sweaty in a T-shirt and jeans doing some physical labor at a possible charter school site. We get it, Togetherness. David’s rugged and virile, and Brett’s a big square. So far, so good on the plausible deniability thing. But by the time he’s jimmying a door open with Michelle, him working some phallic lever and her doing the intricate stuff, both of them grunting and close enough to hug, it’s obvious to everyone. David isn’t just trying to build a school. He’s trying to wreck a home.
Michelle’s into it, because her husband sure isn’t exciting her. David’s adventurous, fun, and did I mention his fitness? The difference is Michelle now has someone she’s accountable to. She can no longer pretend like she’s playing a game in her head. Tina sees it, too. And if someone who hasn’t even been around all week sees it, Michelle can bet Brett isn’t far behind. But David’s a free agent, and he likes Michelle even though she’s married. He even wants to take her to Sacramento for some charter school meeting thing (I was too busy growling to catch the exact bureaucratic bullshit he cites). Which means a road trip. With Michelle. I can already tell these two regressive fools are fantasizing about a summer camp romance. What happens in Sacramento…
The other person in desperate need of a good dressing down is Tina. She’s still spending most of her time with Larry, while Alex, to his credit, maintains his workout and diet on his own. Tina calls him finally because she needs something, and he tells her that’s the only reason she ever calls anymore. Hence the chat between Tina and Michelle. Michelle tells her sister that she knows she’s leading him on and that she’s not a good friend. Based on the timing, Tina had probably already arranged to get Alex a part in Larry’s movie, but nevertheless, we jump from the “bad friend” talk to Tina trying to be a good friend. Alex is thrilled, even though the movie shoots in New Orleans in two weeks (just in time for the Togetherness season finale). He has to put himself on tape, but it’s just a formality according to Tina. And he’s not sure what part he’s supposed to read, the villain or the sidekick, but who cares. It’s an acting job on his hero’s movie!
So they rush off to the audition, a room of Steve Zissis types. And that’s where Alex finds out what the part is: the chubby best friend who dies on page five. He goes ballistic. See? This relationship is very mercurial this week. He shouts at her about the Rogaine in his hair and the exercise he’s been doing all in an effort to get leading parts, but then his name gets called, and Tina shouts right back at him. Is he going to quit like always, or is he going to man up and do some solid work as the chubby best friend as a stepping stone to a leading man part? It’s such a relief to see him walk into the room to audition. But the roller coaster ain’t over. He tells the casting people he’s there to audition for the villain. They say they thought he was here for the friend, and he commits. Nope, the villain. If he wasn’t leading man material before, Alex walks out of his audition like a master of the universe. He walks over to Tina and says goodbye. “Whatever it is that you and I are doing, it’s over. I’m not doing your bidding anymore. So don’t call me. Just keep doing your superficial charade in Larryland, because I don’t want any part of it.”
The Brett story’s the weird one. Remember when Brett saw that rare bird and it inspired him or whatever? Well that’s what’s happening this week, more artfully ambiguous semi-storytelling that follows him to a place of peace. Specifically he climbs into a shallow grave and lets Mary Steenburgen’s forest weirdo cover him with branches so he can connect with his death or something. This happens directly after a long, increasingly furious monologue about how he would do no such thing, because, among other reasons, he doesn’t even know her. It’s a smash cut joke without the smash cut. Instead of laughing at how Brett’s doing the thing he said he wouldn’t do, we’re with him the whole way, wondering if and why he’s changing his mind after making such good points and, I guess, lightly chuckling. “That’s so Brett,” I guess. Or is it?
Brett meets Steenburgen’s New Age oddball—let’s call her Grandmother Willow—under a pile of branches on a morning hike. She says she’s fine, but he helps uncover her anyway. She explains that she was getting in touch with her death. Ah, she’s Togetherness‘ Guilty Remnant. I have a ton of questions for her, but Brett pretty much leaves it at that. However, she follows him, as woodland predators are wont to do. When he finally confronts her, she tells him he’s a ghost in chains. She tries to release the negative energy inside him, telling the spirit it has no business left here, and then she asks him if he feels better and accuses him of lying. Brett suffers her like a pro, because Brett has a lot of practice suffering people, but at the end, he makes a mental note that she’s going on a moonlit hike that evening and he’s invited. Brett, no. You don’t owe her anything. Free yourself.
He can’t make the hike anyway because he has work that evening. But as usual, he’s not valued there. He’s told to do work that everyone knows won’t be used. His complaints are dismissed. He’s kept hungry while the boss, who took forever to even show up, chows down on some takeout. Eventually, Brett just snaps. He gets up, devours handfuls of various snacks, and then walks out. The situation is contrived for that purpose. The power dynamic in that sound booth plays like a Roman Polanski movie. But it’s way less manufactured that what happens next, Brett not going home after such a long day but instead finding Grandmother Willow in the woods and climbing into his grave. Hasn’t he seen The Vanishing?! Pretending for a second that a human being might actually behave this way, what’s the point? Brett communes with nature and death so that he can put his measly problems in perspective? Is the fact that he’s avoiding his wife the main thing? Is Grandmother Willow a serial killer? Find out next week. Or don’t. On Togetherness, what happens in one episode might just stay in that episode.