The Togetherness finale is a dark meditation on the dangers of romantic comedies. Just call her, Brett! Don’t make the grand romantic gesture! It takes too long! Of course, the fact that a phone call might have prevented Michelle from making out with David means the marriage is in trouble as it is. “Not So Together” is just showing us what was bound to happen at some point.
That marriage crisis is a two-way street, even ignoring the fact that Brett asked for a separation last week, which the episode seems to. Yes, Michelle’s the one who’s about to cheat on her husband, but part of the reason Brett drives from Eagle Rock to Sacramento instead of calling is to give his wife a fidelity pop quiz. He strikes me as the kind of guy who’s sincerely in it for the romance, but surprising his wife at a hotel with the guy he’s romantically intimidated by is a test nonetheless. Deep down he’s asking for it.
As a sidenote, the Togetherness gang gets around California like it’s 24. Michelle wakes up early to pick up her team and drive to Sacramento. When Brett tries to drop the kids off at school, she’s already in Sacramento, at least if we can trust the editing. Don’t even try to do the math. That night, Brett drops off Alex for his flight at LAX, then drops off the kids with a friend, and then embarks on a quest to Sacramento. We don’t know when he gets there, because the final shot of the season is the sad sight of Brett’s car heading up the highway, but surely he’s not planning to get there before she goes to sleep. Call it nit-picking, but it’s an example of the show’s routinely sloppy form. Togetherness knows what it wants to paint, but the actual process of painting it is an afterthought.
As for what it wants to paint, that’s easy: Four lonely people who used to be close. The episode even starts off like a painting of a happy family, the whole family crowded around the dinner table to celebrate Tina’s last day at her sister’s house, the scene shot from outside and framed in the window. Which raises a question or two about what happened after Brett said he wanted a separation last week, but whatever. Togetherness isn’t big on continuity. The point is, Brett, Michelle, Alex, and Tina start out together.
Then they spend the rest of the episode trying to hold on. When Michelle wakes up Brett to tell him she’s leaving, she’s clearly not satisfied with his response. It’s like she wants him to ask her to stay. She wants him to fight for her. Eventually Brett does fight for her. It takes a spontaneous hookie-inspired beach day with the kids, but by the end he’s completely invigorated, his commitment to his family renewed. Alex is more proactive. As soon as he finds out he got the part of Vlad—his audition gamble working so well he gets third billing in a movie shooting in New Orleans over the next month—he starts trying to track Tina down to thank her and to ask her to come with him. When he finally gets to her, the scene is just crushing. She says, “It’s better this way,” meaning with Larry. He gets in her face to give it one last go: “Tina, for God’s sake, come with me, please.” Poor Alex, but poor Tina. Alex and Brett also keep recommitting to each other, offering advice and hugs and “I love you.” Tina’s the one who seems the least like she wants to stay among the Piersons, but Alex finally pushes her into tacitly admitting that she doesn’t love Larry. She’d prefer to stay with Alex; she just can’t.
Why can’t she? Why do Tina and Michelle go their own ways? Tina feels so much pressure to have the life she’s been told she should have. She may not love Larry, but she likes him, and he provides for her. She feels like it’s too late for love. It’s time to settle. She could at least settle in style. It is an act of vanity, and Tina is accountable for that, but how did she get her values? Togetherness spends approximately 0 seconds explicitly investigating the way the media exploits and perpetuates unhappiness, the way Mad Men does, but Tina’s a walking, talking product of a misogynistic media, if not a screwed up childhood as well. It’s hard to blame her for going after the life she’s supposed to want.
Michelle goes after the life she knows she shouldn’t want. First of all, I don’t buy it from a logistics perspective. (I’m tired just thinking about her day.) But seriously, after Brett refused to fight for her, Michelle runs toward David. The first big move is her speech. The board wants to know who will be running the school if David wins his election, and Michelle steps up. It’s a great move for her. She’s a Berkeley-educated mom in the school district with a history of non-profit work, and this can take her mind off her home life, give her some relief from the stresses of marriage. But it’s also symbolic. In a rash decision, she commits to David. It’s a template for what’s to come. That night, he brings up their tension, not necessarily to act on it, but he’s clearly opening the door. Surprisingly, Michelle doesn’t give him much back. She acknowledges that she feels the energy between them, too, but says it’s too overwhelming for her to figure out. And they leave it at that.
But Michelle can’t sleep, and apparently neither can David, each of them staring at the doors that connect their rooms. Eventually—and this is after Michelle has showered, pined in bed naked, and pined in bed in her pajamas—Michelle passes a note under the doors. “You asleep?” He passes it back: “YEP,” with a smiley. Uh-oh. James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream” is playing, emphasizing a particular repetition: “Falling, falling, falling.” Note the regression of passing notes. Michelle’s going back to that place in her life before she got married, and she keeps chasing that feeling because she hasn’t felt it in a while. It’s her version of a beach day. Come to think of it, it might actually be a rejuvenating comfort to know that Brett is on his way to surprise her at that very moment. But she doesn’t know. And eventually, David opens his door, and Michelle, after taking a moment to consider the act, to consider cheating on her husband, the husband who just told her he wants a separation, after all that, she opens her door, and he flies through, kissing her against the wall with more passion than she’s felt the entire season. And Brett’s on his way. See you next year!
That’s how the season ends. Alex is off to New Orleans to play a lead in a movie. Tina’s sticking with Larry, at least for now. Michelle’s hooking up with someone who’s not her husband in a hotel in Sacramento—which is in the running for the saddest sentences written about Togetherness. And Brett, the glue, is on his way to try to win back his life. It’s an ending that could have happened weeks ago. That’s how fluffy the show is, one of HBO’s slightest half-hours of late. Instead of digging deeper into its characters, Togetherness just keeps sifting through the same sands. Just think about how many times someone tried to cram a bounce house into a tight space for laughs. Togetherness doesn’t develop. It repeats.
The question at the start of the season is whether Togetherness could distinguish itself from the pack of similar TV shows. It didn’t, except in the yearning performances of Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peet. That’s more than some shows have to offer. The what is pretty good. It’s the how and the why that are shallow. But with Togetherness coming back for another season, “Not So Together” is a fine foundation to build on.