Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite shows and TV characters. This week, we dive back into Togetherness in the face of its perhaps final episodes. Previously: Part 1 of Togetherness.
Endings, particularly abrupt ones, are one of those rare moments in life when we get to find out how we really feel. This is one of those bittersweet ironies that existentialists build whole careers out of, and that we therapists love to pithily remind our clients of while cocking an eyebrow. In my case, I imagine that the forthcoming series finale of HBO’s Togetherness will confirm that I love this show and that, for all my practiced jadedness, I still believe that love conquers all. I suppose I’ll have to wait and see. Because the thing about endings is, they’re intense. And not in a camping way, but in a psychological way. They’re the last opportunity to take something in, which often means they’re the first of these opportunities to be taken, because seeing things clearly means coming to terms with the fact that they will end.
For Brett and Michelle, the opportunity to see each other clearly is looming larger than ever. They spent the first season largely stuck in their own heads, trying to get in touch with all that internal, private vividness that they had somehow managed to put away over the course of their marriage. And while their friends tried to convince them to share their parallel journeys with each other – Michelle acting out her sexual fantasies on Brett, Brett telling Michelle he is incapable of connecting – neither partner was able to stay present for the other one’s big reveal. Their attempts were just too flawed and human and intimate, it blew them out of the water. How can you look at Michelle’s stumbling, inexpert, and kind attempt to be sexually dominant; or Brett’s terror-stricken face as he admits to having gone so far up his own anxiety-puckered ass he can’t find his way back out; and think anything besides “this poor goofball is actually going to die someday, and if I’m lucky I’ll have been the first one to go.”
The point is this: spending your life with someone is different than just having a boyfriend or girlfriend for, like, a really long time.
Ok, yea, that got a little heavy, but that’s the point: life is heavy. Death is heavy. This is why you don’t marry the best sex partner you ever had: your life partner needs to help prepare you for the big finale and really wild sex just makes you want to scream, “I’m gonna live forever!” When you get married, you make a pledge that you’re gonna stick it out until you die – “till death do us part” is right there in the script – and you better believe that whoever came up with that little speech was choosing their words carefully. This doesn’t have to happen in a marriage, just that seems to be our traditional path to it, but the point is this: spending your life with someone is different than just having a boyfriend or girlfriend for, like, a really long time. Your boyfriend rubs your shoulders and hits on you when you come home tired from work. Your partner finds you when you run screaming out of the tunnel that is the-experience-of-you-slowly-dying, kisses you on the cheek, and cracks the whip to send you back inside.
We can see this happening clearly and functionally between Brett and Michelle. Yeah, most of this show has caught them at a bad time, but the operative word in life-long partnership is long. They have plenty of time to enjoy each other’s company. A little hate and stagnation is an unavoidable part of the process for anyone who’s taking their relationship seriously. Partially, that’s due to projection: as we explore our own inner selves, we take in what we can bear and kind of shove the really weird shit we find onto the other people in our lives.
This may be the real root of what’s going on with Brett, and why he’s being so shitty to Michelle in the wake of her cheating on him. Tina floated the theory that he’s on the ultimate hall pass, and there’s merit to it, but if that were the case he wouldn’t be storing his Dune supplies in Michelle’s school and sleeping around on her in the meantime. Maybe what’s going on is he’s using Michelle’s infidelity as a canvas to blast his own intolerable desires onto. It’s sort of like she came home from the mall one day wearing a t-shirt with “slutty princess” airbrushed across the boob area and he got mad at her for acting trashy, while simultaneously getting kind of turned on by it. Sure, he can stand there and keep saying he wants a partner who reflects his high class values, but the banana in his pocket speaks louder than words.
So while being cheated on remains one of the top ten shitty things to happen to you, it also moonlights as one of the top ten opportunities to see yourself clearly. Because it’s an ending – you can no longer tell yourself that your vows or your agreement or your attempt at creating rules for life are anything more than a childish fantasy. A barely registered suggestion to the universe that you would like to be treated as if you were in charge. And once the cat is out of the bag, it frees you up; when the other half of the fantasy falls apart at least you don’t have to carry your own anymore.
To better understand this, take a look at Michelle, because she gets it. Here’s a person who is clearly a powerhouse, hence why that lady from The League has been working so hard to cut her down, but has made a little agreement between herself and ~*the universe*~ that she will act meek if it keeps her fantasy life going. Except: that sucks. We see her bucking against this all through the series: her sexual, i.e. private, fantasies are all about her own personal power; she comes alive when she meets David, who is more interested in empowering her than in maintaining her fantasy life. And when she’s confronted with the end of her fantasy, the one where Brett is working hard on getting their suburban dream world running again, she just says fuck it and grabs the power. She lives the dream of everyone who’s ever worked a job they hated because they thought they needed it for some reason and gives him the “you can’t fire me, I quit” treatment.
So it’s an ending. Whether they come back together or not in the series finale, their old relationship is dead. Even if they can make it work, “it” is going to be something very different. Michelle will take the lead, providing the very structure that Brett has secretly been waiting for in order to make his exploration of his creativity a safe option. Which doesn’t sound so bad, although it is scary. Because when you start taking charge of creating the life you keep waiting for the people around you to make on your behalf, you run out of excuses for why you’re so angsty. It forces you to look inside and to consider that the deepest itch is unscratchable. To know that death is just around the corner, so you better hurry up and love yourself before it’s too late.
James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday.