As the holidays loom ahead of us this year, like every year, they bring with them a hotbed of emotional entanglement. Because often the holidays involve dealing with extended family, which can stir up feelings we get to avoid the other 11 months of the year.

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For Divorce’s Robert and Frances, Christmas is the first major hurdle of their impending divorce, to prove to their kids and to Frances’ blissfully ignorant parents that they can act as a united front. The fact that they pull this off just adds to the poignancy of divorce, and Divorce, overall.

Over the past few weeks, the contentiousness of the series has amped up a bit, and as of last week, both Frances and Robert had lined up formidable lawyers to take each other on in court. And yet, they still have to deal with each other about kids’ visitation and the like. That’s the mania of divorce: working the details out with someone you’re at war with.

So this holiday truce couldn’t have come at a better time. We get to see Robert and Frances together more than we have since the pilot, not divided by telephones, but in practically every scene together. It’s a reminder of the shorthand that families fall into with each other, with Robert and his father-in-law constantly egging each other onto the next drink (Robert is never more sympathetic than when he enthuses, “I love your parents!”). Frances’ parents’ refusal to even discuss the situation also explains a bit about how she and Robert could have drifted so far apart, since it was not really in her nature to speak up when things are going wrong.

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Spot-on casting for Frances’ parents, by the way, with Jackie Brown’s Robert Forster and an unrecognizable Dorothy Lyman (who will always be All My Children’s Opal Gardner to me). For all their denial, both parents drop some resonant truth bombs: Frances’ mom alludes that she or her husband also had an affair, and the marriage still survived. Frances’ dad tells Robert that a lot can happen in a year. All these things are true. The evolving ludicrousness of Julian, Frances’ paramour, is not only funny, but steadily diminishes him as an actual threat to their marriage (receiving a punch in the stomach from another irate husband at Christmas). He might have been the reasoning behind the split, but as Robert has pointed out, the affair wouldn’t have happened if he and Frances were in a great place to begin with. Still, Frances’ reluctance to tell her parents the truth is hard to watch, until Robert gallantly swoops in and saves her. Yeah, maybe he’s also saving face for himself a little bit, but I think it’s more than that. When he speaks up, and then refuses to let her confess while they’re still in the driveway, he is saving her from the pain of revealing something like that to her parents, which could alter their relationship forever (although, given how understanding they are, maybe not). The moment in bed afterward, with Frances asking Robert why he did that when he didn’t have to, and the long pause before he finally comes up with “Merry Christmas,” is everything. That pause contains all the frustration and longing and residual affection between the two.

What I love about this episode is that it shows how much these two people are tied together no matter what. Sleeping together in Frances’ bedroom (“We’ve slept in the same bed about 10,000 times without having sex, I think we can handle a few more nights”), where she remembers wondering what her life was going to be like, and even in the midst of her current turmoil, she wouldn’t change a thing. It’s part of the reason it’s especially hard to detach your self from the mother or father of your kids, even if you hate them: Without them, you wouldn’t have what you love most in the world.

Because no matter what, the kids are still going to scream into the karaoke mike at Christmas, and you’ll have to make numbing small talk with relatives, and everyone will sink into a mountain of wadded-up wrapping paper. Those things also don’t change in the midst of divorce. Surrounded by people they love, who love them, Frances and Robert are certainly better off than Diane’s not-so-passive-aggressive attack on Nick’s first wife, or Dallas, forced to chaperone her teenage son and his amorous girlfriend (in the sad holiday category, she even usurps the guy who got punched in the stomach).

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Marital love changes, fluctuates, sometimes even dissipates completely, but the ties are still there. Frances’ parents’ house is still going to feel like home, and surrounded by family, and the holidays, Frances and Robert manage to be as civil to each other as we’ve ever seen. (Give or take a few zingers: “You keep your underwear on.”) In dark and uncertain times, we need to hang on to the people we love—even though we may not agree on everything—especially at the holidays.

Stray observations

  • I was afraid for a moment that somehow Robert sticking up for Frances was going to lead to them sleeping together, and I’m really glad that didn’t happen.
  • My interview with Thomas Haden Church posts at midnight, for some great insight on the behind-the-scenes machinations of Divorce.
  • Took a little digging to find it, but this episode’s credits song, while wholly appropriate, veered from our 1970s theme into only a few years ago:

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