Almost three years ago, director Stephen Frears (Quiz) and writer Nick Hornby (Brooklyn) came together to collaborate on SundanceTV’s State of the Union, a delightfully piquant micro-expose of marriage. Within 10, 10-minute episodes, they unflinchingly dissected the skidding relationship of London marrieds Louise (Rosamund Pike) and Tom (Chris O’Dowd). Distanced for a myriad of reasons, their segments captured the pair at their local pub, pregaming in various moods before their weekly couples therapy sessions. It proved to be a compelling and mesmerizingly voyeuristic exercise in examining the soft underbellies of one of life’s most challenging tightrope acts: a healthy marriage.
Frears and Hornby return for a second season (on Valentine’s Day, no less) featuring a brand-new couple, Americans Scott and Ellen (Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson). They have 30 years of marriage lived together, but as empty-nesters, their differences are now exacerbated by Scott’s complacency and Ellen’s passion to engage in an unfettered last act.
Not sitting on their creative laurels, Frears and Hornby have kept the succinct episode length but opened up the storytelling constraints by not only shifting the setting to a hip, Gen-Z coffee house—the ghastly named Mouthfeel Cafe—but by allowing for supporting cast interactions with the cafe owner, Jay (Esco Jouléy), Ellen’s friend, and their couple’s therapists. Across the 10 episodes, these outside voices help spark talking points between the couple, ranging from the use of “woke” pronouns to the lingering impact of Scott’s infidelity 20 years prior.
As a concept, State of the Union is a winner that sagely leans on the strength of its performers to entice our voyeuristic curiosities so it can intimately reveal the exposed and broken pieces between spouses. With Pike and O’Dowd, there was a spikey wit between the two that made you root for them despite their flaws and mistakes. With Gleeson and Clarkson, theirs is a couple existing in a fait accompli. Ellen’s dissatisfaction with Scott’s entrenched interests and myopic attitudes has come to a head, as she’s more interested in pursuing a spiritual life as a fledgling Quaker and social activist than being married to someone who has no curiosity for what’s next.
It’s a bit surprising how different the show’s vibe is when the marriage’s ultimate outcome is more doomed from the start. But kudos to Hornby and Frears for clearly wanting to dispense with expectations by following an overly similar path. Their expansion of the cast for Season 2 sacrifices the focused intimacy of Season 1, which was a big plus for the format and the narrative experiment itself, but it’s refreshing to not know where conflict or contention might be coming from this time around. With Louise and Tom, there were few distractions outside of their pub space to break our attention from their conversations, moods, or attention. But Scott and Ellen have a third wheel in Jay, the non-binary observer turned friend who spurs them to get past their suppositions and biases about sexuality and modern expressions of self. Many minutes of several episodes are given over to the trio interacting instead of just the pair, and that robs some couple scenes the time to breathe. And those format tweaks make the dialogue feel more rapid-fire, like the cast knows they only have so much time to get out everything they need to say. However, even with those tonal issues, it’s still fascinating to watch Gleeson and Clarkson imbue this crumbling couple with a palpable sense of history, frustration, and grace in their descent that ultimately proves to be poignant and realistic.
Clarkson, in particular, is gloriously patient and wistful as a woman coming to grips with trying to compassionately separate from her life partner in order to become the woman she knows she needs to be now. It’s mesmerizing to watch as she struggles with making an inherently selfish choice for the first time in her life, almost squirming inside her own skin as she reconciles with her decisions. And then, alternately, there’s a quiet triumph in witnessing her asking for more answers from Scott and finally getting him to be honest with her and himself for the first time. Gratefully, Gleeson’s “uncomplicated” and oftentimes boorish Scott isn’t the villain of the piece either. He’s a man who has benefited from decades of privilege in not being challenged by Ellen, so his confusion and eventual acceptance of how his own obstinacy got him here is impactful as well.
With another season of complicated human frailties and cathartic confession under its belt, State of the Union continues to be a fascinating peek into the psychology of marriage. Even if the specifics of Scott and Ellen’s situation don’t speak to the watcher’s particular experience, there are plenty of feelings between the two that are relatable and resonate because of Gleeson’s and Clarkson’s performances. And even with such short episodes, there will be plenty of words said and moments expressed that will stay with you.
State of the Union Season 2 premieres February 14 on SundanceTV/Sundance Now/AMC+
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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