Episode 1, March 16, 2020
The bars are shuttered. We drink at home, where we have modeled our kitchen after a restaurant-bar we used to frequent before it closed like all the restaurant-bars in this city eventually do, if you live long enough.
Johan and Marianne are a happily married couple with two young children. He is a successful engineer and she is a divorce lawyer. Their best friends, a married couple, are over for dinner. The evening begins convivially, but after many drinks the couple spirals into a brutal and cruel exchange about their growing disgust and hatred for one another. Marianne and Johan watch on resignedly, both numbed and disturbed. There is no background music to alleviate the uncomfortableness of this ugly scene, just the couple’s drunken voices, their lashing tongues. After an apology, the couple depart for home, where they will finish their argument that the husband says wouldn’t be fit for public consumption.
As Johan and Marianne clear away the dishes, they revel in the relief that their relationship is not like their friends’. A few weeks later, Marianne tells Johan she is pregnant, there is a long discourse about whether to keep the baby, they already have two young children. Johan expresses his indifference to the idea but is willing to go through with it if that is her wish. After much back and forth they decide to abort the baby. When he comes to the hospital afterward, in her eyes that the camera has plunged into, you see horror, the question of whether she and Johan have just tempted their own fate.
As the credits scroll over the desolate beauty of Faro island, I tell my husband, situated on the opposite end of the couch from me, that it’s going to get bad.
He stares straight ahead and says that he wants to keep going.
I have seen this film before, he has not.
But one episode a night, we agree, is all either of us can take.
We go to bed, where there is a squabble, not all that uncommon as we grow old and repetitive together. In the early morning, my hand rests on his hip as we spoon inches apart. In a dream, my fingernails dig into his flesh. When we wake up, he shows me the marks.
Episode 2, March 17, 2020
I stare at the news. And then I stare at it again. I go back to my short story. I change a word. A spelling. I disparage. I query a literary magazine. I have never once been accepted by a literary magazine, but every so often I get the gumption to try again. I’ve committed to one query a day, but I’ve already broken my promise.
I hear him pontificating at the other end of our loft, where we have positioned him at the farthest distance possible from where I work in our back bedroom. I play music to drown him out but there is residual. I don’t mind. Intent, engaged, ironic but steady, I like listening to his defiance. That laugh. There is no one else I would rather be with.
Tonight, the bar is serving Harry’s martinis. We engage in both deep and meaningless conversation as if there were only us in the world.
We clean up, assume our positions.
Johan, the engineer, has been secretly writing poetry and he has given his work to a close and very respected colleague for feedback. In brutally honest form, she tells Johan that the poetry is not bad. In fact, it is much worse than that, it is good. In other words, there is nothing exceptional about it. It’s the worst news she can give him, according to her. Johan, who’d been excited to send his poetry to publishers now puts it away and never speaks of it again.
Marianne, the divorce attorney, sits in her office across from a nice looking, grey-haired woman of about fifty years of age. She is dressed in a prim dark suit and is explaining, very dispassionately, why she wants a divorce from her husband of twenty years. There is no love, she says, there never has been. And that lack of love has made all the love in her atrophy, including the love for her children, whom she has never loved. She has been good to them and her husband has been good to her, but she cannot live without this love and must leave the marriage because she must at least try to have this love. Marianne presses her forehead with her fingers.
The credits fall over Faro island.
I look at him looking at the windswept coast. “Are you going to be okay?” I ask.
Episode 3, March 18, 2020
People in Italy are dying. The coffins are lining up. The country is going up in flames and they are singing from balconies. I wonder if this will be us soon.
Johan tells Marianne he is leaving her for Paula with the kind of excruciatingly brutal honesty you don’t see often in film. She disgusts him, frankly. It is her fault, she agrees. She’s never been interested in sex. She wants to know what she can do. How she can change. He wants to live an honest life, he tells her, no matter the consequences. He has driven to their house in the country, where she is staying with the children, to tell her this news. That he and Paula are going away to Paris together. And he is tired. She begs him to stay, to rest. Not to leave her. They lay down together. The discourse continues, she won’t let him go, and he continues to delineate everything about her that he despises. After much back and forth, their conversation falls into a tender repose, as Johan begins to have second thoughts. But those quickly dispel, and he gets up and prepares to leave. Marianne tearfully lugs his suitcase out from under the bed and begins packing it for him as if by rote, as if he is going on a business trip. After all, the failure of their marriage is her fault, it is the least she can do.
It always takes us a few moments while we watch the credits to put a sentence together. “I don’t understand why he’s got to be so honest,” he says finally.
“He wants to live an honest life.” I say.
“Yes, but does he have to be so cruel about it.”
Some moments pass.
“Why are you looking at me like that,” he says.
“I’m not looking at you like anything.”
Episode 4, March 19, 2020
At breakfast, still disturbed, he says, “It’s as if the characters are projecting all their anger, frustration, and disappointment with their life and marriage onto their spouse.” He looks as if through me, where it is pitch black. “Do people really behave like this?”
“Yes, I believe they do.”
The day is long, but I feel calmer. I’ve let go of things. The monotonous self-flogging. I write in this journal and read and stare out my bedroom window at the black iron fire escape scaling down the side of the building adjacent ours. Each day it is a little more silent. The condensers, fans, vents, pigeons, one by one they all go off (or swan dive off). An altered state arrives. The world has stopped. I’m no longer the only one under achieving. No one is achieving what they have set out to achieve. No one is doing anything.
People ask what we are watching. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is watching. We don’t tell them. They wouldn’t understand.
Johan returns from a one-year absence and comes to Marianne’s house for dinner. He is hungry for her, makes advances but she has been altered while he’s been away and resists. She is seeing someone else. They are warm and congenial with each other. Happy to see each other. They drink. Eat. He and Paula fight viciously, Johan confides in Marianne, and that he is tiring of Paula. After dinner they move to the couch with a bottle and end up talking about their lovemaking. Their dialogue oscillates between hate but also the deep love they continue to feel for each other. Their bond remains convoluted and strong and it has not to do with the children. Johan barely asks about them. At one point, Marianne reads to Johan from the diary she has been keeping since she’s been in therapy. She very eloquently and perceptually articulates what she has learned about herself during her separation from Johan. The camera zooms in on her pale and faintly freckled face. So fearful was she of not doing exactly what was expected of her as a child, growing up under the tenant of guilt. She never acted of her own will and so grew up to be submissive, passive, wanting to please and unable to express her true desires. After she is done reading from her diary, she looks over at Johan to see that he has fallen asleep.
The credits roll.
“Don’t you see?”
He startles me.
“Guilt is what it always comes down to.”
I look at him. The muscle in his cheek is pulsating.
Episode 5, March 20
“Loneliness,” I say, at breakfast—coffee and sliced apple.
I tell him that while he identifies with Marianne, I identify with Johan, particularly about his feelings about loneliness, those he’d expressed to Marianne at one point in last night’s episode. “Once one figures out that loneliness is the backdrop of our existence, that we cannot run or hide from it, that is when we arrive. All the other things—desire, happiness, contentment, peace—are clouds that float by on the clear blue backdrop of that loneliness, and once we understand this life won’t be so devastating.”
“Loneliness is pervasive,” I add, when he doesn’t say anything.
He can only stare at me like I am an enigma.
“And there’s a difference between being lonely and alone. I am not alone when I am lonely because I am with my loneliness. And in my loneliness, I know that I am not alone.”
He tells me that he would say this social distancing thing is getting to me, if he didn’t know me better.
Another year has passed. Marianne comes to Johan’s place of work, a dank and sterile closet in a nondescript building, with divorce papers. She is in a heightened state, almost giddy. Johan remains dark and brooding. She wants to make love and they lie on the floor. It goes quickly and she achieves some level of pleasure and they get up and he opens a bottle of Hine cognac. They sit on a worn grey couch and catch up on their lives. He is miserable. His university is no longer sending him to the U.S. as he had hoped. He is forty-five, old, and has become obsolete. He holds no interest in what the future will bring. He regrets Paula and wants to return to his marriage where there is some semblance of meaning left for him. Marianne is shocked. She has a man at home, a newfound sense of freedom and independence. She is about to go on a trip. She has moved on from Johan and is infuriated to learn about his reservations. They battle. Oh, how they loathe each other—and yet she weakens, oscillates, considers staying with him, imagines it, them staying married, but she can’t and begs him to let her go. He, too, should move on and see what true freedom will bring him once he lets go of her for good. But there is nothing out there left for him, he insists. She tries to leave but he locks the door. He is no longer himself, his is vengeance personified. He beats her. She tries to fight him at first but then lies on the floor while he kicks her. Afterward, he falls back onto the couch stricken in despair. She goes to the bathroom and cleans up. When she returns, wordlessly, they sign the divorce papers.
We stare at the credits, each pondering with no small amount of concern what could possibly happen next.
Episode 6, March 21, 2020
The bar is serving Old Fashioneds.
“Are you ready?”
We head to the couch, where I cross the chasm to his side. “I’m ready.”
It wasn’t how we expected the final episode to go, after all the blows, cruelty, and blackness, for Marianne and Johan to find redemption in each other. They have come to form a deep, tender, passionate love for each other, honest in a way they had never been before. Unmasked. They are both married to other people now, but still sneak away once or twice a year and maintain an affair. They find in each other a comfort that comes from going through everything they’ve gone through together, I suppose, it’s hard for me to remain unbiased, to want their relationship to continue. I’ve seen their innards and guts, watched their shit spill out all over the floor. The smell doesn’t go away, but then I remind myself that I am not Johan and he is not Marianne and we are not them. So, I will form some sort of generalization to wrap things up, and I suppose honesty is much of what it came down to. Marianne has the confidence to express herself now, and he has grown relaxed and less serious with himself. They are real with each other. For the first time in their relationship they enjoy sex. I should have more to say about it but enough is enough.
There are over ten thousand COVID cases in New York City as of March 21. We have been sheltering in place for five days. I will always identify these first days of our solitude with Bergman. The beginning of an endurance test that will, honestly, go on to feel not much different than our normal life, which is also an endurance test. How long can we go on living like this?