Television

Fleishman’s Forced Perspective

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s series makes us side with an aggrieved ex-husband, and then question why it comes so easily.

Two men sit side by side on a couch, drinking wine.
Jesse Eisenberg and Adam Brody in Fleishman Is in Trouble. Linda Kallerus/FX

It’s normal for TV shows to flirt with different perspectives, but Hulu’s Fleishman Is in Trouble, based on the novel by New York Times profiler Taffy Brodesser-Akner, turns it into an art form. The show, about the dissolution of a New York City marriage, follows Dr. Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a recently divorced father of two who faces a child care crisis when his ex-wife disappears. For the first five episodes, the perspective is solidly Toby’s, who is trying to figure out how to balance dating on “the apps” while also single parenting after his ex-wife Rachel (Claire Danes) ghosts the family, leaving for a yoga retreat and never returning to pick up the kids. His rage at Rachel, the breadwinner who works all hours running a theater talent agency, is built on years of perceived slights, the belief that she chose her work over him and their children. But that rage obscures a fact that starts to build and build until it feels unbearable. Where is Rachel? Is she okay? What is really happening to her? Yes, it seems like she has abandoned him and her children, but from the flashbacks we see of her, that doesn’t track. So what is going on? Never has an absence, a silence, wielded so much force.

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Brodesser-Akner is an uncannily talented interviewer, and she understands the power of perspective—both in framing a story, and understanding how others expect it to be framed. In the book and the series, she centers us in Toby’s point of view but through the narration of his old college friend Libby (Lizzy Caplan), who connects him back to his pre-Rachel life. Caplan does extraordinary work here with a tricky voiceover, and from subtle shifts in Libby’s point of view, we start to question the show’s motives at the same time Libby starts to question the one-sided perspective we have from Toby. Why are we only hearing his point of view? We know from a conversation in the first episode that he said something awful to her the night before, but we don’t know what. We also know Rachel has deeply hurt Toby, that he has a right to his anger. But does he have a right to control the narrative so completely? This is the question that starts to creep in as the show crosses its midpoint.

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The hinge here is Libby, who in flashbacks we come to understand was a talented journalist working at a men’s magazine (referred to only as “the magazine,” but giving off strong Esquire vibes), but after 15 years feels stuck, doing well-regarded work but not getting the plum assignments—like eating live ox hearts or traveling to Cuba—that go to her male colleagues instead. When she tells her husband they only give her the pieces “they want turned in on deadline,” my heart broke a little, because she is not saying it out of bitterness or anger. She understands, in the way you can when you’re older and possibilities start to narrow, that while she is valued, she will never be seen as the writer she knows she can be. Now a suburban mom who has left publishing, Libby cannot control the narrative of how she is perceived, and in that moment, the connection between her and Rachel blazes white-hot.

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As if to underline this idea in red ink, Christian Slater stars in Libby’s flashbacks as Archer Sylvan, the National Magazine Award–winning hotshot writer who always gets the best assignments. (It’s a delight to see someone like Brodesser-Akner bring the urgency and hothouse environment of a magazine to life, instead of the usual romcom caricatures.) When Libby was in college, Archer wrote a famous book about the end of a marriage, told from the husband’s point of view, which both she and Toby loved—it was angry, fierce, unapologetic. But we learn later that he never spoke to the ex-wife to hear her side of the story, or confirm any details. That’s because “all divorced women have the same story,” Archer smarmily explains at an event Libby attends. As Libby replays this scene, you can almost hear the record scratch in her head. She’s spent this whole time thinking about Toby, about his story. What about Rachel’s?

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Well, what about Rachel? At this point in the story, we know she’s returned to New York (there’s a Talented Mr. Ripley energy in how Toby hears from friends who have spotted her napping in the park, or the doorman who just saw her, but never beholds her himself), but she feels as far away as if she were in Nepal. This choice to keep her completely offstage feels deliberate, as if another shoe is about to drop. (Readers of the book know what comes next.)

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We do see Rachel in flashbacks, and Danes is excellent—tough but brittle, making you understand why she would have fallen in love with Toby, who up until he met her was unlucky with women. Rachel lost her mother young and never felt like she had a loving family; when she attends shabbat dinner with Toby’s family, she says simply, “I want this.”  And when that dream is about to come true, during the delivery of her first child, she is traumatized by the OB on call.

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Afterward, Rachel is not okay. Toby is loving—he gets her help for the baby and encourages her to go to therapy—but Rachel’s loneliness and postpartum depression is a burning thing he doesn’t fully understand. Being alone in separate griefs is one of the hardest things you can go through in a marriage, and Rachel’s way of coping is to start her own theater agency and barrel forward professionally, never looking back.

Or at least that’s Toby’s take on it. From here on out we see Rachel, at least in his memories, getting chillier, more materialistic and status-conscious, desperate for that happy family but more focused on the signifiers of that happiness, like the right schools for the kids or that house in the Hamptons, than sustaining a healthy partnership or spending quality time. Toby finds himself increasingly in opposition to Rachel’s values—a doctor who refuses to sell out to Big Pharma for a higher paycheck; an involved dad who prefers public school for his children; someone who shrinks from the alpha-dad banter at dinner parties in gleaming Park Avenue apartments. In fact, he becomes so fixated on those alpha dads as the enemy that he convinces himself Rachel is having an affair with Sam Rothberg, the top dog and Sackler-like figure at their kids’ school who’s made a fortune in painkillers.

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But from the glimpses we see of Rachel, this feels too pat. Toby wants to make Rachel into the archetype of the grasping, uncaring mother, but he cannot, because she is a human being, not a narrative device in the story he’s telling. And she has suffered. She is clearly suffering now, offscreen, for reasons we don’t fully understand. All we know for sure is that they are not the reasons Toby is telling us.

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As this becomes clearer and clearer, it implicates us as well. Our collective discomfort with a mother who needs time away from her kids is so great, we are all eager to fill in the gaps of what it means. I’ll admit I have a very hard time getting on board with Rachel’s complete silence—at least explain to your kids why you need time away, so they don’t think you’re dead or don’t love them—but I also feel like if she had any other choice right now, she would take it. All her life she’s wanted a loving, intact family, and now she doesn’t have that. Maybe she needs time away from her kids to understand who she is outside of her long marriage.

That doesn’t make Toby a bad person for being angry; of course he’s angry. He’s just wrong about a lot of what went down in his marriage, and Fleishman shows this not through words, but by withholding them. We are so used to framing stories from a male point of view that at first, we hardly notice. But Fleishman makes you notice. Rachel’s silence is deafening.

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