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What HBO's Togetherness understands about infidelity that other shows don't

Melanie Lynskey and Mark Duplass play a married couple in crisis on Togetherness.
Melanie Lynskey and Mark Duplass play a married couple in crisis on Togetherness.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In its first-season finale, which originally aired Sunday, March 8, HBO's quiet relationship comedy Togetherness does something pretty remarkable — it makes you root for infidelity while simultaneously hoping it doesn't happen. It's a tremendous storytelling feat, carried off by the series' creators, Mark and Jay Duplass, who wrote or cowrote all of the season's episodes and directed all but one.

Infidelity is often a touchy subject, one difficult to make viewers empathize with. All too often, the audience is tempted (or even led by the filmmakers) to believe that the cheater is an awful person and that the person being cheated on is a wounded, wronged party. Togetherness doesn't entirely get away from that, but it manages to sort of normalize cheating, to make it seem like a thing that happens when two people wake up and realize just how far their marriage has drifted from where it started.

On its surface, Togetherness is a tale you've heard thousands of times. Four relatively affluent people living in Los Angeles deal with their emotional malaise and how far their lives have fallen short of what they expected. A married couple realizes how much their marriage has unraveled, while their single friends confront the possibility of being alone for another year. It's about wanting what you don't have, simple as that.

In the finale, called "Not So Together," Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), who has spent the season searching for some way to define herself outside of being a wife and mother, and subsequently found it in an effort to start a charter school, finds herself in the arms of her friend David (John Ortiz) in a hotel room in Sacramento. (The two were making a presentation to some sort of charter school committee.)

Meanwhile, Michelle's husband, Brett (Mark Duplass), realizing how much he's shut his wife out of his inner emotional life all season, drives to Sacramento, hoping to surprise his wife. The last shot of the season is his car merging onto Interstate 5, bound for a place that will bring him heartbreak.

Yet the show has already been renewed. Season two is coming next year. The beauty of "Not So Together" — and Togetherness in general — is that it assures us an affair doesn't have to be the end of a relationship. It only has to be the cliffhanger.

Affairs, emotional and otherwise

In 2014, Esther Perel, a therapist and author of Mating in Captivity, spoke with Hanna Rosin of Slate about the idea that Americans need to get more used to the idea of infidelity, that it's often not a sign of a marriage that cannot be fixed but, rather, one that has reached a crisis point that neither partner was entirely aware was there.

Perel said:

Most people today, for the sheer length we live together, have two or three marriages in their adult life, and some of us do it with the same person.

Perel doesn't mean marrying the same person two or three times. She means that over the course of a marriage of any length, that person (and you) will change enough that you'll effectively be in a brand new relationship with the same person.

It seems a profoundly strange idea, but anyone who's been with the same person for a long enough period of time will recognize this to be true. The person you first met is not the person you are still with, and a long-term relationship is often about managing peaks and valleys, about finding ways to guide each other through the many permutations of the self over the course of a lifetime. Not every relationship makes it. Some do, but are deeply changed.

Perel believes that one of the next great frontiers in American discussion is opening up about infidelity and non-monogamy, about the idea that we expect a spouse or romantic partner to fulfill all of our emotional needs when that's an impossible standard to live up to.

In a nutshell, this is what Togetherness has done with Brett and Michelle's relationship. Their marriage existed in a kind of haze, thanks to two young children and a bevy of other responsibilities. Throughout the course of the season, the two embarked upon emotional affairs, where they turned to others for the kind of psychological intimacy they might have previously had with each other. Michelle's was with David, while Brett found himself drawn to an older woman named Linda (Mary Steenburgen). He also, arguably, was more honest with his best friend, Alex (Steve Zissis), than he ever was with Michelle.

The consequences of this disconnect were inevitable. Brett grew more and more distant from his wife, finally erupting in an ugly monologue in the season's penultimate episode about how he didn't particularly want the life he had anymore. His anger was driven less by any actual dissatisfaction with Michelle and much more by a general, free-floating anxiety about how little his life matched up to the one he thought he would have.

It didn't matter, though. The die was cast. Michelle, pushed away all season, hooked up with David, in a sequence that was at once painfully sexy (the two passing increasingly daring notes underneath the shared door between their hotel rooms) and fraught with anxiety (since Brett was on his way to catch them). It was the stuff great cliffhangers are made of.

We are probably, probably, probably getting back together

It's here, though, that I'll admit I don't think Brett and Michelle's marriage is over. The title of the show, after all, is Togetherness, and as a relationship comedy, it has two things to do. It has to push the couple that isn't together (in the form of Alex and Michelle's sister Tina [Amanda Peet]) into a relationship, and it has to test the strength of Brett and Michelle's marriage.

The first-season finale, then, finds the climax of both of those stories. With Tina committing to another guy, the "lovers connect" storyline has reached a point of no return, and with Michelle kissing David, the "lovers are tested" storyline has seemingly reached a point where nothing can be forgiven.

But that's just it. The audience for this show knows how stories work, and it knows how television works. Brett and Michelle might separate or even divorce over what she did. They will almost certainly have a giant, world-shattering fight, even if they remain together. But both Duplass and Lynskey are going to be on this show. The characters are going to be in each other's lives. And that, in and of itself, lets us know these two are okay — and will probably be back together sooner rather than later.

This may not be what was first and foremost on the Duplass brothers' minds when they created this series, but Togetherness' finale works to both underline the terrible emotional betrayal of infidelity, while also reassuring us that it doesn't have to be the worst thing that can happen in a relationship. Instead, it can just be a thing that happens, something that can be overcome.

It plays, in its own way, into Perel's idea of multiple marriages, sometimes with the same person. Those in long-term relationships find new ways of hurting each other every day, some tiny and some huge, but these things can be fought past. Why can't cheating be the same?

Togetherness is available on HBO Go. Season two airs in 2016.