Whenever I see the phrase “partner in crime” in a romantic context, my first question is always: What kind of crime? Petty or white collar? Shoplifting or bank robbery? Murder?
The truth is the crimes these (usually heterosexual) people advertise aren’t crimes at all but rather things like hiking, eating cheesecake, and the occasional trip to a movie theater. I do suppose walking up and down terrain and splitting a sweet dessert are very valid wants in a partner, and literal crime is both a hefty commitment and something you probably wouldn’t want to advertise on a dating app.
But if your partner isn’t willing to go to jail for you, or at least provide an alibi, can you be sure they are the one?
Prime Video’s delightfully curious Mr. & Mrs. Smith opens with a take on that premise, with a shadowy agency asking two perfect strangers — John (Donald Glover) and Jane (Maya Erskine) — to perform some light espionage together as a married couple. As the missions get more complicated, more crime-heavy, John and Jane’s relationship changes, too, resembling something a bit more mundane — a marriage, perhaps. This new series, which riffs on the aughts-era movie of the same name, then asks the follow-up that everyone looking for a partner in crime wants to avoid: What does that bond look like when it all falls apart?
Mr. & Mrs. Smith changes the original premise for the better
Mr. & Mrs. Smith isn’t a straight adaptation of the 2005 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie action thriller. Sleek, sexy, and brimming with machine gun rat-a-tat-tat, the original establishes John and Jane Smith as two undercover assassins who, unbeknownst to each other, work for rival agencies. They each get the assignment to kill their spouse and come to the realization by way of bullets, bruises, and bloody gashes that some parts of their relationship were real.
In this spy vs. spy fantasy, suburbia is an acute hell that demolishes a sex life; Mars-and-Venus dynamics mean that men move through the world with brute force while women are surgically precise; and “perfect” marriages are the worst thing for two people who love each other. These playful themes coupled with Jolie and Pitt in their prime (like, so hot it hurts to look at them) helped make the movie a hit. It was the ninth biggest movie in the US the year it was released, competing with franchises like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Studios and streamers have rebooted IP and birthed new TV series with less.
The original is unforgettable, but there are things we’d now rather not be reminded about regarding Jolie and Pitt’s relationship, so co-creators Glover (Swarm, Atlanta) and Francesca Sloane (Atlanta, Fargo) savvily swerve from the movie’s biggest elements.
This time, the Smiths begin as two singles, at least one of whom has sociopathic tendencies. John and Jane apply for the same high-risk spy job and the covert agency they’re working for pairs them together. The company, as they call it, says they’re compatible, and their unnamed, unseen boss, whom they call “Hihi” after a signature electronic greeting, tasks them with missions like tailing high-profile targets and delivering important bombs. Each mission is generously rewarded, but John and Jane are only allowed three failed missions. What happens after three fails? That’s the question no one wants to answer.
Over the course of eight episodes — which take our John and Jane from strangers to partners to lovers to something, well, both more and much less tedious — these changes take us on a completely different journey than the movie.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith asks: Would you love me if I was a worm (that kills people and spies on foreign nationals)?
At first, John and Jane attempt to navigate the incredibly jagged territory between business and personal. The company assigns them Mr. and Mrs. Smith as a cover, but John and Jane have to fill in the gaps. They decide who sleeps where in their gorgeously appointed, assigned brownstone, or how much they’ll hang out, if at all, in the downtime between missions. They’re coworkers, and aside from completing the missions, their job is to make sure their marriage mask stays intact.
Like any human who’s told they’ve been assigned a perfect match, they both want to know what that person says about them. He won’t tell her about his time in the Marines. She won’t tell him about not making the cut for the CIA. He lives paycheck to paycheck. She’s saved up $14,000. They’re supposed to have cut all ties from their old lives, but he breaks the agency’s rules and talks to his mom every day. She took this job because one of the perks is not speaking to her dad (but did smuggle in her cat, Max).
John and Jane couldn’t be more different, yet this very powerful, very well-financed organization that seems to know what it’s doing says they’re a perfect match.
More than the movie, the series uses this extreme fantasy to delve into the metaphor that successfully completing their high-risk jobs — bugging phones, injecting billionaires with truth serum, traveling to the Italian Dolomites on business — is, in its own way, a marriage. And marriage is, in its own way, a high-risk job.
After tracking a subject in and around downtown New York City in their first mission, the Smiths start creating a rhythm. It’s partly out of necessity; these two-person jobs would be impossible if they weren’t on the same page. During the task, and not coincidentally, the pair start crafting their first inside jokes, including one in particular about Jane going on a school trip to New York and meeting a “pedophile” for pancakes. I’m not sure if the two ever become “good” spies — their clumsy body count and messy execution leaves a lot to be desired — but John and Jane do become good at knowing and understanding their partner.
Forging a strong relationship doesn’t mean the Smiths are immune to failure. John and Jane acing every mission would get boring very quickly. It would also belie the appeal of the original story, which is watching these two go to war. But some of the failures John and Jane endure bring them closer together. Their first borked mission ends with them being more intimate with each other, sharing how they cope with failure (dissociation and isolation for him, and sex for her).
If work is a marriage and vice versa, then these flubs seem inevitable. Even with the best intentions and compatibility, you could still be awful at a relationship. No one goes into a marriage or relationship anticipating failure, but maybe there are some “missions” that are just predetermined to mess you up. And the longer you spend in a relationship, maybe the harder stuff never gets easier, but you do get stronger.
All John and Jane can do is trust that the company knows what it’s doing.
The way Mr. & Mrs. Smith wrestles with the idea of compatibility — that it’s real and able to be clearly determined despite the obstacles — makes this feel like a show about dating first and spying second.
Netflix has an entire fleet of dating shows that are about testing the strength of a couple, and one of its most popular ones is about the possibility of falling in love with someone without ever seeing them face-to-face. Not unlike these seemingly dystopian dating shows, the Smiths’ unusual circumstances and unconventional relationship are a way into traditional romantic ideas of partnership and love and the one.
Perhaps spying is just another way of finding your true partner.
The beauty of Mr. & Mrs. Smith is that as John and Jane drift apart and struggle, it slyly invites you to empathize with both. Neither one is fully right or wrong; to be honest, they’re both acutely awful in their own ways. But these two broken people are kinda great together. And at the heart of it, that’s what makes the idea of married, warring spies so compelling, right? That there needs to be something — love, compatibility, a soul mate — worth fighting for that makes the idea of murdering each other so appealing and appalling. The audience ultimately has to root for the Smiths together rather than John and Jane individually, or the whole premise fails.
All eight episodes of Mr. & Mrs. Smith are available to stream on Prime Video.