Mrs. Fletcher isn’t married — at least not anymore. The title character of HBO’s new limited series, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 10 ahead of an October 27 bow, hasn’t gotten around to changing her name yet, either because it’s a final fraying thread tying her to her otherwise disconnected college-age son Brendan Fletcher (Jackson White) or because she simply doesn’t have the energy. As inhabited by Kathryn Hahn, Eve enters her life as an empty-nester by defining herself against absences: She’s no longer a wife, or a full-time mom. She doesn’t find consistent fulfillment in her work at a senior center, where, in the first episode, she has to stop a well-loved resident from masturbating in public and remind him of the social contract he’s forgotten with old age. She doesn’t really date. And she’s not happy, in a way that seems less like a fixable lull than like an identity. A friend (Casey Wilson) gives Mrs. Fletcher a candle reading “Breathe” as an attempt to remind her to relax; later, Eve lights a cigarette off of it, and, though she hardly seems zen, she at least allows her tense face to go slack.
In seven half-hour episodes (all directed by women, including Nicole Holofcener, Liesl Tommy, Carrie Brownstein, and Gillian Robespierre), this series establishes itself as a comfortable, pleasing character study, one with points to make about the ways the sexual revolution has failed men and women both. Its source material is a novel by the oft-adapted Tom Perrotta, and Perrotta, previously a producer of HBO’s loopy, cosmic adaptation “The Leftovers,” lands here in a place far closer to what he does on the page, putting forward social commentary that murmurs rather than shouts. While the HBO connection will inevitably bring to mind “The Leftovers,” the Perrotta work this most resembles is “Little Children,” the brilliant 2006 film in which Kate Winslet’s composure is snapped by suburbia. Here, Eve and Brendan’s respective paths towards pleasure — her breaking out of motherly isolation and him in college figuring out what his adult life will look like — are enjoyably, productively frustrating. That neither mother nor son can figure out quite how to act imparts a melancholy sense of relatability as both struggle to figure out what works for them and what is allowed under contemporary mores.
Hahn, who has been wonderful in a more frantic and demonstrative emotional register as the most open-hearted character on “Transparent,” is as at home in a role that’s all tightness and tension. (On “Transparent,” Hahn played a rabbi, but Mrs. Fletcher is WASP through and through, with all the gritted-teeth restraint that implies.) The actress is especially good at selling aimlessness. After dropping off Brendan at the dorm for his freshman year, Eve experiments with self-expression, joining a course on the art of the personal essay that devolves into a drinking club as its students’ interest in writing flags, and meeting there a young man her son’s age (Owen Teague) whose interest in her extends beyond the academic. But the precision and internal inquiry writing requires are not really Eve’s thing. At home, she pushes towards her desires and needs — the ones it’d be impossible to put into writing, or even to comprehend — through gluttonous consumption of internet porn, especially that focusing on “MILFs.”
The object of Hahn’s relentless gaze isn’t another person, really, although she eventually expresses plenty of interpersonal lust, too. What she craves is a world in which she is understood according to what she is (a woman with the desire and potential to be sexually active) rather than what she is not (very young). If the world of sexual expression is as newly open as it seems in the internet era, “Mrs. Fletcher” asks its viewers, then why is finding real and rewarding love still quite so difficult? There are similarities here to notes Hahn played in the very good Amazon series “I Love Dick,” in which she sublimated her rage and need onto one confused man; here, though, Eve is relentlessly and recklessly internal, pushing deeper into private chaos rather than out into a world she can alter. It’s a major performance by an actress who should be in the top ranks of television stars.
Hahn’s storyline can’t help but dominate the series, but that takes nothing away from the good and thoughtful work Jackson White is doing as Brendan, a character we meet in his last moments at home, bullying his male peers and defending himself from an angry ex before seducing her once more. An early scene, in which Eve struggles to explain to Brendan exactly what respecting women means in practice (a conversation left too late, until the drive to college, and abandoned in a show of that familiar WASPish emotional constriction) feels like a skeleton key to both characters. Brendan, a young man with the mixed fortune of looking as if he had been born with a lacrosse stick in his hand, makes his way suavely through the social scene of his large college, but finds, too, that no one expects much but loutishness of him. He has been taught by his mother, sort of, to treat women well, and taught by the affirmation of like-minded friends that it’s cooler to find loopholes around that respect through which he can insert his own cruel self-interest, and that he won’t meet consequences as long as he’s smart enough about it. He’s not quite a bad man — for one thing, he’s not quite a man — but he’s finding his way there with a blank grin on his face.
The characters’ trajectories move in opposite directions: We know, and learn to love, Eve before she begins to err most grievously, while we meet Brendan first as a bully and cad before we discover that he might aspire to break his own bad habits in a nascent relationship with a classmate (Jasmine Cephas Jones). That he consistently falls short — that the imprinting of our misogynistic culture and the friends who prove he’s cool is more powerful than the voice within reminding him that women are people too — is painful to watch. It’s also one of the more carefully-drawn and insightful portraits I’ve seen of a very real force in our society, one that art ought to reckon with in manners more subtle and frank than the ghoulish rapists of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Brendan Fletcher is a young man who mistreats women. His story is told with the clarity it deserves. The show doesn’t try to rescue him, but simply makes clear that restorative justice might be possible, if he moved beyond wanting to be better into actually attempting it.
“Mrs. Fletcher” builds in power and impact as its two central characters twist away from each other, falling further in memory from the time when Eve was constrained by motherhood and Brendan was a nice young man. When they’re brought back together late in the series, it feels like a jolt, for the characters as much as the viewer at home. A porn-addict mom and her son who’s gone from teasing high-school classmates to abusing college ones: Who have these two people, in their quest for the satisfactions of sex and love, become? For all its miseries, suburban restraint certainly seems easier. But, “Mrs. Fletcher” argues in its powerful final moments, it’s only through having been reduced to an honest mess, by forgetting the rules that govern us, that the process of forward movement can begin. Mrs. Fletcher is missing a great deal. But, before the credits roll on a show whose one inheritance from “The Leftovers” may be its belief in grace, one gets the sense that she will ultimately be fine.
“Mrs. Fletcher.” HBO. Oct. 27. Seven episodes (all screened for review).
Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Jackson White, Owen Teague, Katie Kershaw, Domenick Lombardozzi, Cameron Boyce, Jen Richards, and Casey Wilson.
Executive Producers: Tom Perrotta, Helen Estabrook.