Moving Pictures
Feb 19, 2024, 06:24AM

In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Superspies Aren’t So Super

A cool assassin romcom for the uncool assassin in all of us.

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Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) is a (very entertaining) empowerment fantasy for boring suburban couples. The conceit is that the title characters, John and Jane (played by radioactively attractive Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) are bored with their lives and each other. But what neither of them know is that the other is secretly a superspy. Viewers watch the two normal, unexciting mid-life people discover that they’re actually cool, edgy, sexy movie stars/assassins. Nobodies are encouraged to imagine they and/or their spouses might actually be big-screen action heroes. It’s fun and silly. It’s very Hollywood.

The Amazon Prime television series, released this year, is nominally riffing on the same married spies high concept. The main characters, John Smith (Donald Glover) and Jane Smith (Maya Erskine) are hired by a mysterious agency to work together as spies. They’re given new names, a marriage certificate, and sent off to bomb, assassinate, retrieve assets, and so forth.

The surface similarities in the narratives conceal entirely different identities though. The TV show isn’t an empowerment fantasy about accessing your sexy competent assassin. This Jane and John don’t start out boring and turn into superspies. Instead, they start out as two people who, whatever their skills at mayhem, are as anxious and insecure as you’d expect from a couple who are starting a new career and a new relationship at the same time.

John was kicked out of the army and is determined to prove himself as a man; Jane failed at the CIA because of “sociopathic tendencies,” and appears to be on the spectrum; she’s worried she can’t love or relate to other human beings even as she’s determined to be hypercompetent and flawless. The joy of the show is watching them figure out how they can fit into each other’s weaknesses and watch each other’s backs. And it’s also watching them discover they maybe exacerbate each other’s weaknesses, as their messy hearts and relationships are expressed in a swathe of destruction and blood and corpses where there shouldn’t be corpses. Glover and Erskine are enormously talented and attractive—but they’re attractive not because they embody Pitt or Jolie-like perfection, but because they project vulnerability and are constantly stumbling over each other’s odd, painful quirks.

The arc of the show is broadly that of a relationship igniting, growing, and then disintegrating. That comes complete with couples therapy (they have to explain their jobs without telling the therapist they’re killing people), infidelity (is it okay to seduce an enemy agent or not?) and tense relationship discussions (punctuated by machine-gun fire). There’s never a moment where John and Jane are comfortable with each other or in their own skins. Glover projects an ingratiating mix of neediness and bullshit even when he’s breaking a corpse’s legs to fit it in the compost. Jane’s a ball of rigid neuroses and surprising warmth even when she’s demanding answers from a romantic rival at gunpoint.

Watching the TV show version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, you don’t imagine a better, Pitt/Jolie version of you. Instead, the fun is in seeing your empowered, escape personality fuck up romance and career at once. Even the coolest, sexiest, most competent people in this show are barely keeping it together. The series is, perhaps, saying in part that marriage is difficult, even for superspies. And it’s also maybe suggesting that a high-powered career of immiserating, torturing, and murdering others is not necessarily a path to true happiness, even if you get to live in a too-fabulous-to-be-true bespoke home in New York.

But most of all, the tv show is about the way that relationships aren’t really about feeling like a superhero. They’re about falling in love with someone and falling in love with the person you are when you’re with someone. By the end of the eighth and final episode, Jane and John know each other so well that they can coordinate death-defying tactical combat strategies based on a sneeze—and still know each other so little that they haven’t figured out that they love each other. They’re infuriating, weird fuck-ups who lie to each other and to themselves—and they’re also incredibly winning, not least in the fact that they keep fucking up.

Movies are fun because they’re bigger than life; who wouldn’t want to imagine for a couple of hours being, or sleeping with, Pitt and Jolie? Television, though, is often best when it’s as small as people’s actual experiences. The film’s married spies just have to realize how perfect they are. The tv versions, though, are mired in jealousy, self-doubt and petty recriminations no matter how many rival agents they dispatch, or how cool they look doing it. The joy of Mr. and Mrs. Smith on the big screen is that they aren’t us. The tv show is even better because they are.


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