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'Mr. and Mrs. Smith': A Smart, Slick, and Self-Reflexive Marriage Story

Still from Mr and Mrs Smith
Amazon Studios

While the 2005 steamy spy flick Mr. and Mrs. Smith sparked rampant rumours of its two leading talents, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, having a sizzling off-screen affair nearly 20 years ago, the latest television adaptation has managed to ignite discussions of the opposite events occurring. 


The eight-episode Prime Video show first generated serious buzz when award-winning show creators Donald Glover (Atlanta) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) signed on to write and star in the espionage-themed drama. Two phenomenally talented and idiosyncratic writers and performers, Glover and Waller-Bridge had already proved their chemistry in Solo: A Star Wars Story (and the related press tour), where they had played young Lando Calrissian and his acerbic droid L3-37, respectively. But when Waller-Bridge dropped out of the show’s production after six months, citing creative differences, her departure was later compared to a divorce.


While the parting between Glover and Waller-Bridge was said to be amicable at the time, the lingering question of what kind of show they might have managed to produce together will always hang in the air for fans of both writers/performers (i.e. me). What we do have from the first season of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, however, is Glover’s undeniably unique take on marriage and working through the challenges of an intimate and committed relationship. He draws authenticity from all kinds of sources, even down to the dynamics between Black and Asian couples, which Glover knows from real-life experience (more on that later).


The show is very loosely based on the Doug Liman film from 2005. Instead of married spies discovering that they are each other’s target (as in the Pitt and Jolie version), the premise inverts the core relationship. 


In this updated story, John (Glover) and Jane Smith (Maya Erskine) are new agents set up in a working partnership and real-fake marriage that soon turns boundary-pushing, emotionally fraught, and complicated. They fall in love while going on violent and dangerous missions around the world and enjoy living in an extravagant New York City brownstone in their downtime.


Still from Mr and Mrs Smith
Amazon Studios

The mysterious nature of the Smiths’ jobs and company, controlled remotely by an omniscient boss nicknamed “Hihi,” only amplifies and isolates the absurdity and intensity of their relationship, placing them in a life-or-death bubble in each episode. The preposterous situations that John and Jane find themselves in — like bickering over having their phone’s location tracking switched on in the Swiss Alps during a kidnapping — echo the surrealist comedy bent of Glover’s previous show, Atlanta.


But, of course, the moments that hit the hardest — far more than the moments of shocking violence or offbeat comedy — are the prickly arguments between the fully realized and authentically portrayed core couple. Jane is characterized as tougher and smarter than the softer and more emotionally intelligent John. Their glaring differences provoke some nasty arguments that build over the course of the show, from barbed retorts to actual gunfights. 


The confrontations that feel the most personal and self-reflexive to Glover’s perspective are when topics like race and family come up. In real life, Glover’s partner Michelle White is half-white and half-Japanese — as is actress Erskine and character Jane. One especially heated argument between the Smiths is ignited when John talks casually with other Black men about Asian women, revealing that his wife is Japanese, but since he has never met her family, she “could be low-key Korean.” Obviously, the entire conversation that Jane overhears is infuriating as it casts aspersions on her Asian-ness, something a biracial person would be especially sensitive to. John tries to walk it back, but it is a topic that comes up again briefly in another episode. These very specific conversations may lead viewers to wonder if Glover ever had these kinds of discussions with his own wife.


Still from Mr and Mrs Smith
Amazon Studios

This is not the first time that Glover has written factual elements of actors’ lives into the characters they play on television. The death of Alfred’s mother informs a key aspect of Brian Tyree Henry’s character in Atlanta, something that the actor has spoken about as being true to his own life. As are the German roots in Van’s background, as portrayed by German-American actress Zazie Beetz in the same show. Things feel especially meta when Glover casts his own mother to play John’s mother in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and has her set up as a perceived thorn in the central marriage. Of course, not everything or anything that Glover writes about has to overlap with his own life, but it’s clear that he doesn’t mind flirting with the ideas.


John and Jane’s spikier arguments about race don’t necessarily find a satisfying resolution. Sometimes, the scene just moves on, and Jane never gets a full apology for John’s casually hurtful remarks. But regardless of the emotional distance or dysfunction that permeates their marriage, at the heart of it, these two bitterly flawed characters still choose each other. And isn’t that a nice sentiment from a man who once disdained marriage and kids and recently tied the knot with the mother of his children? 


But one shouldn't focus solely on what Glover brings to the screen as one-half of the central couple. Erskine claims the spotlight as Jane, providing Glover with a well-matched performance as John’s better half. It would be wrong to reduce her part to just being Waller-Bridge’s replacement, as Glover allows Erskine’s singular strengths and ability to complement the story shine through. She more than holds her own as Glover’s scene partner, moving effortlessly from scenes of action and comedy to strong emotion. One hopes she is well on her way to becoming a household name in her own right. 


Still from Mr and Mrs Smith
Amazon Studios

What’s interesting is how Erskine’s very presence allows viewers to frame the show with metatextual aspects of Glover’s public persona, especially when it relates to race. There have been criticisms levelled at the multi-hyphenate regarding his views on Asian women since his early Childish Gambino rapper days when he used fetishizing language to describe us. And people have gone so far as to pass judgment on the ethnicity of the women he has dated and now married, so it’s not unexpected that these topics would come up. 


But in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where Glover’s character is married to, working with, attracted to, and constantly having spirited debates with his half-Asian partner, their interracial relationship is actually one of the smallest aspects of the show’s themes. The far more interesting ideas are in how these two people reconcile their differences in heightened circumstances, negotiating professional and personal secrets, learning how to make compromises, and trying to build a life together in unusual environments.


Whatever deliberate and/or accidental references to real life that Mr. and Mrs. Smith evokes, alongside the raw and authentic emotional beats that it hits, the show forms a rich tapestry that exceeds the initially threadbare premise of hot married spies. Glover delivers his particular brand of polished yet provocative storytelling, aided by co-creator Francesca Sloane (who also wrote for Atlanta), and manages to be mostly successful in merging the personal and professional. Just like John and Jane. 


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