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Mrs. Fletcher S1E1: “Empty Best” Is a Love Letter to Single Moms

Image: Sarah Shatz/HBO

When I first heard about Mrs. Fletcher, I was instantly intrigued. A female-driven series that explores the sexual journey of a single middle-aged woman, and starring Kathryn Hahn no less? Sign me up. I soon learned that the HBO limited series is based on a novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, author of Election and The Leftovers, both of which I adore. And so off to IMDb I went, because anytime there is a woman-centric show or film, I need to know exactly how many actual women were involved in creating it. The number of female writers and directors on Mrs. Fletcher was delightfully surprising, and so I sat down on Sunday completely convinced I would enjoy the pilot, which I very much did.

In “Empty Best” (written by Tom Perrotta and directed by Nicole Holofcener), we first meet Eve Fletcher (Hahn) at her job at a senior residential center. She’s forced to intervene after one of the male residents is caught watching hardcore porn at full volume on the computer in the community room, which is quite disturbing to the rest of the group doing normal senior activities like crocheting and playing cards. Eve calls in the man’s son, George (Domenick Lombardozzi), to have a little chat about his father’s activities. George is amused by the entire thing and tells Eve, “Everybody watches porn.” While that may be somewhat accurate—and will prove a prescient sentiment later on in the episode—Eve’s response (that people watch porn in private) is equally true.

Eve is not passing any judgment here regarding pornography. She is more concerned that George’s father’s lack of inhibitions may be a sign that his mental health is deteriorating and suggests that it might be time for George to make other arrangements. But George doesn’t think it’s a crime worth that kind of punishment, nor does he think that there is something wrong with his father’s mental state. He points to the fact that his father “has no pleasures in life,” and asks Eve, “You have any idea what that’s like?” As we will soon learn, she is intimately familiar with that feeling.

Eve sits at the kitchen table, head in her hand, surrounded by bills
Image: Sarah Shatz/HBO

Eve is a single mom, raising her son Brendan (Jackson White) with minimal help from his father, who has remarried and had another child. Eve has reached an important and fairly traumatic milestone in her life as a mother: Brendan is leaving for college and she is facing the dreaded “empty nest.” It’s worse for her, of course, because she doesn’t have a partner to get through it with. Empty nest works differently for married parents versus single ones. Couples whose children go off on their own for the first time are obviously sad about it (and this would be worse if they only have one child), but at least they have each other. It is a shared experience and they can get through it together. They also (at least if they are financially able) have the option to do so many of the things they could not do when the kids were in the house and needing constant care and attention. They can have more “me time” individually, focus on their relationship together, and do any of the grown-up things they’ve put off doing while the kids dominated their lives.

For a single parent like Eve, it’s very different. She knows that once Brendan is gone she will be utterly alone and left to deal with her complicated emotions by herself, with no support or anyone to share that burden. Raising Brendan has filled her days and occupied so much of her emotional and mental energy for years, and she’s left asking herself the question: what the hell do I do with myself now? Being alone with one’s thoughts is very rarely a good thing. Even having friends, like her wine-mom bestie Jane (Casey Wilson), is not going to be enough to fill the void that Brendan will be leaving.

And let’s talk about Brendan, who is every single privileged white boy jock I went to high school with. Eve is on her own, trying to get Brendan all packed up and ready to go the next morning, but he can’t be bothered to lift a finger to help her. As the son of a single mother, one would hope that Brendan would have enough respect and appreciation for his mom to at least pack a single box of his own things, but he’s preoccupied with whatever is going on on his phone and the going-away party he will be attending that night.

While he should be helping, I don’t fault him for wanting to spend his last night with his friends. Just as a child leaving the nest is a milestone in a parent’s life, going off to college is also a milestone in a young adult’s life. It’s a time filled with uncertainty and anxiety and some sadness, too—at least if you were a “popular kid” like Brendan clearly is. You are going from a world you know with the people you’ve been close to for years into the great unknown of college, with new people and new routines and the very real possibility that you will not fit in. There is no guarantee that you will like your new school or that you will meet people you get along with. It’s a scary time for any college-bound kid, and (at least at that age) it seems important—almost necessary—to have one last hurrah inside your comfort zone.

So while I don’t fault Brendan for wanting to go out (and neither does Eve, really), the way he does it is so incredibly disrespectful to his mother that I just want to throttle him. He doesn’t help packing. He doesn’t really engage with his mom over their last dinner together. He won’t even stay long enough to eat one of the cupcakes she bought special for him. He really only cares about his own wants and desires without thinking about how the experience is affecting his mother. And look, I remember being that age. It is part and parcel of the teenage experience to be completely self-absorbed and unaware of the fact that adults have feelings, too—complex feelings that you could not possibly understand. But even so, just help your poor mom and have a nice dinner with her. It’s not that hard, and you should want to spend at least a little bit of time with the person who made it possible for you to go to college in the first place.

There’s one moment as Brendan is getting ready to go out, when he thanks his mom for the packing and the dinner. We see him looking at her when she’s cleaning up, and we get a sense that he does feel a bit guilty—that there actually is some appreciation there—but he doesn’t express that to her. In that moment, all Eve would have wanted was for him to actually show that he cares and that he will miss her, too, but he doesn’t really say anything. When she says, “Love you,” to him, he responds with, “Alright,” and this doesn’t go unnoticed by Eve. I mean, how hard is it to just say I love you back to your own mom? Of course, it’s not uncommon for boys of that age to be unable to express their emotions properly, and we can see this clearly in Brendan. While “Empty Best” makes it pretty much impossible for us to root for this kid, there are little moments (played with incredible subtlety by White) where we see that there may be a bit more depth to him than he is able to express.

But any modicum of goodwill we may have for Brendan is completely obliterated by his actions at the going-away party. We see him in his natural habitat, drinking and screwing around with his friends. (This party could be any high school party I ever went to and it gave me some fairly unpleasant flashbacks.) We learn that not only is Brendan disrespectful to women, evidenced by the fact that he ghosted his ex, Becca (Kelly Lamor Wilson), but he’s also a bully. He torments his classmate Julian (Owen Teague) at the party and we learn that this is something that has gone on throughout all of high school. So not only is Brendan an unappreciative little shit to his mother, he’s also a dick to women and a bully. What a peach.

Brendan and Julian stare each other down at a house party
Image: Sarah Shatz/HBO

There is another one of those little moments here, when he is bullying Julian, where we see some of Brendan’s internal life come through. Julian has no power over Brendan except his words, and he tells Brendan, “You know you’re gonna get to college and everybody’s gonna see exactly what you are.” This cuts Brendan deep and we can see a brief moment where his insecurities and fears about this exact scenario are all over his face. So, faced with a harsh truth from the kid he’s been bullying for years, what does Brendan do? He fakes an apology and then dumps Julian’s phone in his drink. Deep down he knows that Julian is right about him (and likely right about what his college experience will hold), and he can’t handle it so he lashes out.

While Brendan is out, Eve gets a call from Brendan’s dad Ted (Josh Hamilton) telling her that he isn’t coming the next morning to help load the van as promised. He tries to butter her up first by telling her how great a job she did raising him, but then he drops the bomb on her: his other son, Jonathan, has a doctor’s appointment with an autism specialist that got rescheduled, and he won’t be coming to help her and see his eldest son off to college. While we as viewers side with Eve in this, it is hard to completely blame Ted for having to bail since he is dealing with the wellness of his child. Still, it’s fairly clear—given that Eve is pissed but not truly surprised—that Ted has prioritized Jonathan over Brendan for a while now, and that Eve has raised him almost completely on her own. It makes me wonder how many birthdays and other milestones in Brendan’s life Ted has bailed on, and this does create some sympathy for Brendan. Having an absentee father who is almost fully focused on his other child can’t be good for Brendan’s self-esteem, and while it doesn’t excuse his atrocious behavior, it at least explains it a bit.

Instead of sitting home alone, continuing to labor over Brendan’s packing, Eve decides she needs to get out and go have a bit of a bitching session over some wine with her friend Jane. Jane is the type of friend who hands you a glass of wine before you even get in the door, and for that alone I love her already. The two moms commiserate about the experience of having teenage children and feeling unappreciated, and this is the only time where we see Eve actually able to be herself and express her feelings to another human being. What Hahn does so incredibly well in Mrs. Fletcher (and all her other work) is to wear her emotions and inner thoughts on her face and in her body language. Even when she’s not speaking, we never have any doubt as to what is happening in her head.

With Jane, Eve doesn’t have to hold it in, and that’s at least one healthy outlet she has for self-expression. But her situation is not the same as Jane’s because Jane and her husband are still together. She is one of those empty-nest parents that has support inside her marriage and the freedom to do whatever she wants to do with her husband now that they are alone. Eve does not have that, but she does tell Jane that she’s signed up for a class on writing personal essays. This is an interesting choice and one that makes complete sense for Eve. Barring her wine-soaked chat with Jane, she has been unable to express herself thus far. Learning how to craft personal essays and write down the things that she can’t say seems like an appropriate choice for her, and one that may provide some catharsis and personal satisfaction.

Eve sits crosslegged on the floor with Jane, holding the candle Jane bought her
Image: Sarah Shatz/HBO

Jane doesn’t get it, though. Her idea of how Eve should enjoy the freedom of a childless life is to take a long bath with a scented candle and find herself a hot new guy. While I don’t think Eve is opposed to the idea of a relationship, especially now that she’s completely on her own, it seems as if it’s something that hadn’t really occurred to her. Her entire life has been Brendan; she has thrown all of herself into raising him, denying herself any sort of personal satisfaction. She is, in effect, married to motherhood. But, as Jane points out, she is “a skinny MILF goddess” and why shouldn’t she have some fun now that Brendan is gone?

Later that night, in bed with her laptop, Eve scoffs at an article in a women’s magazine about living your best life as an empty nester, and who could blame her? The magazine provides the most inane suggestions as to what a woman can do with her empty nest experience. In addition to the universal idea that long, hot baths solve all the world’s problems, apparently painting your nails a fun color and bejeweling them is the true secret to personal satisfaction in middle age. I love any piece of media that skewers women’s magazines as the vacuous garbage that they are, and Mrs. Fletcher handles this perfectly. Eve doesn’t need a manicure; she needs some sort of emotional fulfillment, something to help her redefine her sense of self, which has for years been based solely on motherhood.

Where Eve’s sense of self has been based on being Brendan’s mom, Brendan’s identity has always been based on being popular at school. After returning home from the party and saying goodbye to his friends (at least for the foreseeable future), Brendan is now alone, on the verge of what is likely the biggest life change he’s dealt with since his parents’ divorce. Between Julian’s harsh words and being rejected by Becca at the party, he’s probably not feeling super great about himself (even if he can’t really acknowledge this). The icing on the cake is the text from his father about how he (yet again) won’t be there for him. That rejection cuts the deepest, and Brendan deals with it by hitting Becca up and texting her a dick pic. A real class act, this one.

Now, I was incredibly proud of Becca for telling Brendan to fuck off at the party and not falling for his not-so-thinly veiled attempt to butter her up to get her to sleep with him one last time. So when she showed up at his house early in the morning for a last-minute booty call, I wanted to reach into my TV screen and grab her by the shoulders and scream, “Girl, you are better than this. Don’t give the fuckboy what he wants. Cut him off and live your best life.” But that is most definitely not what she does. No, Becca decides that a wake-up blowjob is the best course of action.

I hate this for so many reasons. If they had had sex, it would have made more sense. At least she would have been getting something out of it. But she just bikes on over to the house of the guy who was a dick to her for the entire summer and does nothing but pleasure him with nothing in return. But as much as I hate that for her, it’s not a far-fetched scenario for a girl of her age. So many young women spend far too many years accepting shitty behavior and table scraps of attention from men because they don’t know any better and because that is, sadly, just the nature of hook-up culture.

This little interlude between Brendan and Becca doesn’t go unnoticed by Eve, who has been loading the car by herself for what seems like hours while Brendan wasn’t even awake yet. When she returns from gassing up her van and goes to knock on Brendan’s door, she hears the two of them in the act. This horrifies her, obviously, because what mother wants to hear her son engaged in any sort of sexual activity? But the worst part of it all is that he’s talking to Becca using the type of graphic, misogynistic language that young men learn from watching porn.

Eve doesn’t address this incident specifically but she can’t let it go without at least trying to impart some sage motherly advice to Brendan before he goes off on his own. On the drive to his new school, she tries to have a sex talk with him (which is always excruciating to watch but is even more so having just heard what we all heard), but it ends up being more of a general guide/warning. She tells Brendan, “There are things that you might say to a girl that could scare her without you even realizing it,” and acknowledges that she knows he’s sexually active and that the culture is such that disrespectful terms in reference to women are the norm. But what she really wants him to understand, especially given the fact that we are living in the #MeToo era, is that he has to respect women. No mother wants her son to be a misogynist, and I think Eve overhearing Brendan’s version of pillow talk has put the fear in her that her son may end up being exactly that.

This conversation touches on something that I really hope that Mrs. Fletcher explores over the course of its seven-episode run: the effect that porn has on adolescent sexual development. We soon see Eve herself dipping her toes into the world of hardcore Internet porn, and that will be interesting as well, but I think the far more interesting subject is how porn affects young adults. From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think the show will take the “Porn Is Evil and You’re All Sinners” approach, and that’s a good thing because the issue is far more complex than that. But however one feels about porn, it can’t be denied that adolescents—who have easy access to graphic pornography—are shaped by the things they see and hear. For the young men and women who have watched it, their idea of what sex should be is largely shaped by pornography long before they have even had a sexual experience. I’m hoping that Mrs. Fletcher really digs into this through the character of Brendan because it’s something that needs to be talked about more.

Brendan sits at the kitchen table with a dish of pasta Eve made him on his last night home
Image: Sarah Shatz/HBO

The drop-off itself goes exactly how one expects it will. Eve is clinging to the last moments she has with Brendan, and Brendan can’t wait to be rid of her. As much as I feel for Eve (especially after being repeatedly and condescendingly referred to as “Mom” by one of the college volunteers), my sympathies are actually with Brendan in this scene. Going away to college is hard. You reach the point where you just want to rip off the Band-Aid and get on with things, alone. Having her there, unpacking his stuff for him, making his bed, wanting to go out to lunch with him and his new roommate Zach (Cameron Boyce, who died earlier this year and to whom the episode is dedicated)—it was all just too much for him. It was time for her to go, and they both knew it.

Of course, because Brendan is Brendan, he was kind of a dick about it. He could have gotten her out the door a lot faster and easier if he had displayed at least one second of love and appreciation for her, or if he would have communicated to her that it would be easier for him if he could just get his college journey started solo. But he doesn’t communicate his needs, and honestly neither does she. She needs for him to express his love for her but the way she expresses her love is through mothering (one could even say over-mothering) him. While he is definitely more in the wrong here (as evidenced by the fact that Zach is much nicer and appreciative to Eve than her own son is), she still doesn’t know when it’s time to cut the cord.

But she does, eventually, and she ends up home alone with a bottle of wine and the world’s smallest, saddest take-out dinner. She tries the “hot bath heals all wounds” method and even allows herself the freedom of smoking a cigarette in the tub, but of course none of it is satisfying. She is alone with her own grief; the little boy she raised is gone and has been replaced by a young man who (as she’s come to realize) she hardly knows at all. Brendan is woefully unprepared for the real world (as much as college life can even be considered the real world), and I suspect he’s in for quite the rude awakening in the weeks to come. I think, on some level, Eve knows this, and it frightens her. It also probably makes her feel like she didn’t do a good enough job preparing him for adulthood. It’s that eternal struggle faced by parents with almost-adult children: when (and how) do you let go and let them make their own mistakes?

It would seem that Eve is poised to make some mistakes of her own as well. After perusing Facebook and seeing pictures of her friends sending their loving, appreciative children off to college, she decides to Google “milf” and gets introduced to the world of one-click-accessible hardcore porn. Initially too shocked to watch it, she quickly lets her curiosity—and, let’s be real, her sexual frustration—get the best of her. It honestly surprises me that Eve, a woman who has been single for many years, hasn’t experimented with porn before, but it would appear that this is a first for her, and is awakening some desires she didn’t know she had—or rather, ones she didn’t have before but does now.

Eve’s sexual awakening takes center stage at her personal essay class where (surprise!) Julian is also a student. She notices him checking her out (and can you really blame him?), but instead of just going about her business like a normal adult woman, she leans into it. She sheds her cardigan, pulls her shirt down a bit, and even twirls her hair as she exchanges glances with him. Now, this is clearly a mess for so many reasons, first being that the age difference is very much gross. It would be one thing for Eve to find herself some guy in his mid-to-late 20s to mess around with—and I would love that for her—but Julian is 18 years old (give or take), and that is just icky. Questions of morality aside, though, from Julian’s perspective: is there any better revenge on your high school bully than banging his mom? As toxic and detrimental to his development as it would be, it would be the ultimate fuck you and I hate myself for kind of wanting it to happen.

Eve sits at a desk with a notebook open in her personal essay class
Image: Sarah Shatz/HBO

From the preview of next week’s episode, it seems like we may be heading in that exact direction. I’m both dreading and anticipating what Mrs. Fletcher has in store for us over the next few weeks. The entire concept of a show about a mother and son going on separate but equally as bizarre sexual journeys is something I never knew I wanted, but here we are. While it was no surprise to me that Kathryn Hahn could carry this show flawlessly, Jackson White’s performance is equally as strong. Brendan could easily come across as one-dimensional, and I think if that were the case, the show wouldn’t work. But White is able to give Brendan just enough depth to keep me from not caring about him at all. Don’t get me wrong: he’s still a little shit and I hope the real world kicks him around a bit, but I’m actually invested in whether he learns a lesson or not, and that is down to White’s performance.

Join me next week for a look at the second episode of Mrs. Fletcher, “Free Sample.”

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Written by Ali Sciarabba

In addition to her position as TV Editor and Writer for 25YL, Ali Sciarabba is a freelance editorial consultant and author of numerous nonfiction reference books for middle school and high school students. In her spare time she enjoys obsessing over various television shows, especially Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. When not overanalyzing TV shows, she is wrangling her Corgi, Cassidy, who is inarguably the cutest dog that has ever existed.

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