Why Marriage should be your next box set
James R | On 21, Aug 2022
Jacket potatoes. Cleaning the bathroom before guests arrive. How much peanuts cost. Underwear with holes in. These are the kind of things that Ian (Sean Bean) and Emma (Nicola Walker) talk about in BBC One’s Marriage, and if that doesn’t sound dramatic, that’s exactly the point.
The four-part drama hails from Stefan Golaszewski, who between Him & Her and Mum is one of the most astute observers of human relationships alive today. He has a real knack for digging into the bread and butter of what makes a unit tick, whether that’s a pair of 20-somethings renting a flat or a family group processing loss. Marriage sits somewhere between the two series, painting an unflinching portrait of a lived-in partnership that understands – and appreciates – the mundane, day-to-day realities of two people going through life together. Large chunks of screentime are, fittingly, spent watching them watch the TV, sharing a packet of crisps.
Crucially, it’s not that their lives aren’t eventful – it’s that they’ve already lived through enough events in the past to be getting on with. That includes grief, a possibly overly familiar work colleague and a journey through adoption. Ian and Emma haven’t given up on their marriage – they just already know, based on past experiences, that they can rely on each other to be there through whatever comes up.
That familiarity, inevitably, also breeds frustration. There’s the annoyance at things they already know will annoy each other, whether it’s Emma’s decision not to ask about whether a jacket potato is available at a canteen or Ian’s inability to let something go or communicate his inner tumult. The more these frustrations go unspoken, the more tension bubbles up, even as they each know it’s simmering away and don’t want to acknowledge it.
All these intricate layers of intimacy and awareness could be lost in such a deliberately minimalist show, but not when your cast is this impeccable. Sean Bean is superb at simply existing in a poignant, awkward way, a kind and gentle presence who is so introspective that he doesn’t know when to not say something, or when to give someone else space – a running interaction with a staff member at his gym is well-intended but inappropriate, while a job interview is sabotaged by his own neuroses. Nicola Walker, meanwhile, is a perfect foil, providing the busy constancy to counter Bean’s hovering quietness. She’s as patient as she is weary and her perseverance – through work commitments and meet-the-parent dinners – makes her at once driven and put-upon in a brilliantly moving way.
They are fascinating to watch individually, with a supporting cast that carries just as much compelling naturalism, from James Bolam as Emma’s father to Chantelle Alle as their adopted daughter, Jessica, as well as Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Emma’s sleazy young boss. But it’s together that everything really clicks, as the duo’s convincing chemistry builds a bedrock on which everything else – the funny, the sad, the relatable, the warmly honest and, yes, the mundane – makes sense. Tellingly, that becomes clear from the opening scene, as Ian and Emma board an airplane and withdraw after an argument wraps up – then, just as the plane takes off, a nervous Ian instinctively reaches out for her hand to reassure him. It’s already there to hold his.