Set against the backdrop of the Italian Dolomites, “First Vacation” is the first episode of Mr. & Mrs. Smith to pull itself out of its metropolitan setting; it’s also the first of the series to feel properly calibrated, striking an incredibly strong balance between its character work, moments of humor, and the expected (if occasional) bursts of action to propel its stories forward. With “First Vacation”, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is starting to feel like You’re the Worst by way of the classic Misson: Impossible TV series – which may sound like a strange formula, but is one with an incredible amount of potential it’s quickly finding a rhythm with.
When John and Jane receive a mission to head to the Italian mountains and bug the phone of billionaire CEO Gavol Martin (Sharon Horgan) while on family vacation, it appears there’s been a small passage of time. John and Jane have developed a bit of a physical rapport (in more ways than one; “you’re still hard,” she remarks one morning) that they’re already mixing with their professional relationship. And once they’re at the swanky ski resort watching Gavol and her husband Peter (Billy Campbell), the two do what any brand new couple is want to do; immediately start judging the relationships of other people, promising they will never fall victim to the routines and idiosyncrasies of the miserable couple they’re observing.
However, “First Vacation” immediately starts to pull at the threads of their confidence, smartly injecting small moments to draw out the dichotomies in their character. Where John welcomes conversation with a couple at the next table (who’ve been together for 49 years), Jane insists vacation is not a time for making friends, but getting away from the ones you already have: the first two episodes have done a solid job drawing dissonance between their personalities, but the isolated white-laden backdrop of the ski resort provides a pristine petri dish to examine the different emerging personalities of John and Jane.
And then John drops a bombshell on their idyllic honeymoon period, casually taking a call from his mother on the ski lift (after insisting her calls were just spam earlier), and admitting he can’t abandon his mother, even though it places both of them, and her, in danger. His defensive tone changes when he realizes Jane left her father behind (though, we shouldn’t forget, she did bring Max with her), and the two begin to bicker, their first conflict bubbling to the surface just as their mission to bug the billionaire couple’s phones begins to grow complicated.
I love how Mr. & Mrs. Smith is building John and Jane, pulling at the places where they’re similar and different. Though John’s certainly been more open to the idea of exploring a romance between the two, the very mention of sharing each other’s locations stiffens him up (not like that) real quick, a reminder that the two of them, for all their supposed emotional honesty, are still two complete strangers to each other – and not two in the healthiest places, given the job offers they accepted recently. Just as soon as they’re making a pact never to be like the couple they’re trailing, they’re falling right into the traps of their own cliches – eventually, isolating John and Jane with their unsuspecting counterparts in scenes that, while certainly not subtle, are wildly effective as a proof of concept for Mr. & Mrs. Smith as a series.
Those scenes are fascinating, particularly Jane’s (John and Gavol Martin’s discussion is fun, but mostly in observing John being a bit of a smooth talker), as she tries to help disgruntled husband Parker. As Parker starts to have one of those “whoops, I’m pouring out my guts on this barstool” moments, Jane tries to help him find a moment of peace – and for a moment, watches him step back in time and remember what drew him and Gavol together in the first place (“she used to watch me ride these impossible waves…. we would fuck and fuck and fuck,” he quietly tells Jane). Infatuation is but a moment in time; a life together with someone means compromises, disagreements, and regrets – for some couples, it defines the relationship, rather than becomes but a bump in the road (they are juxtaposed quite nicely with the couple Jane desperately wants to avoid being “vacation friends” with).
Those individual scenes converge when John realizes what is happening; their employers are having them record a ransom call between unknown terrorist-types and Parker, taken immediately after she’s taken hostage (right after she walks away from John, of course). From there, “First Vacation” springs to life, as John tracks Gavol while Jane angrily texts him about unsharing his phone location because he’s being pissy.
The balance between dramatic and comedic tension in the scene is something the first two episodes hinted towards (I can still hear the sounds of bones breaking in “Second Date”); here, it propels “First Vacation” forward, a tense sequence with as many funny moments (Jane apologizing immediately after texting John “You better be shot or dead right now”) as it does exciting and devastating ones. Though decidedly focused on John’s third attempt at going rogue, “First Vacation” anchors itself, oddly enough, to Peter, who decides in a blink of eye to not negotiate with the terrorists, to sacrifice Gavol in an attempt to protect his son’s perceived future (not remembering that it will probably be worse for him with a dead mother than a divorced one).
“First Vacation” moves quickly from that moment to Jane’s rescue of John (which turns into a sultry bathtub sequence, where Jane ‘saves’ John’s frozen penis), and their subsequent conversation, resolving their first fight over the shared realization that they’ve put themselves in an extremely emotional, vulnerable position by caring about each other. Against the backdrop of Gavol and Peter’s unexpected reunion (“You had to agree to my death, to realize you still loved me?”), John and Jane begin to recognize the depths of what they’ve gotten themselves into personally and professionally, and the risks (and potential rewards) associated with it.
It’s not a very complex notion – but it is one executed cleanly by “First Vacation”, which solidifies Mr. & Mrs. Smith‘s thematic structure with a welcome confidence. Led by Glover and Erskine’s terrific lead performances, “First Vacation” turns a very simple, explicit concept into something nuanced and vibrant – which speaks to Yvonne Hana Yi’s script and the room it allows its performers to breathe life into their scenes (Horgan and Campbell are also terrific, establishing a very Poker Face-esque approach to one-off characters that fits this show well).
All of the pieces are starting to come together for Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and the final 15 minutes of “First Vacation” feel like a show locking in for the first time, an exciting moment of realized potential – and hopefully, a foundation the series is going to build upon, rather than an early creative apex we’ll look back on fondly five episodes from now.
- “Content does not equal happy.”
- Look at the first two screenshots of this article; how director Karena Evans (and cinematographer Stephen Murphy) frames characters in this episode is awesome.
- Ok, the opening scene, where John “pretends” to hear a noise (which is just Jane farting) to let her cover up for it and not be embarrassed is adorable.
- Horgan’s delivery of the line “I’m not going to work all day” is so good, it is genuinely hard to take a side when they’re arguing over her inflection.
- John laments the fact he knows nothing about skiing, which amazes Jane since he picked out all the gear: “I would never joke about fashion.”
- The biggest laugh of the series so far come when Jane interrupts the kind couple trying to tell them about a restaurant while Gavol is walking out of eye sight: “Shut the fuck up, bitch! I have a gun and I will shoot you.”