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Every couple – OK, maybe not every couple – reaches a point in their relationship where they find themselves dressing up, going out to a dimly lit restaurant, and pretending that they don’t know each other. “Can I buy you a drink?” the tall dark stranger, whose toothbrush you use in emergencies, asks. “Alright,” the coquettish vixen, who just bulk-bought a six-month supply of loo roll, replies. Mr & Mrs Smith, a new Amazon Prime series based on the 2005 Doug Liman movie, is that sex game in reverse. Two strangers meet – the fact that they’re assassins is largely inconsequential – and are immediately forced into a sham marriage. Will romance, somehow, thrive in this environment? Or will the two highly trained killers end up at each other’s throats?
John (Donald Glover) and Jane (Maya Erskine) Smith – not their real names – are operatives for a shadowy agency. He’s “competitive” and she’s “secretive”, and they’ve both opted for a “high risk” deployment, which involves the biggest risk of all: marriage. “What happens if we fail?” Jane asks. “Our marriage?” John replies. “Our mission!” she corrects him, despairingly.
This sets up the basic premise of the series. John and Jane have to navigate the muddy waters of cohabitation and romantic entanglement, while also trying to complete a series of missions assigned to them via an anonymous computer presence they nickname “hihi”. But even though these excursions into the world of espionage and contract killing are life and death, the stakes are never higher than when John and Jane are learning how to live together and, slowly, love one another.
Mr & Mrs Smith was originally conceived by Glover and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, with the latter leaving the project after several months due to creative differences with her collaborator. That tension is, plausibly, apparent in the version that’s made it to screen. Rather than the slinky, cartoonish vivacity of Killing Eve, Mr & Mrs Smith is imbued with an earthiness, a sense of reality. For a show about two superspies, based on a nonsensical Brangelina thriller, it is remarkable for its honest, relatable depiction of a relationship between two disaffected millennials. And at the heart of this is the chemistry between Glover and Erskine, which is entirely believable. Their performances capture the dance of flirtation and frustration that marks every relationship (but particularly one involving surveillance, kidnappings, and assassinations).
Around Glover and Erskine, the show has assembled a series of star-powered cameos, from Paul Dano as a suspicious neighbour and John Turturro as a billionaire mark, to Wagner Moura and Parker Posey as an alternate John and Jane working at the “super high risk” tier. Each of the eight episodes in this first series have a couple of these walk-on appearances, which could be distracting – feeling more like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm than is possibly intended – but which serve to reinforce the absolute centricity of Mr and Mrs Smith to Mr & Mrs Smith. “If you barf,” Jane tells John, as they’re dismembering a corpse, “I barf.” It might not be Rose telling Jack, in Titanic, “you jump, I jump” but, somehow, it’s almost as romantic.
Describing Mr & Mrs Smith as the marriage of a globetrotting spy saga like Jack Ryan, and the mumblecore-adjacent world of Lena Dunham’s Girls, might seem like damning it with strange praise, but it captures something of the show’s productive weirdness. When Jane and John aren’t fighting off central American warlords, they’re swanning around a farmer’s market; when they’re not drilling holes in luxury hotel walls to plant listening devices, they’re watching cartoons and eating Cheetos. “Earlier, you said you loved me,” Jane observes, during a mission debrief, “right before the machete.”
There is an intimacy to romantic television shows that is unparalleled in visual media. It is the sense of being swept along in the ebbs and flows of a couple’s burgeoning relationship. Time can be expended on the mundane, the trivial, rather than simply hitting the big dramatic beats of “boy meets girl”. Despite a relatively chaste tone, Mr & Mrs Smith manages to be one of the sexiest shows on TV. And somehow, even with all the balaclavas and firearms and computer hacking, one of the most truthful ones.