Grace and Frankie begins when longtime rivals Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) and Frankie Bergstein’s (Lily Tomlin) husbands leave them (for each other). Despite their mutual distaste for one another, the two women move into Frankie’s beach house — an amalgamation of Nancy Meyers’ greatest interior design hits — to recover.
In a sense, Grace and Frankie’s wealth, not their friendship, is the bedrock of the show: It is what makes all of what comes next in Grace and Frankie possible. Grace and Frankie’s friendship can only blossom because of their privilege, because of their house, because they never need to worry about retirement funds running dry. But Grace and Frankie never purported to be a show that addressed economic disparity. Instead, it showcases other subjects that are all too frequently ignored on TV — most notably, senior-aged women being treated as complex individuals with desires, disappointments, and sex drives. The fact that Grace and Frankie celebrated older women and female friendships was enough for me to write off the women’s wealth as being merely the vehicle for what made all the other goodness possible.
Yet on its latest season, which premiered January 19 on Netflix, Grace and Frankie’s unacknowledged privilege suddenly became the elephant in every scene that I couldn’t ignore — and it was all because of Mallory’s (Brooklyn Decker) single-mother storyline.
The first time we meet Mallory Hanson in season 1 of Grace and Frankie, she’s walking down the stairs with a laundry basket, and promising her mother, Grace (Jane Fonda), that she’ll swoop in and run errands for her, never mind her own two children that need to be driven around. Mallory is a woman who stretches to fulfill all of her impossible responsibilities with four kids and an extended family falling apart, like a waiter trying to catch plates falling from the sky. She smiles, even as she’s fraying from the effort of keeping up perfectionist standards. And so her inner life is subsumed until season 3, when she can no longer ignore her unhappiness in her marriage to the inattentive doctor Mitch (Geoff Stults). Mallory decides to get a divorce and step out on her own.
In a sense, then, Mallory begins season 4 of Grace and Frankie in a similar way to how her mother and Frankie began the show: husbandless, and forced to redefine herself. Season 4 of Grace and Frankie devotes time to developing Mallory and her sister, Brianna’s (June Diane Raphael), inner lives, just as deeply as they’d given time to Grace and Frankie.
Like Grace and Frankie, Mallory unlocks other aspects to her character now that she’s out of her marriage, and in a more self-reliant role. “For the first time, she gets to be herself,” Decker told Refinery29. “While she was living life as a single woman and a single mother, she felt open and free for the first time.”
Over the course of the season, Mallory embarks on a quest for self-actualization. Or, mostly, for finding a version of herself that’s not entirely wrapped up with child-rearing, which had been her primary role in prior seasons. “[The writers] really wanted to see Mallory as an adult for the first time,” Decker explained.
By “adult,” Decker implied that Mallory is able to step outside of the home, and into the working world. In episode 7, she shows up to her mother’s makeup company, which her sister Brianna currently runs, with her resume in hand. “I’m going crazy at home, and I need some adult stimulation,” she explains to her sister, dripping with eagerness, and a slight hint of begging. Brianna and her co-workers don’t take Mallory seriously, since Mallory had become a stay-at-home mom almost immediately after getting married, and never formally entered the work force. Despite being initially dismissed, Mallory stands her ground and becomes a part of the team.
Yet Grace and Frankie is only able to emphasize Mallory’s personal growth by way of business ventures because she isn’t wrapped up in the concerns that other single mothers of less fortunate circumstances (and extravagant means) might be. For one, Mallory is surrounded by a loving family who is able to step in to help with her kids. Coyote (Ethan Embry), Frankie’s son, can drive the carpool, and Mallory often is seen hanging out with her family. Grace and Frankie is the perfect example of the “it takes a village” method of child-rearing in action.
More significantly, though, Mallory’s able to find herself because she is rich. She doesn’t have to be working. She’s working because she wants to — something Decker fully acknowledges. “She has two parents who are very well off. Her dad has a law firm, her mom has a beauty empire. She has a husband who is a doctor. I don’t think Mallory has to have a job,” Decker said. Rather, Mallory is going to work almost as respite from the “thankless and tireless” job of being a stay-at-home mom, as Decker put it.
Mallory's kids remain as absent in season 4 as the entire conversation surrounding her character's privilege. There could be a logistical explanation for the kids' absence — Decker told Refinery29 that the actors who had played her two older kids had simply aged out of their roles. But their omission has repercussions on the show's logic. Mallory's character never worries about where her kids are, or how they're doing. Instead of complicating Mallory’s journey by incorporating specific storylines about her kids, Grace and Frankie pretends they don't exist. The kids, we’re to assume, are all right.
Ultimately, Grace and Frankie chooses to develop Mallory as an individual, rather than Mallory as a mother – which makes sense for the show. In Grace and Frankie, Mallory is the kid. Mallory is the one negotiating her relationship with her parents, following their major life changes. "I do feel like a little kid playing Mallory sometimes,” Decker acknowledged of her character, who always yearns for her parents’ approval. In a show about adult children, perhaps there's no room for actual children.
While Mallory's swan song is only possible because of privilege, it's nonetheless gratifying to see a woman use a difficult circumstance as an opportunity to reinvent herself, as Grace and Frankie have done for four full seasons and counting.
Season 4 of Grace and Frankie premieres on January 19 on Netflix.
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