This Life 204

Writer Céleste Parr on This Life’s small, meaningful moments

Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have seen This Life Episode 204, “Communion.”

Sunday’s episode of This Life, “Communion,” was a rough one for several members of the Lawson family. Natalie’s custody battle with David came to an abrupt end after Caleb chose not to testify against his father, and Matthew made a desperate move to save his marriage by bringing Nicole to meet his son. Meanwhile, Maggie made a disturbing discovery about Oliver.

Céleste Parr co-wrote the episode with series showrunner Joseph Kay. A veteran of feature films, she turned her attention toward television in 2014, writing a pilot that caught Kay’s attention and eventually landing a spot in This Life‘s Season 2 writers’ room.

“We both have a deep appreciation for the small and the understated,” Parr says of Kay. “They strike us both as being more emotionally powerful and resonant.”

Joining us by phone from Montreal, Parr breaks down the major plot points in “Communion” and explains the importance of the show’s small, emotional story beats.

Several scenes in this episode really resonated with me, including the two bathroom scenes with Nicole looking at the clothes of Julian and then later Abby. What’s the key to making quiet scenes like that work?
Céleste Parr: I know that in my case, having worked in low-budget film, you sort of become very aware of small moments in your life that resonate and learning how to say a lot about an emotional moment or an emotional shift and to do so in a quiet and down-to-earth way. I actually find that it’s easier to create a visceral emotional response with small moments like that, because they trigger a sense of recognition in our lives. So I think it’s actually easier to tell an emotional story in small moments like that, small visual cues that ring true broadly just on a human emotional level.

Natalie decides to stop fighting David in court after Caleb backs out of testifying. What is Natalie’s relationship with David going to be like going forward?
Natalie, I think, is realizing now that she has no choice. Obviously, so much that’s going on with her is that she’s afraid that she’s not going to survive her illness, so she’s trying to parent her children posthumously. But to do that, she would have to control uncontrollable variables. She wasn’t able to control what happened in Matthew’s marriage, and she can’t control David, who’s elusive and inconsistent and, God forbid, more complex than the deadbeat she’s made him out to be in her mind. And she doesn’t even realize the extent to which her children are already outgrowing her control, and so moving forward with David, she’s going to have to open her eyes to a version of him that she used to be very close to, and loved even, and to recognize he’s a complex human being and that he might actually bring something to the lives of their children.

I’m surprised that David has become one of my favourite characters. He’s so complex and real. Do you enjoy writing him?
I love writing David. I’ve always been very drawn to writing characters who on the surface may appear antagonist or a villain or characters who present a threat, and I’ve always found it very rewarding to understand them. Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction of judging or reducing them to their worst qualities, really trying to connect with them and understand them, and to recognize bits of myself in them so that I can do justice to them as people, not just characters there to move the plot forward.

This Life 204

Caleb moves out of Natalie’s house at the end of the episode. What’s that going to mean for him and for Natalie?
For Caleb, it’s going to take some time for him. He’s going to have to spend some time in limbo trying to figure out who he is outside of what Natalie and his sisters have needed him to be, and who he is outside of trying to fill the shoes of David, who was absent for so many years. So, in this episode, Caleb has to make this difficult decision that, to him, he may worry that he may be perceived as letting down the family, but he’s finally stepping up for himself, and coming of age in this way, and becoming an adult. And we see this in [Episode] 203 with the fridge, he knows that he never has been able to be a father. You know, he was the man of the house before he was a man, and now he has to break off and grow into a man.

And that’s going to part of Natalie having to let go of the things that made her feel safe and in control. She’s been able to count on Caleb and not realizing to what extent she was robbing Caleb of his own agency and his own identity. So she just has to trust in herself and the girls, and she has to trust in Caleb that he’s going to take care of himself.

The scene between Matthew, Nicole and Beatrice was so hard to watch. What was Matthew’s plan there?
We all recognized it as this great, terrible plan, bringing Nicole and Beatrice together. But I think the beauty of it, even though it is a terrible idea, is that he’s not wrong. He knew that if Nicole could see Julian, she would recognize the innocent life he’s trying to protect and nourish, which reminds her, heartbreakingly, of why she loves this man. And she sees traces of him in his son, so, of course, instinctively, she’s going to love that little boy, too, and connect emotionally to Matthew’s decision to be a father to his son. She’s really a mother at heart and she’s a deeply compassionate woman. Compassion, though, it also has a way making matters of the heart very complicated, because it was almost too easy and convenient for her to villainize Matthew and dismiss him as a con, but now she can’t.

Nicole tells Matthew that she can’t move forward with him. Is there any way she can forgive him in the future?
I think what we see in her in this episode is forgiveness. I think she does forgive him after this journey. But forgiveness is one thing, to continue to be vulnerable and intimate and to trust this man, that’s a whole other story. She’s going to have to look inside and see whether or not that’s a possibility for her, or whether she’s going to have to stand on her own.

Maggie goes to Oliver’s studio and finds it in a deplorable state. What’s going on with him?
Oliver is clearly struggling, and he’s a very private person, and he’s a very solitary person. So we’re going to discover at the same time as his family what’s happening with Oliver. That’s going to be a journey we take with the people who love him. But what we will see is that, with Matthew and Natalie’s lives imploding in these really spectacular ways, these really striking ways, the noise that creates within the family has made it too easy for others who are struggling to slip between the cracks unnoticed.

Raza delivers some truth to Maggie this week. Their marriage might have been a bad idea, but is he good for her in a way?
I think Raza is a much-needed touchstone for her. He’s not got much invested in making her happy. It’s not like he’s counting on getting lucky at the end of the night. So she comes to him and wants a dose of the truth, and he’s going to tell her the truth. And he, standing on the outside, has perspective that nobody else has, and he has no agenda here, so he can just level with her.

Do you have a favourite scene in the episode?
I was really surprised by the scene with Caleb and David at the end of the episode. I was blown away by the chemistry that those two actors have, but also physically, the difference between them on screen, the size of them. David being someone who is so comfortable in his skin and his body, and he’s just sort of processing his day, and then Caleb shows up sort of vulnerable and also having had kind of an epiphany. This bonding moment between them after all those years and all those feelings of betrayal and disappointment, for them to just connect in this moment, to actually see it, to feel the chemistry between them was really surprising.

And then just at the end of the scene, the focus shifts—I mean literally the focus of the image—shifts from David to Caleb, and Caleb just sort of looks at his father with those big blue eyes, and he looks like a boy. And it’s like I’m seeing a boy and his father, and it really moved me. Something like that, you can’t put that on the page. Everyone does their job and you get these moments of magic like that.

This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.