Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2024) opens almost exactly the same way Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) closes, with two cornered spies and lovers deciding to quit running and fight the world together. There is one difference: in Donald Glover and Francesca Sloane’s reimagining of Doug Liman’s film, our couple is immediately gunned down. They’re not the stars of this show, and this is not that movie.
After bottling the 2005 cult classic (?), stuffing it with a rag, and flicking the lighter, this new take on the movie that launched Brangelina proceeds to invert the original’s basic formula in almost every way. Specific where the film was broad, biting where the original was cuddly—if Liman’s fun-but-flawed movie was a mere sketch of a relationship powered by pyrotechnics, then Glover and Sloane’s is a pointillist portrait of a flawed-but-fun relationship, shaded in and accelerated by gunpowder.
It’s not a total departure; the show still takes many of its story beats and thematic cues from its source material. But it finds a new angle on old problems, ultimately using the Trojan horse of a fizzy spy caper to look with forensic intensity at both versions’ core target: marriage. In doing so, the show is certainly less afraid than the movie to bloody its titular ampersand, but its rare honesty and willingness to get ugly takes all that blood and paints a truer picture of a relationship with it—something a little closer to Ingmar Bergman than Ian Fleming.
The Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie version of this story is fairly straightforward: playing married spies who each think they’re wedded to an unknowing civilian (until their competing spy agencies task them with killing each other), Pitt and Jolie practically incinerate the screen as they subsequently seduce, shoot at, and support their future off-screen partner.
The core tension of the movie revolves around the huge, glaring secret they’re both harboring, but once their eyes are opened, the conflict mostly falls away. Because they’re both spies, their shared revelation easily paves the way for radical honesty, and it only takes a few scenes of combat-as-courtship for them to arrive at the obvious conclusion that they can simply be a spy duo. Problem solved, honesty unlocked, marriage saved.
We probably could’ve guessed that Donald Glover’s pass at that idea wouldn’t be so linear, especially since this version was originally pitched as a collaboration between multi-hyphenate auteurs, with Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge set to co-create the show with Glover and Sloane (a writer and producer on Glover’s Atlanta). Waller-Bridge eventually dropped out due to “creative differences” and was replaced by Pen15’s (terrific) Maya Erskine, but the final product retains the thorny complexity of its initial pairing’s promise.
While the movie had the light pretense of using its high concept to jokily expose the truth about marriage, its real identity was easily unmasked as relational escapism. In their otherworldly beauty and deceptively simple (if violent) problems, Pitt and Jolie sold us a fantasy: what if my partner’s secrets were exactly the same as mine, and we could just rip off the band-aid and live happily (if dangerously) ever after?
The show, meanwhile, starts at the end. Glover’s John and Erskine’s Jane know their situation from the jump, when they’re matched as a “married” duo by the faceless spy agency they work for. Sure, they don’t know all that much about each other’s past, nor even each other’s real name, but they know that they’re both spies, and that they’re partnered up regardless of any feelings they will or won’t catch. And yes, the show’s admittedly high concept puts the two of them in some fantastical spots, but their fears and struggles remain recognizable.
The secrets these Smiths will have to overcome if they want their marriage or their partnership to survive are smaller than Pitt’s and Jolie’s, but less binary; far from fantasy, they’ll be fighting in the hard trenches of real relationship work. It’s a little less “What would life be like as sexy superspies?” and a little more “What if I had to marry and work with my randomly assigned post-grad roommate?” Both the idiosyncrasy and the relatabilty of that concept are a blast to watch play out, even if the aftershocks can be brutal.
In the beginning, their actual work is surprisingly simple, which is mirrored by the show’s structure. Not unlike Poker Face’s recent return to a classic television format, Mr. and Mrs. Smith builds its story episodically, centering each episode around a one-off mission the Smiths receive from their dystopically anonymous boss, “Mr. Hihi” (he begins his text message assignments with the incongruous greeting, “Hi hi”). These missions are comically vague (“find the highest bidder at a silent auction and dose him with truth serum”), usually feature at least one splashy guest star (John Turturro, Parker Posey, Ron Perlman, and Michaela Coel, to name a few), and are often excuses for the show to take us to classically exotic spy locales (ski resorts, jungles, Lake Como).
But whereas Poker Face’s episodic mysteries could mostly be taken on their own or even out of order, Mr. and Mrs. Smith uses its intermittent structure in the same way Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage did, to trace the arc of a relationship—toward each other, apart, around the world, and back together. In addition to being pegged to a mission, each episode aligns with a significant relationship milestone (“Second Date,” “First Vacation,” “Do You Want Kids?,” “Infidelity”), and we watch as this randomly assigned cover marriage predictably morphs into the real thing. Lest these spies appear too much like us, Glover and Erskine imbue their Smiths with an edge befitting their unique profession, coloring their (in many ways) naturalistic relationship with the heightened specifics of their situation. As they darkly joke to another pair of Smiths, they had to kill someone together before they were comfortable consummating their marriage, and they had to stare down death-by-child-soldier before anyone could say “I love you.”
That’s part of the show’s tricky tightrope walk between the fanciful issues no real couple would face (“No one is forcing you to stay together, no one is holding a gun to your head,” a therapist tells them, even though that’s their exact situation with Mr. Hihi) and the heavy impasses that would be just as inescapable in any relationship (one person wants kids and the other doesn’t, one person wants to get more serious about work and the other doesn’t). For all the fun the show has, it’s committed to pushing past the honeymoon phase, dwelling in the hardest corners of partnership and taking a hammer (or a submachine gun) to its very foundation.
A lot of shows purport to do similar things—even if a lot of spy thrillers don’t—but rarely do they achieve such vicarious feeling. The writing is so sharp, and the performances from Glover and Erskine are so lived in, that the characters’ emotions bleed from the screen. Some of the biggest laughs in an often funny series come not from complicated set-ups but from the little bits of relational humor that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been with anyone: laughing in bed at an inside joke, or teasing each other for something no one but you even knows about. Ditto the hard stuff; most of the shots taken are verbal and direct hits, so much so that the tougher late-season episodes can leave you feeling like you’ve just had a game-changing fight with your partner. It’s not always an easy watch (or an easy sit), but that kind of emotional third wheeling with a fictional relationship is just about the best you could hope for from a show built around one.
“When people can see the cameras, they tend to behave inorganically,” says one character after being caught surreptitiously filming our couple. Well, that’s not the case here; despite the increasingly intense hijinx, Glover and Erskine lead a cast of surpassingly organic actors, all doing expert-level wetwork in the tonal twilight zone of a comic spy-thriller/relationship-drama. It helps when the people behind the cameras are equally laser-precise, and the show bears the marks of its directors’ greatness—starting with Glover’s longtime collaborator, Hiro Murai.
Directing the first two episodes, Murai sets the show’s visual tone by continuing the clean, grainy look he brought to Atlanta and Glover’s “This Is America” music video. His action work also echoes his direction on Bill Hader’s Barry, rendering violence in staccato, matter-of-fact bursts that counterintuitively play cooler than if they were trying harder to seem cool. With the exception of an explosive Italian getaway, this iteration of the Smiths probably won’t sate the most thrill-starved viewers, as it’s mostly content to let its action punctuate the relationship that always takes primacy. But when it does hit, it hits hard.
The Atlanta connections extend beyond Glover, Sloane, and Murai. Every one of Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s other directors (Christian Sprenger, Amy Seimetz, Glover himself) previously worked on the hit comedy, with the exception of Karena Evans—who directed Glover in a SZA music video in 2018. And yet, despite carrying over some stylistic tendencies and a general creative cohesion, Mr. and Mrs. Smith signals a greater departure from the stubbornly surreal Atlanta; compared to that groundbreaking show’s structural and thematic ambition, this one is practically Cheers. Still, despite its commercial trappings (Mr. and Mrs. Smith is currently streaming on Amazon Prime), it remains on a fascinatingly offbeat wavelength, using some of the “no-idea-what’s-coming-next” WTF-ness of Atlanta’s wildest episodes to build and sustain tension during the Smiths’ mysterious missions.
The carte blanche nature of that mission-oriented structure also allows the show to prod and examine the couple’s evolving partnership with each episode, often placing them across from targets that convincingly reflect their own problems, present and future. First, there’s John Turturro’s malignant billionaire, who—double-dosed on truth serum, so you know he’s not lying—tells John and Jane that they got into this life not for the money, but because they were lonely.
Then, when they’re tasked with surveilling another couple’s crumbling marriage just as their own relationship is burgeoning, the Smiths are forced to confront the scary possibility of what could be awaiting them at the other end of romance’s long parabola. One episode later, they’re faced with the opposite: the intimidatingly cool and obnoxiously happy older couple that makes you question the solidity of your own foundation.
In all these scenarios, John and Jane ultimately turn against whoever is undermining their relationship, and toward each other—even if some of the questions provoked by their missions merit investigation. At their most ill-advised, these us-against-the-world rally points can feel like transparent justifications for avoiding harder truths. But they also circle one of the show’s most romantic ideas: that sometimes the logic and reason of should’s and shouldn’t’s can be overridden by simply, defiantly choosing one another—something Sarah Paulson’s therapist reminds our couple that they’re continuing to do, consciously or not, even when their relationship reaches a breaking point. (Shortly, they burn her house down.)
And it does reach a breaking point, or several. Despite the shared spectacle, 2024’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith exists in a much realer world than 2005’s, and its spies have more complicated and conflicting personalities than simply “sexy-but-sloppy” and “sexy-but-stubborn.” Jane is capable and commanding, but she can also be cold—to the point of self-admitted sociopathy. That proves to be a tough match for mama’s boy John, whose charm and warmth can curdle into egotism and neediness.
The show amplifies these seemingly irreconcilable contradictions with a chorus of similar romantic paradoxes. A divorced neighbor (Paul Dano) tells John that he doesn’t want to be with his ex… but being alone isn’t better. John’s mom (played by Glover’s real mother) acknowledges that Jane’s natural coldness makes it difficult for her to make John feel safe like he needs… but she also says that he understands complicated people. Crucially, a third party tells Jane that John wonders whether the couple is even compatible… but that he wants to be with Jane, even incompatibly.
Still, their mutual yearning can only bridge the divide between them for so long, and as the secrets and incompatibilities continue to accrete, the back half of the show becomes somewhat of a bummer. If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that we’re not necessarily shown enough of why John and Jane love each other. With large time-jumps between episodes, we’re often picking up at the end of what’s clearly been a good period of their relationship, right as it rolls into problem territory. It’s a bit like that old wisdom that if you tell your friends when you fight with your partner but not when you make up, they’re only getting the negative part of the picture.
But then again, much of the show’s interesting tension lies in the fact that they didn’t pick each other—they just fell in love with the person that was picked for them. They’re also spies, which requires a certain level of callousness that inevitably spills over to their relationship. But even if we’re privy to more of the verbal gunfights than the seasons of bliss, we do see a lot of how they love each other. Amidst the sparring, we see them flirt, and hold hands, and trade compliments, and care for each other. Sometimes the “how” is the “why,” which recalls another old adage: you may like someone “because,” but you love them “although.”
Even if their resolutions aren’t always the healthiest in a vacuum (often putting someone or something else in their mutual crosshairs, instead of each other), they find ways to make the best of their extreme circumstances, working their way to unexpected catharsis. Sharing a lakeside cigarette during a mission, they exchange the vows that their lack of a real wedding precluded. “I vow to never kill you,” John says. “I like that,” says Jane. No couple should have to make that promise, but because murder is an occupational hazard for this one, the declaration is somehow sweet.
It also becomes heartbreakingly relevant as their relationship nears its endgame. After a season of trying to make it work, a series of last straws and Mr. Hihi-instigated misunderstandings finally push this John and Jane to their own version of Pitt and Jolie’s iconic mid-movie showdown. After chasing each other around lower Manhattan and eventually shooting up their once-gorgeous brownstone, our couple arrives at a sublime solution for all their partnership-eroding secrets and lies: Chekov’s truth serum.
In a chaotically romantic act of mutually assured destruction (or maybe rehabilitation?), John and Jane get high on their own supply and soon find themselves lying on their ruined floor, having taken a circuitous route to the radical honesty Pitt and Jolie so easily achieved, but having arrived there all the same. It all comes out: the real reasons they both chose this unorthodox profession, the real truths behind their combative lies, the real pains behind their deepest fears. Having literally torn down all the walls between them, they find the shared foundation of a love that somehow survived all the fireworks. As they deliriously rattle off all the things they love (or lovingly hate) about each other, the prospect of building a new home atop the rubble is suddenly, movingly possible.
Right on cue, Mr. Hihi’s assassins arrive to permanently clean up the Smiths’ mess, giving them one more chance to team up against the world. They make it to temporary safety, but John is wounded in the effort. As the pair sit and wait for their last shot at escape, they make plans for the shared future that might be bleeding out on their safe room floor. The show cuts to black just as they make a go of it, denying us a traditionally satisfying ending but offering one final romantic paradox to leave us longing along with these maybe-doomed lovers. They’re Schrödinger’s Happy Couple, which—the show seems to suggest—might be the secret of all happy couples.
It’s easy to imagine a version of this show that eschews these realistically unanswerable questions for easy answers and breezy spy fun—after all, Doug Liman already made one in 2005. But you have to give Glover and Sloane credit for engaging with the kinds of issues that don’t (or can’t) perfectly resolve; between the heart-racing explosions and the heart-aching therapy-couch fights, it’s the latter that will stick with you after the smoke clears.
“The longing hurt so bad,” Jane tells John as they hash through the wreckage of their relationship with chemical honesty. “It was fake,” he says. “Yeah, but the sadness, that’s real.” Inconceivably—given the initial unreality of their relationship—the love that’s blossomed between the fault lines is real, too. Across eight entertaining and emotionally turbulent hours, we’ve witnessed two people who might be better off without each other slowly realize that they’d rather be dead than apart. What could be more romantic than that?