The third season of Joe Swanberg’s Chicago-based series “Easy,” which dropped on Netflix two weeks ago, is anchored by an idea that’s as much a matter of aesthetic form as of dramatic substance. The nine episodes are centered on crucial conversations on which the very stuff of life—love and money, work and family, long-held dreams and self-images—hangs in the balance and undergoes drastic, painful shifts. Swanberg’s expansive ambitions are reflected in a notable twist of the season’s structure: the first and fifth episodes—which bring back from last season Andi (Elizabeth Reaser) and Kyle (Michael Chernus), a couple pushing forty and married with children, who are experimenting with an open relationship—combine to form a feature film of sorts, running nearly an hour and a half and culminating in a twenty-minute-long sequence in which they voice fears, agonies, stifled conflicts, and new dilemmas. Had it been placed on the big screen, those twenty minutes would be among the most imposing and shattering movie scenes of the year to date.
The big screen lurks behind the series as a crucial source of inspiration; “Easy” ’s scenes from a marriage are haunted by the spirit of Ingmar Bergman—both in their stakes and in their proportions. Just as the embedded featurette threatens to burst its confines in a flood of terrifying tensions, so several of the briefer episodes come off as compressed features, their ample stories truncated by Procrustean twentysomething-minute confines—yet nonetheless involving extended, imaginatively fervent conversations. The most powerful of them include the third episode, featuring Kiersey Clemons and Jacqueline Toboni as a couple undergoing a breakup and pursuing new relationships; it also involves the world of filmmaking and draws dramatic energy from the shared passions of creative endeavors. The fourth episode stars Kate Micucci as a lonely music teacher whose romantic gamesmanship threatens the lyrical and luminous birth of actual romance.
Swanberg is among the most practical-minded of independent filmmakers. He has long made the nuances of the business of art, and of business itself, central to his work, and many of the new episodes pursue these familiar themes in new directions. The seventh is centered on a street vender (played by Kali Skrap) who’s in the employ of another (Anthony Smith) and tries to go out on his own. The eighth involves two families and three businesses, with Dave Franco playing a garage-based beer brewer who wants to continue working as an independent—apart from his estranged brother (Evan Jonigkeit), who runs a major brewpub—and faces trouble from his gentrifying neighborhood, while the two brothers’ wives (Zazie Beetz and Aya Cash, respectively) are planning a risky expansion of their successful pet-treat business.
Swanberg’s independents, with their under-the-radar and unofficial ventures in their various fields, also have to face trouble with the law, and with the ways and wiles of power—including their own. A few men get long-overdue comeuppances and face the limits of their own abilities and self-knowledge. The themes and the passions of the episodes are contained only uncomfortably in the series’s episodic format. The grand ending of the ninth and final one, which is centered on the world of television production, and culminates in the painful, romantic confrontation of an actress (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in a state of professional crisis with an ex (Jake Johnson, Swanberg’s longtime collaborator), suggests that the torrent of experience and emotion that Swanberg has unleashed in his three-season series is now awaiting a different, large-scale spectrum of form that goes beyond the standard dimensions of movies or television.