Women on the verge: Is "Mammals" really about marriage and monogamy after all?

Prime Video's series starring James Corden and Sally Hawkins looks at what it takes for human fulfillment

Published November 20, 2022 8:00AM (EST)

Melia Kreiling, James Corden and Caroline Long in "Mammals" (Rory Mulvey/Prime Video)
Melia Kreiling, James Corden and Caroline Long in "Mammals" (Rory Mulvey/Prime Video)

With all due respect to John Lennon, whose most famous lyric makes a cameo in the British black-comedy-drama series "Mammals," love isn't all you need.

People in loving partnerships screw around all the time, and unless they've already agreed to an open relationship, an affair exposed can mean a marriage undone. Prime Video's "Mammals" is promoted as a series that "explores" marriage and monogamy, which is not an unreasonable marketing peg, as the series tells the story of a marriage shaken by adultery. And yet for me the show's beating heart is something that goes unnamed — and for artistic reasons that's for the better – across all six languidly beautiful and methodically brutal episodes.

The series centers on Jamie and Amandine Buckingham, who have been married for about seven years and have a daughter. Jamie (Balthazar patron James Corden) is a London chef on the brink of opening his first restaurant, named for his wife. Amandine (Melia Kreiling), who is French (Kreiling was born in Switzerland and raised in Greece), works peplessly in market research. She noodles around on the violin, but becoming an accomplished musician is not her dream. Actually, she doesn't have a dream, unlike Jamie, who has set his sights on a Michelin star.

In the series' second episode, Amandine walks out of the focus group she's running and ambushes Jamie at work to tell him she's quitting her job. She wants to 

find my passion. You found yours; I need to find mine…I absolutely fucking need to do this or I'm going to go crazy . . . All my life I believed in one thing, one thing really worth having. And if you lose it, then you've lost everything. I've lost it, and I need to get it back.

I suspect that when she mentions having "lost" something, viewers are supposed to take that to mean the chance to become a mother again following the miscarriage she suffers at the beginning of the first episode.

It's Amandine's existential crisis, but "Mammals" is Jamie's story. Events are logged from his perspective, as when he considers what to do after he learns that Amandine has been unfaithful. His first impulse is not to confront her. For some viewers this will defy reason, but it's a decision that one assumes the show's writer, Jez Butterworth, made out of both narrative necessity and loyalty to the character of Jamie, who is boyishly guileless and endearingly twitchy. A James Corden type, if you'd like.

"Mammals" has baked within it the presumption that viewers will understand that Jamie and Amandine had agreed to be monogamous. Depending on your perspective, this is either heartening or, at a time when the trend seems to be toward mutually agreed-upon porous borders on sexual fidelity, atavistic. It gives "Mammals" something of a throwback quality that goes unchallenged by a soundtrack featuring Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone and Edith Piaf. And don't forget that Lennon lyric.

Being a throwback sort of person myself — an old-movie obsessive in a monogamous marriage — I was perfectly happy with this aspect of "Mammals," as well as with the scaldingly good performances and gasp-making plot twists. (There's at least one bona fide surprise in every episode. If we're picking genres, I think a case could be made that "Mammals" belongs as much in the thriller camp as the drama camp.) Nevertheless, after I watched all six episodes I couldn't shake the feeling that I hadn't learned anything about marriage and monogamy that I didn't already know: sexual fidelity doesn't come naturally to the human species. Being on the cuckold end of infidelity would be gutting. This might have soured me a little on the series if I hadn't picked up on something interesting that made me clamor to watch it a second time through.

MammalsSally Hawkins in "Mammals" (Rory Mulvey/Prime Video)

The other marriage the series presents is that of Jamie's sister, Lue (the always mesmerizing Sally Hawkins), who works at a thrift shop called Corner Copia, and her husband, Jeff (Colin Morgan), a university professor of veterinary neurology who spent four years writing a poorly selling book in his field, but still: the man has published a book. When their kids need to be picked up from school, that's Lue's job. When friends come over for dinner, she cooks the beef Wellington. No character remarks at her non-Herculean but important domestic labors, which in real life also tend to fall into wifely territory. 

In the series' second episode, Lue finds herself in accidental possession of a biography of Coco Chanel. As she reads it, she's sucked in and begins to craft a fantasy life as the celebrated right hand of the iconic fashion designer, whose simplified clothes for women, it shouldn't go unmentioned here, were a liberating force in the early 20th century. Viewers are probably meant to believe that Lue's increasingly elaborate fantasy life is the product of what looks like a stagnating marriage; it might as well have been Lue who ran to her husband to say of spinning daydreams about Coco Chanel, "I absolutely f**king need to do this or I'm going to go crazy." 

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Like Amandine, Lue is a woman without a passion in her everyday life. Jamie and Jeff have their gastronomic and intellectual pursuits, respectively; Amandine and Lue just sort of exist, under no real pressure from life other than to fundamentally function. Besides being fulfilling, a meaningful career is a form of currency, and a partner who brings less to the table has less bargaining power. I keep thinking of that scene in which Amandine tells Jamie about her decision to leave her market research job. Doesn't it seem as though she's asking him for permission? She does thank him—"Merci"—after he indicates his support.

I'm mindful of not giving away too much here, but I feel obliged to say this: the other thing about meaningful work is that it helps us get through the bad times, especially when love is not enough. In "Mammals," as in life, it's not.

"Mammals" is now streaming on Prime Video.

By Nell Beram

Nell Beram is coauthor of "Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies," a former Awl columnist, and an original member of the Magnetic Fields.

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