Being really, honestly surprised, especially these days, can feel thrilling—which is what makes Mammals, the new Prime Video series from the Tony-winning playwright Jez Butterworth, so hard to write about. There’s a revelation at the very end that turns the entirety of what we’ve just seen on its head; rewatching the first few episodes after that, which I did, was a bracingly new experience. Even the casting of James Corden in the central role of a cuckolded chef resonated differently. Corden is, after all, a TV personality whose comic schtick—likability—has always been so broad and earnest that it feels a little untrustworthy. Butterworth, at least, gives him more complex material to work with.
But before everything is revealed, there’s muddiness, magic realism, visual allusions that seem almost too cute (a conversation about a broken marriage takes place in a rose garden), and lots and lots of whales. Information is withheld; characters are kept at a frustrating distance. To keep viewers engaged, Butterworth structures the plot as a mystery for Corden’s character, Jamie, to unfurl. In the first episode, the chef and his luminous, pregnant wife, Amandine (played by Melia Kreiling), drive from London to their seaside vacation rental in absurd marital bliss: The water is a vivid blue, and the sunset casts a serene pink light over their outdoor hot tub as Amandine turns to Jamie and says, “So, do you want to unpack, or fuck first and then unpack?” Jamie gulps, and says, “B.” He seems self-aware about his ridiculous, disproportionate good fortune.
But. (First-episode spoilers ahead.) The next day, Amandine starts bleeding; she’s rushed to the hospital but loses her baby. Jamie, disconsolately calling family members on her phone to break the news, receives sexually explicit messages intended for Amandine from “Paul.” His beautiful, soulful, charming wife, he discovers, is quite prosaically unfaithful—but her physical and emotional pain, and their shared grief, make confronting her impossible. Instead, Jamie decides to uncover as much as he can about her betrayal. (First, though, he vomits at the feet of his fellow vacationer Tom Jones, who makes a winking cameo as himself: the most priapic man in popular culture.)
Marriage as a mystery—it’s a rich setup. The conundrum the show explores is less practical (see HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage for a really intimate dissection of the institution) than philosophical. I laughed out loud when I read the quote Butterworth provided for promotional materials for Mammals: “A good marriage is the most magical thing. In a world of eight billion, you’ve found the one who gets you, ignites your body and soul. Who allows you to grow and flourish … You’re also never going to have sex with anyone else, ever, and then you’re going to die, and be dead forever.” It sounds like a thesis dragged at gunpoint out of someone who can be reticent about explaining his work. Still, it does hint at the conflicting expectations that marriage, in its most conventional form, carries: It’s a legal and financial contract that’s also supposed to be an affirmation of romantic love and sexual passion, and a commitment to fidelity that makes no exceptions for human frailty or animal impulse. The title of the show, Mammals, refers to the whales that appear, sometimes strangely, in pivotal moments throughout the series; their biology requires them, as one character explains, to live deep underwater but also to “surface to breathe.” Marriage, it’s suggested, is the deep-blue beyond, necessary and suffocating.
But, again, it isn’t until the end that the show’s full vision is discernible. Stephanie Laing, who directs all six episodes, injects a sense of whimsy and beauty: Jamie’s restaurant, also named Amandine, is colored an opulent shade of green, and the London backdrop is as iridescent as a fairyland. The frayed union of Jamie and Amandine (her name, which means “worthy of love,” is yet another of the show’s buried pearls) is offset by the marriage of Lue (Sally Hawkins), Jamie’s sister, and Jeff (Colin Morgan), who live in a beguiling cottage in Devon with their seemingly invisible children. If Amandine embodies passion and spirit, Lue stands for ambiguity and detachment. In one scene, she calmly puts on her wedding dress and wades into a river, like John Everett Millais’s Ophelia; in a subplot that tests patience, she loses herself in an elaborate fantasy world sparked by a biography of Coco Chanel. Jeff has no defining characteristics at all, a fact that gets only more frustrating as the series progresses.
Still, the show’s various pieces manage to be pretty intriguing. One is the puzzle of Corden himself, whose press tour promoting the series (in which, remember, he plays a chef) coincided with an internet scandal that saw him outed by the restaurateur Keith McNally as being something of an ass—allegedly demanding, entitled, and rude to waiters. Part of what stoked the gossip was that rumors about Corden’s temperament have circulated for years—as with that other purveyor of inveterate niceness, Ellen DeGeneres. But whatever you think of Corden, his performance as Jamie is superb: largely sympathetic, with grace notes of weaseliness and spite. It’s actually a boon that he, the person carrying a show filled with subtext, may also in real life be more than his image suggests.
Fittingly, though, it’s Kreiling, as Amandine, who burns brightest. Throughout the show, characters challenge one another to describe their feelings in words, which often seem stupidly insufficient. In much the same way, Amandine ends up superseding what she says and does. She comes off at first as a collection of tropes and tics (Feckless European! Lover of Moby-Dick! Chestnut allergy!) that paint a vague, clichéd picture of womanhood. But Kreiling’s performance—a single wink of hers, at one point, throws the character into sharper definition—and Butterworth’s intentions defy the obvious. Love is impossible, she and Jamie decide, in a flashback to the night they committed to being together. It’s also, all other options considered, the only thing worth believing in. Where does that leave marriage? It’s anyone’s guess.