Forget ‘Fleishman’s’ troubles, what about the women who surround him?

Lizzy Caplan and Claire Danes
Lizzy Caplan and Claire Danes play Libby and Rachel, two women in “Fleishman Is in Trouble” who are cosmically connected as dual portraits of the restrictive trajectories imposed on working mothers.
(Evan Mulling / For The Times)

Two of the most important women in Toby Fleishman’s life are sitting side by side, but they’re not here to talk about him. The acclaimed “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” adapted by Taffy Brodesser-Akner from her bestselling 2019 novel, is ostensibly about this Manhattan divorcé and struggling single father, played by Jesse Eisenberg. But as the miniseries rolls along, it becomes clearer that our sympathies shouldn’t be directed toward judgmental Toby but, rather, his ex-wife Rachel, who the show (through his eyes) has unfairly painted as a shrewish social climber who stopped loving him. Eventually, we get a more nuanced take on Rachel — as well as Libby, Toby’s old friend who’s become a suburban housewife, giving up her literary aspirations for a security she now resents.

As Claire Danes and Lizzy Caplan, the series’ Rachel and Libby, respectively, retire to an empty screening room at the Directors Guild of America in Hollywood during an industry event, the actors observe that they’ve had few opportunities to do joint interviews for this project. In fact, they were barely on set at the same time. “It was very high-five relay style on this,” Danes recalls. “Weirdly, we shot the end first, so when I completed my work, it was Lizzy’s turn. We had very little actual crossover.”


So tonight offers a rare opportunity to reflect on a series they built together, but on parallel tracks. With Rachel mostly missing during the present-day storyline — her whereabouts an unsettling mystery — the two characters rarely share the screen. And yet, Rachel and Libby are cosmically connected as dual poignant portraits of the restrictive trajectories imposed on working women. Rachel feels guilty about what she perceives as prioritizing career over motherhood, while Libby forfeits her independence to be Mom. Danes and Caplan, who are both mothers — Danes is pregnant with her third child when we meet in early May — understand that tension all too well.

Jesse Eisenberg and Lizzy Caplan sit at a coffeehouse table in a scene from "Fleishman Is in Trouble."
Lizzy Caplan stars as Libby, a college friend of Jesse Eisenberg’s title character in “Fleishman Is in Trouble.”
(FX Networks)

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“There is no greater villain than a mother that dares to have a thought that doesn’t entirely revolve around her children,” Danes says. “Both [characters] abandon their children for a brief time, and they do that in different ways and to different degrees, but in their own internal strife, their conflicts are preoccupying them. Taffy has compassion for them and asks us to try to do the same.”

“There’s shades of Taffy in both women,” adds Caplan, who had her first child before shooting on “Fleishman” began. “Rachel has a much louder explosion than Libby’s, but they’re both struggling with their place in the world as women, as mothers, their identities within their own families. I’m just astounded that she was able to fit both versions of the story into one show.”

In support of the ongoing Writers Guild strike, Brodesser-Akner declined to participate in this piece, but series executive producer Sarah Timberman sings the author’s praises. “I thought of that line from ‘Hamilton’: ‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time?’ I feel like Taffy writes like she’s running out of time and wants to explore everything,” Timberman says in a separate interview. “So it’s not just the experience of being a working woman, or being a mother, or being a middle-aged person. She’s interested in all of it.”


Claire Danes.

The actors speak to each other like best buds, but the conversation is as much about their “Fleishman” characters as it is about themselves. When I mention that, unlike many readers and viewers, I didn’t initially dislike Rachel, sensing there was more to her story, Danes laments, “A lot of my friends were not shy about how much they hated Rachel. But I was with you: I don’t think I had that level of judgment, either. What does that say about us?”

Caplan felt annoyed on Danes’ behalf. “I had very smart people telling me the same thing: ‘Oh, [Rachel’s] so awful.’ It’s like, ‘Well, everything is working then, because it was all teed up exactly like that.’ But people that you would think would have a more layered view… We should expect, at this point, something a little smarter than ‘She’s just this terrible villain.’”

Much has been made about Rachel’s meltdowns we witness once “Fleishman” finally shows us her side of events — including her primal yell while at a spa retreat — but Danes is just as heartbreaking when Rachel is pregnant and her invasive OB-GYN breaks her water without her permission, inducing labor. The sense of violation is palpable, and Danes communicates Rachel’s helplessness in harrowing fashion.

Claire Danes stares blankly out a window in "Fleishman Is in Trouble."
Claire Danes’ Rachel Fleishman character was judged too quickly— and too one-dimensionally — by some viewers of the limited series.
(Matthias Clamer / FX)

“I was just so glad that somebody was spending any time considering these experiences and feelings that are so rarely dramatized,” Danes says of that difficult day of filming. “I felt very privileged to attempt to play that. It was a pretty personal story for Taffy, and she was there — I was very motivated to honor what that was. It was so well-written and so well-shot — I felt supported by just the quality of the material. There was nothing remotely exploitational about it.”


Soon, she and Caplan are commiserating about the unrealistic clichés prevalent in birth scenes in movies and television shows. “You’re fed one narrative about how it’s going to go,” complains Caplan. “‘You’re going to go through this profound experience: It’s going to be so unlike anything in your life, and as soon as you are handed your baby, you are going to be flooded with bliss like you’ve never experienced.’ I don’t know anybody that had that experience. It’s something that feels novel to explore in a show like this.”

Libby’s traumas are subtler than Rachel’s but no less alienating, and Caplan digs into her character’s fear of growing old and being erased while stranded in the suburbs, longing for her 20-something self who chased love and a writing career in New York City. Caplan feels lucky not to be in Libby’s position lamenting her youth that got away.

Lizzy Caplan
Lizzy Caplan.

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“I don’t have too many regrets — I went hard in my youth,” she says. “I got married when I was 35 and had a kid when I was almost 40, so I got to really live my youth before making these decisions. But when you’re married, you’re like, ‘Oh s—, not only am I old enough to get married, but now I’m just married — and now it’s marriage, forever.’ I love being married — I’ve got no notes on marriage — but it does feel like a fairly universal experience to wake up and be like, ‘Whoa, what happened?’ For me, it’s like I blinked and eight years went by.”

Throughout much of “Fleishman,” Libby takes Toby’s side against the absent Rachel — she never really liked his wife — but just as the audience learns more about Rachel, so too does Libby. That shift in perspective, and the two women’s eventual bonding, is meaningful for Danes.


“I was very moved that they’re adversaries and have such distrust of each other — and then, ultimately, they recognize a lot of themselves in each other and become unlikely allies,” Danes says. “I think women, unfortunately, are pitted against each other a lot. I was very grateful to see that unification.”