When I say “well played” about this cover, I’m not even necessarily talking about the ACTUAL cover itself.

Although it is quite good. (Man, Vanity Fair DOES love a swimming pool.) I wish her face didn’t look quite so much like she’s staring into bright sunlight, fighting to keep her eyes from betraying that, but let’s face it: I have trouble with that myself, and if my face handled it even a fraction this well, I would be content. But she looks great in that oddball striped garment — stripes ARE the way to our hearts, no? — which is cut and positioned JUST SO CAREFULLY to show enough boob to remind us she’s still a foxy lady in her prime. And her hair is A-plus. Basically, this is the proto-Garner, the one I think all her fans wanted to see after the fire swamp that was her split and divorce: sunny, happy, America’s Sweetheart. It works.

The story, though. The story is a PR masterstroke — and I’m not saying that to be cynical, or because I think any of it is manufactured. I think “honest” and “brilliant f’ing PR” are not mutually exclusive terms. I’m actually complimenting the ENTIRE THING and I applaud her for doing it. She manages to address her personal life without uttering a single thing that will someday be excruciating for her children to read, and that is a feat not often achieved, especially not by a person who has cause to feel as wrung-out as Jennifer Garner does. And yet I think she HAD to address it, because of this widespread perception that she might be the sadsack in this scenario. She had to take back a little dignity, because when people weren’t busy excoriating her for hiring an attractive nanny (an argument I LOATHE, by the way; how in EARTH is it her fault that neither Ben nor the nanny kept it professional? WHY is that even an argument people are making? It’s offensive to me. COME ON), they often seemed to be feeling sorry for her that she was so blind. I never bought that she was; just that she really, really, REALLY wanted to hold that thing together with whatever duct tape and miracles she could, but something finally gave. She took back some of that narrative here, with subtle shade that doesn’t play as if it’s weaponized.

“I didn’t marry the big fat movie star; I married him,” she says. “And I would go back and remake that decision. I ran down the beach to him, and I would again. […] He’s the love of my life. What am I going to do about that? He’s the most brilliant person in any room, the most charismatic, the most generous. He’s just a complicated guy. I always say, ‘When his sun shines on you, you feel it.’ But when the sun is shining elsewhere, it’s cold. He can cast quite a shadow.”

That is as good an explanation as any as to why she’d stay in a marriage that was rumored to be on the rocks so many times, and I think everyone reading has loved another person that way at least once in his or her life — where the crumbs of attention, however big or small, are so gratifying that you can also convince yourself that they’re fulfilling.

“We still have to help each other get through this. He’s still the only person who really knows the truth about things. And I’m still the only person that knows some of his truths.”

That is a just a nicely delivered dun-dun-DUNNNN moment. It is natural to want to be like, “Psst, by the way, YOU DON’T KNOW THE HALF OF IT Y’ALL. SOMEDAY OVER DRINKS.” Also, she would totally be fun to have a drink with, I think. There’s a part in here where she talks about watching the oeuvre of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to help calm her down and cheer her up, and that is ALSO something pretty much everyone has done, and implies you and she could get drunk and quote 30 Rock or Ron Swanson together well into the night.

“No one needs to hate him for me. I don’t hate him. Certainly we don’t have to beat the guy up. Don’t worry—my eyes were wide open during the marriage.”

That a) makes the world her best ladypal, in a “we’re all in this together, it’s okay, you’re still allowed to enjoy his movies” kind of way — and b) is also a clear response to people who thought she was deluding herself. It’s the “no pity required” comment, and it was wise.

Garner’s parents have been married for 51 years. When I ask her if there was a turning point in her own marriage, where she couldn’t work any harder, she tells me, with emotion in her voice, “That’s a really hard question. I’m a pretty hard worker. It’s one of the pains in my life that something I believe in so strongly I’ve completely failed at twice. You have to have two people to dance a marriage. My heart’s a little on the tender side right now, and it’s always easier to focus on the ways that you feel hurt, but I know that, with time and some perspective, I’ll have a clearer sense of where I let the system down, because there’s no way I get off in this.”

And THAT is brilliant because you read that and think, “Wow, you are awesome for not basically using this interview to light him on fire.”

One thing is for sure: she refuses to claim responsibility for the midlife-crisis tattoo—the rising phoenix—that takes up her estranged husband’s entire back, as seen in photographs. “You know what we would say in my hometown about that? ‘Bless his heart.’ A phoenix rising from the ashes. Am I the ashes in this scenario?” Garner says with a wink. “I take umbrage. I refuse to be the ashes.”

That’s the last line, or as I said when I read it, “MIC DROP.” She turns herself into the protagonist without actually doing the “missing sensitivity chip” thing Jennifer Aniston so famously said of Brad Pitt. Aniston’s was pithy, but Garner’s went one better. Hers makes her the hero, not the victim. It’s just really, really well done. And whether she did it on the fly, or said it on the phone to her mother two weeks ago so it was right on her tongue, or she came up with it in the car on her way over while she was mulling what the hell she was going to say about the damn back tat… I don’t know, but damn, Jen, you know your way around a kicker. [Edited to add: I write this whole thing before I saw the Lainey piece, which points out Aniston said that in HER post-divorce interview with Vanity Fair.]

Bravo, Jen. I truly think this does everything her camp could’ve hoped for and more. This type of thing probably seems like it should be a slam dunk, because of how gross he came off, but it’s a tightrope and she walks it with fluency. It does not villify the father of her children; she reads as self-aware and self-analytical and bruised and strong and optimistic, all at once. Only the people who know Garner would be able to tell how much she’s BS’ing, if at all, but every answer reads like she is baring herself wholly. And she’s doing it in the most relatable ways. It’s quite possible Jennifer Garner herself as a human, simply by BEING Jennifer Garner, Human Person, is her own best PR strategy. And if it’s all an act, which I don’t personally believe but I’m sure someone will… well, then it’s apt that this came out on Oscar weekend, because she should get one.

What do you make of it? The full story is here, along with a slideshow of other photographs.