Ben Rosenstock: 'Love' and the weaponization of grand romantic gestures

Sunday, March 26, 2017 - 2:57pm

NOSELL

Netflix

 

If you first stumbled upon the Netflix series “Love” and had only seen its title, you might assume it’s something completely different from what it actually is. The title “Love” seems well-suited for an anthology series, an ensemble show surveying different kinds of love and relationships — a TV equivalent of “Love, Actually,” or something like Netflix’s own “Easy.”

In reality, though, the title “Love” should be read sarcastically; it should come equipped with a set of quotation marks around it, to emphasize that what we’re seeing isn’t meant to be a romantic tale of soul mates who find each other and live happily ever after. Or maybe the quotes aren’t necessary. Maybe, by leaving the quotes out, creators Judd Apatow ("Crashing"), Lesley Arfin ("Girls") and Paul Rust ("Comedy Bang! Bang!") are telling us that this is the reality of love. It might be different from the romantic notions most of us have, but it’s the way it is.

The clearest examples of how “Love” subverts traditional rom-com expectations lie in the ending of each season. The first season ends with a confrontation between Mickey and Gus, our two 30-something Los Angelenos trying to make it work. Mickey calmly explains to Gus why they can’t be together, at least right now: She’s a sex and love addict, hopping from relationship to relationship because something inside her believes that they will give her life meaning. How does Gus respond? Does he nod in understanding and drive home to leave her alone? No. He kisses her. Cut to credits.

It’s the grand romantic gesture, the explosive, joyful climax to a romance movie — except it isn’t. It’s clear to everyone watching that this isn’t the right choice, for neither Gus nor Mickey. By kissing Mickey, Gus is basically handing a fifth of vodka to an alcoholic, just because he doesn’t want to drink alone. Not even shitty vodka, like Crystal Palace. I’m talking good vodka. Gus is handing Mickey a chilled bottle of Grey Goose. (Let’s be honest: I don’t drink Grey Goose. My idea of ‘good vodka’ is pink lemonade Burnett’s. I’ll make sure to go back and revise this piece in ten years, once I’ve learned what adults actually drink.)

Season two similarly ends with a strategic act of manipulation, disguised as a grand romantic gesture. This time, the script is flipped: Gus is, for once, honest with Mickey, and she’s the manipulator. Gus explains early that day that he now realizes how suffocating and impatient he has been with her. It’s a rare moment of genuine growth for the character — and it comes at precisely the wrong time.

Mickey has already fallen back into her ex-boyfriend Dustin’s arms. She tries to frantically fix things, dumping Dustin and running back to Gus, but the damage is done. Instead of being honest with Gus, she abruptly suggests that they be in a committed relationship, dragging him into another room to have sex just so her hiding ex-boyfriend can make a quick escape. Mickey is pulling a page from Gus’s book, weaponizing affection and commitment just to get what she wants.

If the show’s creators were looking for a longer sardonic title, they could’ve chosen “Love Conquers All.” Gus and Mickey’s hasty, unwise romantic gestures aren’t just manipulative tools used to cure their loneliness and cover up their secrets. More broadly, their reliance on declarations of love and commitment is a symptom of our “love conquers all” culture. Countless romantic comedies tell us that all you really need to make a relationship work is love; if you love each other enough, any obstacle can be surmounted. In reality, of course, love isn’t the only factor that determines the success of a relationship.

Everyone in “Love” wants to rush to the happy ending. They want to put in motion the narratives they’ve conceived of for themselves that invariably end with happiness. Gus thinks he can ignore the danger of Mickey’s addiction, because he thinks he’s an exception; he constantly plays the hero, imagining Mickey as a puzzle he can solve. Mickey rejects this condescending notion, even though a part of her wants to believe he can fix her.

Even Dustin has his own narrative of how things play out. During the second season finale, he repeatedly tries to win Mickey over, telling her, “This is the story we’re going to tell our kids. ‘Your mom was dating a loser, and I chased after her.’” Dustin thinks of himself as the hero of this story the same way Gus does.

To Dustin, Gus and even Mickey, the grand romantic gesture is the final move in their hero’s journey; commitment is synonymous with happiness. After that, everything will somehow be better. And if it isn’t, well, at least there’s the comfort of familiarity. “They say that you go back to painful situations because they’re comfortable and familiar,” Mickey tells her roommate Bertie, reflecting on her dalliance with Dustin. “I hear that,” Bertie agrees, before saying one of the funniest lines of the season: “Sometimes when I’m in pain, I’m like, ‘Hello, old friend.’”

What the characters don’t understand, but what “Love” itself understands, is that you can’t really earn those grand romantic gestures until you’ve put in the work and experienced all the little things first. The purest moments of romance in the second season happen in episodes four and five, when practicality and low-key sweetness outweigh romantic ambition.

In an episode titled “Shrooms,” while sitting together in bed, Gus tells Mickey she’s beautiful, like a movie star from the ’30s. She tells him he’s beautiful, too, and he scoffs, saying, “No, you don’t have to say that. I know I’m not one of the beautiful people. I’ve got this nose … it’s weird-looking, and big.” Mickey tells him that she loves his nose. It’s a beautiful, understated moment — simpler than a grand romantic gesture, but more sincere.

That same vibe pervades the following episode, “A Day.” “A Day” follows the model of other masterful episodes like “Looking for the Future” from “Looking,” or “Nashville” from “Master of None.” Gus and Mickey just hang out for a while, getting to really know each other. For once, they’re able to just exist together, to have good conversations and make each other laugh and learn how much they actually like each other, complicated hero complexes and toxic self-sabotage briefly set aside.

It’s unclear how “Love” will end. Maybe next season will end on a real grand romantic gesture, a genuine one, free of ulterior motives. Maybe it’ll be a low-key moment, like one of the many that fill the early episodes of season two. Or maybe “Love” will end with Gus and Mickey realizing that they’re not right for each other, and they’ll break up.

Regardless, if Gus and Mickey ever want to be in a happy relationship, they’ll need to stop thinking of love as a solution to all their problems. Love shouldn’t be deployed like a last-resort nuclear option; it should be experienced slowly, patiently. What matters the most isn’t the kiss at the end of the story. It’s the sunny afternoons in the middle, warm days that go on forever and still feel like they’re over too soon.