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Looking at Looking, Week Seven

Ellen Cushing | March 4, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

"OMG did you watch Looking," read the text I received from a friend this morning. "So stressful."

Which is a bit of a strange way to describe a television comedy, but also: SO SO ACCURATE. This week's episode was brimming over with anxiety—even the camerawork felt crammed and claustrophobic, the settings (a wedding, a mountain, a very-soon-to-open restaurant) heightened, and the lighting more extreme. It was also Looking's best episode yet.

Last night was a testament to the narrative velocity of creating good characters and letting their relationships build organically, not to mention a total rebuke to everyone who ever accused this show of being boring. Even if, in individual episodes, this show has had few huge, game-changing, holy-moly moments in the manner of Girls, there's now absolutely no doubt its characters will end this season in a different place than they started. The quietude we've seen thus far wasn't slowness—it was a set-up. Looking spent its first five episodes slowly pushing its characters up a mountain. Now they're rolling down head-over-heels.

It's completely thrilling to watch.

Patrick is characteristically anxious, though this time it's for a slightly-more-legit reason than usual: It's his sister's wedding, which means his parents will be meeting Richie for the first time. Of course, the ONLY REASON THIS IS HAPPENING is because Patrick invited Richie to the wedding as a sort of over-compensatory apology by proxy for not sticking up for him in front of Agustín, but whatevs. Patrick is petulant and rude to his mother on Skype in that particular way that we are only when interacting with our parents, and though you can sense a little bit of awkwardness in her tentative description of Richie as Patrick's "friend," the dominant tension comes from their fundamental dynamic, not out deep-seated homophobia on the part of the mom. I was on set as this scene was being filmed and referenced it in my big write-up of the show back in January. I still stand by it as an excellent example of the show's writing at its most economical, each line shuddering with restless energy as Patrick and his mother's various neuroses pinball off of each other.

Richie then arrives, clean-shaven (!!!), coffee-stained, and roughly as nervous as anyone so terminally chill will ever be. Patrick is insufferable and Richie is generally, wonderfully tolerant. To a point, that is: Richie finally walks away after suggesting Patrick smoke a J, to which Patrick completely loses his shit. Patrick is being a grade-A crazo (if there's one rule in this life, it's never turn down an attractive man with a joint) so this is clearly for the best. Richie is left to, presumably, walk home alone across the Golden Gate Bridge?

Patrick heads to the wedding alone, only to find that Kevin's there too. This is the show's first and hopefully only foray into BS sitcom-y emotional deus ex machina stuff—how is it possible that Patrick and Kevin talked about the fact that they were going to a wedding that weekend and didn't manage to put it together that it was the same wedding?—and Patrick's mom's assumption that Kevin is Richie reads a little like the kind of all-too-neat metaphor the show has generally done a good job of avoiding. Not only is it a reminder of Patrick and Kevin's undeniable chemistry (and foreshadowing of what's to come for Team #Kevrick?!), it's a split-second encapsulation of everything Patrick wishes the first guy he brings to meet his parents was—accomplished, affable, capable of tying a bow tie, upper-middle class, and white. There's an intentionality to this show, and it usually works—it's of a piece with that narrative economy, this feeling that nothing is not on purpose, though in this case it's all a little too pat. Possibly worth it, though, because it reminds us once again just how deeply uncomfortable Patrick is about Richie's race and class.

I've written before about my admiration of the way this show treats these issues, and this episode is a great example: It's honest about the tension that arises when you date someone who's in some way "different," but it's also honest about how much of that tension is self-inflicted and self-perpetuating. It allows Patrick believable anxiety about Richie's race without making him some caricature of a racist—but without letting him off the hook, either. Patrick poses awkwardly in some photos, all the while starting at Kevin and his hunky BF.

Over in the Mission, Dom is also losing his shit, in his case because he's frantically trying to open his peri-peri pop-up with something like 28 hours to spare. It's a near-perfect echo of Patrick's behavior from earlier in the episode, with a stress-out Dom lashing out at everyone around him.

Agustín, meanwhile, is in a different kind of hell of his own making: He's spent a ton of money he doesn't have to hire CJ, lied about it to Frank, and created art that we're led to believe isn't even that good. On a hike (Tam?), Agustín tells Frank that he bowed out of the group show he was supposed to be in, and you can pretty much immediately tell what's going to happen. Frank gets (rightfully) mad, Agustín gets snippy and defensive before admitting that he paid CJ to have sex with Frank, which makes Frank even more, even rightfully-er mad, and soon enough they've broken up. It's heart-rending in its inevitability.

Back at the wedding, Patrick's sister tells Kevin she's going to "make" his boyfriend propose to him. The sister is clearly well-meaning, giddily trying to spread her own happiness around, but there's a kind of condescension implicit in her assumption that Kevin and John even want to get married, and it's a cringe-worthy exchange. This is, after all, a heady moment in time for gay men and weddings, and in this scene the show captures brilliantly something the series' creator, Michael Lannan, and I talked about: “Marriage equality presents a really strange situation for people like me," he said. "I’m 36, and I grew up thinking that never in my lifetime would I ever be able to get married. And then everything changes, and I face the same pressure from my parents that my sisters face. We try to play on that in the show.”

Patrick, Kevin, and John are suddenly faced with a set of options they've never had before—both generally, and, in this episode, literally, given that this is likely the first time any of them have ever been to a wedding after the widespread acceptance of gay marriage—and you can read the ambivalence on their faces as Patrick's sister prattles on. (This idea is reintroduced at the very end of the episode, when Patrick's dad asks him if he wants a wedding). It's hard to tell, in this scene, whether John and Kevin laugh off Patrick's sister's suggestion because their relationship is too young for marriage or because they're fundamentally opposed to the idea, but it adds a macro layer to this season's thematic fascination with conformity, especially Patrick's ceaseless desire to be accepted. Patrick calls Richie to apologize and gets his voicemail. Also, we find out that instead of an actual wedding cake, there's a mountain of cake pops, which makes a truly huge amount of sense given what we know about the sister.

After the ceremony, Patrick discovers his mom eating a pot brownie. It's a clever—if somewhat obvious—allusion to Richie's joint from earlier in the episode, and it's the first real hint that for all the show has told us about Patrick's fraught relationship with his mom, for all of the mom's snobbery early on in the episode, she's not quite as uptight as she looks. When Patrick tells her that he doesn't think she'd like Richie, you can hear the hurt in her voice as she asks why not. Patrick has spent the whole season—and probably his whole life—assuming that his mom will judge him and his choices, but he's the judgmental one in this scene, essentially dismissing Richie's lack of ambition as she tries her hardest to be supportive, noting that Patrick's dad didn't have any money when they met, either. She admits to having not handled Patrick's coming out very well, and she's obviously a little uneasy about his sexual orientation even several years later, and the coded "they're just like you" reference to Kevin and John is not cute—but she's trying, and Patrick is underestimating her every step of the way. He somewhat preposterously blames her for his being a dick to Richie earlier, and she swats him down like a boss. Patrick has devoted so much energy to thinking his anxiety comes from his mother that he's stunned when she suggests it's at least partly of his own making.

The show ends on a somber note, with everyone being forced to stew in the respective messes they've created for themselves. Agustín walks into a darkened apartment, no Frank to be found. Dom stands alone in the pop-up restaurant after having alienated Lynn and been given some much needed #realtalk from Doris about his said alienation. And Kevin drunkenly tries to kiss Patrick in the bathroom, which was inevitable given the growing flirtation between the two of them—but Patrick, to his credit, pushes Kevin away, thereby holding the shippers at bay for at least a week. (For the record, I am totally on team #Patchie!) The final scene finds him looking wrecked and sitting with his dad in the empty reception hall.

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