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Looking at Looking, Week Six

Ellen Cushing | February 24, 2014 | Story

WELP. This week's episode of Looking brought the dRaMa, and it was all the more can't-look-away-compelling for the fact that the show has, up until now at least, gone in big for naturalism and quietude and small moments. The show spent its first five episodes lighting fuses and having the confidence that viewers would be willing to wait for the payoff; this week, many of those slow-burning strings exploded at once, brilliantly. Even the title of this episode—"Looking in the Mirror"—hints at the fact that this is a major inflection point for this season's arc: If the show in general is fascinated with self-loathing and self-delusion and the conflict between the person we think we are and the person we actually are, perhaps no episode thus far has drawn that out quite as starkly as this one. Dom is staring himself (and his sexual habits) in the face on his fortieth birthday and not necessarily liking what he sees. Patrick is still being forced to reckon with his issues surrounding relationships and he and Richie's (considerable) cultural divides, trying desperately (and, of course, failing) to be the kind of guy who can have the boyfriend-boyfriend talk or introduce a new partner to his friends without immediately spiraling into an anxiety attack. And in by far this episode's most compelling plotline, Agustín confronts some deep-seated ugliness, with disastrous results.

Let's start with Patrick. After last week's courtship, he and Richie appear to be spending a lot of time together, and Patrick is nervously prepping him to meet his friends. He accidentally (or maybe on purpose) calls Richie his boyfriend, which results in a back-and-forth that's tender and totally believable. (Patrick also reveals that he and Dom once slept together). Richie tells Patrick he's into it and gives him an escapulario as a token of his affection. It's completely adorbs, but Patrick's bone-deep uneasiness is obviously afoot, though it's not totally clear how it'll manifest.

Meanwhile, Dom is having dinner with Lynn and some of his friends, possible investors in Dom's chicken start-up. Dom embarrasses himself slightly by inadvertently making fun of one of their friends. It's uncomfortable to watch, Dom's detached hipster irony—clearly a well-honed defense mechanism—butting up awkwardly against their sincerity. We quickly learn that it's Dom's fortieth birthday, and that he's ... not taking it well. "Grindr sends you a death certificate on your fortieth birthday," he sniffs, somewhat insensitively to the much-older Lynn. And Agustín is having feels about that quote-unquote art project he's working on with CJ, the rent boy from two episodes ago. Despite the idea looking more like a disingenuous attempt to get CJ to sleep with him, for some reason a lot of Agustín's artistic self-esteem is riding on this photo series, which partially explains why he lashes out at Frank.

Everything intersects at Dom's Dolores Park birthday party the next day. Patrick introduces Richie to his friends, who are all lovely, except for Agustín. Within about thirty seconds, he makes fun of Richie and Patrick's matching necklaces and rebuffs Richie's well-meaning attempt at forging a bond by speaking in Spanish (which seems to suggest that Agustín, who is Cuban-American and grew up presumably wealthy in Coral Gables, wants to distance himself from the more working-class Richie, and which adds an unsavory, classist layer to Agustín's calling Richie a "cholo" back in episode 2). There is a piñata, and Agustín buys some truffles from the truffle guy, which is awesome, though nobody appears to get high. Talk soon moves to Patrick's outgoing voicemail, which is deemed by everyone to be incredibly gay. Things escalate, and before long Patrick is prancing around Dolores Park in a horrifying burlesque of the kind of gay man it's clear he's secretly terrified of becoming. It's a smart echo of Patrick's differentiation of himself from "those gays who hook up in the park" from the pilot (not to mention a brilliant coda to the bottoming discussion from last week), and it manages to tell you more about Patrick's self-loathing—and about the show's utter fearlessness—than anything else Looking has thrown at us thus far. After all, it's hard to imagine another show—let alone one about a marginalized group—so confidently and so honestly mining its main character's internalized shame for the grotesque; as hard as the scene is to watch, it's completely brilliant.

Anyway: As Patrick is doing this, he runs into his boss, Kevin, and the boss' boyfriend, who is revealed to be a) incredibly attractive, b) a doctor, and c) moving to SF. It's a stilted encounter, for sure: Patrick fails to introduce Richie as his boyfriend, which is telling, and then Kevin asks Richie is he cuts hair "for a living," which comes off not unkindly, but which still serves as a reminder of the unremarked-upon indignities Richie continues to face around Patrick's friends. Kevin and his boyfriend depart, but at that point Agustín goes off on Patrick, telling him he's "slumming it," leading Richie on. It's an unbelievably charged moment, all of Agustín's self-hatred (and, you have to assume, jealousy of Richie) twisting into ugliness, and Patrick just standing there and taking it, protesting not quite enough for the viewer or Agustín to believe what's being said is entirely untrue. Richie, of course, hears this, and confronts Agustín, who slinks away to CJ and Frank, who are looking cozy. "I'm such an asshole," he says, finally approaching some semblance of honest self-reflection for the first time in a long time.

That evening finds each of the characters flailing in some way or another, fighting against their nature. Dom finds out that Lynn's friends have decided not to invest in his restaurant and is visibly disappointed until Lynn offers to fund a pop-up. Dom being Dom, and therefore incapable of not seeing sex as a proxy for all feelings, he goes in for a kiss, but Lynn—who is swiftly becoming my favorite character—wisely turns him down. Agustín and Frank are at home with CJ, and apparently Agustín's dream of a threesome is coming true—except it's kind of backfiring, at least insofar as Frank and CJ seem to be more interested in each other than in Agustín, who is unhappily third-wheeling it. And Patrick and Richie are debriefing Agustín's outburst, with Richie (rightfully) calling Patrick out for not leaping to his defense, and Patrick placating him in his dopey, overly compensatory Patrick way—in this case, by inviting him to his sister's wedding despite the fact that the idea will obviously cause him major anxiety. The show closes, conveniently/perfectly enough, with Patrick staring at himself in the half-darkness, fiddling with the escapulario, his expression unreadable.

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