Sunday, June 4, 2017

Master of None, Season 2, Episodes 9 and 10, “Amarsi Un Po’” and Buona Notte”

The final pair of episodes in season two of Master of None focuses largely on the romantic potential established between Dev and Francesca in episode five, thoroughly exploring the bittersweet feelings created by loving someone unavailable. They walk a razor’s edge between bliss and heartbreak as they grow closer and confront the ramifications of their feelings. Ultimately, it’s a moving story about how your emotions and your rationality can come into conflict, and how scary it can be when you don’t know whether or not to trust your feelings. We’re incrementally taken along the path Dev follows from resisting his feelings to embracing them despite the risks they entail.

One of the reasons the story works is the subtlety and nuance with which the episodes trace the range of feelings Dev and Francesca experience. The first half of episode nine is designed show us why Dev would let himself fall for Francesca even though he knows she’s unavailable. We can see it in small character touches: Francesca is up for Dev’s silliness, like when they playact an embarrassing fight in Washington Square Park, and he's smitten with her delight in America, like when she marvels over the variety of diarrhea medication in the pharmacy. Likewise, their body language is flirtatious; they often touch each other while talking, often a sure sign of mutual attraction.

Perhaps the best example of this is the day they spend together in the Storm King Art Center. They play well together, and their appreciation of the art is clearly enhanced by their appreciation of each other, especially when they lie in a bed of fallen leaves, and we see a near-POV close-up of Francesca: this is how Dev sees her, as a vision of loveliness. The entire scene deftly shows how everything is just a bit more alive when you’re with someone you love, conveyed in no small part by the wonderful cinematography, where the beauty of their surroundings matches their blissful feelings. Retrospectively, it also turns one of the shots from episode five, when they went to the Brooklyn museum, into a stylistic prefiguring of their later romance: the shot from the museum matches the many distant framings we see here.

However, Dev's love for Francesca is more than just a foolish embrace of feelings a wiser person would deny; the path is also paved by the little ways in which Francesca placates the rational part of his brain, revealing details about her relationship with her now-fiancé Pino. For instance, Francesca is pleased that a stranger thinks she and Dev are a couple, and Francesca reveals that she and Pino are arguing a lot, and that Pino takes everything for granted since their engagement. At the Storm King Art Center, Dev deliberately probes Francesca to see if she’s open to the idea of an alternative life path, and her responses are encouraging: she seems to view Pino and her life in Modena as constraints on her pursuit of something more fulfilling, and is nonplussed by his uninspired marriage proposal.

Pino is a fine example of the conventional “loser-in-love” character common to romances. These characters make the romantic couple that we root for seem more appealing by providing a negative point of comparison (in addition to creating pathos by making half of the couple unavailable). If the narrative doesn’t trust viewers to root for the two romantic leads, it will place a thumb on the scale we use measure our allegiance by giving the loser-in-love negative traits: they cheat on their partner, they lie, they’re abusive, etc. On the other hand, if the narrative trusts its viewers, as does Master of None, then the loser-in-love can be perfectly pleasant, but just not an ideal match. This describes Pino – he seems nice and is handsome, but is irredeemably boring, seeming to love stonework and tiling more than Francesca or anything else in life. Indeed, in episode ten, Francesca even tells Dev it would make things easier if Pino was cheating on her.

The point is emphasized when Dev goes to a party where Pino can’t talk about anything other than tiling with another luminary in his field. It’s an important scene, not only because it corroborates the hints Francesca dropped earlier about her discontent, but because she texts Dev about it as Pino talks. Nothing makes you feel like you have a special rapport with someone more than having a clandestine conversation at others’ expense, and even more so when that conversation takes place right in front of them. It’s yet more disarming behavior that weakens Dev’s rational resistance to falling for Francesca. Accordingly, Dev takes a romantic-leaning risk here, sending her a kissy face emoji, and is rewarded by a wink from Francesca. How could Dev not be encouraged by this behavior, and by Francesca’s earlier hints at discontent?

Along the way, these episodes make the best use yet of Arnold, who acts as Dev’s consigliore, offering sobering and helpful advice, which serves as much-needed ballast for Arnold’s frequent, puerile outbursts. Throughout both episodes, Arnold provides nice motivation for letting Dev make explicit a lot of the things that are hinted at in his encounters with Francesca, and for underscoring those moments that make Dev’s heart sing.

However, the potential pitfalls of Dev following his feelings also surface every once in a while too, like when Francesca texts Pino while she and Dev eat dinner (the text translates to “I love you see you tomorrow”), or when she’s affectionate with Pino at various points during the party. Later, after the weather forces Francesca and Dev to spend a night together at his apartment, the point is driven home most forcefully when Francesca reveals she’s been dating Pino for her entire adult life (ten years), and that he’s the only sex partner she’s ever had. The rational part of my brain leapt to attention here, and made my mouth blurt out, “Poison, Dev!”

Dev's feelings are poisonous because Francesca’s romantic history reveals not only how deep her connection to Pino runs (even if their romance has fizzled), but also how risk-averse she is: she didn’t sleep with someone else even when she and Pino were on breaks. Francesca simply doesn’t seem equipped to give Dev what he wants from her, even if she reciprocates his feelings to some degree. Dev plays it cool in the moment, but his registration of the dilemma is cleverly conveyed to us stylistically by another near-POV close up that rack focuses from Francesca’s face to the engagement ring on her hand, which might as well be a wall between them.

Nevertheless, Dev is in too deep at this point, and has let too many of his rational safeguards be dismantled, which of course has placed him in a tremendously precarious position. Dev describes it perfectly to Arnold as a horrible, stressful experience that is also simultaneously an amazing fantasy, one that could be shattered should he try to turn it into a reality. Dev is caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of continuing to feel this bittersweet love or having his hopes dashed. Although as Arnold counsels, Dev's dilemma is moot because she’ll be leaving soon, so he might as well give into his emotions and profess his feelings.

One of the nice things about how Master of None handles this romance is that it respects how difficult this is for Francesca too, making her emotions come alive. That’s what the scene at the dance club is about: she’s cold and distant because she feels guilty about her feelings for Dev, and thinks pushing him away might be the best solution. By the end of this scene she reveals that while she might think she’s a good match for Dev romantically, it’s still a difficult situation for both of them. Likewise, the episode makes another wise decision by finally widening our view of the situation and showing us Francesca independently of Dev, where she airs with Pino her doubts about their future. Both of these scenes substantiate Dev’s feelings by showing that she shares them, and that she’s just as unsure as him.

However, Dev doesn’t know it, at least not yet.* The final scene of the episode – a helicopter ride Dev promised Francesca when she first arrived a month ago – starts with a nice reversal of their emotional valences from the dance club. Here, Francesca is in a good mood, and Dev reticent. When she prompts him to tell her what’s bothering him, he finally musters the courage to confess his love, and she finally validates and reciprocates his feelings. It’s a nicely played scene by both Aziz Ansari and Alessandra Mastronardi: his relief is palpable, as is her anxiety over what to do next. Moreover, the scene is enhanced thematically by it taking place through the muffled sounds of the helicopter headsets: The headsets cut through the helicopter’s noise, much like how being straightforward and direct about their feelings cuts through Dev’s doubt and uncertainty (if not Francesca’s).

* Indeed, the dance club leaves him so uneasy he has a nightmare that literalizes his emotional vulnerability when Francesca rips his heart out of his chest and feeds it to a wood chipper. Gory, but accurate.

Episode ten, “Buona Notte,” picks up their romance where it left off. Francesca still feels conflicted, and doesn’t want to hurt Pino. As a way of testing whether or not they would be compatible had they met under more ideal circumstances, they do more playacting, dressing up Dev’s apartment to look like a bar so that they can “meet” and flirt with one another. This leads to possibly their most romantic scene together, where they dance to music Francesca selects, and where the lyrics – which she translates – could easily apply to her and Dev (or to her and Pino). Earlier in the helicopter ride, Francesca tells Dev she probably would have kissed him back had he tried to kiss her previously. Here, Francesca’s hypothesis is put to the test when Dev actually kisses her: she flees.

Later, she’s lured back to Dev’s by his professional disaster. It turns out that Chef Jeff’s accurate ability to relate to Dev’s potential for heartbreak actually comes from a creepy place: Chef Jeff is used to rejection because he’s a sexual harasser, and has a hard time taking no for an answer. When news of his behavior breaks, it jeopardizes the food show the two of them were about to launch. Dev frames his obvious disappointment within the broader perspective of the happiness Francesca brings him.

However, his love for her is not a safe harbor. She tries to explain to him that he’s made her unsure of what she wants for her future, but that the weight of the past is not easy to discard, and that she can’t throw it all away just to be with him. It's one thing to express dissatisfaction with you situation, but quite another to act on it. Probably the healthiest thing for her would be to get some distance from both Dev and Pino so that she can figure out what she wants out of her life. Dev can’t hear what she’s saying though: he tells her he simply feels used, even though it’s unfair to her. They fight, she leaves, and he sulks, stung by the sharp prick of rejection, and perhaps upset with himself for how he reacted.

His subsequent wound-licking session with Arnold is a sobering one. Arnold rightly makes Dev question whether he really thought it would work out with Francesca, considering all the pressure they’d be under if she actually left Pino for him and moved to New York. However, this is little consolation to Dev, who speaks truth to the pain of being rejected by someone you love: you feel more alone than you’ve ever felt before.

Later, the lists Dev makes also encapsulate very well the stories people can tell themselves to try to rationalize their pain. The first is a list of lies: she used him, she’s evil, etc. Comforting if he can trick himself into believing them, but hollow once he realizes them for the placations they are. The second is a list of truths (mostly):* everything he loves about her, how she made him feel, etc. It's this list that actually causes him pain – the amazing feelings he has when he’s with her have been weaponized against him. He can’t feel them anymore without bitterness, doubt, self-pity, and disappointment.

* This list concludes with “She doesn’t want you,” which speaks to how Dev still doesn’t quite understand that she’s not just weighing her happiness with him against her relationship with Pino, but that he's placing her under enormous pressure by asking her to jettison ten years of her life and her plans for her future on the basis of a few months of knowing Dev. I don't judge Dev too harshly though - it can be difficult to look past your own feelings when they're as painful as Dev's.

Had the episode ended this way, it would have been a sobering and unconventional story about learning to protect yourself against foolish emotions that will likely cause you heartbreak. But then the episode pivots into a surprise happy ending: Francesca returns to Dev, and the season ends with them gazing into each others' eyes. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand I’m happy for them and relieved Dev has been spared months of depression. Dev can come back to life again and enjoy all of those feelings he listed. On the other hand, everything Arnold tells Dev about the difficulty of their romance remains true: this will be a tough road to travel. The look on Francesca and Dev’s faces in the last shot is ambiguous enough that you can imagine they know it (shades of The Graduate here).

It’s also a road I’d really like to travel with them. In interviews, Aziz Ansari is very clear that he has no idea what a third season of this show would look like (he wants to have more life experiences first), so it seems just as likely that a new season would begin with them remaining together somewhere down the line as it would be for a new season to begin with them having broken up. Nevertheless, I’d love the chance to follow Francesca and Dev as they slalom around the challenges they’ve set for themselves.

Other thoughts:

- I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention episode eight, “Thanksgiving,” which is another nice story of love and acceptance where we see Denise coming out to her mother, with Dev being a goofball in the margins. Here Dev fulfills for Denise the role that Arnold fulfills for Dev in the final two episodes. Also, Angela Bassett is great, as usual.

- Dev’s relationship with Chef Jeff could easily be understood as an analogue for his relationship with Francesca: in both cases, Dev is following his feelings without seriously considering the potential pitfalls of the commitments he’s making. Look before you leap, into either romantic or business partnerships (or giant sandwiches). Both are risky ventures.

- Really, you might also read a parallel between Dev’s behavior with Francesca and Chef Jeff’s behavior with other women. Obviously, Dev is not a libidinous harasser like Chef Jeff, but he is trying to get Francesca to leave her fiancé for him, much like how in the story Dev’s friend Benjamin tells Dev, Chef Jeff tries to get a married woman to sleep with him (the woman in the story is even married to a guy with an Italian name, Matteo).

- The opening of episode nine, “Amarsi Un Po’,” quickly announces its romantic inclinations with magnificent shots of the nighttime New York cityscape, accompanied by the sweeping romantic ballad “Canzone per te,” by Sergio Endrigo. This opening will take on added significance retrospectively: these are shots from Dev and Francesca’s helicopter ride, when Dev is feeling the full thrush of his love for Francesca, and has it reciprocated. It's another dynamite music selection in a series full of them.

- Francesca once again provides a strong contrast with the dates Dev went on in episode four, this time when Dev criticizes Francesca for using a racist term (“curry person”) to refer to Indians. Dev similarly criticized Christine, who had a jar shaped like a mammy caricature, but unlike Christine, Francesca responds positively to the criticism (although it helps that Dev knows Francesca better… and that Dev didn’t make this criticism immediately after sleeping with her).

- There are some impressive long takes in episode nine: the first is when Francesca leads Dev through the pharmacy, expounding on the wonders of American plenty, and the second is when Dev and Francesca discuss Pino and Francesca’s plans for life. Both serve to unify Dev and Francesca spatially, emphasizing their connection. Nice direction by Ansari.

- Listen to the conversation that Pino, Arnold, and the tile luminary have while Dev and Francesca send secret texts. It needs to be uninteresting so that we're better able to concentrate on the texts, but it's also pretty funny - they try to sell Arnold on custom tiling parts of his apartment in the shape of an animal.

- I enjoyed Aziz Ansari’s performance here more than anything I’ve seen him in previously. He managed to make his screen persona well-motivated here, like when does a little song and dance after he notices Francesca texting him back.

- It’s an old trope that television series set in New York feature apartments that are nicer than what their characters would be able to realistically afford, and Master of None seems no exception. Not only is Dev’s place palatial, but Arnold’s apartment is nice as well (although it’s unclear what Arnold actually does for a living). On the other hand, in episode six, "New York, I Love You," we see four immigrants sharing a small apartment, so there's some verisimilitude here as well.

- It’s more than just a nice fantasy when Dev and Francesca dream of replacing the characters in one of L’avventura's love scenes: it’s also thematically appropriate, as the film is about the attraction a man and a woman start to feel for each other as they search for the man’s missing fiancé. The moment where Francesca replaces Monica Vitti's Claudia is the moment in L'Avventura when the lovers finally give into their feelings for one another, forgoing the pretense of their search.

- I like that we get three versions of Dev’s confession of love: once when he practices it with Arnold, once in his nightmare when Francesca literally rips out his heart, and then a third time in the helicopter.

- More nice cinematography: Dev walking down the center of snow-lined streets, and the blue and red mood lighting that make’s Dev’s apartment to look like a bar.

- I also enjoyed how Dev’s nightmare brought back the random stranger who briefly enjoyed barbeque with Dev and his cousin in episode three.

- Perhaps I should not have been surprised that Francesca returns to Dev at the end of the season. After all, could she really be happy staying with Santino from John Wick 2?

- Danielle Brooks brings somewhat of a cartoonish vibe to the show with her performance as Dev’s agent Shannon, but it works for her one on-screen scene this season, where she searches Dev’s face/soul to determine whether or not he’s a “pervert” like Chef Jeff.

- Chalk up Dev running into Rachel, his ex-girlfriend from season one, to the old adage, "when it rains, it pours." She's possibly the worst person he could encounter while he's sulking over Francesca. This is the most alone and vulnerable he’s ever felt, and she’s the last person to whom he’d want to reveal his misery. They briefly exchange pleasantries, but everything Dev tells her is a lie.

- They motivate Francesca’s last minute decision to return to Dev well enough by having her do exactly what Arnold cautions Dev against: scrolling through photos and videos of her and Dev’s time together. However, I wanted just a little more from Francesca, either here or in "Amarsi Un Po'," to make this seem more plausible. Maybe she demonstrates a bit more daring, or a bit more risk-inclination than the characterization we get of her. Maybe she espouses a philosophy about it never being too late to change, or we see her make a list. Or maybe I just wanted to see more emotion from Francesca.

- Also, while I appreciated the surprise of seeing Francesca and Dev in bed together, I also would have liked to have seen the moment where they reunite, just to get a slightly bigger slice of that catharsis (although I’m glad we’re spared the scene of her leaving Pino).

No comments:

Post a Comment