By Michael Gold
The Baltimore Sun
9:32 AM EST, March 3, 2014
"Looking for a Plus-One" is brimming with restless energy. Shots are packed with background action and extras. The camera moves almost constantly. And when it’s static, the episode’s characters certainly aren’t. As Patrick prepares for his sister’s wedding, Dom organizes his peri-peri pop-up and Agustin readies for his long-foreshadowed reckoning, their anxiety spills into the screen.
After a deliberately slow first half, "Looking" has been on a kind of free-fall to next Sunday’s season finale — which , thankfully, will not be the end of the series. Tensions between characters keeps building as the show’s rhythm picks up, but resolution has yet to come. Larger gestures keep things in check, Patrick’s "be my plus one" invite being the most obvious example. But frustrations keep piling on top of each other, making every interaction between the men of "Looking" loaded. With friendships and romances already so strained and outside pressures suddenly coming to a head, it’s no wonder everyone's on edge.
Nobody more overtly than Patrick. Patrick's mother has been referenced in a handful of episodes, and it's clear she is exerting an influence on Patrick's life, even from Colorado. So at first it's nice to see her in the flesh — or at least over a MacBook screen, since the two are talking over Skype as they finish getting dressed. That's a little creepy, but it's also a little validating: Yes, Patrick is neurotic, but so his is mother, to the point that she needs to harangue him about showing up to the church on time minutes before the wedding.
The two proceed to stress each other out: Patrick bats down his mom's worries about traffic. His mom expresses concern that Richie's placecard says "Richard" instead of "Richie." (The two are eerily similar, a point only driven home by a shot that shows Patrick struggling with his bow tie as his mother fiddles with her earrings. Their motions are almost unison.)
Throughout their conversation, there's really only one gender-specific moment. "We're very excited to meet your... friend," she says, apparently unable to bring herself to say the word "boyfriend." Otherwise, Patrick's panic over Richie meeting his family is perfectly mundane. It's not that he's bringing a boy to a family function for the first time ever that seems to worry him, but what his mother will think of a guy who is just "Richie" and not "Richard." Who is a cosmetologist with no higher education rather than a doctor, lawyer or video-game software exec. One of the major coups of "Looking" was how quickly Patrick and Richie's relationship strengthened in the hermetic "Looking for the Future," only for their connection to fray as elements were re-introduced to their world. First, it was friends. This week, family.
Still, if Richie wasn't sweating meeting Patrick's friends last week, it's clear the prospect of his boyfriend's family has him stressing to the max. Clue one: He shaves, an act clearly meant to transform him into the kind of clean-cut man sure to meet parental approval. (It also makes him look disturbingly more like Patrick, as if he's re-working himself in the other man's image.) Clue two: How frantic he is about the coffee stain on his shirt, the first in a series of farcical setbacks as Patrick tries to get to his sister's wedding across the Golden Gate Bridge. Clue three: The pot he brought with him to calm his nerves.
It's the pot that pushes Patrick over the edge. He's a nice WASP-y boy going to meet his nice WASP-y family at a nice WASP-y wedding. That Richie would bring pot with him is unthinkable, and that he'd suggest Patrick take a (well-needed) toke even more so. When Patrick says as much, Richie walks off, leaving a frantic Patrick to face his family alone.
Well, not quite alone, because it turns out Kevin's at the wedding too (his boyfriend is, in an act of TV magic, college buddies with Patrick's-brother-in-law-to-be). It's Kevin who puts Patrick at ease and reassures him. And it's Kevin who, unlike Richie, knows how to tie a bow tie. Essentially, he's the kind of man Patrick would proudly present to his parents, were Kevin not taken.
But Kevin is taken, a fact driven home to Patrick when his sister jokes about getting Kevin's boyfriend to propose. Seeing the two together, and how happy they are, leads him to call Richie and apologize. It almost seems like he's learned something.
Still, Patrick's not totally willing to admit fault. He tells Kevin he's erred, but he later blames his mother for Richie's absence. "You're the real reason he's not here tonight," he tells her in a fairly hackneyed conversation. "Richie's not sick. I was a jerk to him today because I was so nervous about introducing him to you because he's not the kind of person you want me to be with."
But, as Patrick's mother points out, she's not the problem: Patrick is. His description of Richie is the most telling moment in the episode: "He cuts hair in a shitty barber shop, and he has no real ambition other than to do just that and play the bass guitar." Last week, Patrick committed a kind of betrayal by misrepresenting Richie as entrepreneurial and failing to defend him. This week, he goes a step further and is explicitly dismissive of his boyfriend's life. If Patrick weren't so uncomfortable with how mismatched he and Richie look on paper, he might be more confident about his parent's approval. Instead, he pits the concern he might be selling himself short on his mother. She's not having it, and after a cliche "call me more often," she leaves him to think about how he dug his own grave.
The one character who doesn't seem at fault tonight is Dom, who comes off as the most sympathetic character in "Looking for a Plus-One." That's probably because his stress doesn’t come entirely from self-destructive decisions, but from self-imposed pressure. Everything hinges entirely on the success of the Portuguese chicken pop-up he’s holding in a shabby San Francisco eatery. That he is snippy with his friends and supporters is entirely understandable: Dom has hitched his self-actualization to one night, and he’s in over his head. It makes sense that he’d freak out about not blowing it.
Maybe that's why the simmering conflict between Dom and business-partner Lynn feels like it came out of left field. Director Jamie Babbitt and writer John Hoffman do a stellar job portraying the frenetic prepration required to turn Punjab Chinese (how's that for fusion) into a peri-peri joint, and with so much action in the background, it's hard to imagine Dom finding time for hurt feelings. Any initial friction looks driven from personality differences: Dom’s panicking, so he’s flitting from task-to-task, while Lynn stays calm and collected. (It’s striking how Dom can look so mature next to Patrick and Agustin, but so juvenile when he's talking to Lynn.)
So when Dom keeps pushing back against Lynn's business-savvy advice ("part of what we're selling here is you," Lynn tells him), Lynn finally takes him outside and schools him. "I am your partner in this," he says, "or is there something else that's on your mind? Are you angry with me?" Dom's stays silent and meet's Lynn's eyes, suggesting he is. So Lynn walks away, figuring if Dom wants to take Lynn's money and run the show, let him.
Lynn's not the only well-intentioned person to exit the picture. After six episodes of basically being the world's worst person, of constantly shifting blame onto others and lying to others, Agustin finally gets what's coming to him. At the beginning of "Looking for a Plus-One," he is showing his photos of Frank and CJ sleeping together to Dom and Patrick. The two react pretty much as you'd expect, so Agustin does what he always does: Turns the lens around at his critics.
It doesn't work. Dom's too freaked out about his restaurant to take the bait, and Patrick doesn't even want to hear Richie's name come out of his ex-roommate's mouth. (The way Patrick insists Agustin stop talking smack about Richie without pinpointing specific accusations feels a little hollow, but at least the guy is showing some backbone.) So Patrick lays the problem out for Agustin: He paid $220 for a hooker to sleep with his boyfriend while he filmed it in the name of art.
Something finally clicks. Agustin has pushed his best friend away. He has been lying to his boyfriend. He presumably spent fortunes on a male escort for an ill-defined art project that just isn't coming together. Then, he tangled his relationship up with his bizarre infatuation with the rent boy in question. The photos of CJ and Frank are a testament to how spectacularly he is floundering, and so he pulls out of the show rather than display them to the world.
The rock bottom comes when Agustin finally mans up to Frank. We haven't seen much of Frank this season, but he has clearly been a devoted boyfriend. He got Agustin space in a gallery, he indulged his sexual proclivities both in the pilot and in a filmed threesome. So he has every right to be furious to see Agustin throw the opportunity away.
It's a testament to how well the writers of "Looking" know their characters that Agustin doesn't lie quietly and take the rebuke. He responds to Frank's anger with absurd indignation, trying to make the fight about Frank pushing him into the show, saying "I don't need you to [effing] save me, I need you to... just be there for me." (A line that sounds way too similar to Dom's brush-off of Lynn.) Then, he tries to play jealous about Frank's tryst with CJ — a tryst Agustin arranged. And then, finally, as it's clear he won't be getting out of this one, he cops up to paying CJ. Given how Agustin acts, it's hard to say whether that's out of guilt or because he refuses to go down without twisting the knife as much as possible. But after how hard he worked to obscure CJ's hourly rate from Frank, the latter seems more likely.
If that's the case, it works. After the initial rage has died down, Frank says he's done trying to change Agustin and tells his boyfriend to move out. "When I was with CJ...I looked over at you, just outside of it," he says, "and you were just watching me. That's all we've become." If Agustin expected redemption (and from his relief at having finally fessed up, that seems to be the case), he's not getting it. The shot of him on a hill above the beach, small and alone in the corner as Frank walks away, drives home how isolated he has become. After giving Frank some time to cool off, Agustin heads home. He is greeted with a dark house with no sign of his boyfriend.
Dom also ends tonight's episode alone, but the tone is markedly different. After Doris basically tells him how some people just want to help out, she leaves him to hold a floral arrangement and contemplate how much Lynn has done for him. It's clear the pair's fight is a stumbling block on the way to a solid relationship, whether that's professional or personal.
As for Patrick: Who knows? Richie never calls back in "Looking for a Plus-One," but a drunk Kevin finally succumbs to temptation and kisses a bewildered Patrick. At the end of the episode, Patrick's father laments the cost of a modern wedding, then asks Patrick: "You're not gonna want one of these, are you?"
Given how much Patrick has gotten in his own way and how distant the prospect of a wedding now seems, it's all he can do to shake his head.
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