Raul Castillo

Raul Castillo on "Looking." (John P. Johnson / HBO / September 17, 2013)

The discomfort on Patrick's face as he utters a more, uh, colloquial term for "friend with benefits" is pretty good foreshadowing for how the second episode of "Looking" eventually ends.

In a candid conversation about sex that is all but guaranteed to spark a few more thinkpieces, Patrick (Jonathan Groff) gets the chance to use the phrase in question three times. And each time, he gets progressively more uncomfortable saying it.

Tonight's episode, titled "Looking for Uncut," focuses pretty explicitly on defining relationships, whether they're emerging, developing — although I suspect Frankie J. Alvarez's Agustin might, in a moment of self-doubt, prefer the term stagnating — or fracturing.

That feels like heavy territory for a half-hour framed by a discussion about circumcision, which is what the early minutes of "Looking for Uncut" presents. Based on the dialogue at the beginning of this episode, it would seem the most central relationship' here is Patrick's new dalliance with cosmetologist and bouncer Richie (Raul Castillo). By the time the credits roll, the pair seems to have gone through the relationship life cycle before our eyes.

But the relationship given the most weight in "Looking for Uncut" — the one that notably bookends the episode and lends tonight's half-hour solid structure — is the one between the show's three leads.

The first episode of "Looking" didn't provide much detail about the connections Patrick, Agustin and Dom (Murray Bartlett) have formed. In a masterfully filmed initial sequence (that half-minute opening shot lingers beautifully, even by recent television-as-art standards), "Looking for Uncut" addresses that. Patrick's innocence plays wonderfully off Agustin's performative nonchalance and Dom's relative worldliness, and the understated way the camera moves suggests what we're getting here is the guys' given dynamic.

But it's small touches are what establish just how familiar, or even intimate, the three men of "Looking" are. The unremarkable way Patrick grabs a half-nibbled cupcake out of Agustin's hand then later passes it to Dom reveals a kind of closeness which Patrick's romantic relationships clearly don't have. So does Dom's inability to even feign surprise at Agustin's disclosure of a threesome, as does the matter of fact way Patrick and Dom place bets on how long Agustin will be able to shack up with his boyfriend Frank (O-T Fagbenle).

Really, Agustin's move across the bridge to Oakland provides the perfect opportunity to reveal the bonds between these three men. Helping someone relocate and hauling their junk are inherently caring acts, and they provide a great backdrop for the casual discussion of sex and intimacy that episode director-writer Andrew Haigh offers.

The gulf between those two things is something "Looking" explores throughout its first four episodes, a point Haigh belabors slightly when he has Agustin rattle off a list of sex acts than suggest there's nothing remotely intimate about them. In general, subtleties are where "Looking" excels. The reason Agustin's scenes during "Looking for Uncut" are so powerful, for example, is because of how small and quiet they are. Now that he has shacked up with Frank, his life looks fairly mundane in comparison, as he seems to have feared. But as the two discuss hanging a painting or hang back and watch TV — decidedly small debates — you can see Augustin still trying to sort out just how he feels about settling down in Oakland. Alvarez makes Agustin fairly aloof and distracted toward the end of the episode, and his quiet hanging of a painting is a nice balance after the louder material both Patrick and Dom are given in "Looking for Uncut."

Agustin's most energetic expression is his disbelief that former roommate Patrick is capable of being cross-cultural sex friends with cosmetologist-cum-bouncer Richie. (That's how I'm euphemizing what Patrick says when he awkwardly and embarrassedly lowers his voice mid-conversation. Groff handles that phrasing extremely well.)

Both the cross-cultural nature of Patrick and Richie's relationship and the sexual factor are likely to get the most attention at the proverbial water cooler, especially in light of criticism that "Looking" was either too white or not sexy enough. And both make for subtly hilarious moments, like when Patrick awkwardly tries to feel out Richie's heritage ("And all your family's from... here?" "San Francisco?" "...Sure.") and Patrick's transgressive Google Image search for uncut Latin men.

To me, the shot is most noteworthy because of where it's positioned. Right before Patrick opens up his browser, he's designing a handsomely rendered sailor for the video game he's producing at work. In his professional life, Patrick gets to turn his imagination into a kind of virtual reality. When it comes to dating, he has nowhere near that level of control. And even if he did, the ability to choose from a menu comes at a cost. When Patrick is scanning the array of photos he's Googled up, we cut to Dom doing much the same on Grindr. It's a genius cut, since the emotional detachment stays the same in both cases.

Dom's sexual encounter is the high point in the midst of a backstory-driven plot where he meets his ex, real estate broker Ethan. It's a predictable bit of plot — my notes read "d-bag real estate guy, duh" — and it's mostly meant to drive home how little Dom has changed in the roughly a decade since the pair's relationship ended. It turns out Dom was something of a fixer back then, since he gave Ethan $8,000 to go to rehab and get his life together. Now Ethan's successful, while Dom's still a waiter who still dreams of opening his own restaurant.

As the realization that his life deviated severely from his plan dawns on Dom, he turns to Grindr for solace, and ends up with a 28-year-old random hookup who looks a little like a real estate guy. In fact, a shot of Dom watching himself have sex with the guy in a mirror makes it clear the hook-up is meant to be both a way for Dom to improve his self-image.

It doesn't work. "I'm such a cliché," Dom reflects later to his roommate Doris (played brilliantly by Lauren Weedman). "Thinking that sex will make me feel better. I mean it does, but still." In the wake of his encounter with Dom, it seems he wants something stronger than the casual romp Patrick is clearly after.

During his date with Richie, Patrick tries to act fairly disengaged. His method for doing so is to get progressively more drunk, and as he becomes sloppier and sloppier, he keeps putting out pretty questionable signals.

At first, Richie gives him the benefit of the doubt. It's clear he wants something a bit more serious, and he tries to make that plainly obvious Patrick. First, Richie declines his date's invitation to go back to his apartment. Then he tries to derail Patrick's rambling monologue about sexual openness by asking if Patrick is actually from Colorado. Two fairly subtle moves in a television romance, both of which are stunted by an inebriated Patrick's inability to pick up on those cues.

Richie is at first willing to forgive that level of self-absorption, perhaps chalking it up rightfully to nerves. But when the pair actually gets back to Patrick's bedroom, and our naïve hero express his surprise that Richie is, in fact, circumcised. Finally, Patrick has put his foot in his mouth and let Agustin's impression of his date actually shape and frame that date. Richie, unimpressed with Patrick's behavior, declares he's had enough and heads home.

That leaves Patrick at home, alone, with the only uncircumcised Latin men he has experienced those on Google. Meanwhile, Dom gets the literal last worth with Ethan, and Agustin hangs a painting in a way that confirms he's nesting whether he likes it or not. Content with leaving an impression, however small, on his new space, Agustin picks up the phone and dials Patrick — with whom Agustin has left both a physical and mental imprint as well.