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'Looking' recap: 'Looking for $220/Hour'

The first shot of "Looking for $220/Hour" picks up right where its predecessor left off: With Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and his boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) on opposite sides of a desk playing a video game.

It's a deceptive, clever start to an episode where the men of "Looking" finally start to break their established patterns.

At first, Patrick's newfound commitment to work looks to be right where left it. Here he is in the office on a Sunday — and not just any Sunday, but the day of the Folsom Street Fair. That granddaddy of leather events may not be, as Kevin skeptically dubs it, "a gay national holiday." But it's no doubt an important day in the San Francisco that Patrick inhabits, which makes his being at work fairly admirable.

Or it would be admirable, were it not for the sexual tension so clearly motivating both men to stay put.

The flirtatious discussion of butt-less chaps, the careful isolation of both men in the frame as they remark on the action below, the way Kevin hesitates before looking away and remarking "You're a mystery, Patrick Murray." Those are all clues to what "Looking for $220/Hour" later lays bare: Patrick's got a major crush on his boss, and Kevin's trying to fill the emotional void created by his long-distant relationship.

Episode writer Allen Heinberg leans a bit too heavily on cliches to illustrate that point. Kevin's discussion of finding a work/life balance could be ripped from any number of boss-employee romcoms. Were it not for Tovey's matter-of-fact delivery — the perils of long-distance dating are clearly something Kevin has thought about before — Patrick's boss would come off a little trite.

Similarly obvious: Just as Patrick begins to open up, Kevin's boyfriend calls, beckoning Kevin back to his apartment. Imagine that. Patrick watches wistfully as his boss steps away to answer the phone then hides his disappointment as the Brit leaves.

Groff has been immensely charismatic as Patrick stumbles through pitfall after pitfall; the actor's charm is the reason Patrick remains so gosh-darn likeable despite how frustratingly he gets in his own way. But beyond being winning, Groff is a remarkable actor who gives fleeting, small glimpses at Patrick's inner-life. "Looking for $220/Hour" asks him to do so a lot. The most evocative for me came at Kevin's departure, when Patrick opens his mouth to call out to the guy, then immediately self-corrects as he hears the office door close. You can see his shoulders slump as he realizes he's very much alone.

That loneliness might be why Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Doris (an again-terrific Lauren Weedman) successfully convince Patrick to head onto the street among the leather-clad hoi polloi. The exhibitionism associated with an open-air BDSM party could not be further from Patrick's scene, but his resolve crumbles when faced with peer pressure. Above all, Patrick wants to be like and needs constant reassurance. Doris and Agustin use this to their advantage, ignoring Patrick's protestations and unease to get him shirtless in a leather vest.

(Another masterful Groff touch: How always-diffident Patrick keeps tugging on said vest to hide his chiseled bare chest. That's a masterful look at how the character views himself, and perhaps a nod to the body image issues that have become a part of gay male culture.)

It's the more sex-positive Dom (Murray Bartlett) who is strangely missing from the street fair action, because he's at the florist trying to make good on a planned lunch date with local entrepreneur Lynn (Scott Bakula). Despite flower shop co-owner George's best matchmaking efforts, Dom's intentions aren't romantic so much as opportunistic. He wants advice on navigating San Francisco's apparently hostile business climate, and he wants connections. Lynn, to his credit, gets that. His maturity in the face of Dom's offer to make him dinner shows just how much Dom is stuck between two worlds. (I'd also venture that it sets up a "will they or won't they?" arc in the show's back half, but we'll have to wait and see.)

Still, it's refreshing to see Dom away from his two younger friends and put in a world with established, stable older men. Compared to Patrick or Agustin, Dom has seemed far more goal-oriented and stunningly more self-aware. Next to Lynn, he's reframed as someone with far more room to grow, but he also looks like more of a grown-up. There's finally no throwaway hookup or Grindr date in the works: He's going home to write a business plan.

Agustin apparently has business in mind too. He drags Patrick along to meet sex worker C.J. (T.J. Linnard), a confident, macho rent boy in a jockstrap designed to make wide-eyed Patrick uncomfortable. And that's before C.J. even talks about what need he fulfills for his clients. Which, it seems, is about to include Agustin. "People just want me to do the things that they're too [scared] to ask for in real life," C.J. explains to Patrick. And it's clear the guy thinks he'll be doing that for Agustin, since he's charging the artist the titular $220 an hour to follow him around for a poorly-defined art project.

That project, Agustin explains shortly after getting fed bratwurst by a hooker (and no, that's no entendre) is all about intimacy. Yes, that ever-elusive holy grail for which the men of "Looking" are constantly searching, though rarely this explicitly. But intimacy-versus-sex is not a lesson Patrick particularly needs at the moment, since he just hung out with his queasy best friend in the bathroom. He knows from intimacy, and he's finally not buying Agustin's affected preaching. Offended by Patrick's dismissiveness, Agustin reacts defensively and becomes irksomely condescending about Patrick's relationship history and his failure to form strong romantic connections.

Nothing Agustin says is inaccurate. Patrick is incredibly naïve about relationships. He is living a fantasy romance with an emotionally-needy Kevin. But Agustin is hardly in a position to be giving relationship advice, and that's never entirely acknowledged in "Looking for $220/Hour." The guy just lost his job, he clearly finds the idea of long-term domestic bliss unsettling, and everything about his transaction with C.J. screams shady. When he meets up with live-in boyfriend Frank (O-T Fagbenle) later, Agustuin remains willfully silent on the hourly rate he'll be paying for his art project. That's a far cry from the emotional honesty he demands of Patrick, and it makes his words hollow. It's one more mark against an increasingly unlikable character, as is Agustin's overbearing behavior on Kevin's (predictable) return.

Still, it seems Patrick takes his ex-roommate's words to heart, because after more flirting with his boss over beefy pecs on trolls, Patrick realizes his relationship with Kevin is a few steps from becoming an illicit liaison. Heinberg's dialogue hammers it in, too. "Please, please can we get fried chicken?" Kevin asks about ordering takeout. "I’m just not allowed it at home. John refuses flat out." If there's a more obvious metaphor for forbidden betrayal bonding, I can't find it.

A generally oblivious Patrick suddenly gets it (you can see the realization play on Groff's face), and faced with being the third party in a clearly unhealthy relationship, he bails. It's a remarkably obvious decision to make, but not one I'd have expected from the Patrick in the show's pilot.

So, possessing the confidence brought on by making a positive life choice, Patrick puts his leather vest back on and heads out to the bar Stud to meet Agustin and Frank. He watches Agustin fail to mention the hourly rate he'll be paying to observe the emotional intimacy of which he's so clearly afraid. It's a reminder that this project with C.J.'s not only about art, but it's about Agustin.

Perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that he's not the most self-destructive person out there, when Patrick spies boyfriend-prospect Richie (Raul Castillo) across the room, he decides to go for it. He carries his half-finished drink (significant, since we've yet to see Patrick this sober for an entire half-hour) says hello and speaks his mind. He got carried away with Richie, he admits. He's not just looking for sex. He doesn't care about Richie's circumcision. He's looking for emotional fulfillment.

And at the end of the episode, as he and Richie sway from side to side in a crowded night club, it looks like he finally might get it.

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