Through its first four episodes, "Looking" was always concerned with Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and his view of the world.
It didn't seem that way at the beginning, with the lives of Dom (Murray Bartlett) and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) sharing equal weight on screen. And at the show's beginning, that made sense. Patrick's perspective on events got shaped so much by his friends that the show could masquerade as the story of three gay men.
More and more though, Dom and Agustin have been feeling peripheral, with their lives serving as commentaries on Patrick's weekly situation rather than plots in their own right. Last week's crowded episode at the Folsom Street Fair really drove the Patrick-centrism home. Despite a huge cast of characters, almost all of them were only present on screen when Patrick was around. The lone exception: Dom, who has been on his own Zumba-and-chicken trajectory all season anyway.
This week's installment of "Looking" strips things down. There's no trace of Dom and Agustin, no Lynn, no Doris, no Kevin. "Looking for the Future" goes down to its bare essentials (in more than few senses), keeping the spotlight on Patrick's budding romance with bartender/cosmetologist Richie (Raul Castillo). On the heels of such a loud, packed episode, that small, quiet focus seems disorienting — even for a show as frequently muted as "Looking." Plus, given how cloyingly awkward Patrick has acted thus far, spending an entire 25 minutes with him is daunting.
But the episode works marvelously. Writer-director Andrew Haigh is a master at making intensely quiet moments feel big. Much like he did in indie flick "Weekend," Haigh uses the tight scope of "Looking for the Future" to his advantage. Patrick and Richie's personal, intimate dialogue somehow opens up the world of "Looking" beyond its gay-friendly San Francisco environs. It touches on themes of gay identity, sexual dynamics and vulnerability in a way "Looking" can't when it's juggling the needs of three characters.
What's clear from start to finish in "Looking for the Future" is how much Patrick has evolved since the pilot episode's awkward hand job in the park. Yes, he's still self-conscious, but he's less detached from his actions and way more self-aware. Watching him quietly tiptoe around a sleeping Richie as the episode begins, I thought maybe he'd be sneaking out to avoid awkward small talk. Instead, it becomes clear he's just being considerate.
By now, Richie and Patrick have spent the night in each other's beds six times (divided equitably between their two apartments, which seems admirable). That's enough for Patrick to feel comfortable showering in Richie's apartment, and apparently enough for a nude Richie to serenade Patrick in Spanish accompanied by bass riffs.
As the two make out in Richie's bed, Patrick insists he has to go to work. He can't be late again on Richie's account, he insists, no matter how "incredible" he thinks Richie's penis is.
But his resolve fades quickly. Just as quickly as he leaves Richie's apartment, he's back again for some oral stimulation that's the most graphic sex "Looking" has shown thus yet. (No, we don't see any genitals. But heads bob, which feels like a big step given how little either "Looking" or HBO execs intend to show below the waist.)
Maybe to make it clear the encounter was more than a morning quickie, Patrick and Richie head to a nearby greasy spoon for breakfast, where they talk about Patrick's HIV-related paranoia over eggs and toast. It turns out Richie's most recent ex was HIV-positive. But Patrick doesn't look totally spooked — if anything he's appreciative of Richie's "I loved him, so what are you gonna do?" outlook. That's another sign that either he's growing up, or that he's seriously into Richie. Probably both.
On the way out the door (Patrick really has to go to work, he once again reminds Richie), Patrick spies a set of "The Goonies" trading cards. It turns out Richie has never seen the movie. He politely laughs as Patrick tries to explain it to him, but apparently Sean Astin's not as cute and Chunk's not as funny if you're not watching them on the silver screen. Still, Richie's a good guy, and even though he doesn't get it, he springs $5 for a pack of cards.
That gesture, on top of the discussion of ex-boyfriends, AIDS, and eventually, braces, leads Patrick to play hooky from work. After six sleepovers, it turns out Richie and Patrick have a lot they haven't discussed, and Patrick's finally ready to open up and share.
(The idea that sex often comes before emotional intimacy is the central conceit behind Haigh's "Weekend" and has been raised in a few other "Looking" episodes. But "Looking for the Future" is fairly subtle about the idea, which is in large part why the half-hour can so effectively explore it.)
With Patrick now skipping work, he and Richie go around essentially sightseeing in San Francisco. And little really happens, at least on the surface. "Looking for the Future" has a lot of great quotes, but it's thin on plot. And that's not a bad thing. The episode is about two people really discovering each other, sharing their pasts and trading secrets. It's about Patrick finding out his Latino boyfriend is an "ex-fatty" like him, and that his favorite spot in San Francisco is the Morrison Planetarium. It's about Patrick confessing how proud he was not to be in Colorado the first time he fooled around with a guy, divulging how frustrating it was when his mother made his coming out all about her, and admitting that he really, really doesn't like to be the bottom despite what everyone (including certain recappers for The Baltimore Sun) might think.
That they're actively exchanging information is crucial, which the camera makes clear. In past episode, shots have been closed in on Patrick as he reacts to what others say. Here, both of them stay on screen, fully interacting with each other. And in the background, in a very important way, is San Francisco. A city with such a storied gay history provides the perfect backdrop for talking about formative moments in gay identity, from teenage sexuality to coming out, then on to past relationships and the idea of same-sex marriage.
Even though both Richie and Patrick are longtime denizens of the City of the Bay, there's a sense they're seeing San Francisco anew. Exploring a familiar place with someone else provides a different window into longtime haunts: You get to see things through their eyes. As Richie drags Patrick to some of his favorite spots, there's a sense both men are re-mapping the landscape. The planetarium's no longer just where Richie used to go with his mom; it's where he brought Patrick on this early date. Ocean Beach isn't just a beautiful spot next to the bay, but the place where Patrick found out Richie consults his "señora," a woman who divines the future from egg yolks and Tarot cards. Places get re-framed.
Patrick is naturally curious about the señora, so he and Richie pick up a dozen eggs (you have to bring your own) and head to her office. But once he's faced with the prospect of knowing something about his future, he gets nervous. It's one thing to talk about learning the good things and bad things that lie ahead, but it's another to actually learn them. After spending such a blissful, intimate day with his new boyfriend, he'd rather stay grounded in the present.
Once it becomes clear the señora only speaks Spanish, Patrick balks. Richie volunteers to translate, but despite Patrick's new-found emotional honesty, he's not ready to be that vulnerable. Not yet.
What he is ready for, it turns out, is to adapt. At the planetarium, Richie mentions how he usually likes to be a top, but when it comes to sex, "you've got to be adaptable [with guys] or you're gonna miss out." Patrick, despite his earlier protestations, is into Richie enough that he's ready to be a bottom... eventually. That shift is as much of a plot point as "Looking for the Future" offers.
Yet it's a monumental change for Patrick, especially given how much he has been struggling to connect with anyone — let alone adapt his picky needs to meet the expectations of others. That his adjustment takes place in such a small, contained episode makes "Looking" feel like it's pushing dramatically forward.