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Looking Recap: Imitation of Life

For all you ladies and gentlemen who have been complaining that the naturalism of Looking is “boring,” here is an episode filled with drama to a nearly uncomfortable degree. It was directed, strangely enough, by Joe Swanberg, the controversial and very heterosexual maker of an ever-increasing stream of micro-budget movies (he completed six features in 2011 alone). There is a difference here in the tone and the handling of the material, which steadily builds tension until the character of Agustín is rigged to explode. Though it advances the various plots in an attention-getting way, it also feels more conventional than this series has been so far. That might not necessarily be a bad thing if the show wants to stay on the air, but I hope that negative reaction to the first episodes won’t make the creators abandon the quietness and the attention to realistic detail that makes the show so distinctive.

Patrick prepares Richie to meet his friends at Dom’s fortieth birthday party. “They can get kind of intense, particularly Agustín,” Patrick warns, as if he knows what’s coming and wants to avoid it. When Richie asks how Patrick knows Dom, Patrick confesses that he met Dom by hooking up with him. “To be honest, I’m a little old for Dom at this point,” Patrick says, in order to be reassuring. Patrick calls Richie his boyfriend, which they had never said out loud before, and Richie messes with Patrick for a bit (it’s hard not to want to mess with Patrick) before admitting that he likes the idea.

Lynn has set up a casual social meeting for Dom with two older gay men who might want to invest in his restaurant, and it doesn’t go well (this scene is so darkly lit that it’s in Gordon Willis territory, so that Dom looks like Michael Corleone talking from the shadows). Agustín is frustrated with the photos he has been taking of rent boy CJ and rips them down from the wall. When his boyfriend Frank tries to reassure him by saying that one of the guys in the photos looks hot, Agustín gets all offended. “I thought that was the point,” Frank says, and this briefly opens up the whole vexed issue of modern “gay guy art.” There is a whole generation of youngish-hottish gay guy visual artists who take photos of their own ass and call it art, and older gay guys who write learned catalogue essays for them, and everybody pretends to take this seriously and not laugh. This is definitely fertile ground to explore with Agustín in future episodes.

“You know, at 40, Grindr emails you a death certificate,” jokes Dom, but Lynn reassures him with talk about his own fortieth birthday, which he spent on mushrooms with friends. Everybody in this episode is trying to reassure everybody else, and with Dom it works because Dom is a simpler guy than Agustín or Patrick, who looks very pleased when Richie gives him a scapulario necklace to celebrate their relationship. The light is so soft on both of their faces in this scene that it acts as a calm before the storm of what we feel is coming.

Agustín is fiercely unhappy with himself, and we know that he’s going to behave badly with Richie; it’s just a question of how badly. He’s very nasty with Frank when they go to buy some food: “You’re going to be the black guy who brings Cheetos to the party?” he snipes. It’s clear that Agustín and Frank have no boundaries in what they say to each other, but Frank looks momentarily stunned by this remark before recovering himself. The fault lines in this episode are the racial and class divides between the characters, which Agustín starts to use as a weapon.

“Good to see you in the light,” is Agustín’s opening salvo to Richie, and it might partly be a self-aware joke about the way Looking looks, but it comes off like a barb thrown at a former trick, even though Agustín and Richie never hooked up. Agustín then makes fun of the scapulario, and Richie makes a big mistake by speaking Spanish to Agustín. He wants to establish some intimacy with Patrick’s friend, but speaking Spanish to Agustín has the opposite effect; it stirs up his self-hatred.

Patrick’s co-worker Owen says that Patrick’s voice mail sounds gay, and so Patrick plays his voicemail for everyone. It hasn’t played for more than a few seconds before everybody starts jeering at him, even though his voice just sounds somewhat high and light. “He spends all his time pretending to be a power top because that’s what all men are supposed to be,” Agustín says quickly, as if he knows he has to talk as fast as possible to do the most damage in his “joking” voice. Richie very likably comes to Patrick’s defense: “Who says he’s pretending?” he asks.

But a nerve has been struck in Patrick by the jeering and by Agustín’s meanness. Wondering out loud if he sounds and acts gay, he goes into a hair-raising minstrel act version of a stereotypical feminine gay guy, sashaying around the group and hissing out sibilant “s” sounds. It’s truly horrible, like the scene in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) when Susan Kohner contemptuously assumes the role of a dumb and subservient black maid to shock her clueless white provider (Lana Turner). Kudos to Groff for going all the way with it and not protecting himself in any way. This kind of self-loathing runs deep in a gay guy like Patrick, who can “pass” as straight and wants to but feels conflicted about wanting to.

As if this social situation weren’t bad enough, Kevin and his boyfriend come over to say hello as Patrick is finishing his gay minstrel act. Kevin’s boyfriend John tells them that he does sports medicine for the Giants, which is as straight-sounding as you can get. Richie says that he cuts hair, which is not as straight-sounding as you can get, and Kevin asks, “For a living?” Kevin is presumably just being clueless, not deliberately mean like Agustín, though maybe he does want to keep Patrick single for himself.

And then Agustín goes in for the kill, ripping apart the relationship between Patrick and Richie: “You’re slumming, and it ain’t cute,” he sneers, serving up full-on Boys in the Band bitchery. Richie hears this and confronts Agustín: “Why don’t you say it to my face?” he asks, and Agustín moves away from them in a shamefaced way. “I’m a fucking asshole,” he tells Frank and CJ, who are getting along quite well. Which is true, but when assholes trumpet their self-awareness of what assholes they are, they’re looking to gain points when they should actually be getting points deducted. If they’re aware of their asshole-ness, they should be able to stop it. So, assholes: stop saying you’re an asshole and do something about it so you don’t have to say it. We all like judging television characters much more harshly than we ever would anyone in our own lives, of course, so maybe I’m being an asshole to this fictional asshole. But at least I’m aware of it. These are the way vicious circles go.

Richie is shaken by what happened during the day. “I would never let one of my people disrespect you like that,” he tells Patrick, who did not stick up for Richie like he should have. To mollify him, Patrick asks Richie to be his date for his sister’s wedding in two weeks, and when that doesn’t quite work, he starts to kiss him and they lovingly (or lustfully) fall into each other. Later in the evening, Agustín shows yet another side of his asshole-dom by convincing Frank to have sex with him while CJ films it, but he gets punished for this when he himself films CJ and Frank fucking and they have a tender moment together. Agustín is the unhappiest of all the characters, and it feels like some very bad things will have to happen to him before he can pull himself out of this unhappiness and stop acting out.

Forgoing a Grindr hook-up that proves he’s “still got it,” Dom goes over to Lynn’s place and smokes some weed. Lynn offers to pay for a one-day venue to show investors Dom’s idea for a restaurant. When Dom gratefully goes in for a kiss, Lynn gently puts him off. Whatever damage Lynn has suffered has been gracefully put in its place. While the younger characters are still dealing with their issues and making messes, Lynn smiles and smokes up and makes things better. (Okay, so maybe I’m just in love with Scott Bakula. I watched a lot of Quantum Leap as a kid.)

Photo: John P Johnson/HBO