“Burn ‘em swiftly and send their ashes to Poseidon,” Nick Miller says about exes, which is very funny, but a super-wacky bananatown attitude to have about people you’ve dated. In most cases, when you date someone, it’s because you (and this may be assuming a lot) liked that person at some point. And if you ever liked a person, not even like-liked, just appreciated for their sense of humor or capacity for empathy or knowledge of seventies prog rock, it is a little cuckoo to want to cremate them and throw their remains to the sea while they’re still alive.
Meeting the ex of someone you’re currently dating is delicate territory. You want to be polite, to respect the history between the two, which you can’t ignore. But there’s a massive discomfort to watching people slip into old patterns, patterns you don’t recognize and maybe even definitely resent. It’s like learning a loved one has been a spy, that there’s an entire wing of their life that’s been kept from you. When Jess and Berkeley, her insufferable human ponytail of an ex-boyfriend, simultaneously break out with “Buy it online!” my heart aches for poor Nick Miller, who, as he points out, is also fully capable of shopping on Amazon.com. But it’s not the same.
People (guys especially, I think) are very quick to label people they used to date as “crazy.” But if all of your exes are, by your standards, insane, then something else is probably going on. Maybe it is actually that you continually enter into relationships with partners who suffer from mental illness and you’re being dismissive of it. Sure. That’s possible. Not a good look, shows a shocking lack of empathy, but possible. Or maybe you just date people you’re not compatible with and blame the relationship’s failings on them. Not only that, but Nick pined over Caroline for weeks when they were broken up and tried to win her back. So maybe Nick was a more active ingredient in this explosive reaction than he is willing or able to admit.
To give Nick partial credit, Caroline doesn’t seem especially well-adjusted. Dropping a cinderblock onto a windshield is a pretty universal sign that you’re not doing great. But the version of Nick she dated was a twenty-car pileup in human skin. We see it when they meet up. Nick is totally incapable of expressing a single emotion. I mean, unless you count “wouldn’t it be weird if we gave up our thumbs” as an emotion. Which I do not. Because “3 a.m. dorm room conversation” isn’t a feeling, it’s a state of mind.
Maybe Nick dated Caroline for so long because he didn’t think he could do better. Or maybe he actually couldn’t do better. Nick Miller, pre–Jessica Day, didn’t seem to think he deserved love. And in a lot of ways, he didn’t. He was an inattentive, unresponsive, uncommunicative partner. And Caroline stayed with him. And then, of course, came back and tried to destroy his property. (That gag, for what it’s worth, was more than a little reminiscent of The Big Lebowski.) Maybe they weren’t bad people, but they were certainly a bad couple. She was overbearing and volatile; he was apathetic and drunk. At the time, they probably deserved each other. Or at least they didn’t have the ability be with anyone else.
“Possible sex is the only reason people stay friends with their exes,” says Nick, which of course is sometimes the case. But exes to me seem like the last group of people you’d want to cheat with. The first group, of course, is everyone you’ve never dated before. Going back to an ex for sex is lazy and uncreative. It’s a cheap way to fix a problem in the moment without thinking about the long-term future … just like having Winston hook up with Birdie again … but that’s neither here nor there. I was making a point, I think.
Too often, we accept pop culture that treats sex and relationships as binaries. Either someone is only in our life for sex, or there is a “Leno/Eubanks” purity to the friendship, as Jess would put it. But that’s not how life works. There’s a spectrum. There are also people we haven’t had sex with but would consider sleeping with. And people we would never sleep with. And people who we would sleep with who would never sleep with us, and that’s fine too. And people we have completely ignorable sexual tension with. That’s also a thing. You don’t have to have sex with everyone you’re attracted to. And not sleeping with them doesn’t always create an inescapable geyser of passion.
The myth I resent the most is that when people haven’t slept together things are one way, then once they have things are completely different and irreparable. Human sexuality is not slash and burn agriculture. It can be sustained and cultivated in subtle ways that benefit all parties in the long run. Our needs change and our skills change and our capacity for love changes. The person I was at age 21 would not have been capable of sustaining the relationship I’m in now at age 29. We grow and we change. Sometimes we regress, but life is hard, and most people, much like running backs, deserve credit for forward progress.
“Exes,” for the most part, fed into the simplistic cultural narratives about men and women and how they relate to each other. It would have been much more complicated and interesting for Jess and Berkeley to have had a close, but ultimately platonic relationship. Except that Berkeley is a trough of kombucha poured into a human-shaped glass.
In the end, Nick’s theories were largely proven right, which is kind of a bummer because they’re hugely flawed. Caroline, prone as she may be to texting Bible quotes full of curse words, still deserved Nick’s honesty. She always did, even when Nick was incapable of delivering it. And Nick merited basic human dignity from Caroline even when she denied him it. The difference is, Nick found Jess, who was patient and kind enough to teach him those lessons. And Caroline had no one. When her face softened, we saw that she was a sad, hurt person. She was acting out, but only because she didn’t have any other resources. Nick unlocked that realization by treating her with candor and respect. Funny how that works.
Relationships are complicated. Sex is complicated. Life is complicated. We don’t do ourselves any favors when be make simple rules to govern those realms. To do so negates the subtlety and evolution of the human experience. Caroline made Nick’s life hard. Nick also made Caroline’s life hard. Berkeley was in love with Jess. Jess wasn’t in love with Berkeley. (Why would she be? He’s the worst.). The world is a swirling vortex of thought and action. Let’s assume most people aren’t monsters and are just going through some shit.
I loved a lot of the jokes in this week’s episode. The Schmidt-Winston-Coach farce kept things afloat for me, especially the riffs on Schmidt’s sexually ergonomic apartment. (Also, Nick and Jess’s brief argument over the utility of signing a text “xoxo.”) But generally, “Exes” let me down by favoring Nick’s cynical and reductive attitude over Jess’s optimism and humanity. I’d like to burn this episode and leave the ashes for Poseidon.