The Christmas episode has always been a big one for The Mindy Project: Remember Josh and Mindy’s Christmas party, when she found out he was two-timing her and Danny was super-sweet? Or the Christmas Party Sex Trap that went wrong and then right and included Danny’s magical Aaliyah dance number? Point being: The expectations were high for this episode, particularly with all the hints the show has dropped about a potential holiday-time engagement. It delivered, in its twisty Mindy Project way. (Though if I were forced to compare, I’d still say last year’s Sex Trap beat this year’s winding path to non-engagement.)
This week’s episode demonstrates The Mindy Project’s sophisticated layering of humor and commentary, particularly focusing on the clash between outdated messages about romance that women are still routinely sold in the media and the realities of modern women’s lives. I watched the Thanksgiving-week show with my mother-in-law, who doesn’t normally watch the show, and she noted how marriage-hungry Mindy seemed and how little she cared about her job. I struggled to explain that Mindy isn’t really marriage-hungry; she simply spouts the ideas that women’s media often feed to us, and she even seems to take comfort in them. Bottom line: Mindy is a complicated character pretending to be simple. The outside Mindy revels in being what I believe we now call a Basic Bitch, but she’s deeper than that. I think she’s trying to tell us that it’s okay, and fun, to love silly pop culture and superficial things. But loving that stuff doesn’t mean there’s nothing else to her.
This week, these seemingly opposed sides of Mindy’s character clashed spectacularly, and many of the reverberations were genuinely surprising. We begin with Mindy in typical crazy-girlfriend mode, piecing together clues that suggest Danny might be proposing soon. She spots a large charge to his credit card from Forever Stones. She hears him talking about “settings.” But then, like any good romantic comedy heroine, she’s faced with a choice between her personal and professional lives: Dr. Fishman wants Mindy to apply for a fellowship at Stanford for eight months, citing Mindy’s excellent teaching. One of my favorite facts about Mindy is that she’s good at her job, so I love when we get to acknowledge this. “Can you imagine being tan in February?” Mindy says, expounding upon why it would be amazing if she got the fellowship. She adds an uncharacteristic “just kidding” this time, though. I took this as a way to underline the fact that even though she says such things, she’s serious about her job. The problem, of course, is that she’d have to be away from Danny for eight months.
The “Forever Stones” business maybe announces itself a tad too much; from the first mention, it has me trying to figure out what he is talking about, since it can’t be engagement rings. That’s how this plot always goes! However, I refer back to those complicated levels of Mindy to give this some credit: Mindy knows how the hackneyed version of this plot goes, and it wants to establish that before taking it wildly off course. That said, I don’t buy that he’d talk that way about buying a burial plot. So much so that at first I figured he was messing with Mindy and was planning to propose after all. Such an emotional roller coaster, these crazy kids.
With that clunker of a plot twist out of the way, we can get to some real action. Disappointed by the bait-and-switch, Mindy listens to the wise counsel of Dr. Fishman and resolves to apply for the fellowship while she’s still young and unattached: “Why are you wasting your time in medicine?” Mindy says. “You should be a life coach on The Biggest Loser.” She’s off to secure three recommendation letters and write a personal essay in the next 24 hours. We know something will go wrong somewhere in that.
First, she approaches Dr. Ledreau, who hilariously deadpans, “In my day, we didn’t care about women’s feelings.” But he agrees to write her a letter anyway, before Danny screws everything up. The way he screws things up is telling, given our discussion about Mindy’s confusing layers. Danny tells Peter about the Stanford application, and Peter wonders, “Why would Mindy want to go to Stanford? She hates not being the only Asian in the room.” The real confusion comes when Danny mentions that Mindy said she might as well go because, “Like she said, we’re not married.” Peter deduces that Mindy’s really angling for an engagement ring and doesn’t want the fellowship. It’s not even that stupid a thought; it’s another common plot trope, the passive-aggressive woman who wants a ring and manipulates her way into it. Even I entertained the possibility that she was doing this. So Danny tells Dr. Ledreau not to bother writing a letter in support of Mindy’s application, assuming that Peter’s right, and ruins the whole thing. We all turn out to be wrong about Mindy: She does want the fellowship. She likes acknowledgement that she’s good at her job as much as she likes cute boys and bad reality shows.
She also proves what a great girlfriend she is when she presents Danny with his gift at the office Christmas party: It’s a Ken Burns–style documentary about Danny’s life! And it features an appearance by Ken Burns, who explains that Danny has been writing him letters since childhood, begging him to make a documentary about Staten Island. Danny is so touched that he leaves just as Ken Burns is saying, “By 1998, I was like, ‘Get a life, nerd.’” Like any good rom-com leading man, he must leave without offering the woman he loves any explanation for what appears to be a major ditch-out. In fact, he’s racing to his mom’s house to get her engagement ring; however, Ma, because she’s the brilliant Rhea Pearlman, explains that he should get Mindy the fellowship, not a proposal.
He does just that, reversing all the major rom-com tropes to culminate in a very modern grand gesture: not a declaration of love nor a proposal, but a completed fellowship application that includes a recommendation letter he wrote himself, professing his professional admiration for her. He even hand-delivers it to Dr. Fishman at her all-female living Nativity scene.
If that’s not modern romance, I don’t know what is.
- Not sure about the Julia Stiles character yet, but I love the actress and hope she’ll settle into at least a little bit of a groove here. So far, she seems to be a hoarder for no other reason than that the writers had a hat full of random psychological problems to give to new characters and happened to pull “hoarder” out this time. And the bit with her mixing up Morgan and Peter seemed like plot busywork in an already packed episode. We did get this line from Mindy out of it, though: “Okay, I’m going to picture him without his personality. … Whoa, Peter might be hot.”
- Please note, per Mindy: It’s not anti-Semitic to say that neurosurgeons are Semitic. I think she’s correct.
- Beverly continues to get the best throwaway jokes: She has a mistletoe belt! And she wants to give a toast at the very Semitic Holiday Party: “I got some things to say about Israel.”