If Love were the romantic comedy it presents itself as, the final scene of “The End of the Beginning” would play as a triumphant moment. It would be the moment of catharsis this whole, messy ordeal has been building to. But while Gus and Mickey’s kiss is admittedly cathartic, it’s far from triumphant — in fact, it’s a little horrifying.
An optimist might say that their kiss represents a new, better starting point, one that allows Mickey to be honest about her demons and Gus to give her the support she needs to fight them. Given that Love will have a second season, maybe that’s the direction in which their story will ultimately go. But given the cynical edge that’s run throughout this season, I just can’t bring myself to cheer for them — probably because I’m too busy covering my eyes and groaning, “Noooo, you guuuuyssss, stoooop…”
Let’s back up for a moment, since the preceding events of the episode inform the horror-show aspect of Gus and Mickey’s final smooch. Gus begins the episode where he ended the last one, holding the upper hand on both Mickey and life in general. He’s working out, he’s been invited to sit in on the rewrite of “his” Witchita script, and he’s even dodging Mickey’s continued attempts to get his attention. (“Seriously?” “Gus. Please.” “Bdre8.” “Sorry, sat on my phone.” “Wanna bone?” “Please talk to me.”) Mickey, on the other hand, is still struggling, just barely resisting the temptation to get high at work and track down her cat Grandpa, who’s gone missing.
Grandpa’s disappearance is the metaphorical engine that drives “The End of the Beginning.” Without being an exact mirror for her and Gus’s relationship, Mickey’s obsession with finding Grandpa illuminates the same issues that fuel her obsession with Gus. After initially trying to blame someone else — Bertie, natch — for Grandpa’s disappearance, she realizes she’s the one who let him get away by leaving the door open. (Get it?) She quickly fixates on getting him back, despite the fact that she never seemed particularly attached to him when he was around. (You get it.) That fixation quickly turns to panic, and that panic causes her to act foolishly — she puts up “Lost Cat” posters before checking the shelter around the corner — and lash out at the woman running the “open-admission” shelter. (Don’t call it a kill shelter, please.)
In other words, Mickey is someone who wants what she can’t have — or, to put it less delicately, what she doesn’t deserve. “Am I a horrible person?” she frets to the animal-control lady, whom she accused of incinerating lost pets. “Compared to me, yes,” the woman answers bluntly. We all have our moments of being horrible, but Mickey has let her horribleness get out of control, and she’s lost Gus and Grandpa as a result.
Grandpa eventually returns — cats always do — but only after Mickey takes herself to a meeting. Not an AA or NA meeting, but rather a love-and-sex-addicts group. This initially seems like a bit of a left turn for Love, which has spent a lot of energy establishing Mickey’s substance-abuse issues. But the show (and Mickey) is acknowledging that her substance abuse may ultimately stem from something more internal: Her need to be loved, and her crippling fear of being alone. And with that, Love’s title suddenly takes on a new tenor.
What’s remarkable about this scene is that Mickey doesn’t speak in it. We hear only from the other women in the group, especially one woman (played by The Craft’s Robin Tunney!) who is “celebrating” one full year of being single, after a lifetime of craving the approval of a romantic partner. Hearing this woman “celebrate” the thing she fears most, the thing that turns her into a whirling dervish of destructive energy, is a crucial, revelatory moment. It makes clear to Mickey, and to us, that Gus can’t save her. Only she can do that.
But what about Gus? Turns out he might need saving of his own — or maybe just the feeling of saving someone else. While Mickey spends her day bottoming out in a relatively private manner, Gus’s day flames out in spectacular, mortifying fashion on the Witchita set. Watching Gus shift from groveling sycophancy to unearned confidence to shrieking entitlement is like watching him douse himself in gasoline and light a match. (Both Gus and Mickey are really fixated on immolation this episode. Symbolism? Symbolism!) All of the self-doubt and repression that’s been burbling under the surface spills over in that writers’ room, and Gus’s “nice guy” persona shatters in the face of one humiliation after another. Susan fires him. His strange new ally, Arya, comes to his rescue (even though she hates this job and just wants to raise show dogs). Evan and the rest of the Witchita crew mock him. And the final indignity: Heidi ends their “set crush” after learning her character is being killed off.
“It’s not like we’re married. I don’t need you in the room, protecting my honor, defending my character,” Heidi snarls when Gus tells her, in the spirit of “full disclosure,” that he knew about her getting killed off, but it wasn’t his idea. This is Gus’s white-knight tendency at its most toxic, insisting to Heidi (and himself) that he was actually in a position to affect the fate of her character. All that “nice guy” stuff is a manifestation of Gus’s hero complex — remember that image of Prince Charming and Cinderella in the background of his and Heidi’s first meeting? He would never admit it to himself, but Gus has a desire to be needed, and that’s born of his deeply rooted narcissism.
And so, when Mickey rushes out to find him at the Food Mart as he prepares to eat himself into a sugar coma, who does Gus actually see? Is he seeing a woman who is finally, finally coming to terms with herself? A woman who can finally say, “I’m an addict,” and needs the emotional space to deal with that? Or is he seeing someone he can rescue, someone who can make him feel once more like that “nice guy” he believes himself to be?
Pretty dark for a happy ending, right?
Which brings us back to the idea of the “romantic comedy,” and whether that is indeed the milieu within which Love operates. The show hits a lot of the narrative beats of a rom-com, and it certainly has a strong comedic presence, but ultimately, it’s a huge downer. The season has plenty of big laughs and moments of silliness, but its strong tragic undercurrent makes it difficult to process as a comedy. Love certainly isn’t the only modern rom-com to play in this gray area: I’ve previously mentioned You’re The Worst and Apatow’s Trainwreck, but I could just as easily point to HBO’s Togetherness or films like Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. Nevertheless, Love is the only so-called rom-com I can think of that so defiantly establishes the idea that its central couple should not end up together under any circumstances.
It’s been fascinating, albeit a little tough, to watch Love break down its titular concept to its basest, ugliest components. Despite its charming lead actors, its excellent supporting cast, and some inspired running gags, Love is not easy to watch — particularly for those who are just looking, like Bertie, for a little rom-com magic. With apologies to Bertie and her fellow optimists, though, that’s not all that love is, and it’s certainly not what Love is. It’s something more difficult, more harrowing, and, just maybe, more rewarding.