Love Recap: Playing the Game

Paul Rust as Gus. Photo: Suzanne Hanover/Netflix
Episode Title
One Long Day
Editor’s Rating

Like so many modern series of its ilk, Love loves a pointed closing-credits song. As far as this episode goes — or, frankly, the whole series — it doesn't get much more pointed than Queen's "Play the Game." It's a song that suggests falling in love is easy if you just give yourself over to it, that it's a game everyone instinctively knows how to play. "All you have to do is fall in love," Freddie Mercury croons, with such bald sincerity that it must be ironic.

In this case, it certainly is.

On the surface, Gus and Mickey's daytime adventure seems like the perfect "how we first met" story — much better than "on Tinder" or "at a bar," or any of the other more realistic, less romantic ways many people meet these days. Gus comes to Mickey's rescue at the corner store when she realizes she forgot to bring her wallet, then they walk to her house so she can pay him back. Upon discovering she actually left her wallet at Bliss House the night before, the two team up to retrieve it and wind up spending the day together. (They're both hung-over and have nothing else to do.) At the end of the day, he asks for her number, and they part ways, each clearly intrigued by the other. Awww … right?

Perhaps. But then again, there's a subtle undercurrent of discomfort to Gus and Mickey's early interactions. During their walk, they banter in a cute but stilted way about Gus living in the second "O" of the Hollywood sign. It seems as if they're more concerned with getting the "bit" right than really engaging with each other. Granted, much of that can be chalked up to the awkwardness of getting to know, and maybe even flirting with, a new person. But there's also a sense that Gus and Mickey are "playing the game," forcing themselves into a new experience with a stranger because they've hit such low points in their lives. They both know something needs to change; could this new person, so unlike themselves, be the key to making that change?

Nevertheless, there's a strong sense throughout this episode that Gus and Mickey might not be the best thing for each other at this point in their lives. Admittedly, I may be projecting based on where I know the series goes from here — anyone hoping this will be a smooth journey toward unconditional happiness is advised to bail on Love right now — but many of their interactions on this proto-date are of the sort a marriage counselor might call "unhealthy."

This episode gives us a good sense of Mickey's shit-stirring tendencies (which will become more important in later episodes), the way she likes to create chaos and goad others into bad behavior. She sees Gus as a "weird little dude" who's open to her eccentricities — some might even call it cruelty — or, at the very least, someone who won't call her on her crap. He stands by, nonplussed, while she screams at the quick-stop cashier who wouldn't give her free coffee, even after she's gotten her coffee (and a pack of Parliaments) thanks to Gus. He even lets her get him high, something he's clearly not comfortable doing, even after convincing himself that it's what he needs in his hung-over state. (There's logic to this, but perhaps hot-boxing a "heavy Indica blend" isn't the best approach for someone who can barely take a hit.) And when he accidentally gives Mickey the wrong directions and leads them to the home of his ex, Natalie, she's delighted by the implications of the mixup, exclaiming, "You took me to your ex-girlfriend. Fucking awesome!"

And oh, are there ever implications. Mickey knows this, Natalie knows this, and Gus certainly knows it, which is why he tries to defuse the situation with the quintessential nice-guy excuse: "I'm just being a goofball!" Gus is way too high for such a surge of panic adrenaline, though, and Natalie doesn't help the situation by charging toward the car, geared up for the fight she was denied all the years they were together.

Up until this point, the episode has been highlighting Gus's amenable nature, and it's easy to see why Mickey would be intrigued by him. He greets joggers on the street ("...What?"), helps a woman he just met (Bertie) move furniture at the behest of another woman he just met (Mickey), and yells "Fart!" instead of "Fuck!" in front of new people. She's a brash Jersey girl who clearly thrives on confrontation, so maybe the sort of "nice Midwestern boy" her mom always urged her toward is just what she needs.

Maybe, but Gus's front-lawn showdown with Natalie reveals the hidden effects of letting someone so unfailingly nice into your life. Perhaps we're meant to read Natalie's revelation that she never cheated on Gus as the betrayal he sees it as. (She just told him that so he would dump her.) But I sort of feel for Natalie here, especially when she tells Gus she tried to break up with him many times, but whenever she did, he'd just hold her and tell her they'd work it out. "Your kindness is pure fucking hostility" is a funny line, but also a pointed one. Mickey probably could have stood to hear it, were she not busy picking up Gus's boxes of Blu-rays and tracking dirt across Natalie's floors. Mickey wants niceness in her life right now, but everything we've seen of her personality suggests that Gus's unwillingness to push back at all in a relationship — even about a damn rug — would quickly become suffocating.

Now, I don't want to sound too down on Gus and Mickey as people, or even as a potential couple. Both are flawed, but flaws make for good characters, which both of them undeniably are. (The performances help tremendously, especially by Jacobs, who is phenomenal at being terrible and likable simultaneously.) And it's certainly easy to see the many ways in which Gus and Mickey would be good for each other — after all, there would be no show if it weren't. But this episode broaches the idea that the series will dissect in mortifying detail: With apologies to Queen, falling in love is not easy. This is particularly true if the would-be lovers are in a bad place emotionally or mentally, a place where open wounds and hidden insecurities can sabotage a relationship before it grows into something stable.

This episode may seem pleasant — even if it's far from the best of the series — but chaos lurks right beneath the surface. It's there when Mickey takes advantage of Gus's offer to buy her coffee and asks for a pack of cigs, too. It's there in Gus's know-it-all, "well, actually" response to Mickey's joke about the Nightmare in Elm Street house. It's there when Mickey says she'll help Bertie move her furniture, then manipulates Gus into doing it for her. It's definitely there when she encourages him to chuck his Blu-rays out the car window in a fit of rage, which he immediately regrets.

And yet, she tucks him in at the end of the day. Bad idea or no, there's a real tenderness and low-key joy to Gus and Mickey's first adventure together, which makes it difficult to root against them. They've got to give it a try, right? It's so easy. All they have to do is fall in love.