"What the fuck was that?"
This line may not the most romantic reaction to a first kiss, but it certainly illustrates the tenor of Love's central relationship. Moments after Gus basically tells Mickey to pound sand, his flummoxed reaction to her drive-by smooching is a reasonable reaction. Just more of Mickey's erratic behavior, right? In the context of Gus's rough (and hilarious) evening spent on a train wreck of a date with Bertie, it makes absolutely no sense. But in the context of Mickey's even rougher night, it's not just understandable. It's a little tragic.
See, it's Mickey's first day of sobriety — okay, only if you don't count that joint she smokes in the car before her AA meeting. At said AA meeting, she claims she doesn't drink, then carefully reveals that "things got out of hand" at the previous night's party. The lie continues after the meeting, when Mickey gets into a discussion with a concerned friend from the program. She spouts off platitudes about "getting to know myself" and "setting aside" distractions — but she also resets the counter on her phone's sobriety app. Even if Mickey is still lying to others, maybe she's starting to be honest with herself about her struggles.
Starting to. Mickey will need a lot more than an iPhone app and some green juice to undo the damage she's done to her personal relationships and emotional health. Her attempts to stave off boredom and the encroaching darkness of sobriety — teaching herself harmonica, rearranging furniture, attempting to masturbate while Grandpa the Cat licks himself — never rise above the level of futile distractions. She's clearly fixated on something else. Something she wishes she could blot out with alcohol or drugs. Something she brought on with those immortal words: "You guys should go on a date."
Mickey's well-trained aloofness can't conceal the fact that she's a little obsessed with the date she set up for Bertie and Gus. Before Gus even shows up, she's in Bertie's face about it, and once he does arrive (early, natch), she immediately attempts to undermine his restaurant choice with a tepid Yelp review. The extent to which Gus is thrown off by Mickey's Frozen-Calamari Offensive speaks volumes about his own self-doubt and the extent to which Mickey knows how to manipulate that self-doubt. Luckily, Bertie is a champ and rescues the date from Mickey's early sabotage. How does she pull it off? With her positive outlook on, well, everything — which leaves Mickey to stew, soberly.
Of course, Gus manages to tank the date all by himself, in a hilariously mortifying sequence reminiscent of Curb Your Enthusiasm by way of a Judd Apatow flick. (Apatow and Rust share a co-writing credit for "The Date.") Bertie is rightly put off by Gus's panic-tinged attempts to micromanage the date, and when she accidentally sends a text to Gus saying as much, the door is reopened for Mickey to play puppet master.
The only time we see Mickey acting happy and engaged in this episode is when she's watching — and helping — Gus and Bertie's date unravel via text-message screenshots. It's not hard to draw a line from this obsessive, destructive behavior to the obsessive, destructive behavior she displayed in the previous episode. The only difference? This time, she doesn't have the excuse of drugs or alcohol, only her own neuroses. And when the text hits stop coming — Gus and Bertie are busy recuperating from their hell date with fro-yo — she's laid low once more, barely resisting the offer of a glass of wine from her sorta-supportive, child-hating neighbor, Syd (played in an unusually grounded performance by The State/Reno 911 alum Kerri Kenney).
Syd tells Mickey about her aborted time in AA and her decision to finally settle down with a "nice guy." (There's that word again, nice.) Her story is clearly bouncing around in Mickey's subconscious after Gus and Bertie return from their date. When Gus tells her off by saying, "I'm not just some nice guy who's always gonna be around for you to fuck with," it's like a light goes off in Mickey's subconscious. Maybe this is her "nice guy," the one who might carry her through this difficult period, the person who might care enough about her to make her care about herself.
I realize this is a pretty dark reading of Mickey — and by extension, her and Gus's relationship — and I know that it's possible to celebrate their kiss as something much simpler and more positive. Maybe a "nice guy" really is all that's needed to chase away Mickey's demons. Maybe love will heal her wounds. It worked for Syd and her husband Jeff, so why couldn't it work for Mickey and Gus? That would make for a hell of a love story, wouldn't it?
Maybe, but that's not what makes Love such a difficult and interesting love story. The show constantly upends the rom-com notion that personalities are definitive shapes with set edges, and that everything will click into place once you find someone whose edges fit yours. A damaged girl and a nice boy seem like a nice fit, but we've already seen the ways in which both Mickey and Gus's personalities don't quite match those pre-established "shapes."
Gus's presumed niceness has already been subverted throughout the first half of Love, but "The Date" really cements an idea broached by Natalie in episode two: Gus's kindness can be "pure fucking hostility." Gus isn't acting out of hostility when he insists on changing tables or sending back Bertie's bloody steak, but his presumed niceness is oppressive, and it's rooted in something darker than a desire to make Bertie happy. It's also hilarious in a cringe-inducing way I associate with Larry David, but filtered through this idea of the "nice guy." Gus is so focused on the way he presumes the date should be that he overcorrects at every turn, completely derailing any tenuous connection he may have made with Bertie. (You could point to any number of moments as the one that pushed the date into unsalvageable territory, but for my money, Gus ruined everything by suggesting Bertie's job is anything other than awesome. Bertie loves running focus groups. Don't undermine that, dude!)
Once Mickey starts playing the "he knows that you know that he knows" game, Gus and Bertie's date devolves into a game of "who can be more terrible" that feels like it's straight from Apatow's pen. Only a few degrees separate "You know how I know you're gay" from Gus and Bertie's offensive one-upsmanship. ("If global warming's real, I'll sign a petition to end it, but until then, I'll just assume it's a myth the government is telling us …" "Like 9/11.") This is Love at its silliest. Rust and O'Doherty are such a perfect comedic match here, it's almost possible to believe Gus and Bertie could pull this date out of its tailspin. Alas, once a guy has nearly choked to death, then immediately pukes and slips in his own vomit, the bloom is off the rose.
Put simply, it was a humiliating night for Gus on multiple fronts. When he confronts Mickey, he's hoping just to get out with his dignity intact. He simply wants to lick his wounds and move on. But Mickey's dealing with her own wounds, and she sees in Gus the potential for healing. It's possible to read her decision to kiss Gus as more manipulation on her part, but there's a raw, wounded quality to Jacobs's performance that makes it borderline-heartbreaking. Both Gus and Mickey so clearly want and need to be loved, and there's an indefinable connection between them that suggests they could find that love in each other. But at what cost to themselves?