What does Jess see in Nick? The obvious answer: He’s a good-looking character in an ensemble comedy, she’s a good-looking character in an ensemble comedy, and forces as old as Sam and Diane are compelling them to pair off. But in the world of the show, why Nick? Why not Schmidt, who probably already knows where the soap goes in the washing machine? Or Winston, who’s arguably the sweetest, most mature of the bunch?
Last night’s episode suggested that the answer, for better or for worse, is innate chemistry. Jess might find Nick more attractive when he’s trying to be a better man, or at least a better bartender. But since the essence of Nick is not trying, she can’t just be interested in him when he’s on a self-improvement kick. She has to like him at his most curmudgeonly, when he’s — oh, for example — accusing fish of being untrustworthy because they breathe water.
This poses a problem. Because Nick and Jess have been living together for a season and a half, they already know all of each other’s flaws, so any complications to their eventual coupling have to come from the outside. Hence the arrival (and subsequent swift departure) of Shane, Nick’s pretty new boss at the bar. Shane is attracted to Nick because he’s a hot mess.”You’re just like the opposite of everyone I went to business school with!” she crows after kissing him.
Nick has just enough self-awareness to recognize this is a bad scene: “I know this isn’t gonna end well, but the whole middle part is going to be awesome.” But he’s also enjoying his sudden surge of ambition, teaching himself about laundry — “I smell like a baby in a damn meadow” — and implementing a new “Men’s Night” promotion at the bar.
All of this is catnip to Jess, who gets so turned on watching him at the hardware store that she has to remind herself that she once caught him pleasuring himself to a mail-order steak catalogue. Nick has no idea there’s a sexual connotation to their shopping trip, even though his to-buy list also includes long-shafted dry gel, a new nut wrench, and quick-hardening caulk. It’s not until Jess gets smacked in the chin with a plank of wood and ends up in bed, all hopped up on painkillers, that Nick starts to get an inkling of what’s going on.
Jess’s approach is subtle: She throws off the covers, tosses her arms in the air, and yells in her best old-timey seductress voice, “I want to have sex with you!” Nick-as-nurse is actually more appealing than Nick-as-handyman. There’s something touching about his attempt to take care of Jess in her altered state. Because this show loves slapstick, though, their encounter ends with Nick getting a black eye just before plunging his hand into a bowl of steaming soup.
At this point, half the apartment has facial bruises and the other half is wearing wet suits. Why wet suits? Because while Jess and Nick were busy exploring their chemistry and getting injured, Schmidt and Winston were learning about another kind of fiery affection — the kind that can only exist between a man and a fish.
With another character, this absurdist plotline might not have worked. But you can drop Max Greenfield into any mundane situation and expect him to be funny. At the aquarium, where he’s supposed to be getting over Cece, Schmidt develops a fixation on a protected California lionfish. The funny part here is less that the fish is a stand-in for Cece, and more that Schmidt doesn’t understand how aquariums work. “You there!” he calls to a staffer. “What is this fish? The one that floats like an angel — how much for this one?” Told that the fish is not for sale, he moans, “Why can’t I have the things that I want?” before getting dragged out yelling, “Love is a lie.”
The writers milk as many fish jokes as they can out of the situation (I especially liked Jess’s burn on Schmidt’s new fish tank: “An aquarium? When did you become a Bond villain that couldn’t afford not to live with roommates?”), but ultimately, as so often happens on this show, they’re making a point about friendship. Schmidt’s quest for a lionfish might be ridiculous, but Winston is there to help him with it, even if it means putting on a wet suit and standing in the ocean while Schmidt lobs fat jokes at him.
Winston is a man who really understands going the extra mile for your friends — after all, he’s the one who shaved Schmidt’s shoulders after he got that scoop-neck sweater. And he wins the best line of the episode, when Schmidt gets stung in the face by a jellyfish. (He also gets to be the only one who makes it through all 23 minutes without a facial contusion.) As everyone knows, peeing on a jellyfish wound makes it better, but Winston just peed in the ocean, so he’s all out. “Okay, I know this is a dumb question,” he says, “but will No. 2 help?” This is what New Girl does best: It’s totally juvenile, and yet at the same time, it’s still touching.
There’s a callback to this line at the hospital a few minutes later. Winston has asked Cece to leave, explaining that Schmidt needs his space. It’s the kindest thing he can do, and Schmidt will never know, because he was passed out at the time. Still, when he regains consciousness, he’s had an epiphany: “I don’t know if it was the jellyfish’s venom or the paramedic’s urine, but it made me realize she’s not mine to keep.”
It’s a nice resolution, so it kind of sucks that after this exhausting adventure, the two of them are going to return to an apartment flooded with aquarium water. This is the downside to roommate romance: Nick and Jess are so busy having angry shouty friend sex that they break Schmidt’s fish tank, and they’re too irritated with each other — but also too turned on — to bother cleaning it. Instead, they storm off to their respective rooms, storm back out again, and go back to making out.
The episode’s ending is deliberately ambiguous, but maybe it has to be. This is the first time either Nick or Jess has gotten involved with someone who we as the audience really care about. That means the stakes are a lot higher. We know from the time-travel episode that something eventually has to go wrong (assuming we can trust Future Nick), but for now, the writers are going to have to find a way to keep their relationship interesting without making us lose sympathy for either one.