“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” —Hillel the Elder
“I think about others all the time … what I can get from them … how they can give me pleasure … whether they have a silly little walk I can make fun of.” —Schmidt, the Douche
What makes someone a good person? Is it the willingness to settle debts with friends and creditors? The impulse to help an injured bike messenger without any potential for personal gain? The initiative to hold a bake sale for kids with cancer?
(We can be pretty sure it’s not the third thing, right? Has anyone ever made money off of a bake sale? It’s basically a child’s lemonade stand, but it wastes an entire neighborhood’s time. Let me get this straight: I bake an entire batch of brownies at a cost of roughly ten dollars, and you sell them for 50 cents each and make eight dollars total? That’s two dollars and an afternoon that I’m just casting into the ether. How about I give you eight dollars, and we call it an afternoon? That’s right, bake sales, I’m calling you out. Watch your back. Umbrellas, I’m coming for you next. No one wants to show up at a party or restaurant carrying a dripping wet cylinder. You’re garbage and you know it.)
No, goodness lies in striving to better one’s life in the face of external adversity, internal strife, or paper bags full of cash. We learn that from the wise words of Winston, who seems to have given up his life of cat husbandry to rejoin the human race. More important, we learn it from the actions of Schmidt, Nick, and Jess. Schmidt, through trial and error, realizes that you can’t just become a better person by all of a sudden throwing around Hebrew words in casual English conversation. To be fair, though, I could have told you that years ago … I went to Brandeis. (Kidding, but also not kidding.) He finally engages in some reflection instead of engaging with his reflection. By the end of the episode, Schmidt begins to forgive himself for the fallout of his relationships with Cece and Elizabeth. Of course, that also means he takes responsibility for causing those breakups. It’s almost as though a kindly, bearded Robin Williams were stroking his bechutneyed hair and telling him, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. Okay, it’s totally your fault. But it’s not the end of the world.” Rabbi Jon Lovitz was not a ton of help. He just had other rabbis rough Schmidt up, exactly like I feared my rabbi would do to me every week on account of how lackadaisically I studied for my bar mitzvah.
But of course Schmidt was going to overcome his depression. He’s too self-involved for sadness to consume him completely. Also, he’s boring when he’s religious, just like real-life friends. (Kidding again … mostly.) His emotional arc has been very undergraduate. So far this season, he’s gone through the entire training circuit of dorm room spirituality. He went through his inadvisably promiscuous phase. Then he transitioned into mopey self-loathing. After that he became briefly and intensely Jewish. His religious phase was followed (of course) by a period of reckless nihilism. Then, after seeking validation from his black friend, he settled back into his normal mode of baseless confidence, like a college senior who has not yet experienced the sting of rejected job applications. On one hand, I hope Schmidt continues his trend of growth and accountability. On the other hand, it’s no fun to go to the zoo when the animals are all asleep, you know what I’m saying?
The real, meaningful change came from Nick. Though the pressure of being within lifeguarding distance of solvency initially seemed too much to bear, Nick used some of his shady inheritance to open a bank account in an actual bank. This is a big deal, because Nick has no idea how to live in the world. He’s an amalgam of our least mature impulses: He tries to drink his problems away. He racks up debt. He ignores important mail. (Also, for some reason, in this episode, he barely demonstrates mastery of the English language. He confuses so many simple phrases, it’s like he learned English from an Abbott and Costello sketch.) His new relationship has helped nudge Nick toward adulthood little by little. He’s trying to be better, which for Jess, and for us, is good enough most of the time. Even when it kind of isn’t.
Weirdly, though, Jess is pretty much flawless. The original premise of New Girl seemed to be: “Watch this oddball gal deal with three normal male roommates. She’s adorkable!” The show might as well have been pitched as Dharma and Gregs. Now, Jess is by far New Girl’s most grounded character. She’s employed, in a relationship, and somehow able to pay Nick’s debts out of pocket even though she was recently out of work for an extended spell. (I’m not exactly sure how all these debts were settled. The repayments in “the Box” were a lot like the shoot-out at the end of Reservoir Dogs; I don’t quite know what actually happened, but things seemed to work out.) Jess may separate her day peanuts from her night peanuts, but her quirks are light years away from Schmidt’s compulsive narcissism, Winston’s undefined mania, and Nick’s complete inability to pay taxes or parking tickets or even to know where his car is.
Her only hang-ups seem to be a slight difficulty socializing with awful people and the impulse to “fix” her boyfriend. The latter eccentricity would be more alarming, except that Nick is totally unprepared to live in the world. It is a marvel he’s even alive. It’s kind of a shame that the dynamic has shifted so far that Jess, goofy, earnest sprite, is now Jess, the uptight girlfriend. (Note: Jess is totally right that Nick cannot continue to live like, as Tom Petty might say, a refugee. It’s also not her job to turn him into a real boy through the magic of her love. Nick should, by all rights, be single … or incarcerated.) It’s a sweet gesture for Jess to protest the bank’s meager processing fee as a show of support for Nick’s intrinsic lunacy. They’re trying really hard to be good together, which, as we’ve learned, is the same thing as actually being good.
Schmidt, Nick, Jess, and (at least by virtue of his not living vicariously through his cat) Winston are all striving to be better. Better partners. Better friends. Better humans. Obviously, it’s important to achieve those goals. But it’s nice to be able to acknowledge progress in the right direction.
(Also, I love Brandeis University and the Jewish people in general.)