Not every conversation about a show whose existence stems from unequal race-based treatment should deal with race. That would undermine the whole experiment. Every creator struggles with the desire to remain identityless, capable of standing in for every man, woman, or child consuming their creation, of rising to the greatness held for those granted the power to stand in for us all. For eons, that greatness, that power, has been the purview of white men. If you want to try your hand at wresting some of that greatness, you better seem familiar — otherwise people keep asking you questions in interviews about what it’s like being a blank in Hollywood, and pretty soon, that’s all you are.
Even when race isn’t an obvious talking point in Master of None, though, the exclusion counts. For Aziz Ansari to own a range of ideas is, actually, subversive. And so we arrive at episode five, a half hour that feels like it could have come to us long before we were talking about the demographics of writers’ rooms — it’s just manned by a cast in which a single white character rounds out an otherwise colorful group, not the other way around.
The episode opens on the set of The Sickening, a “black virus movie.” Colin Salmon is the star. Colin Salmon is also a real person. Did you know this? I didn’t, and now I fear for Colin Salmon that, in his personal life, he will forever be fighting the ghost of this amazing character he is playing, this LARPer trapped in the body of an action hero.
Salmon loves his deceased cat (Shakespeare, R.I.P., who was snatched up by an eagle), elaborate domino art, baking cinnamon buns in his trailer, sonnets, and likely many more beautiful dreams than we can never know. He has a movie in the works called Car Man that Dev plays a huge role in shaping, mainly because there’s so little to do in these early stages. Salmon is a standout character in a character-driven show. I’d believe him as Car Man. Please get on it, studios.
Meanwhile, Dev takes an excursion off the obvious path toward Rachel. He meets Nina, played by a bouncy-haired Claire Danes. She’s confident and forward and … married — to a rich bully who cuts Dev in line at the ice-cream joint, and takes the last King Kong banana split, and do you see where this is going? Dev decides it’s okay to sleep with a self-possessed married woman whose husband is the worst.
Elsewhere, Denise is giving her boss a high rate of orgasms. This is called “the Denise Experience.” Somehow, Nina, who works with Denise, never considered trying it out. Instead she’s all about Dev. One night, after waylaying him during a bad date with a restaurant opportunist, Nina freaks out when the lock to her beautiful apartment jiggles ominously. Her mean husband is back, and he discovers Dev shirtless in their hall closet. He can’t believe his wife is sleeping with a “small Indian man.” Dev points out that there was no need to mention his ethnicity or size — charisma knows no demographic markers. Across the universe, small Indian men pumped their fists (I presume). Exeunt Dev, pursued by the coke-fueled shouts of his cuckolded nemesis.
I like to think the episode’s last scene is a manifestation of Aziz’s most unique trait as a budding auteur, separate from his race. He’s not cynical. In fact, he seems truly uncomfortable being bad. And so he constructs a scenario where he isn’t: Dev and Denise run into Nina and her husband. Far from destroyed, they’re exuberant. The affair brought them closer! Woodworking! They slip off, all money and smiles and true hard love, and Denise produces the best last line on a show shot with the skill of knife-edged prestige television, but the soul of a little kid who wants everyone to get along: “What just happened?”