I Love Dick
Dick, it turns out, is no Roman sex god. At the beginning of “The Barter Economy,” Chris’s fantasy of him as Adonis in a cowboy hat — gentle, as she puts it in her first letter to him, only because he knows how badly she wants him to be rough — comes smashing up against the reality of Dick the mortal. From the moment she greets him at the door, wearing nothing but a towel, a pore strip, and an expression of alarm, their first bedroom scene is teenage-level awkward. Babbling in her usual way, Chris insists on getting dressed only so they can play out her fantasy of him taking off her clothes. Her sentences are littered with false starts and pauses: “If that’s what we … how … this …” She’s waiting for Dick to step in and say something, to do something, to be the dominant man she has always imagined him to be. But all he does is lean back farther in his chair. “I’m not uncomfortable with the idea,” he tells her.
Not exactly what she had in mind.
Despite his indifferent posture and the obvious lack of heat, they end up on the bed, Dick on top of Chris, dutifully prepared to “obliterate the walls” of her desire. But Chris is still holding back — maybe because she can’t cope with her fantasy disintegrating, maybe because, in the moment of truth, she feels weird about cheating on Sylvère. Trying to reassure her, Dick reveals that he’s already spoken to Sylvère and gotten his approval. For Chris, though, this is the ultimate insult. In the last letter she wrote to Dick, from the hotel room, she said that she wants to “own everything that happens to me now.” Now it appears that Dick is only in her room because Sylvère “traded” her like a “fucking farm animal.” She pushes Dick off her. “You have no idea what the fuck my thing is,” she tells him. “Yeah, well,” he retorts, and you get the feeling that Dick has been waiting for an opening like this, “The feeling is mutual.” They’re both more complex than they give each other credit for. Neither is the caricature they imagine the other to be.
Chris is not the only woman to become furious in the face of Dick’s reticence. The next morning at the institute, when Paula informs Dick that a donor declined to give them a piece from feminist photographer Laura Aguilar because it wouldn’t “resonate” well with the other work Dick has allowed her to hang, Dick just nods and says, “Cool.” From “A Brief History of Weird Girls,” we know that it’s the kind of thing he’s said repeatedly to Paula over their years of working together, but this time, she snaps back. “Your indifference is staggering,” she tells him, and then wonders aloud why she hasn’t accepted any of the many prestigious job offers that have come her way since beginning work at the institute. The fantasy of Dick is crumbling, not only for Chris, but for all the women in Marfa — maybe even for Dick himself. Why else would he tell Paula that he’s going to leave the institute entirely, that she’s free to do with it as she pleases? Even he no longer believes in the myth he’s constructed over his years in the town.
The fact that Toby’s performance-art piece at the man camp has gone viral isn’t helping matters. Dick calls it a stunt, but is brought up short by the news that half a million people have watched the video when a mere 500 visit the institute each year. “Nobody cares about this place,” he says to Paula, and there is a hint of relief in his sardonic smile that makes you wonder if the reason he refused to collaborate with her over the years is that he never enjoyed the work of running the institute he built. Paula has spent so much time and effort trying to figure out what Dick wants, and now, at last, she finds out. “I want out,” he tells her, with the force of a revelation. “I need out.”
The show repeatedly makes the point that rejection can be artistically liberating — Chris has been working off of that inspiration since the first episode. Now, some of the other women in Marfa get the chance to turn their slights into art. Paula, left behind in the gallery, suddenly freed from the man who would never say yes to her, goes into a sort of curatorial ecstasy, reimagining the airy gallery hung with the female artists of color she’s longed to display. Across town, Devon, dumped by Toby after their night in jail, is also letting her imagination run wild. Inspired by the beauty of the oil drillers at man camp, she’s moving beyond the found text of Chris’s letters to Dick to create something that is truly her own.
Chris goes home and berates Sylvère for interfering with her fantasy. “How long did it take you guys to barter my pussy?” It takes someone with a phenomenal capacity for self-absorption to turn on Sylvère the way that Chris does, as though all this was his fault, as though his effort to help her fulfill her fantasy was the real betrayal in the marriage, rather than the fantasy itself. Part of the trouble, though, is that he never understood her fantasy. “You wanted my permission, I gave it to you,” he says, as though that were the height of reasonableness. But of course, he didn’t give her permission at all — he gave Dick permission.
But maybe the game isn’t over just yet. Despite their awkward encounter at the motel, Chris refuses to tell Sylvère that she won’t sleep with Dick after all. She begins frantically stuffing her things into a suitcase. Like Dick that morning at the institute, she is suddenly desperate to get out of the house, out of Marfa, maybe out of her marriage as well. She breaks down in tears, says she’s sorry, then flops face-forward on the bed, and the scene cuts to a clip of Stephanie Smith and Edward Stewart’s experimental film Mouth to Mouth, in which a man lies submerged in a bathtub, fully clothed, and a woman leans over and exhales into the water so he can breathe — an exhausting vision of co-dependency if there ever was one.
In the final scene, Chris heads to Dick’s ranch, past his snaking line of boulders, and lingers at the edge of his circular pool. Everything about the setting is so meticulously arranged, just as Dick likes it — everything, that is, except for Chris. Frazzled as ever, she plunges into his pool without permission, without even getting undressed. She doesn’t need Dick to get wet after all.
Film clips, in order of appearance
I Love Dick weaves short clips from avant-garde feminist directors throughout each episode. Sometimes, those clips blend into the story lines unfolding in Marfa; other times, they’re used for contrast. In each recap, we’ll identify them.