When “Chapter 3” begins, it’s snowing in New York and a white couple is walking through our protagonists’ country home with a Realtor. As it turns out, Alicia (Naomi Ackie) made good on her promise to leave, and now Denise (Lena Waithe) is left to deal with the remnants of their life together. The home is semi-empty, noticeably cleared out of half the life that lived there. Artwork is missing and bookshelves are cleared. Denise is truly in the house alone.
When relationships end, the instinct is to conduct a post-mortem. Why did they fail? What went wrong? But for Denise and Alicia, there’s more of a reckoning. They’ve both made mistakes, but there’s a fundamental difference in what purpose they each thought their relationship should serve in their lives.
It’s safe to assume that months have passed since we last saw these two, because Alicia comes over with divorce papers for Denise to sign. She’s formal and polite but loses her temper when Denise insists they talk first. Even after all this time, she’s hung up on the idea of not breaking up when they were both unfaithful, but Alicia sets her right: She didn’t leave because Denise cheated. She left because Denise made her into nothing more than a signifier of her own success. She was a prop in her wife’s life, and she was sick of being merely someone else’s decoration. She’d had her own dreams once, and she set them aside for Denise. But now, she’s exhausted, and she doesn’t want to do it anymore.
Denise relents and signs the papers before Alicia storms out, freedom in hand. Once she’s alone in the cold house she can no longer afford, Dev (Aziz Ansari) comes over to commiserate, and we finally see Denise register what she’s done with her life. She apologizes to Dev for leaving him behind when her career took off and admits that the failure she’d been working so hard to avoid has found her anyway. She’s screwed it all up and she can’t take it back. In the episode’s final frames, Denise packs up the house, then calls her mother for comfort. Catherine (Angela Bassett) tells her that despite this low point, things will be okay. After all, it’s just a valley.
As with the two before it, this episode takes its time to make its point, but it sings when it gets there. Alicia is out and has no interest in looking back, but Denise has no option but to sit with herself and examine her choices. She loves Alicia, but she didn’t treat her like a partner or an equal. She treated her, in some ways, like a child she was obligated to keep happy. Alicia’s wants and needs were an inconvenience to her.
This is as good a time as any to talk about Waithe’s and Ackie’s performances. Waithe relies on her physicality to convey the meat of Denise’s unintentional aloofness, but it works. Tall, slouched, and masc of center, her body tells the story of the things she won’t or can’t articulate. Denise feels like she did her part by providing the life they enjoyed together, but she doesn’t seem to get that they were supposed to enjoy it together. Instead, she left Alicia to her own devices, forced to find a way to make meaning out of her days alone. Now that everything she’s built is crumbling, she’s trying desperately to cling to the one thing she thinks can be fixed.
But Ackie plays Alicia’s well-earned rage like a dramatic violin trill. Faced again with Denise’s yearning, she winds up and unleashes, setting the pot of her still-simmering resentments to high. Her accent — English by way of the West Indies — drips with scorn and condescension. It’s a far cry from the muted role she played in 2016’s Lady Macbeth. Ackie makes Alicia’s frustrations explicit and demands that Denise understand why their love is irreparable. Being a trophy made her feel small. Waiting for Denise to come around to the journey she wanted to take in their lives together positioned her as the supporting character in her own story. And when she finally got what she wanted, it was tainted by her wife’s glaring reluctance to participate.
The flipside of gay marriage is gay divorce, and Master of None lays out a fine blueprint of how deeply painful that experience can be when the failure feels not just personal, but representational. In trying to keep the treadmill of her success going, Denise wore it out. And she didn’t even notice until things had already fallen apart. It’s a burden that feels unfair, but also necessary.
The swift collapse of this marriage calls to mind Insecure’s relationship between Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) in that show’s early seasons. We met them when they were unhappy and initially only got to see how things disintegrated. But eventually, we witnessed them reconnect and find happiness together. They were older, more whole people. And they didn’t need to rely on each other to be fulfilled. Master of None makes you root for a similar ending for these two lovebirds. As they hit their lowest point, it’s hard not to hope they get it.