Master of None
It’s been four long years since the critically lauded Master of None has dropped a new season, and a lot has changed both within and outside the show in that time. Originally a story about Dev (Aziz Ansari), his budding acting career and his romantic foibles, the show’s long-awaited third season — now subtitled “Moments in Love” — picks up years later and instead focuses on Denise (Lena Waithe) and her marriage to Alicia (Naomi Ackie).
Alicia is new to the audience, but her relationship with Denise illuminates key ideas about queer love, heteronormativity, and monogamy. The two women have built a beautiful life together that neither feels fully at home in, and ultimately, that’s what the season is about — finding, building, keeping, and yearning for the comforts of domestic life.
In the season’s first episode — one of only two that runs upwards of 35 minutes — we’re introduced to Alicia and reintroduced to Denise. Now a celebrated author, Denise has bought the beautiful rustic home they now share together in upstate New York. Alicia is working at an antique shop in hopes of breaking into interior design. They have a quiet life, and Ansari — who directs all five episodes — takes his time establishing the ordinary bliss they share. The couple knows each other’s rhythms and ticks. They’re at home together, with each other. They fold laundry and dance to “Everybody Everybody.” They have chickens. They keep each other up at night with hypothetical pillow talk about licking armpits to keep each other alive. It’s as endearing as any domestic tableau could aim to be. But when Dev and his new girlfriend Reshmi (Aysha Kala) come over for dinner, the seams of their marriage begin to show.
Dev and Reshmi are almost immediately at each other’s throats, rehashing arguments they’ve clearly had several times before. Reshmi is unhappy that they’re living with Dev’s parents in Queens. Dev is unhappy that Reshmi buys too much produce at the farmer’s market. She says he should have gotten hair plugs to save his acting career. He says her plant-sitting business idea is useless and all but calls her a lush.
In the bathroom, Reshmi tells Alicia that her life isn’t where she expected it to be. She’d hoped to be married with kids and a career and instead, she’s going back and forth with a partner who resents her. Her candor unnerves Alicia, who broaches the subject of children with Denise after their friends have left. She wants to be a mother, and she has a plan. All she needs is for Denise to get on board. Denise is reluctant but agrees. And after they enlist Alicia’s friend Darius (Anthony Welsh) as a donor, she quickly gets pregnant, then miscarries in quick succession. The loss tears Alicia wide open, and the episode ends as she tells Denise that though she still wants children, she’s not sure that she should have them with her.
It’s hard to divorce this season of Master of Love from the people both Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari have become in the time since the second season’s release. The show was a critical darling and netted Waithe the Emmy she parlayed into the thriving Hollywood career she now enjoys. But Ansari’s reputation took a big hit after controversial reporting by now-defunct site Babe.net accused the actor of inappropriate conduct on a date. Battered by the allegation, Ansari has largely refrained from the spotlight.
But in this new season, Ansari directs — and writes alongside Waithe — a newly focused story that savvy culture consumers won’t be able to see as anything but an attempt to work through how much their lives have changed since they were last making the show. Shot entirely on film in the style of a domestic drama, the tone has shifted from light comedy to mundane drama, languishing in its ordinariness to drive home the sameness of married life and the work that goes into maintaining relationships.
After Dev and Reshmi’s fight, he and Denise sit outside the house and catch up, coming to terms with how much their own relationship has changed since Denise’s meteoric rise. “You never call me anymore. We’re not the same friends we used to be. Once you became this big success, you made all these new friends and I didn’t make the cut,” Dev laments. “You’re doing so well, and I’m doing so bad. It’s embarrassing.”
At the risk of speculating wildly, it’s hard not to assume that this scene is commentary on Waithe and Ansari’s diverging careers. Waithe has become a prolific producer, lending her name and skills to television shows like Boomerang and Twenties and to films like The Forty-Year-Old Version and Queen & Slim. Ansari has released a stand-up special and appeared in the Parks & Rec COVID reunion special, but little else that the public has been privy to. It isn’t hard to imagine how resentments might have cropped up between them. Ansari propelled Waithe’s career while taking a massive hit to his own.
But it’s Denise’s marriage to Alicia that holds the real story. Eagle-eyed gossipmongers might be aware of the rumors that Waithe left her wife for singer Cynthia Erivo (allegedly) a mere two months after they tied the knot. While nothing has been confirmed by either party, it’s very easy to view this episode through the prism of her possibly messy personal life. There’s no way to know how much Waithe pulled from her personal experience here, but Alicia’s clear trepidation and insecurity about her place in Denise’s life feels like Waithe looking back and examining, with clear eyes, how she might have been culpable in the dissolution of her marriage.
And Ansari is good at making that hesitance clear with the camera. Many if not most scenes are framed as static shots, with characters moving in and out of the frame, heightening the sense that life moves on without them. The couple’s home is full to the brim with art Alicia has curated to make the love nest more their own, but it’s also made the house feel small. She and Denise are in each other’s space, and it’s starting to get uncomfortable. Alicia’s unease with their status quo is palpable in this first hour, and her frustration with Denise’s unequal grief very much feels like a prelude to the end.
Jack of All Trades
• Alicia apparently has a whole Ph.D. in chemistry. I have so many questions about what resulted in a pivot to interior design.
• It isn’t stated outright, but there’s a sense that Denise thinks she’s above the domesticity she’s built, and has been neglecting her loved ones as a result. When Alicia brings up kids again, she tries to put her off by saying that her career is going too well to risk it, but she never actually asks how Alicia feels.
• Denise and Alicia’s chickens are named after Black musical divas: Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle. It’s not important, it’s just delightful.
• Despite the obviousness of the coming undoing, there are moments of sincere tenderness between Denise and Alicia, and I’m a little disappointed that we skip through them so quickly in service of getting to what breaks them.
• It was hard not to notice that the division of household labor seemed to fall along traditionally gendered lines.