Master of None
If the theme of “Moments in Love” is that relationships take work, then the lesson is that both people have to be willing to do the work to make the relationship viable. Romances don’t break down on their own, but they do splinter under the weight of unspoken expectations.
At the end of episode one, Alicia (Naomi Ackie) dropped a bomb in Denise’s (Lena Waithe) lap: Despite her miscarriage, she wants to try again to have a baby, but not with Denise. Now, episode two finds the couple at a frosty détente. Three months later, they are still together — civil, but barely speaking. Alicia’s loss was the spark that lit the match of their dissolution, but now the wick is slowly burning, burning, burning. As with the season premiere, this episode has all the hallmarks of an autobiographical work, and it quickly feels like Waithe is working through the dissolution of her own marriage as things between Denise and Alicia fracture irreparably.
The couple is now moving through their home largely in silence. They eat meals separately and slip off to bed alone. The weight of their growing dysfunction is so heavy that even Alicia’s news that she’s headed to Baltimore for a weekend to shop for antiques is prickled with tension. In her absence, Denise’s friend Heather (Rosalind Eleazar) comes over to smoke weed and distract her from the second book she’s supposed to be working on. Denise confides in her that she senses Alicia’s ambivalence about their relationship, confessing that she’s terrified of failure and worried about going back to an old life she considers mediocre. The idea at the forefront of her mind at all times is continuing to succeed.
Later in the evening, as Denise and Heather sit by the fire, Denise tells her about an old family friend who looked after her and her mother in her youth and is now dying of cancer. She opines that even when people are good and deserving, life is unpredictable. There’s no guarantee of a good life. The telling feels like a lament — an understanding that she is failing somehow coupled with an inability to articulate what exactly in her life doesn’t fit. But the intimacy of the moment leads to infidelity, and while Denise is taking Heather back home, they get into a car accident severe enough to require a hospital visit.
Alicia materializes at Denise’s bedside, worried yet comforting and promising to take care of her wife. And when they return home, the lit fuse connects and explodes as Alicia finds the detritus of Denise’s disloyalty the night before. Finally, all the unsaid words come spilling out. Confronting her in anger, Alicia reveals that she’d been lying about Baltimore — she’s having an affair, and it isn’t a fling. And then, mercifully, she leaves her wife.
It’s somehow very unsurprising that Denise would be unfaithful. What’s interesting is that she almost immediately regrets it and confesses as soon as Alicia confronts her. From the little we know about Denise’s romantic history from season two’s “Thanksgiving,” she seemed to greatly desire a fairly normative romantic life — probably influenced by her mother Catherine’s (Angela Bassett) slow acceptance of her sexuality. Here, she’s built it, but it’s almost entirely for show.
The episode is tauntingly slow as it builds to its climax, but it makes the journey worth it. The frustrations that Alicia voices in their argument have been bubbling for a while, but even she neglects to address how she’s been feeling until it’s too late. “You did [this] for you, so you could live your life, so I could play your wife in this little house,” she practically spits. She feels like a prop in the marriage, another trophy Denise could use to signify her own success.
But the story here is that it takes two to tango. Even if fault lies more with one party, it’s rare that the other party is completely blameless either. Denise’s choice was selfish, but as she revealed to Heather, she’d been feeling alone and abandoned in the relationship for quite some time. Alicia hadn’t been getting what she needed either, but instead of saying so, she waited for a gesture that never came. Then she found what she was looking for with someone else.
The fight itself is spectacularly shot, with the camera in a corner merely observing a marital demolition. Like a fly on the wall, it intrudes onto the scene, seeing the couple at their most ugly and vicious. But it also reveals some deeper truths. Despite both their transgressions, Denise doesn’t want out of the relationship. She loves Alicia and wants to be with her. What she doesn’t want to do is change. And her reluctance to shift her life in order to make room for her wife was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Alicia felt stifled in their life together and desperately needed a change to feel seen and to grow as a person. They’d very simply come to the fork in the road that signified the end of their lives together.
Before, the couple’s relationship felt markedly gendered in the division of labor, and even the argument itself seems to fall along traditional lines. But Waithe bucks the heteronormative tropes somewhat by keeping things in Denise’s perspective. After Alicia leaves, Denise is left to clean the house, do the dishes, and tend to their home. And we get to see her loneliness and regret bloom. Once again, the camera holds the frame as she moves in and out of it, passing her life by.
It’s here that the story seems to be questioning the very nature of marriage entirely. Broken by this double betrayal, Alicia and Denise have realized that they simply cannot be what the other needs anymore. Would it have been better to keep faking it to avoid “failing” at marriage? Or did they do themselves a favor by acknowledging, finally, that they simply need more than the other can provide?