As much as I love the John McEnroe narration (it doesn’t get old, even three seasons in!), it’s always fun when NHIE switches things up, and that’s what they did in this episode — but with a familiar voice. That’s right, we’ve got another Ben-centric episode, so Andy Samberg is back as our buoyant, eternally boyish guide.
These seasonal one-off episodes have become essential in understanding the men in Devi’s orbit. Both Paxton and Ben are more layered than they let on. And I’ll admit, Ben’s behavior this season has been driving me up the wall, so even if he needed this episode, I needed it more (if only to have more sympathy for him). All this to say, I suspected this episode would have me feeling like an overly harsh, grade-A bitch, and it did! Let’s see why!
The deadline for Columbia’s Early Decision applications is looming … meaning it’s 300 days away. So Ben, of course, is even more manic than usual regarding his academics. He’s skipping meals and opting for jerky sticks on-the-go while working his ass off and occasionally wistfully watching his male peers bond and play. When the principal finds out Ben’s been taking ten classes, she informs him he has to drop two. She also reminds Paxton that she’s waiting on his college application essay, which he claims is on the way.
Reeling from a divorce, physics teacher Mr. Brighton assigns a group project where the students must teach each other the next few units of the curriculum. (I know this is a gag, but I swear I had teachers pull this same trick growing up. Now I know why!) Devi, Trent, and Ben end up teamed together — Trent promises them beer in exchange for an easy A — and Ben is forced to adapt to their schedule, no matter how much it doesn’t fit with his (and despite the nagging pain in his abdomen). The mismatched trio work at Devi’s house after school until it’s time to eat.
And guess who’s coming to dinner? Des! Dressed in sweats, Devi’s not exactly at her prime to see her crush — who, as we recall, unceremoniously ghosted her — so she runs up to get changed. And despite having other schoolwork to do, Ben feels compelled to stay for dinner — he wants to suss out what’s going on between Des and Devi.
At dinner, Devi learns that Des has not, in fact, returned from some secluded, no-cell-service zone but that he’s been on his phone nonstop — just not with her. Des offers some clearly-not-true comment about how his texts sometimes don’t go through, and Ben switches from jealous of Des to pitying Devi … until he finds out Des got into Stanford early. The jealousy resumes. This guy is hot and smart?! Pick a lane!
The next day at school, Ben asks Devi whether she likes Des “or something.” She tentatively admits as much, and Ben altruistically gives her some advice: “Stop trying so hard. Just be yourself and ask him out.” But Ben’s cool demeanor is short-lived when he heads to calculus and realizes he’s empty-handed for an essay that’s due (he had been listening to an audiobook when it was assigned). He’ll be getting a zero, and his overall grade will be brought down to a – gasp — B!
But Ben can’t exactly focus on this scholastic nightmare because he’s in too much physical pain. He leaves the classroom, doubled over, clutching his stomach. Paxton witnesses this; Ben says he thinks his appendix burst and Paxton carries him to the ER. (Isn’t this the third time in the series that Paxton finds himself at the hospital? It’s practically his second home.)
At the hospital, with Paxton by his bedside, Ben finds out he’s not suffering from appendicitis — he has a mass of “impacted fecal matter in his colon.” Yeah, pals, we finally have a confirmed medical diagnosis for what we’ve always suspected about sweet, annoying Ben: he’s full of shit.
Ben hasn’t had a bowel movement in 16 days and will need surgery. And since his parents are away, 18-year-old Paxton is the only adult who can stay with him while he undergoes the procedure. Thankfully, all goes well on the operating table. But the doctor informs Ben that he’ll just need to stay at the hospital, with Paxton in tow, until he passes gas. To his credit, Paxton has been rolling with these punches pretty well here, so it’s not exactly unearned when he asks for some clarification: “So how big a fart are we talking here, Doc? Like a real sheet rustler?”
Ben’s, of course, mortified by this turn of events. “I kinda thought getting cheated on by Devi would’ve been the end of our journey together,” he says. Paxton asks how Devi is anyway, and Ben reveals she has a new love interest: “Weirdly, he’s sort of a combo of the two of us if we were also Indian.” Paxton admits he had wondered how Devi could like them both at the same time. Ben thinks this is a dig at him — the “friendless dweeb” — but Paxton clarifies that he’d actually been jealous of Ben and how he and Devi could connect over their smarts.
Paxton presses Ben to talk about his source of stress, and Ben tells him about the pressure to go to Columbia and make his dad proud. Paxton says that given his level of commitment — and constipation — his dad should already be proud of him. Ben appreciates the sentiment but switches the topic, asking what Paxton’s doing on his laptop. Paxton reveals he’s working on his college application essay, which requires him to describe an event that shaped him. Ben asks, “Do you not know what an event is?” and, once again, I want to punch him. This is why you have no friends, ya jerk!
The real problem is that Paxton doesn’t really know who he is; people only associate him with surface-level stuff. Ben asks what Paxton knows is true about himself, and Paxton admits he’s a good brother. When Ben finds out Paxton’s sister was adopted — “essay gold” — he suggests that Paxton make a list of how Rebecca’s helped shape him, and Ben will give him pointers on the essay. It’s nice to see Ben acting as a good, helpful friend in general, but his willingness to be present (and arguably paternal) when he’s lacking that kind of support in his own life is especially heartwarming.
After a tastefully subtle butt-trumpet performance, Ben returns to his house to rest and is awoken when his dad enters the room. It turns out he cut his trip short to check in on Ben. “Sounds like you might be a workaholic like your old man,” says Mr. Gross. Ben informs him he wants to scale back his schedule, which unfortunately might affect his chances at Columbia. But his dad assures him he’s proud of Ben no matter what he does or where he goes to college. “I know I haven’t always been the best dad, but this is where I can be better than mine.” We’re healing generational trauma and patterns, people! Ben’s dad calls him a brilliant boy, and they both say I love you. Sweet stuff.
The next day at school, Ben promptly drops two classes — one might conveniently be the calculus class he would’ve gotten a B in — but adds an art studio elective. And it turns out Devi took Ben’s advice and is going on a date with Des. She thanks him, and instead of feeling jealous, Ben is much more zen. He realizes if this situation brings him pain, he ought to just let it — and her — go. No more torturing himself.
In the meantime, Paxton’s friends want to hang out with him, so things are looking up! Here’s hoping that Ben’s turning a new leaf, and this episode can serve as a palate cleanser — or enema — of sorts.
• A flash of his computer screen reveals one of Ben’s essays. He writes that “Obsession and betrayal — and obviously death — were a part of life then, and continue to be today.” I get the current secret elements of obsession (Devi) and betrayal (also Devi) in his life, but death? What skeletons are you hiding, Ben? And where are they?!
• The Popstar movie poster in Ben’s room reminded me that this underrated piece of art exists, and I should rewatch it sometime soon. Advertising works!
• Speaking of movies, Ben’s obsession with getting into his dream school briefly reminded me of “Try Harder!” — a recent documentary about high-achieving students going through the ridiculously stressful and competitive college application process. Worth a look.
• “I’ve never gotten so close to having to do work.”
• Remember how I joked that Devi might end up a flat-Earther after all of that compatibility quiz chaos? We coincidentally (and thankfully) get confirmation here how that’s not the case. Trent, on the other hand…
• Paxton ends up getting great feedback on his essay — it was so good the principal cried!
• “Can you please carry me in a less emasculating way?”