Listen, I know that panic attacks are no joke and that they are, by their nature, disregulated responses to external stress. I can acknowledge that while also acknowledging that it’s very difficult to summon the appropriate level of empathy for a character as unlikable as Conrad when the trigger that sends him into his emotional tailspin is getting into Stanford University. Brother, please visit a mental health professional. Grief and an anxiety disorder are surely a bitch to handle at the same time, but they’re not a license to verbally assault literally everyone who comes in your path — especially not Skye, whose only crime is being delightful.
“Love Game” seems to want to show us Conrad at his best, to remind us why Belly loves, loved, him. But even when he’s playing laser tag, all I see is a cold jerk with no boundaries. Belly could honestly also use a lesson in boundaries, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
After the AC mysteriously goes on the fritz and forces Kyra Sedgwick to cancel her planned open house, she convinces the teens to get out of her hair for the day. (We later learn the broken air conditioner was the handiwork of Steven, future Princeton engineering student and all-around hottie.) So instead of standing around being belligerent to strangers, which I assume was Conrad’s original plan for open-house sabotage, the teens head to the boardwalk and stage a fair-games tournament. Teams are divided into boys versus girls-and-nonbinary-cousin-Skye to allow for maximum competitive flirtation.
Between events — which include laser tag, Dance Dance Revolution, the rock-climbing wall, bumper cars, and a basketball shootout — the kids are offered opportunities for reflection. For instance, they run into Cam Cameron in the arcade, where he now works, a cautionary tale of what happens to rich teens who lose their beach houses. For Belly, beating Conrad in Shoot Your Shot and leading Skye to DDR victory reinforces her decision to rejoin the volleyball team and maybe even reclaim her captaincy. More poignantly, the fair reminds her that she’s been getting burned by Conrad since the age of 13, but Jeremiah has never let her down. When they were kids, Jeremiah was the one who stayed home with Belly when she got sick. And when her penalty for losing the Boardwalk Olympics is to ride the Tower of Terror, of which she is rightfully terrified, Jeremiah is the one who holds her hand. (I have always refused to go on this ride because I heard the urban legend about the girl who got her hair caught in the spokes and was subsequently scalped.)
Conrad, having “grown into quite the asshole” (Skye’s words, not mine), is the one who casually refers to Belly as his girlfriend and won’t stop shitting on Skye’s mom to their face, which they don’t actually love as it turns out. “My mom’s not evil, Conrad,” Skye says at one point, causing him to stop dead in his tracks. “And your mom wasn’t a saint.” What’s this now? In fact, Skye and Aunt Julia have both hinted heavily, several times, that there was some unresolved tension between the sisters before Susannah died, but Conrad especially doesn’t want to hear anything that might smudge his mother’s perfect memory. Conrad certainly knows a thing or two about complicated sibling relationships, but he is somehow unable to apply this personal experience to people outside of himself.
That said, while I admire the efficiency, Aunt Julia packing away the entire house while the kids were gone was pretty fucked. That’s one I can’t defend.
I don’t know how long the kids are planning to stay, especially if their bedding is now packed into storage somewhere, but I imagine that, at some point, Aunt Julia is going to ask what Belly is still doing there. For as often as Belly chirps to Conrad and Jeremiah that she and Steven are their family too, they aren’t, really. Taylor asks Belly (why doesn’t Belly ever listen to Taylor!?) why she doesn’t leave Con and Jer to handle their own family shit. Belly seems to feel that Susannah left her with some kind of responsibility for the house and for her sons, having essentially trained her as a future daughter-in-law since Belly was little. But as the boys are about to learn, painfully, there is a difference between having a sense of ownership and actual ownership, and Belly is getting close to stepping way out of bounds.
Laurel, meanwhile, could stand to loosen her boundaries a little bit. She looks great, but she’s having a miserable time, when of all the book sellers events in all the towns in all the world, her ex-boyfriend walks into hers. It’s Cleveland, the charming fellow author Laurel dated last summer, and he’s arrived just in time to offer Laurel some ace parenting advice — Belly might feel better about her own grief if Laurel let her see a little bit of her own. But Laurel thinks seeing the depth of her sorrow would be too scary for Belly. We see Laurel type, then delete, a text reading, “I miss her so much,” which I guess is supposed to be the cavernous maw of Laurel’s despair that Belly is too fragile to confront.
Cleveland puts it like this: When he was going through a really bad period of depression a few years ago, “It felt like I was just sitting at the bottom of a deep hole, looking up at the world going on above me.” He tells Laurel, pointedly, “The friends who helped me the most were not the ones who tried to get me out of the hole. It was the friends who climbed down into the hole and sat with me for a bit that really made things better.” Hey, I know somebody else who could use this piece of advice. (Belly, I’m talking about Belly.)