We Are Who We Are
The more I think about the singsongy title for We Are Who We Are the more its meanings multiply in my mind. It feels like a defiant assertion. But it could just as easily be a defeatist proposition. It can be an expansive promise or a limiting curse. What I keep wondering is, Who are we for? Identity, as this HBO show continually reminds us, requires an other, an audience, an interlocutor. At the risk of sounding a bit too poetic and philosophical (I must be spending too much time in Fraser’s head), these characters keep showing us that we only exist in relation to someone else. How they see us doesn’t define us (we are who we are, after all), but it does create fissures in the way we see ourselves, forcing us to seek out anchors that will make our identity legible to others as it is to ourselves.
The show does this in ways both big and small. Think of Fraser gleefully owning the title of “badass” after Jonathan uses it to describe the book he should read next (with an attendant slap on the ass!). Or think of Jenny and Maggie’s conversation about names Americans can’t pronounce, a discussion that necessarily brings up issues of how we’re seen differently depending on what name we choose to offer others. Or, conversely, how we hide aspects of who we are by putting other people’s comfort ahead of our own values.
Take Caitlin. Ahead of her meeting with Giulia, she agonizes over how to best glue on facial hair and what outfit to wear, and, in the key segment of this episode, decides to buzz off her head of hair. Fraser, ever the dutiful friend, waffles between being supportive and encouraging her to be careless. “You are your hair,” he tells her. “It’s what people love about you.” Turns out, he’s voicing precisely why Caitlin must do away with it altogether. She’s long known it’s her hair that gives her away — it’s why she’s so mesmerized by that barbershop and why she prefers wearing hats when heading out in the mornings with her father.
The moment when Fraser finally buzzes it all off finds her as giddy as we’ve ever seen her, as if she’s letting go of the weight (both literal and figurative) that her distinctive hair has always lent her. In front of Giulia, she’ll be unequivocally Harper — the young Americano she met and flirted with. Caitlin’s desire to live up to that image has as much to do with Giulia as it does with herself. She’s creating a version of herself that’s more manly so that others may see her as she wishes to be seen. Fraser calls her out on her essentialist view of masculinity (“Do we think being male is knowing how to shoot guns, and pee standing up, and have shitty facial hair?”), but for Caitlin, going out to the gun range with Sarah or setting up a date with Giulia are tangible ways she finds of expressing something inside her.
That’s what makes the final beat with Giulia all the more heartbreaking. Not the clothes, not the buzz cut, not even the glued-on facial hair could fool her. The Italian girl knew all along that Caitlin was a girl; she’d be happy to keep the ruse up, but that moment of misrecognition is too much for Caitlin to bear. She is who she is but she needs others to see her the way she sees herself. It’s also what makes hearing, “You’re just a little girl,” from her father feel oddly comforting, it anchors her back in his arms.
Of course, Caitlin is not the only one struggling with aspects of her identity — just a few doors down, her brother (well, half-brother, as is stressed over and over in this episode) is finding ways of reconnecting with what he thinks are his father’s roots. And, just as with the rest of the cast of characters in We Are Who We Are, his journey is presented in all its messiness. His search for spirituality is tied to a distrust of his mother and an alienation from everyone around him. He feels like a powder keg about to explode. Moreover, just like his stepfather Richard, he’s yet another character aiming to push his family away from Fraser’s: The masculine anxiety that the show has been slowly tracing over the past few episodes comes to a furor when Richard all but forbids Caitlin to go next door to hang out with Fraser and his mothers, and when Danny voices his concern of what Jenny hanging out with Maggie may do to her. (“You know those women aren’t good people,” he says.)
The concerns of both Poythress men are, given what we’ve seen Caitlin and Jenny do when outside the purview of the men in the family, not wholly unfounded. But they do set up the two families as existing on different axes altogether. Richard has long shown his disdain (or is it intolerance? Indifference? Jealousy, perhaps?) for his commander and sees in her nontraditional family a threat to his world. Little does he know that, when alone, Sarah behaves almost like a bad caricature of a straight guy: “You’re my wife,” she tells Maggie while watching TV, “come on, give me some of that beer.” To Sarah, the Poythress family may be “a little bit basic” but with lines like that, you wonder how much the show wants you to side with her — or with anyone altogether. After all, the juxtaposition of seeing Jenny and Richard in the garage and Maggie and Sarah on the couch, each couple mimicking an intimacy that hasn’t been there, that’s perhaps been lost over the years, is heartbreaking.
But it also forces us as audience members to thread together what we know about these characters and the way their adulthood has clearly not absolved them from the messiness of their lives. Take Jenny. That she all but collapses into tears at the mention of her name in the middle of that rushed sexual encounter with Richard merely underlines the ways she’s becoming more and more unmoored from who she’s become, though that may be getting her closer to who she always was and may yet still be.
This Is What It Is
• Ever since word got around that, following that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Timothée Chalamet cameo, we’d be getting a similar Armie Hammer sighting, I’ve agonized over every crowd shot and remain worried I’m somehow missing him every time.
• I’m more and more curious about Fraser and Jonathan’s flirtation. (Is that what we should be calling it? Might friendship be a clearer term, at least from the soldier’s perspective rather than the doe-eyed teenager’s?) Their impromptu hangout at the movies — watching Ouija: Origin of Evil of all movies! — was yet another bonding moment that feels like it’s building toward … something. But what?
• Fun fact: The monologue Caitlin performs is taken from a 1974 David Mamet play titled Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Caitlin and Fraser chose an oft-performed monologue by the character called Bernie, who’s been played by Hank Azaria onstage and James Belushi and Kevin Hart on the big screen.
• “I love the smell of that hair” // “I like the smell of cumin.” In case you were wondering if this show is at all interested in the sensory experience.
• Is there such a thing as anti-product placement? Because that’s definitely what happened with Honey Nut Cheerios in this episode.
• This week’s Fraser garment I now wish I owned: his “Futuristic Teenagers” sweatshirt.
• Kudos to the show for giving a shout-out to Dev Hynes (“He’s a genius, a musical genius,” per Fraser), who not coincidentally scores We Are Who We Are. Note to self, these notes should really have been titled “It Is What It Is,” in honor of his 2013 song.
• “Fathers only matter to those who don’t have them.”
• “My mother doesn’t know a fucking thing about me.” Sometimes a teenage cliché rings true even when it feels so old hat.