We Are Who We Are
Let’s not mince words or waste any time: This is a gut punch of an episode. I knew we had to come down from the giddy high of last week’s — that election-news button alerted us to as much — but, boy, was I not ready for We Are Who We Are’s darkest episode yet. And yes, I mean that in both a literal and a figurative sense.
The HBO show has long leaned heavily on its sun-dappled Italian setting; between the playful beachside moments and the lustful poolside hangouts, Luca Guadagnino has flooded it with a sunny brightness that has helped make this coming-of-age tale feel almost dreamy at times. Not so in this episode — set at Thanksgiving, no less. There’s an aptly dour tone throughout, matching the seriousness of what happens when death, arguably not an unexpected specter in a military base like this one, hits home. The death of Craig, whom we last saw a few episodes back leaving his newlywed Italian wife soundly sleeping, rocks the base’s fragile social ecosystem. It also leaves all of our characters at a loss for how to react. As a portrait of grief, “Right Here Right Now VII” is transcendent.
And, rightly, at the center of such a story line is Danny. The teen has long been on the show’s sidelines, but now that he has lost his best friend, we find him front and center — and in one key moment in the episode, actually framed as such. Following the teary, confrontational grief-counseling schoolroom scene (and yet another dramatic slap), we see Danny ambling around the base adrift in his own thoughts. Actually tethered to the camera, Danny has nowhere to hide his grief as he runs out to meet Craig’s young widow. Playing in the background is a song from John Adams’s 1995 opera I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky: “Dewain’s Song of Liberation and Surprise.” Like every other piece of music in We Are Who We Are, the choice works to set a mood, but the more you learn about its history, the more it adds to the scene at hand.
Adams’s opera was written in response to the 1992 L.A. riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake and follows a group of characters whose lives intersect and together tell a story of a country grappling with what seems like a senseless world. Dewain is a young Black man who is arrested on minor charges and sent to a prison that ends up collapsing in the earthquake (hence the opera’s title). His assertions in the song (“I am the way,” “I will be free,” which slowly turn into “I am here,” “I am free”) feel like an apt précis of We Are Who We Are even as they also capture just how lost Danny feels. He may well be looking at the (cloudy) sky but can see only a ceiling, a world closing in on him and devastating the life he thought he knew.
It’s painful to see Danny later take out his anger against inanimate objects and, later still, against himself as he tries to drown out his sorrow. (Note how the pool house has soured even in the show’s world, curdling into a dark and dreary space that has lost all of its former playful glory.) Craig’s death may unsettle Danny’s mother, sister, and stepfather in decidedly different ways, but the oft-laconic teen’s righteous frustration at knowing he’ll never see his best friend again shows us how grief can both break us and make us look at ourselves anew.
That’s definitely the case with Caitlin, who finds her allegiance to Sarah and Fraser further frayed, moving her to rip up the mental-health leaflet she so happily accepted last week. And it’s also the case with Fraser, who, before he goes on a bender in his own home (“Did you send my dad to death?” is still ringing in my ears), finds out firsthand what it means to come face to face with what you thought you wanted. Namely, a slightly buzzed Jonathan in a pair of briefs beckoning him in. And yes, it only gets stranger from there on out. Toeing the line between a lustful prelude to a steamy threesome and a disorienting moment of uncomfortable self-awareness, the scene between Fraser, Jonathan, and Jonathan’s girlfriend was a rare case in which I feared where we were headed.
Here again, the décor helps set the mood. The prints found in Jonathan’s apartment include a rare poster of a 1966 Francis Bacon exhibit at Galerie Maeght featuring one of the artist’s works (a characteristically unsettling nude) and a poster for a Gerhard Richter show at the Israel Museum from fall 1995 featuring his Lovers in the Forest, a photorealistic black-and-white image of a young (straight) couple in the woods, the man nuzzling up to his other half. Both images are alluring but discomfiting in the same way Tom Mercier’s lithe body can be seductive, comforting, and predatory, often at the same time — as when a shirtless Fraser grabs hold of Jonathan, firmly at first, as if wanting to convince himself it’s all really happening, only later to cave into his arms, wanting to be held and wanted, in tender abdication, seeking refuge only to realize such succor isn’t really what he wants.
Fraser, always so aloof, eventually breaks down just like everyone around him in this bleak, almost nihilistic episode (“There is nothing”), which ends, mercifully, with a rather hopeful image. Amid all the chaos — and the rain! — Guadagnino leaves us not with Caitlin and Fraser staring at each other through screens but with Danny’s calm prayer. We watch him cleanse himself, lay out his prayer rug, and embrace his Muslim faith as a way to find the stillness he requires to carry on. Even as the strings of John Adams’ El Dorado soar, Danny is a ballast holding himself together. Tears may be streaming down his cheeks, but he doesn’t stop. His voice may break, but he doesn’t stop. By the time the camera takes us high above, as if to give us a God’s-eye view of this dark and stormy evening, you’re swept up in his prayer, a balm amid the bleakness we have just endured. What that’s priming us for in next week’s episode remains to be seen. But given that this show has yet to steer me wrong, I am very excited to see how Guadagnino and the We Are Who We Are team will wrap things up.
This Is What It Is
• “Have you watched the news? Men want a leader who can make tough decisions.” Chloë Sevigny has never shied away from prickly characters you’d be hard-pressed to call likable, but her Commander Sarah is something else, though you clearly get the sense that her hard exterior is the kind of armor she had to construct for herself to get taken seriously in the military. That said, seeing her passive-aggressive talk with Jenny toward the end of the episode, silently letting her know she had been sleeping with her wife, was a reminder that Sevigny can pack a punch with a simple line like “Good night, Jennifer” as few actresses can.
• Like his mother, Fraser can sometimes be unkind and unintentionally cruel. See, for instance, lines like “He was a soldier” and his factoid about rocks in coffins. His apathy and indifference to what others think have often been marked as highly enviable characteristics, but we see here how they can easily slide into much less laudable territory.
• Raise your hand if you’d be as (if not more) flustered than Fraser if Tom Mercier greeted you at his door wearing just a pair of briefs.
• There were too many great lines to quote in this episode, but the one that rankled me most was Sarah’s “There are those who have to pay for our tranquility,” which, in Sevigny’s delivery, felt like the kind of oft-offered excuse that has all but lost its core meaning, even as it reveals the craven truth.
Update: an earlier version of this article miscredited the music heard during the episode’s final scene. It has been corrected.