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Master of None has been tiptoeing away from its comedic roots from the beginning. The first season dove into social commentary and dipped its toe into emotional stuff, but never veered too far outside of a personality-driven comedic format. The second season became enthralled with arthouse cinema and expanded on its meditation on the being of relationships. Still, given that background, the third season of Master of None splits a room.
The stylistic retreat to a sparse, meditative cinema seems like a punch in the gut. Only two main characters? Changeless bucolic setting in Upstate New York? Just five episodes? The gradual evolution in the stylistic agenda and content were clues, it just wasn’t clear where they would lead. If they would, in fact lead to anywhere – especially after an allegation of sexual misconduct against its co-creator and former lead actor Ansari AND a global pandemic put the third series on hold. Still, the gulf of time between the second and third season seemed to not entirely have been the fault of Covid or Me Too. According to interviews with the cast and creators, time was just as much a part of the series’ subtle investment in European cinematic traditions. Making people wait was all part of the game.
Ansari directed several episodes in the second season in which he paid homage to European cinema (especially the Italian tradition, for example: check Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves against the series two opener). Yet, he has taken over directorial duties entirely in season three and his vision is doubling down on the aesthetic and romantic motifs he had established previously.
Like most of the fanbase, I wasn’t sure how to absorb the five-episode season, although Emily VanDerWerff’s review in Vox was particularly insightful and I resonated with several of her points. She praises the series overall but notes that Ansari’s directorial style sometimes “holds viewers at arm’s length” to the series’ detriment. I came to a different conclusion on “the arm’s length” POV though. Yes, it could be that Ansari’s style keeps us from forming any real relationship with the central married couple and that objectivity works against telling a story. However, I think that it could also bring us into the building anxiety that is never fully dealt with and that eventually burrows under the fabric of the season.
The five-episode series appears to be, considering the organization in the two previous runs, to be a five-part episode (entitled “Moments in Love”). It focuses on Denise (series writer Lena Waithe), a friend of Ansari’s character Dev, who has since become a successful novelist and moved to Upstate New York with her spouse Alicia (Naomi Ackie).
Unlike past series, which focused on the surreal experience of trying to build a relationship and develop yourself (and the fallout that occurs when neither obey the laws you’ve assumed constitute them), “Moments in Love” begins in domestic bliss. Everything that Dev and his friends were searching for and failing to find exists in this episode. In fact, it’s interesting that wide-shots and long cuts and the pastoral atmosphere give the impression of a place without time. As if this Upstate utopia does not exist in the same reality.
To this end, it’s actually shocking to see Dev cameo with his new girlfriend. They come from the city, a place in a rushed, tumultuous timescape that Denise and Alicia seem to have left behind long ago. It’s a sudden gust of city wind that upsets the steady fabric of life. Dev and his girlfriend bring that mode of rushed, desperate time with them, but the wide spaces and slowness of time crush whatever thin veneer of strength their relationship had.
In all this, Alicia and Denise seem to be paragons of domestic bliss, but the slowness of time doesn’t mean they’re immune to selfishness, communication problems and conflicting ideas of success. Alicia wants to have a baby and Denise isn’t that excited about it. A miscarriage ruptures the thin veneer of strength they’d taken for granted. Tragedy catapults everyone into the present and the strength of a relationship depends on what the partners have agreed to endure together.
One telling scene that is repeated twice in the series is a fixed shot of a curving country highway. The trajectory is unclear and darkness exists at the margins. Plans for the future, in such an atmosphere, don’t do much good; rather, being unable to endure whatever the future brings is best. Past seasons have addressed this as well but always from the ground up, never from the top-down. The wide-open shots and long cuts highlight this problem. When a relationship works and reaches its ideal end, the drive that powered it withers if it is laid to rest for too long.
Nothing much happens in the longcuts of Denise and Alicia sitting in the kitchen. In fact, the action takes place in the background: flickering light, movement of shadows. As if nature is trying to hint that the proper course of action is to continue to strive. At one point, Denise taps into this frustration when she exclaims “doesn’t matter what you do in this life, this is what happens”. She’s acknowledging an existential issue we all face. Regardless of what we do, regardless of the “unique” characteristics of our relationship, we all are heading to the same place. But is that a place we have intended to stay inert within? Or, does life not have an end goal? Is it more like the winding road heading around curves at breakneck speed, tumbling into the cover of darkness?
The connection that Ansari’s directing style disallows the audience to develop with Alicia and Denise could be cited as a fault, favoring style over content. However, I saw it differently. The objectivity pushed onto the audience by the style transfers their anxiety, their repressed emotions onto us. It was the reverse effect Spike Lee’s dolly cam shot, which indicates the pressure of life washing over the protagonist. The long cut on a protagonist while the background rushes behind them injects the audience directly into the life of the character. We can live more fully within them because we’re suffering with them.
THAT never happens with Denise and Alicia. They push everything into the background (after all, there’s space enough for it). They never reach a point where the world crashes around them and they’re forced to rebuild it. We never get our catharsis because we recognise that Denise and Alicia have never fully dealt with the circumstances they’ve endured and are still enduring.
Ansari addresses this, but it is very subtle and comes just after the abrupt ending of the final part of “Moments in Love”. There is a sudden wash of colour, as if the film suffered exposure, then a short scene of Denise smoking outside. The setting is ambiguous. It could be the upstate home of domestic bliss or it could be at a park in the city. It could also be a dream. It’s not clear. A similar ending occurred at the end of season two. A final scene of Dev and his then romantic interest Francesca laying together in bed. It could have been a dream. It could have been reality. The point is, in order to live a life in a relationship, you need to be able to tell the difference.