All episodes of the first season of Master of None have a theme: parenthood (‘Plan B’) and the elderly (‘Old People’), for instance. Equally, most come with a suggestion for twenty-first century American life in relation to that theme. Some are simple: spend time with your parents like in ‘Parents’, and some more complex like the suggestions of how to date more empathetically, in ‘Nashville’. To my mind, the show’s most complex episode in this respect is its first season’s penultimate episode, ‘Mornings’, which charts the development of protagonist Dev Shah’s (Aziz Ansari) relationship with girlfriend Rachel (Noël Wells) after she moves into his apartment. Although the episode structures itself around the gradual creeping in of cohabitational grievances to an eventual reconciliation, there is a nagging undercurrent to the episode that suggests a less fairytale idea of the relationship between sex and romantic success.

The message as the episode starts is clear: that which is charming at first, like debates over how to squeeze out toothpaste, becomes more trying as the everyday forces itself upon the Dev and Rachel. These stereotypical scenes, though, are for Master of None not just about matters of emotion. They are always on the cusp of becoming sexual, depicting Dev and Rachel as playful and physical with one another; the spectre of sexual fulfilment is able to retrieve any disagreement from going too far. Even the messiness of Rachel’s clothes, the catalyst of so much debate between the two, is charged with the idea of her undressing.

Sex, then, may well be a blatant metaphor for their relationship becoming dull: Dev having sleep in his eye, for example, when their sex becomes contrastingly boring as the episode progresses. We equally stop witnessing the couple having sex as the episode goes on and their sex life wanes. Instead, when we hear deep breathing over the shot of their alarm clock, the ambiguous potential of sexual reconciliation turns out to be the quotidian. We are surely used to these ideas. But sex is also not only metaphorical for Master of None, and is the cornerstone of Dev’s and Rachel’s relationship going awry. The show wrestles sexual function back from the realms of the figurative to assert its place in the very real dysfunction of the pair.

Thus Dev’s suggestion to “have to have an intimate conversation with Beatrice”, Rachel’s vagina, as recompense for untidy clothes becomes a comical reversal of the usual relationship advice sitcoms advertise. Rather than verbal communication being stressed as important for the posterity of their relationship, it is simply the sex that the episode underlines as important. Indeed, Dev’s and Rachel’s communication is portrayed as relatively healthy by all accounts. They are often open about their problems with the other, despite Dev’s immaturity in the face of Rachel’s objections which she rightly cuts through. Neither are left duped, though, without understanding of what the other thinks, and their disagreements always have the level of more serious, honest conversation. Hardly perfect, then, but notably direct.

This comes to a head with the episode’s biggest threat to their relationship. Rather than the issues they have with each other around their apartment causing significant turmoil, it is the threat of Rachel moving to Chicago for six months and only returning for “some weekends” that is the most troubling. This is so threatening to Dev, it seems to me, because it is a threat to his sexual fulfilment. With the success of his sex life threatened, Dev is suddenly able to weigh in on that which went previously unmentioned: he believes Rachel’s career decisions are unproductive. “I support it”, he proposes; she replies, “That doesn’t sound very convincing”.

And indeed it is not, because what Dev communicates is a not just a problem with Rachel’s career but an implied confrontation of how she makes decisions. It is difficult to imagine Dev, in this moment of mistimed honesty, valuing Rachel as a long term partner. Even though she admits that he is right, the tone of their relationship shifts for the rest of the episode. Rachel eating Dev’s homemade pasta and the pair telling the story of their relationship so far as a fairytale while in bed is tinged with the tone of awkwardness. If their sex is threatened again—or more specifically, if Dev’s is—so too is their relationship. Even when Rachel comes back from her interview in Chicago and messes up the apartment by humourously taking of her clothes, this potential sexuality is what once again allows for their reconciliation. Surely we have inferred, then, how all this might unravel in the season’s final episode—which it does. Dev explains: “I know we fight about, like, silly stuff, and I have been known to make silly faces when I’m going down on you, but uhm, I really like this”. It is the “fight[ing]” and sexuality that are given equal space here—what is intended as a joke for Dev, as is so often the case in this show, carries with it a more troubling truth.

What sustains Dev and Rachel is their sex; but it is a sex that is a veneer, and one that threatens to provoke larger issues if disrupted. This may be unsettling, and a somewhat harsh reading of Master of None‘s suggestion for the theme of its penultimate episode; but it’s there, and surely in tune with the show’s aim to throw up the worst parts of quote-unquote millennial culture. Sex is as still used as a metaphorical device as always; but in Master of None‘s ethical register, it takes on a much more critical role.