Have you ever had that thing where you give a guy the benefit of the doubt, only to find out later that he is actually an asshole?
To me, Love started out as a show about addiction, and the challenges and uphill struggles not only of being an addict, but of falling in love with one. As this seemingly unassuming show has gained traction and reached a third and final season, which is airing on Netflix, it teaches us something entirely different and more universal.
Our protagonists, Gus (Paul Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), have worked through the start of Mickey’s sobriety, after deciding unsuccessfully not to start a relationship during such a volatile time for her. A lot of the show’s undercurrent focusses on her rehabilitation – will she relapse? Is she ready to commit to someone else when she’s only just starting to commit to herself? If so, is that a good thing? This journey to me felt like it was so patently the mainstay of the show that I almost didn’t notice the focus shift in this final season, when Gus and Mickey go to visit his Cornhole-playing, gun-loving family in the midwest.
Gus’ reservations about Mickey meeting his family come from a place of worrying about the impression she will make: he asks her to accept their conservative views, to tone down her ‘batshit’ persona. It’s a near-perfect trompe l’oeil: as we worry about Mickey coping in front of Gus’ family, the build-up of Gus’ own moments of anger is just slow enough that Mickey’s problems, which she admirably wears on her sleeve, manage to eclipse them. We forget moments like Gus throwing a fellow writer’s computer across the room in a previous season, assuming them to be more for plot or comic effect than genuine character development.
I say, ‘we’. I mean me. The internet has not been short of op-eds about Gus as a ‘nice guy’ and how the show has dismantled that stereotype, but as I watched the show, my long-term takeaway was automatically that Mickey was going through a difficult process, and that Gus was just reacting to her problems. Although we are sympathetic to said problems, and she’s by no means a hollow manic pixie dream girl, it’s interesting that the show hadn’t quite blown the lid off of Gus enough for me to remember his problematic role in the dynamic up to this point.
But this season is different. We are slowly fed more and more moments of what we’ve come to know as ‘toxic masculinity’: a state of natural emotion being repressed in order to conform to a more traditional masculine role. Gus losing his temper on the road and crashing his car, only to arrive home and not say anything to Mickey; Gus’ film being jeopardised when he finds out after filming that Arya, his plot-pivotal star, is not allowed to appear in it, a fact that again he avoids mentioning to Mickey. As we watch these moments, something becomes clear that wasn’t in the last two seasons: the show does realise that Gus is fucked up, and wants us to know it too.
Toxic masculinity doesn’t just harm the women who have been sharing their #MeToo stories, or the women whose subjugation has remained silent. It can bring the men under its oppressive force to breaking point, which is where Gus finds himself at our climactic point, at his parents’ anniversary party in episode 11. Crucially, it is Mickey who forces him to confront his family with truths that he’s been hiding for a long time. Contrary to our expectations in the episodes leading up to the visit, it’s not important how they react; Gus’ own transformation is the focus, and it’s an unexpected relief to witness it after the simmering accumulation of almost three seasons.
The can of worms that gets opened in episode 11 of season 3 finally allows us to go back and challenge a lot of Gus’ shitty behaviour from earlier seasons and see it for what it is: not under the rosy tint of the rom-com but in a starker, less forgiving light. When he has sex with Mickey knowing that she’s a sex and love addict, that is actively a harmful thing to do, not the grand, sweeping gesture that has historically got the guy the girl in countless romantic narratives. His atypical version of masculinity, the ‘adorkable’ nerdiness, doesn’t in fact let him off the hook or mitigate how damaging his behaviour can be to a woman (see: the well-documented misogyny of The Big Bang Theory).
So back to that asshole you gave the benefit of the doubt to – let’s talk about him. Through the course of Love, you see that that guy isn’t irredeemable. He’s probably as damaged by toxic masculinity as you are. He may just hide it better, to his own detriment. Sometimes it’s too easy to call someone an asshole and move on. This show deals in that murky territory when both people say, ‘you may be an asshole but I’m gonna stick around and see what happens’.
In the end, we are not fed a simplistic man-as-saviour or man-as-asshole storyline, but rather a precarious harmony in which two flawed characters achieve a kind of yin and yang of joyful chaos. The truth is, who looks after whom in a relationship is often a lot more layered than it appears, and Love digs deeper and does justice to that complexity, more so than ever in its final season.
 Adrienne Lafrance, “The Evolution of Judd Apatow’s ‘Nice Guys’” https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/02/the-evolution-of-judd-apatows-nice-guys/470634/