Famous last words from Gus Cruikshank: “In the grand scheme of things, that’s not that long.” But in the grand scheme of Love, which has moved assiduously through the courtship of Gus and Mickey, 24 days is an eternity. At the end of an extremely rough patch for the central couple, “Liberty Down” rapidly accelerates the show’s metabolism. A month without alcohol earns Mickey a chip; there might not be a badge of honor waiting for her at the end of three-and-a-half weeks without Gus.
On traditional television, “Liberty Down” might be packaged as the first half of a two-parter with episode 11, “The Long D.” It’s hard to know what to make of the former without the latter, but I think the title cards and the focus on Mickey and Gus’ opposite trajectories are enough to make “Liberty Down” its own thing. It’s an emotionally trying installment, made more so by its extended length.
Twenty-four days might not seem like a long time, but it’s most of the way toward an AA milestone and enough time for Mickey to start rebuilding her personal life. To the montage-ready strains of a consistently great band, we watch as she establishes a presence at meetings (she even brings donuts!) and reads from Addictive Thinking by psychiatrist and rabbi Abraham J. Twerski. Putting aside the humor of Mickey holding a book about addiction in one hand and a Parliament in the other, that second image is a meaningful one: It indicates a) that she’s getting serious about the 12 steps, b) that she’s taking some time to focus on herself, and c) that she’s letting some of her connection to Gus slip. “Liberty Down” smartly skips the part where Gus says to Mickey “I bought us each copies of The Sun Also Rises so we can read it while we’re apart and discuss it on the phone,” allowing us to connect the dots between the book’s first appearance, Mickey’s reading scene, Gus’ phone call about Robert Cohn, and the book’s role in the big Skype fight. Giving Ernest Hemingway’s booziest work to an alcoholic demonstrates a lack of foresight on Gus’ part, an overthought, complicated expression of how he feels about being away from Mickey for so long. Mickey, as ever, is more direct about her feelings: As soon as Gus’ ride to the airport pulls away, she reaches for a cigarette.
Who Mickey and Gus are outside of their relationship has been the focus of at least one previous season-two episode, but “Liberty Down” is a concentrated dose of that isolation. Nine episodes after “On Lockdown,” Mickey’s getting the time alone that she wanted. And she’s thriving. On top of the AA progress, she manages to attract some young talent—frank sex-and-love podcaster Stella (Jessie Ennis) to Gravity Subzero, through a combination of charm and persistence. Without Gus around, she has the opportunity to put in the work, researching Stella’s show and encouraging her to expand her horizons. It’s hard not to see Mickey projecting in her after-hours chat with Stella—that line about doing the same old shit when you’re 40 is mighty telling.
And if these good things can come to Mickey when she’s on her own, that has to plant a seed of doubt about Gus. In the ramped-up pace of “Liberty Down” (and, wow, what a loaded title), sources of tension like this pile up quickly: The separation anxiety, the differing professional prospects, the dying dog, the New York movie project, the plane ticket to Atlanta. Mickey and Gus are happy together, but “Liberty Down” illustrates that they’re not happy, together. (Simultaneously, that is.)
And Love is uncommonly honest about the type of drain that can have on a relationship. Especially when both people in the relationship aren’t around to share in the victories or support one another through the losses. The story of “Liberty Down” is that of one partner carving her path toward self-fulfillment, and the other making his own bed and lying in it. If Gus wants to be in the storytelling business, he has to get better at communicating first. His lack of expertise in this area is painfully apparent when he finds himself entirely without the means to get a message across to Victor, the director of Liberty Down. Now, I don’t think Gus is entirely wrong in jumping to the conclusion that he’s been set up by Tommy (Randall Park), the producing partner and “head of development” whose glad-handing form of people-pleasing is bound to clash with Gus’ faux-polite variation of the same. They finally do in Victor’s trailer, and it’s cringe comedy of the highest order, with Gus’ difficulty expressing himself putting a cherry on top of the whole scene: His attempt at a kiss-off—“Tommy, I’m just wondering, how do you say ‘fuck you’ in Korean?”—gets turned around on him.
Modern technology is supposed to help bridge great distances—physical, cultural, temporal—but in the grand scheme of things, technology just helps Gus dig himself deeper in “Liberty Down.” Google Translate lets him down with Victor, his first attempt at phone sex is a one-man door-slamming farce, and Skype makes sure that he can see Mickey’s face when she’s cursing him out (and vice versa). The video-chat blow-out is a long time coming, the whistling kettle indicating that “Liberty Down” has reached its boiling point. It’s the culmination of many tiny betrayals, of Gus being so into the idea of Mickey’s recovery without taking extra steps himself; of Mickey shrugging off the mini-book-club idea and getting distracted by Dustin’s texts. It smarts in ways previous Love fights haven’t, in large part because there are so many miles preventing Mickey and Gus from kissing and making up.
When Mickey cuts out to meet Dustin and Buster at the vet, it queues up its second superb soundtrack choice, from another artist who consistently puts out great albums: “Werewolf” by Fiona Apple. Any given Apple composition contains a killer metaphor; this one waltzes with several, the narrator likening their lover to a werewolf, a shark, molten rock, and a chemical—the last item in that list being of particular interest here. But the whole thing is relevant to Love—and “Liberty Down” in particular—because it admits to mutual complicity. Both parties are werewolf and full-moon-provider, shark and bleeding-old-wound-waver. When Apple gets to the chorus, she gives no indication as to who’s the wishing well and who’s the bolt of electricity. Such things are rarely cut and dried in life, Love, or Fiona Apple songs.
The second half of the chorus provides two additional twists of the knife, each making it seem like that knife was custom made for Love, and not a cut from 2011’s The Idler Wheel…. “We can still support each other / All we gotta do’s avoid each other,” Apple sings, and it’s not as if Gus and Mickey have a choice in the latter. For the 17 days of “Liberty Down,” they make a valiant effort of shrinking the space between them. But the lack of physical proximity exposes fundamental dysfunctions in their partnership. It’s a tough one to watch—but to paraphrase the other applicable portion of the “Werewolf” chorus, there’s nothing wrong when an episode ends in a minor key.
- And that’s it for me on Love, season two—Esther and Molly will take it from here. I was a Love booster in 2016, and my enthusiasm has increased in 2017—there are many other shows covering the same thematic territory (and set in the same geographical territory), but Love stands apart for the way it uses the streaming format to zoom in and depict romantic comedy at a microscopic level. I hate using the word “accurate” to describe any work of fiction, but I love using “honest” in relation to Love, because of the unforced way in which its humor unfurls and its relationships develop. Watching “A Day,” I realized how rarely we get to see two characters get to know one another on these terms. Because Love isn’t beholden to narrative expediency, it means so much more when those types of scenes fuel the attraction between the protagonists—and it’s also so much more affecting when we see that they might not have been listening to one another in a moment that seemed so important to us. (And on a note of extreme personal preference and bias: What a great cast.)
- Based on the excerpts we hear, Mickey’s input can only improve Stella’s podcast. You’re making too many requests for other people’s stories, Stella! Can that many people be hooking up with their Uber drivers? You’re the star kid—own your experiences.
- Iris Apatow has been stealing scenes in her dad’s productions for a decade, but as the footage of Liberty Down in “Liberty Down” demonstrates, her knack for playing sullen translates naturally into action-movie intensity. I totally bought Arya as the star of a shitty Olympus Has Fallen-style thriller, and welcome Apatow’s Liam Neeson-type transition to cinematic ass-kicking.
- I’ll echo my colleagues sentiments about David Spade: He’s not to my tastes as a solo act, but put him on the right team and his smarmy strengths can still get laughs. There’s a lot of good stuff in that “Let Me Be Mine” montage, and his reaction to Gus’ lonely lunch is near the top of the list.