Image: Netflix

With its first two seasons, Big Mouth explored the uncomfortable, previously untouchable world of pubescence with empathy, imagination, crude humor, and an utter lack of shame, at the same time penetrating deep into the larger social implications of the changes we all go through. If middle school—a time in which we are at our most vulnerable—offered the perfect vehicle through which to explore human insecurities, the perfect point in which to frame them is Valentine’s Day, the middle school of all holidays. On this day, not only is a line drawn in the sand between the coupled and the single, making those without partners extra aware of that fact, but those in relationships feel compelled to compare their relationship to that of those around them. We want, as Devin does, to be the most “devastated.”

It’s fitting, then, that Big Mouth—a show concerned with sexual development, shame, and insecurity— would choose as an appetizer for its third season a Valentine’s Day special. Also fitting: the choice to break structure and create a double episode in the style of When Harry Met Sally, complete with dreamy title cards, references to how much women supposedly love Billy Crystal, a parody of the famous orgasm scene, and “couple” interviews in which the kids and their respective hormone monsters share how they met... in effect, how the kids first became hormonal, sexual beings. It’s a smart comparison to make when you consider how Harry and Sally’s love is born out of an initial hatred, followed by reluctant friendship. It’s the kind of evolving relationship not unlike one’s relationship with their own sexuality, an arc beginning with periods and voice cracks and unwanted hair and ending when we, hopefully, learn to love our bodies and find harmony with them.

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Most of “My Furry Valentine”’s 45 minutes are spent continuing the work started with “Guy Town” in exploring different forms of masculinity, as well as where it can turn toxic. Naturally (and effectively), the focus here is on the show’s leads: Nick (Nick Kroll), who’s insecure about having been assigned Connie (Maya Rudolph) as his new hormone monster, and Andrew (John Mulaney), whose hormonal outbursts and misguided efforts to win back Missy make him antithesis to Nick’s more sensitive breed of masculinity.

Going into the episode, Nick, like Billy Crystal’s character in WHMS, carries both deeply imbedded preconceptions about gender and an initial dislike for the person (er, monstress) he is destined to end up with. As he’s prone to do, he falls into a pattern of “should” thinking: I should have a male hormone monster, my nipples shouldn’t be so sensitive, I shouldn’t be so sensitive. Consequently, he repeatedly pushes Connie away, brushes off her attempts to help him and to assure him that sensitivity is actually a good thing.

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Connie presents a category of masculinity Nick is unfamiliar with: that he can be both a strong enough individual to stand up to his overly-affectionate parents and a sensitive man who, when engaging with the opposite gender, can be “a good lil guy” without expecting anything in return. Nick, threatened by the suggestion that he has an “Oedipal arrangement” and doubtful that his sensitive soul (and nipples) could be anything but feminine weakness, ignores every bit of advice Connie offers, despite the fact that she’s given him more results than any of his previous hormone monsters, and in far less time. But his scorn is a product of his vulnerability. Deep down, he knows she’s right, and Connie’s comments about his unhealthy relationship with his parents hang over his Valentine’s Day dinner with them. Suddenly, their inappropriate behavior is not only overwhelmingly apparent—it’s unbearable, and Nick, for the first time ever, demands that they respect his boundaries.

It takes his sister Leah echoing Connie’s advice for Nick to realize that Connie has been right about everything all along. Once again, Nick assumes the role of Harry, rushing to a party to tell Connie how he feels. Along the way, we see that by embracing her guidance and, by extension, that there is strength in sensitivity, Nick manages to be that “good lil guy” who doesn’t expect anything in return, having a healthy and sweet exchange with Gina (Gina Rodriguez) before heading off to make things right with Connie. It’s great storytelling— a wonderfully warm, thoughtful, efficient and satisfying conclusion to this phase of Nick’s development.

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Andrew, meanwhile, offers a cautionary tale of what happens to the guy who isn’t good, and expects everything in return. Donning a Kangol hat (because nothing says cool and effortless like a Kangol hat), Andrew determines that this Valentine’s Day, he will win back Missy (Jenny Slate) by playing it cool, as he usually tries too hard and makes a mess of things. This time, he tries too hard to appear like he isn’t trying. When Missy fails to read Andrew’s mind, his frustration manifests as something very, very ugly— particularly when Missy strikes up a friendship with the bookish and collected Lars (Neil Casey).

“My Furry Valentine” does a fantastic job of characterizing Andrew’s toxic masculinity, not calling it what it is until the very end of the episode but demonstrating through Andrew’s spiral how it can develop and intensify from a single misguided intention. Just as clever is the way in which Andrew’s mania manifests itself in the allergic reaction he develops to fabric adhesive in hat. The more obsessive and desperate he becomes, the worse his rash gets. It sizzles, blisters to the point where the hat is stuck to his head. Meanwhile, we’re cued to notice troubling similarities between Andrew and his aggressive, embittered father, a connection the show has always hinted at but here makes explicit by paralleling Andrew’s own outbursts with his father’s and later giving him a haircut to match.

Image: Netflix

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We see just how far Andrew’s fallen when, after a rabidly jealous Andrew yanks Lars our of his wheelchair, a drama-hungry Lola seizes his Kangol hat and rips it—as well as most of his hair— from his head. Realizing that in his baldness he looks just like his dad, Andrew cries in dismay, “Oh, it’s shocking! And it makes sense!” It does. He’s become, through his toxic behavior, the man he never wanted to be, and an example of where masculinity can go wrong. And it’s yet another great instance of how Big Mouth, through Andrew, manages to give us a a character we can feel for, recognizing his deep-down goodness while still holding his more questionable actions in contempt.

For the most part, “My Furry Valentine” is 45 minutes of everything that’s great about Big Mouth: almost-too-quick-to-catch jokes, visual gags, nothing-withheld forays into the painful process of growing up, and three excellent musical numbers. Also, Maya Rudolph’s Connie continues to steal the show, B’s bubbling up and dripping from her furry lips with blessed frequency. Where the special doesn’t always succeed is in knowing how much character development to include in a bridge episode. One of the inherent challenges facing a special like this is that it must function successfully as a standalone episode with a satisfying conclusion, but still fit in seamlessly with the rest of the series. And while Nick and Andrew’s episodic arcs are consistent with their series arcs, showing some development without wrapping things up too neatly, the same can’t be said for Jessi (Jessi Klein).

In an episode like this, you want to see some growth, and Jessi certainly does grow through her friendship with Matthew, most notably when he admits his admiration for Jessi’s mother for coming out so late. Everyone deserves love, he explains, “even your dried-out old mom.” That Jessi would seriously consider this perspective after two seasons of hurt and resentment is a huge step, and— paired with her deepening friendship with Matthew, would be a satisfying enough finale to her episodic arc.

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Image: Netflix

Instead, “My Furry Valentine” shows Jessi approaching her mother immediately after that conversation to apologize for how she’s been acting, and to give Cantor Dina her blessing. It’s an unearned moment that feels far too abrupt a conclusion, not only to Jessi’s episodic arc, but to the emotional journey the character has taken over the course of two seasons. Perhaps it’s a mere consequence of cramming too much into one episode, but regardless, it’d be surprising if this development carried over into the next season, as not all of the show’s fans will have necessarily watched the special.

More interesting is the work the show seems to be doing to remedy its previously dismissive treatment of Matthew (Andrew Rannells), who for most of the series had been sidelined as a one-dimensional snarky gay kid. Near the end of season two, we began to see that Matthew’s cruelty was born of a deep loneliness turned outwards, and it looked at first as though this episode was on track to explore that further, opening with Matthew lamenting about being the only out kid at school, not having anyone he could even ask to be his valentine, dismissing dating apps as tools for the desperate, and admitting that he doesn’t know if he likes “bussy” (these are all kids, after all).

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We see hope for growth when, in the cafeteria, he and Jessi connect over their loneliness and bitterness and decide to spend Valentine’s Day together. Soon, through the pair’s mutual pain and support of one another, their friendship turns from one of convenience into something deeper. Together, they don’t feel so alone: Who needs a real valentine when you have someone who really gets you?

Then Matthew meets a boy with a “Chloe.” There’s something really sweet about Maury losing his head when the gaydar lights up, telling Matthew to bang his teeth against the other kid’s, so excited for his charge to have met someone he could actually be with. Matthew, meanwhile, is calm and collected, and asks for the boy’s Instagram handle, hinting at a potential romantic interest for him, and hopefully more Matthew time in the third season. Still, Matthew’s had far less opportunity for growth than his counterparts. Thus far, his development has been defined in terms of his relation to others: his lack of viable romantic options, his friendship with Jessi, and finally, his new love interest. It’s wonderful to see him meet someone, but there’s more to being the gay kid—really, any individual person— than wanting a valentine or a friend to bitch with, and we have yet to see more than those sides of Matthew’s interiority. Hopefully, going into season three the writers will continue to take him seriously as a character, and will give him more time to become as fully developed as the other kids.

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As in the rom-com that the episode parodies, “My Furry Valentine” closes with an interview with the “couple” we’ve been following all along: Nick and Connie. The two banter and snuggle like a happy couple, reflecting on how long it took for them to see each other together. Then, when Nick acknowledges that as great as their relationship is now, it’s still new, Connie takes it a step further, ending the episode on a thrillingly ominous note by repeating, twice: “It’s hard.” Nick, for all of the changes he’s undergone, has a long way to go.


Stray observations

  • “Lady bug 2020 y’all, no running mate!” I’d vote for him.
  • Missy, wonderful as ever, is reading about deviant pagan kicks in The History Of Galenalia Festival.
  • “We’re all looking for a daddy.” “No, my dad’s pretty present.” Sorry, Andrew. Missy decidedly does not have daddy issues.
  • “Quick! Jump up and touch the door jam! Show her your physical prowess!” Why is this a thing all middle school boys do? Who is impressed by this?
  • Steve wants border wall to “keep everyone in. More friends for me!” Illogical and sad as that is, it’s still the best argument we’ve heard for the well yet.
  • “HES JUST A BOY WITH BREASTS!!!”
  • “I sneeze in threes”. Same, Andrew.
  • Not sure how to feel about the incestuous conjoined twins subplot? For a show known for its empathy, it seems to be making a pretty sick joke here.
  • Chuckling at the Michael Shannon Valentine’s Day card: “I love you with all the veins in my head!”
  • @PutinOnTheRitz is a very specific and very odd instagram handle for a middle schooler to have.
  • Andrew freaking out about making a shot on camera is very, very middle school
  • Even raccoons deserve love (also, what is with Kroll and raccoons?)

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