The second season of Looking takes Patrick from a liberating spell in an ancient forest to a nightmarish odyssey inside a concrete labyrinth. Turns out Kevin’s Whitecaps is the barracks for an Aryan army of Stepford gays, and they’re looking to induct him into their ranks via a strange but colossal orgy the likes of which Nic Pizzolatto couldn’t dream of. Patrick keeps trying to escape, but the building won’t let him out. The elevator’s claustrophobic, the hallways are creepy, and you need permission to go anywhere. Sirens tie the plots together. The building works on Kevin like the Overlook on Jack Torrance, outing his dark side, starting with little things like lording his status over the peons who once looked down on him and slowly working up toward Kevin’s belief that monogamy is for fools. In the end it takes a magic amulet to save Patrick. “Looking For Home” isn’t just a never-ending fight. It’s a thriller.

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It starts with Patrick locked out and desperate to get inside. That’s his first experience with the old warning, “Be careful what you wish for.” He also makes Kevin stop making out with him to go answer the door to what Brady would call Everything That’s Wrong With The Gay Community. Most damningly, Patrick tells Kevin, “Ever since my mom completely imploded our family, I feel completely liberated. I don’t have anything to live up to anymore.” Not that part, but that’s an important point. It takes Patrick finally not trying to prove anything to his parents for him to start to figure out what he wants. He continues, “We get to make up our own way,” meaning their own way of being in a relationship. Guess who’s not going to like Kevin’s version of “our own way.”

It starts, where else, in the Stepford coven, when Jake (Sean Maher, Simon from Firefly) pulls out a phone to peruse the Grindr pics of the men in the room. And then someone says, “Who’s Romford?” and the chatter gets slightly muffled and the dance music gets slightly amplified and the scales fall from Patrick’s eyes. Remember when Kevin perused the glory hole app at GaymerX?

Almost the entire rest of the episode is Patrick and Kevin’s fight. It builds in movements. At first it’s just a talk, and Kevin says he was just curious about his neighbors. Next Patrick asks about the past, and Kevin admits to cheating. Then Kevin wants to be completely honest so he doesn’t have another relationship founded on lies and guilt. Finally it becomes a debate over monogamy, complete with tearful confession, cheap shots, and comic passive-aggression (“I’m actually super into trans issues right now”). It’s extraordinary.

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I’d say watch it once for the acting, once for the writing, once for the camera, once for the lighting, and once for editing, but they’re all connected. The two-and-a-half minute take from the elevator to the parking garage and back is an impressive achievement for the camera and a thrillingly lit set piece, but most of all it’s about the intimacy of our (physical) relationship to the characters and the theatrical continuity of the performances. That immersive continuity lets Jonathan Groff takes us from a prickly Patrick (“Well, I’m a member of World Gym, so whatever”) straight through to that moment where he’s so distraught he’s having trouble standing up. “Ask me again in 10 years, maybe I’ll feel differently, but all I know is right now I can and I want to make the choice to not fuck other people, and you can’t or won’t or don’t even want to try, so where does that put us?” Groff controls the energy of the scene during the speech, and he builds up to that crying jag and gently sets us back down in the muck with that stinger about how Kevin’s such a good liar. On the walk back Patrick’s in the foreground, the light glinting off his tears. That’s when Kevin, who’s only in this scene because he chases after Patrick, because he chooses not to let Patrick leave like that, pulls him back and drops his ultimatum—if Patrick doesn’t want to grow old together, then go—and at last we cut away. What’s the verdict?

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The whole fight is that intricate. The first long take across the kitchen slowly magnifies the space between Patrick and Kevin. One take moves from Kevin in the foreground ready to confess and Patrick blurry in the background to the two of them balanced as they agree to be honest. The cut from the kitchen to the bedroom lags behind the sound, so we hear Kevin start whining, “I’m not saying I want an open relationship,” before we see it. Even Russell Tovey sliding on the new wooden floor in his socks is a great touch, suggesting among other things Kevin’s not taking this as seriously as he should, he’s still hoping cuteness can save him, and good old-fashioned verisimilitude. What a lived-in choice.

The content of the fight is self-explicating, right down to the metaphorical exit sign and sleep number bed. It takes us back to a debate from the second episode, when Agustín says, “All relationships end up opening in the end whether you like it or not. So why not be honest about it instead of cheating?” Dom agrees. “People usually cheat. Guys are guys.” That’s Kevin’s position, and he thinks if they can just talk about it when it happens, they’ll be a stronger couple. The episode is hard on him in a lot of ways, especially his creeping deceit and his personal potshots, but it doesn’t summarily dismiss his position. It’s more a question of compromise. Will either of them bend?

Before we find out if Patrick stays or goes, Agustín gets a happy ending: He’s nervous for Sammi, the trans kid he helped with the mural. He’s also a good friend to Patrick, showing some sympathy for Patrick’s position but also telling him not to freak out yet. How did Agustín get his act together? It goes back to an enormous act of kindness, when Richie—with whom Agustín had bad blood—scooped him up off the sidewalk and carried him home. If Patrick had rescued him, I don’t think it would have had the same effect. That might have been taken as enabling behavior. But Richie is an appropriately shaming and maybe even inspiring figure. Then once Agustín became in thrall to Eddie, a charismatic good influence but a challenging boyfriend, his turnaround was in the cards. Patrick once told Agustín, “I don’t know if either of us are very good at being who we think we are. Maybe we need to try a little harder.” Nailed it. Looking is great at tracing shame and self-loathing back to its roots, but that’s not a free pass. Ultimately it demands the characters take some responsibility and push themselves. Agustín’s not quite there yet. He’s much better at doing the right thing now, but that has to do with reaction. Besides Eddie, what does Agustín proactively want in life?

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That’s not to diminish the romance. Eddie and Agustín summited that peak like champions. Even counting Hannibal, Looking is the best romance on television, an exquisite, sensitive, and clear-eyed portrait of love and heartbreak. To call that generic is to dismiss the visual complexity, the creation of a rich mood, and the way the show arises out of its gay characters as both a romance and a coming-of-age story. Gayness starts with attraction after all, and Looking’s take on gay childhood isn’t to wallow in misery or to give any Burts Hummel a Father Of The Year trophy but to sympathize with a group of people formed in a cauldron of self-loathing and understand why they might still need to grow up. A good partner is what snaps the characters out of their complacency. It’s what opens them up to accepting themselves and inspires them to aim higher. One day with Richie and Patrick was ready to try bottoming. In “Looking For Home” Patrick wears down Kevin’s cynicism. And it takes Malik, a world-class good guy, to get Doris to stop sticking to her status quo.

On the other hand, there are enabling partners, like Dom and Doris, whose bedrock male-female best friendship is so rare for television it hits all the harder. But they’ve allowed themselves and each other to coast. They’ve been afraid to risk. Like Lynn, like Eddie at first. The whole season is about people trying to recover from heartbreak or loss or dissatisfaction, people learning to open themselves up. The season has been so committed to depicting a whole gay community that it’s a shame Dom doesn’t get to commiserate with Patty about Doris, but there are only so many minutes in the episode. “Looking For Home” is a turning point for Dom and Doris. It starts with taking responsibility. Doris says, “We’ve been fucked up, and we need to own that shit,” and she doesn’t let Dom off the hook for any of her critiques. And it concludes with both of them taking a risk. When Dom says, “We do kinda need to break up, Dor,” he doesn’t mean they need to stop seeing each other. He means they need to stop being married. Doris owes it to herself to take a chance on Malik, and Dom owes it to himself to go all-in on his father’s dream, I mean, his dream. When they fail, they’ll be there for each other, two silhouettes against the city, but they can’t keep riding inertia.

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When we cut back to Whitecaps, Patrick’s still there. The last phase of the fight is a little calmer. Patrick’s had some time to think. “I just wanted this so much. I wanted to be in love and be in a relationship and prove to myself and my friends and my family, fuck, to prove to the entire world that I was actually capable of being in one.” Kevin’s afraid their relationship is over, so he says, “Well, then I will adjust. That is what you do in relationships.” Patrick looks scared to look him in the eyes, but he does. Kevin says, “You just need to trust me.” Another cut, another question hanging over the series. Will Patrick trust Kevin?

They go to bed, but Patrick can’t sleep. Instead he rifles through a box and finds the scapular Richie gave him. All season there’s been ambiguity about the free and fair exchange of meaningful glances between Patrick and Richie, but I’ve never taken it as flirting. There’s attraction there, yearning, wondering what could have been. But it never struck the same note as Kevin tying Patrick’s bow-tie. Season two ends like season one, with a shot following Patrick on his way to Richie. He doesn’t want to talk. But he doesn’t like how he looks right now, and he decides to follow in Felicity’s footsteps with a drastic haircut, in his case buzzing it all off. Is he trying to fight complacency? Is he just depressed? Graham Nash starts singing “Simple Man,” which aches so powerfully it should qualify as cheating. “Never been so much in love and never hurt so much at the same time.”

Thrillers typically end in catharsis. They put us through the wringer knowing the last girl will eventually triumph or escape. We’ll get relief. “Looking For Home” just leaves us in turmoil. Not least with the question of whether Looking will get renewed. Regardless, season two has been a cut above season one, and not just for resisting the ease of the love triangle or Doris’ funeral money. Ignore the grades. Each individual episode (the sequoias, the day in the life, Richie’s family, Halloween, the funeral, the fight) shines on its own, the overall flow of the season illustrates the enabling and self-discovery themes, and the ensemble becomes an actual community exchanging ideas and judgment and support. As for “Looking For Home,” the characters are growing up. Growing up—getting over yourself, realizing other people matter, trying to be a good person, figuring out who you are and what you want—isn’t easy, unless you’re Agustín in which case you mostly just have to hang out with cool people. In “Looking For Home” it hurts like never before. But it’s best for everyone in the long run.

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Stray observations:

  • “Looking For Home” is written by Andrew Haigh and John Hoffman and directed by Andrew Haigh. If this is it, I can’t wait to see what Michael Lannan and company do next.
  • Patrick’s a Goonies guy in a Field Of Dreams apartment. Any takes on the significance of that poster?
  • Again, not to discount partnership (and all it entails) as a worthy end in itself, but what else does Malik want in life? I’d hope a third season could flesh him out, but I enjoy the simple pleasures of the good guy phase. Dom tries to front like he’s at City Hall for some permits, but Malik just cuts to the chase. “Dude, she misses you too.”
  • Eddie has an opinion about Kevin being on Grindr: “Oh, brother.”
  • I can’t say enough for Jonathan Groff and Russell Tovey this season or this episode. Patrick and Kevin think before they speak, they adjust their tactics, they get dragged to desperation. Thoughtful work.
  • Patrick insists, “This is not an interrogation. Just be honest.” “That’s what the CIA say before they start waterboarding.”

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