“Looking For The Promised Land” is such a playful reintroduction it turns a light party episode into a mystery game. It doesn’t immediately update us on the characters or come right out and tell us how long it’s been. It’s toying with us. It has at least two surprises in store, and only by the end is it clear exactly where everyone is in life. It’s like Patrick trying to confess he’s Kevin’s mistress but perpetually getting sidetracked. Only with with a lot more self-awareness.
Anyway first things first: The episode begins with Agustín rehab. Get it? The episode takes its time with everything else, but it wants us to know front and center that it’s working to reintroduce this alienating character. Patrick has planned a wholesome retreat among the redwoods for the guys, “primarily” to help restore Agustín’s spirits, but also to help himself go cold turkey on Kevin. At least the first part is a success. Agustín does seem a little mopey at first, and he’s definitely just pushing buttons, not that he’s wrong, when Patrick admires a giant redwood and his reaction is, “That would be a great tree to get fucked against.” In other words it’s the same old Agustín, only his Eeyore cloud is gone. He’s adrift, but not completely out at sea. Throughout the weekend he’s fun and funny and in the shot of the night, he exhibits some selflessness checking to make sure Patrick’s okay. I could get used to Agustín 2.0 He also has a hot new haircut and a trimmed beard. In the words of Inherent Vice, which I think at the very least would go skinny-dipping with “Looking For The Promised Land,” “You change your hair, you change your life.”
Everyone is pretty much where we left them. It’s only been enough time for Patrick and Kevin to hook up in each room of the office, so that’s, what, a month tops? Agustín has moved back in with Patrick, who’s covering his rent, and he’s apparently having loud sex with strangers and sometimes masturbating while crying, which I choose to believe is just a shout-out to Mulholland Dr. and not an actual thing that happens. And Dom is with Lynn, who’s in New Orleans or something this week.
So the first thing to admire about the script is the tease. It’s so natural you’re on the edge of your seat, waiting for all the big revelations it’s saved for the end: Agustín knows now how much he loved Frank. Patrick can’t stop having sex with Kevin and feels bad about himself for it. Dom and Lynn actually have an open relationship, which we don’t discover until a shot of Dom buried in some naked guy’s crotch, and it’s not until even later that we find out this is the first time Dom has acted on that openness. Two other big surprises, parceled out just so: First the guys come back from canoeing to find Doris crashing the boys weekend, and toward the end Patrick calls somebody and Kevin shows up. No Richie, but he’s there in spirit. All three of the main guys bring him up at some point. (Winner: Agustín with his Patrick impression.)
Looking took some shit for neglecting AIDS in its first season, which I maintain is a not very close reading, but there’s no mistaking the history that informs this episode and connects these lost souls to a wider culture. First off, when Patrick tells Kevin to fuck him in the butt against a tree, his words, there’s a shot of Kevin ripping open a condom. Surely Patrick “I sneeze and I think I’ve got HIV” Murray wouldn’t have let Kevin go bare in the office in “Looking Glass,” but there wasn’t so much as a wrapper on the ground in the shot, so this feels corrective. More explicitly, there’s a scene where Patrick and Dom snoop through Lynn’s photo albums and find a picture of him with an ex named Brian. “They look so handsome and happy,” says Patrick. “Sorry…Fuck. It’s so…sad.” That’s more like it. Looking doesn’t just leave HIV in the past though. At the party, Agustín meets a nice guy named Eddie, who first lets Agustín flap in the wind about how he doesn’t do anything anymore, and then doubly shows him up by revealing he works at a homeless shelter for LGBT youth. Eddie, Agustín tells us in the final scene, has a house in Virginia. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to visit the South,” says Patrick. I hadn’t heard that either, but Patrick is especially Patrick this week, high-pitched, naïve, and dorky. Somebody’s desperate to reclaim his innocence. Agustín clarifies: “House In Virginia. He’s HIV-positive. I haven’t seen any future episodes, but based on this one, I expect to hear more from Eddie in the future. HIV may not have been as present in season one as it is in real life, but “Looking For The Promised Land” suggests season two will be different.
The Promised Land is the name of an outdoor rave the guys get invited to and Doris makes them attend. Doris, by the way, is the clear MVP. Every line out of her mouth is perfectly Doris and still somehow a little shocking. When Agustín offers everyone molly, she takes us on a ride: “It’s like 1994. I don’t think I’ve had sex since 1994. Hanging out with you guys is not so good for my vagina.” If she seemed like the token straight in season one, get a load of this. All she does in this episode is make all the best jokes, stir up the plot, and then vanish into the script on the back of a jetski with lesbians. Topless. Respect.
But back to The Promised Land. At least since Richie’s fortune-teller visit and probably since that chance encounter in the pilot, Looking has been flirting with fate. The Promised Land, we are told by a fairy in the woods, is where all the characters’ dreams will come true. Soon enough the quartet is taking molly—even Patrick!—and dancing to gay artist Hercules And Love Affair. There’s a sense of surrender—to the chemicals, but come on, to destiny! or no, maybe just to escape—and the moment Patrick feels the molly it’s like he just inflates. How far we’ve come from Audrey taking E on Dawson’s Creek. Andrew Haigh, credited with writing and directing this episode as well as cocaine-sprinkled Weekend, brings a refreshing neutrality to drug use.
A cut or two later and “Looking For The Promised Land” delivers its centerpiece: a minute-forty take from the disco ball down through the crowd as everyone’s in heaven bouncing to “Lost In Music.” This is where Agustín checks on Patrick, who couldn’t be better. We see Agustín dancing with Eddie, Doris atop an unfortunately unnamed lesbian, Dom dancing shirtless with the guy he’s gonna blow, the aforementioned fairy, and then the camera arrives at the back of this head that might make a Looking fan feel like he’s hallucinating. It’s Kevin’s haircut, but he’s wearing Richie’s cock-eyed cap. That neck tattoo gives away that it’s neither of them, but it puts you back on your heels for a moment. We follow him as he makes a beeline for Patrick and they kiss as the shot dissolves, the whole thing sparkling with low-key light and color from the future. It’s magical, and not in a serious, meaningful way. It’s just a perfect carefree moment.
As for dreams coming true, I’ll play. What exactly goes down at The Promised Land? Patrick wanted a clean weekend of bonding with his friends, and instead everyone wound up high bonding with other people. He also wanted to get over Kevin, and instead he wound up very much under Kevin. It’s implied that Agustín spent the night with Eddie, but for some reason they don’t get the same treatment as the other two hook-ups. Because Haigh wanted to save the HIV revelation for the end? At least they have a cute one-on-one in the water, flirting but doing so while exhausted, so it’s really dry, which only heightens the effect of the play. Looking has its cheats (just watch any scene where Patrick gets whiny), but the one-on-one dialogue is some of the most natural in the business. See also Dom’s blowjob chat with that guy. On the surface it’s the two of them flirting about sexual freedom, but it’s not really about Dom and that guy. It’s about Dom and Lynn. In keeping with the episode, the open relationship is presented without judgment, but Dom closes Lynn’s photo album for himself, not for Lynn or the hook-up, like a cheater turning over the photo of his wife.
Meanwhile, Patrick calls Kevin to come fuck him against a tree. When Agustín brings up the idea, Patrick chastens him. “There’s more to life than sex, you know.” At first that line plays like a conservative lesson for libertine Agustín as he dries out. Once Kevin enters the picture, the line plays like a mantra Patrick needs for himself. A minute later it sounds more like a hypocrisy planted to express his shame. Not that the scene even hints at regret; this episode is all Saturday night, no Sunday morning. Patrick gets high just feeling Kevin inside him. One advantage of television not showing much gay sex: A bottom’s face is still a powerful image. About time someone took it back from Ralph Cifaretto. They’re lit by the purple glow-stick around Patrick’s neck, they’re obscured by the foliage silhouettes, they kiss over the shoulder. Even the camera’s getting weak at the knees, drooping to show Patrick hugging the branch. Except for the beginning (Kevin saying “This had better be worth it”) and the ending (Patrick asking, “You think we’re ever actually gonna get to do it in a real bed some time?”), Patrick’s rendezvous with Kevin is a dream.
But it’s not the dream. “Looking For The Promised Land” plays it just right. It’s a fun, valuable distraction. Everyone gets at least half-naked in the woods, dancing and drugging and fucking, getting lost. It’s an anti-sermon; whatever shoe is going to drop has nothing to do with the pleasures of The Promised Land. The episode puts off the big revelations for the final act, and at last when everyone’s status is established, it puts off facing up to the implications. “Tomorrow you can tell me everything I probably already know, but now can we just all watch the sunrise and pretend that everything’s gonna turn out fine?” Patrick has so much shame it hurts, but there’s something reassuring about that final pan up those ancient trees into the faint dawn sky. Here’s another tip from Inherent Vice: “Tomorrow is another day.”
- The credits bode well, cutting in on the lyric, “This is the day your life will surely change / This is the day when things fall into place.”
- Agustín wants the guys to go to some orgy hot tub or something. Patrick: “There are not enough antibiotics in the world to get me in that water.”
- The redwoods are breathtaking. They’re capital-R Romantic, testaments to nature’s grandeur (and man’s ability to have sex on anything). All those still shots of the trees dwarfing the characters are like on Parks And Recreation when April and Andy visit the Grand Canyon and not like on Parks And Recreation when all the other destination episodes happen.
- Dom: “Can you even call a 59-year-old man your boyfriend?” Sure you can, but just please don’t call him your man-friend.
- It’s so weird-in-a-good-way to see Dom in boyfriend mode. It’s disconcerting that he and Lynn don’t seem to talk much though.
- The guys weren’t there when Doris got to Lynn’s so she climbed through Agustín’s door. Agustín: “How do you even know it was my door?” Doris: “Um, because it smelled like misery.” See? Looking knows exactly how we perceive Agustín. She got there just in time for a rousing evening of Clue. “There is no way that Dom just paid 200 dollars for a taxi—thank you—to get me here for that.”
- Patrick about to try molly: “Promise you’ll take care of me if I have a heart attack or get gang raped or something.”
- Patrick: “Do that again. Maybe it’s the molly but I can feel it in my toes.” Remember, Just Say Yes to drugs.