Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None: Season 2 is a revelation. It takes the themes from the show’s first season and deepens them, with a balance of irreverence and emotional maturity that is rare to see in pop culture these days.
All that said, I did find the second season to be a bit uneven. While season 1 is pretty much as close as you can get to a perfect debut season, there were a few duds for me in this batch (e.g. “Door #3” was particularly rough). But when season 2 hits its mark, it is transcendent.
As a tribute to one of my favorite TV viewing experiences of the year, here are my three favorite episodes from the season. Spoilers ahead.
S2E04 – First Date: As someone who has been on dozens of first dates via online dating apps, this episode accurately captures the thrills and disappointments of meeting lots of women in rapid-fire succession. Online dating provides the opportunity to encounter all kinds of interesting people, some of whom might actually be good friends in another life. But when two good-natured people are placed in the confines of this artificial construct (i.e. the first date), it can be immensely challenging to have a good time.
One thing the episode does a great job of establishing is how there’s typically a ceiling on how well a first date can go. Even if the chemistry is great, the plan for the date is perfect, and everything is firing on all cylinders, at the end of the night there’s a big possibility you’re going to go home by yourself, bathe in the glow of that experience, and try to re-create it again later on in the week (possibly with the same person). It’s an intense and dehumanizing process that asks you to place a great deal of hope in the possibility of a meaningful connection (otherwise why go on the date in the first place?) but balance it with the possibility that it will go horrendously wrong. And even if things do great, there’s no guarantee that more will come of it.
Love in the age of the smartphone is difficult.
S2E08 – Thanksgiving: My parents brought my brother and me to America in search of a better life, but they had a lot of difficulty accepting the values that this better life would instill in us. Why didn’t we want to become doctors or lawyers? Why didn’t we go to a Chinese-speaking church? Why did we place so much emphasis on our own individuality and self-determination? Why did I spend so much time watching movies?
For every single one of these decisions (and dozens of others), a pattern would emerge: My mother would fight us tooth and nail on the issue at hand. Then, over time (sometimes years or decades), she would start to accept our choices. And then, without us even realizing it, she would start to have new, revised standards over how we should live our lives that would factor in the new state of play.
I don’t think I’ve seen a single piece of art better capture my own personal experience as an Asian immigrant growing up in a conservative household than Master of None’s “Thanksgiving” episode. I know that sounds odd to say, seeing as how this episode is really about the relationship between an African-American mother (played by Angela Bassett) and her lesbian daughter Denise (played by series regular Lena Waithe). But this dynamic is one I’ve seen play out in my life and many of my friends lives, all of whom also have tough-as-nails, conservative parents. It’s fundamentally about a child deviating from the morals and expectations of their parents, and how this can be initially met with intense resistance to the point where the relationship, as a whole, is in danger of disintegrating.
In the end though, often, if you’re lucky, parents come around. They might not ever explicitly say they accept you or your lifestyle or your decisions. They might not wholeheartedly approve. But they still love you and accept you as a child. They still want you to live a happy, healthy life. And as this episode attests to, they will still welcome your friends and loved ones to the Thanksgiving dinner table. What a lovely, moving way to communicate the concept of parental love.
I watched this episode with my significant other and when it was over, we both turned to each other with tears in our eyes. We knew we’d seen something so beautiful and authentic together. It’s an episode I’ll be thinking about for a very long time.
S2E09-E10 – Amarsi Un Po and Buona Notte: Okay, it is kind of a cheat to list two episodes here, but since I consider this essentially a two-episode arc, I’m going to go with it. The final two episodes of the season are the culmination of a season-long storyline in which Dev, who has had a difficult time with love all season, falls in love with his engaged friend Francesca.
To desire someone who’s promised themselves to another is a special kind of hell. It’s the thrill of the forbidden, the excitement at the universe of possibilities open to you two, and the sadness of violating a third party’s trust, all mixed together in a messy cocktail. What’s special about these two episodes (beyond their gorgeous cinematography and references to Italian films such as L’Eclisse) is how well they capture this impossible situation. The chemistry that Dev has with Francesca plays out wonderfully, especially since we’ve seen how horrible some of his dates have been earlier on in the season. But I also enjoyed the slow revelation of what it is that Dev is asking for: is Francesca just supposed to leave everything she’s ever known and loved for what might just be a fling? Even if the connection is real? There are no easy answers.
Towards the end of the episode, Francesca is watching a smartphone video of one of the ridiculously cute “dates” the two of them have had. As Pino asks if she’s ready to leave, we cut to black.
At first I thought this episode was going to pull a Before Sunset and end right there, in stunning ambiguity. But we fade in to Dev’s apartment and see Francesca and Dev in bed together. Francesca’s engagement ring is gone.
I was pretty certain this was also meant to be ambiguous (perhaps it was a dream sequence, which is definitely something the show has pulled before). In an interview at Vulture, Aziz Ansari basically confirms this is what he was going for:
The ending, I’m going to be a little coy about sharing my own personal interpretation, but I will say I was curious what people would think of the ending. It’s been interesting to read people’s thoughts on it. I looked at a couple of things and talked to a few friends and stuff, and the sweetest thing I’ve found is that people are saying it reminds them of my favorite ending of anything, which is the end of Before Sunset, which I think is incredible. I read something where someone says there’s the Before Sunset test, which is “Okay, if you’re a romantic you think they’re in bed together and you think that things are going to be great.” If you’re another type of person, you think, “Oh, they’re together and it’s going to be horrible.” Another person could say, “Oh, I think it’s just a fantasy and she’s thinking about how terrible it would be if she actually went through with it.” Another person could say, “Oh, it’s Dev imagining it and how it would be actually not what he wants. It would be a shit show, like what Arnold was saying, that he’s just in love with the fantasy of her and not the real person.”
I think I would like to keep it that way, where it’s really dependent on who you are and where you are in your own head to decide what that thing means. I will say it’s not a flashback. It’s not a flashback to the blizzard scene because we’re wearing different clothes and she doesn’t have an engagement ring on.
So will we see what happens after this scene? Will Francesca and Dev live happily ever after? Will there even be a season 3 of Master of None? Time will tell. But if it happens, it’ll likely be just as messy and ambiguous and wonderful and hilarious as the rest of the show has been.