“The noun, happiness, is a static state of some Platonic ideal you know better than to pursue.”
—Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
In her review of the season 2 finale of Netflix’s original series Lovesick (formerly known as Scrotal Recall on the UK’s Channel 4), A.V. Club’s Esther Zuckerman says the show is more about time than it is about relationships. I don’t totally agree, but her review did make me think about the show’s structure and its thematic treatment of time.
The reason the relationships on the show are so rich and layered, the reason they seem really lived in and we believe they matter to the characters (and end up mattering to us as viewers—we’re invested in all the friendships and romances and even the casual encounters) is because of time. Lovesick manages to create a real sense of depth out of 6 to 8 25-minute episodes by having 2 timelines: we have the present timeline, which moves forward over the course of the 3 seasons, and we have the past, which stretches back 6 ½ years, and which we visit non-linearly. Because we see and experience the past out of order, it allows the narrative brilliant moments of revelation, revelations that change our entire understanding of the story. Lovesick is a bittersweet, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy, but there’s almost an element of mystery or suspense to it.
The revelations happen on different scales. There are those that happen within each episode—like in “Abigail” (s01e01), when we meet Luke and Dylan at their go-to café and then flash back to Angus’s wedding, where Evie is in love with Dylan and he’s oblivious to it. We then come back to the present to see that it’s Dylan who’s now in love with Evie but she’s moved on (as far as we know right then 👀). Another example is in “Amy” (s02e03) when we discover the woman Dylan meets at the beginning of the episode is Evie’s younger sister. And the manner of the revelations differ too, because some are things that neither we nor the characters know (Dylan and Amy don’t know how they are connected when they sleep together), and some are things that the characters know, but we don’t yet know (Dylan and Luke know they are going to Evie’s engagement announcement, but we the audience don’t know that until the episode ends).
And there are revelations that happen across seasons. The most obvious one is Luke, and it works so well. In the first season he’s totally ridiculous and kind of gross and we can’t take him seriously. I sometimes wondered how Evie could be friends with him. Then we get to “Phoebe” (s01e06), the last episode of the first season, and it’s a hint that there’s something more to him. In the second season we discover he was in a longterm relationship and was ready to marry a woman he was really in love with, but she dumped him right before he proposed. Everything we’ve seen of Luke then shifts; we see him through an entirely different lens—he’s lovesick too. He’s hurt, he’s lonely, he’s desperate. I no longer wondered why Evie was friends with him. And so in getting to know Luke better we also get to know Evie better. We know that both Evie and Dylan were there with him when he was in love with Jo, and there with him in the aftermath. And they’re there with him now, as he realizes that seeing each romantic or sexual encounter as a game or conquest is fucking him up. In this way what happens with one character matters to the other characters because of their friendship, but also matters because it tells you something about those other characters.
I was floored by the last revelation we get in “Evie (Again)” (s03e08). In the last episode of season 3 we get a glimpse of one of Evie’s past relationships. Ee know she’s dated Angus, and had a crush on Robbie, but neither of these relationships are particularly serious. We know about her and Mal, but that’s a relationship we see her forming and growing into in the present, and then leaving behind. We’ve never actually gotten the kind of flashback to a relationship for Evie like we’ve gotten for Dylan and Luke.
Evie’s relationship with Adal is one Dylan doesn’t know about. He and Evie weren’t friends yet when she was dating Adal, it was before the 7 years they’ve known each other. It’s an important episode of her life, one that’s shaped her and her relationship to romantic love. She was deeply in love with Adal, she would have married him; and their romance seems totally different in character from the one she shares with Dylan. She was so in love with Adal that now, years later, she’s moved enough from seeing him to cry. Dylan’s thrown by it, which I love, because it’s such a real, non-ideal reaction. It’s messy. Dylan’s curious, maybe even be a little threatened. He’s known Evie for years, but he never knew this about her. It’s a nod back to his parents in “Martha” (s03e05) and how he never knew his mother had cheated. It’s also a nod to Angus and Holly, virtual strangers who try to make something out of an accident. So the question is, how well can any one person know another? And how much does it matter how well you know them or not?
Dylan’s discovery reveals something about Evie’s current relationship with him. Dylan has a new knowledge of Evie, and it’s scary, because he realizes he doesn’t know everything about her. But instead of freaking out over it in typical Dylan fashion, he just asks her to come back to bed. We actually see him making the decision not to push Evie away, not to turn the sadness Evie feels over a past relationship into a reason for doubt or distrust. And Evie asks him to take her back to bed. What it reveals is a kind of acceptance, a generosity. Dylan finds something out, but it doesn’t cause a distance or rupture between him and Evie. He doesn’t wobble. He looks at his reflection and smiles with something like assurance, and when he goes back to bed he tells Evie he loves her. It’s the first time he says it to her.
In “Andi and Olivia” (s03e01), the very first episode of the season, Dylan tells Luke:
“You know what I struggle with? With women? I mean, with people? I don’t think we ever really know each other. I mean, not…not fully. And how can you love someone entirely when you can’t know them entirely? There might always be something there, waiting to break your heart out of nowhere.”
In the penultimate episode we flash back to 5 years prior, when an ex, Tasha, tells Dylan he’ll never be happy, that “it doesn’t matter who he ends up with because what he’s looking for doesn’t exist.” In “Andi and Olivia” Dylan also says love is all heartache and misery until it isn’t. Neither Dylan nor Evie know each other entirely—it’s an impossibility. But this last revelation, and Evie crying about Adal, doesn’t break Dylan’s heart. And Dylan, in return, in his response—not turning away from Evie or punishing her, but inviting her closer, taking her hand and leading her back to bed—doesn’t break hers.
What Lovesick suggests is that it’s not about happiness, really; the “it isn’t” isn’t simply happiness—“The noun, happiness, is a static state of some Platonic ideal you know better than to pursue“—it’s a willingness or desire to bridge whatever distance arises.