Somewhere around my third or fourth viewing of this series, while I was still trying to figure out what the hell went wrong with such great stuff, I realized that I was staying for the romances, both the romantic couplings (and tripling) and the romance of the ensemble. I stayed because I loved the characters and I wanted to see them come together (not a double entendre). So I looked closer at the four love stories in the series and at the building of the ensemble. Ensemble later; let’s talk about how amazingly good the love stories in this series are. I used the four basic steps of building a love story (a vast simplification of a vastly complex human emotional arc) as a rubric for this post. This is entirely arbitrary and should not be interpreted as The Only Way To Structure A Love Story. It is, however, a pretty good approach for arcing a relationship.
The First Meet: People love to tell the story of how they met, how the attraction did or did not start right away, the things that made that day different because the other person was there. Everybody loves beginnings. This is also the place where smart writers foreshadow or bookend. And it’s almost always where the romance contract with the reader starts.
The Attraction/Joy/Limerance/Immature Love/Joy But as everybody knows, a lot of those beginnings turn into endings when politics, religion, tastes in music, film, or books, social preferences, and a whole host of other ways to disagree show up. Maybe she kicked a puppy or he said he thought The Princess Bride was a stupid book, but the deal breaker hit and the deal was broken. OR there was no deal breaker, people got to know each other, they really liked each other. they had great sex, and they fell in limerance, aka the crush, infatuation, “being in love” as opposed to “loving.” In theory, the two emotions most likely to move people from “like” to “love” are joy and pain. Joy’s what happens when the courting goes well.
The Test/Pain It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. Or until the rent comes due, or somebody gets jealous, or somebody’s parents disapprove, or until an evil corporation begins pursuing you to lobotomize you. When things get tough, people who love each other stick together. It’s the flip side of joy; pain will drive apart people who don’t care enough about each other, but it will bond lovers who will risk everything for each other. This is why there are so many passionate wartime romances and office affairs: stress. It’s also why romances with outside antagonists (rather than lover vs. lover) are so much easier to write: the stress the antagonist puts on the couple spurs their attachment.
The Commitment/Mature Love But if you’re really going to sell a romance to a reader or a viewer, you need to show them the probability of mature love, lasting commitment. Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving gave the best explanation of the difference between immature love (limerance, infatuation, conditional love) and mature love (unconditional love). Immature love, he said, is “I love you because I need you” (I need you because you’re great in bed, because you take care of me, because you make me laugh, etc.). Mature love is “I need you because I love you” (because of the intrinsic youness of you, regardless of what you look like or do for me, I just love YOU). Mature love is unconditional (“love is not love which alters when it alteration finds”) and unending, and it’s the key to writing satisfying love stories. It’s also damn difficult to write. Psychologists figure that it takes anywhere from six months to three years to move through limerance to mature love, and most stories don’t last that long, so mature love has to be foreshadowed. Think of it as Chekhov’s Commitment. It’s hanging there on the wall in the last act, and you know it’s going to fire in the future.
So using that admittedly arbitrary rubric, let’s look at love in the Cluster. WARNING: HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SERIES.
AMANITA AND NOMI (Classic Romance)
Back to bitching: The writers completely screwed up introducing this couple. They already had a tougher love story to tell because Amanita and Nomi are committed and together as the story opens. That means they do interminable as-you-know conversations where the two remember how they got together. The First Meet Amanita kissed her in a bathroom and they fell in love. Eh. But there’s another First Meet, the first meet that the viewer/reader has with the couple. The first time we see Nomi she’s injecting something into her thigh (my two guesses were insulin or heroin, both wrong) while Amanita’s in a bathtub. The first time we see them as a couple, it’s sex with a lubed dildo thrown on the floor. Yeah, I’m not seeing the romance here.
The Attraction This is the one that made me want to throw something at the TV. They do a flashback that shows Amanita defending Nomi, and then Nomi tells Amanita that’s when she knew she loved her because nobody had ever stuck up for her before. Okay, time for a small rant: THAT’S CONDITIONAL, NOMI. It means that if there’s a time when Amanita doesn’t stick up for you (I know, never gonna happen), you won’t love her. It’s a TERRIBLE reason to give for loving somebody. ARGH. So anyway, that’s when Nomi knew. No idea when Amanita knew. But then in Episode Five, the “WWNDoubleD?” episode, when Amanita and Nomi break into Metzger’s apartment, it’s all right there in the way they work together, the way their skills and personalities complement each other, the understated delight in being together, the sense of shared fun and excitement . . . that’s when I really believed they loved each other.
The Test Well, Amanita passes the Test for sure. She sets a hospital on fire, throws an iodine-soaked tampon at a Fed, and accepts without question that Nomi can talk to seven people who aren’t there. Amanita’s in this for the long haul. Nomi is never tested, but I have no doubts she’d burn down a hospital for Amanita, too. And I LOVE how they work together throughout the last episodes, thinking as one as they solve problems for the rest of the Cluster. This is a great example of how an outside antagonist can push lovers to demonstrate commitment; Nomi and Amanita were always going to pass the test, but it’s nice to have Whispers there for them, handing out number two pencils.
The Commitment They were committed before the show began, but by the end, with all those tests, experiencing all that joy (the break-in, all that sex) and all that pain (saving Nomi from the lobotomy, getting their apartment trashed, on the run from the Feds and Whispers), there’s no doubt they’re bonded. Great love story.
LITO, HERNANDO, AND DANI (Romantic Comedy, OT3)
This is another already-committed couple that we get the first meet for in conversation, this time Lito telling Nomi about it so it’s not As-You-Know chat. But this couple is about to become a triple, possibly the most delightful One True Threesome ever put on film. I love this love story.
The First Meet Dani is the beard that Hernando picked out for Lito to take to the premieres he’d really like to go to himself. Dani tries to seduce Lito who says no. Dani goes to Lito’s apartment with the press so Lito has to let her in, then goes upstairs and finds Hernando in Lito’s bed. In one of the greatest reversals in all of rom com, after she pops the champagne bottle in her hand from her surprise, she says, “This is fantastic, I love gay porn,” and climbs in bed with them. The guys, a little taken aback, sip champagne from glasses and she drinks from the bottle. I fell in love with all three of them right then and there in Episode Two.
The Attraction This stuff is just so much fun. The three go to a wrestling match together where Hernando talks about the Manichean struggle and the demon in all of us; Dani’s fascinated, Lito just looks at Hernando with love and tells her that Hernando is brilliant. Hernando and Lito are lifting weights on the balcony while Dani watches happily; they begin to make love and Dani takes pictures and then takes care of herself (she really likes gay porn). Dani makes Hernando go to dinner with them even though Lito is terrified he’ll be outed; she tells Hernando to act like a bodyguard, which he does, and then he’s amazed by how much he likes doing it. Lito’s just turned on. Dani’s just happy they’re all out together. They’re all so damn happy and having so much fun together. Joy, joy, joy, JOY.
The Test Dani’s pictures end up in the hands of rat bastard blackmailer Joaquin. Dani sacrifices for the guys, telling Joaquin she’ll marry him to stop the blackmail so Lito can keep his career. (Dani passes the test.) It’s too much for Hernando, who tells Lito he can’t stay with somebody who’d sacrifice another person for a career. You know what I love about this? It can’t be solved if everybody just talks. They talk, and it doesn’t matter, this has to be solved with action. If Lito doesn’t act, then he’s putting his career above his relationship with Hernando because Hernando can’t violate his principles to stay with somebody who would let Dani sentence herself to life with a brute. It’s a brilliant, brilliant test, and Lito passes it (with some help from Wolfgang) to bring her home in a moment that’s truly heartwarming. And again, props to Joaquin for forcing the tests on everyone; without him, this would have been Three’s Company.
The Commitment They’re committed, my god, did you see what they did for each other? I LOVE THIS ROMANCE.
WILL AND RILEY (Traditional Romance, Romantic Suspense)
And at last we get a real First Meet, which makes investing a reader/viewer in a romance so much easier. The hard part here is this is such a traditional, throwback romance: it’s the Hero and the Girl (“Be careful, Will”), so it’s going to take some chops on both actors’ parts to rise above the cliches. The First Meet The writers really foreground this couple, practically shoving the romance contract at us. The first connection any of the sensates have with each other is when Will hears Riley’s music playing. Later, Will turns his squad car siren on and Riley hears it in London. And then at the end of Episode One, they’re the first to see each other and to talk, meeting in the church where Angel killed herself after connecting them. If it wasn’t for the whole supernatural suicide thing, this would be a classic cute meet. Cute Cop meets Cute Girl at the scene of a crime, Cute Girl has a great, shy smile, so does Cute Cop, they chat (“So where are you from”) and find out that she’s in London and he’s in Chicago and there’s something weird going on but hey, they’re both attracted, polite about it, but definitely attracted. Very Cute Meet. Then she disappears because there’s gunfire in London, which is also intriguing. What this woman needs is a cop to protect her. The Attraction It’s a stretch to say that Riley and Will date, but they do have a great bar scene where they prove what’s happening is real when Riley calls Will from her phone and his phone rings. There’s some careful banter, and when Will asks the wrong question, Riley leaves. Next time, he’s more careful with the questions; she’s in Iceland and he’s in Chicago and they visit each other’s homes, chatting on the surface while all kinds of awkward sexual tension is going on underneath (seeing each other half naked in their respective bathroom mirrors after the first chat in the church helped with that), which pays off when Will finally makes his move and kisses her. Good kiss. Then they meet on the fourth of July for another kiss. Really good kiss. This is SUCH a traditional 50s romance, and yet it works because these two actors absolutely sell it; their evident chemistry doesn’t hurt either. It’s just lovely, quiet romance writing. And then there’s the scene in the hospital when they’re finally in the same place in reality and he touches her hand, and there’s some brilliant filmmaking that shows the totality of their connection. The Test Will passes about fourteen tests, saving Riley over and over again, but the real test is at the end, when he tells her she’s going to have to save them all and then sedates himself to take Whispers out of the game, trusting that she’ll come through for him. It seems a little inconsequential that all Riley has to do to pass the test is get in the ambulance and drive, but it means she has to leave her grief and guilt behind her and act, which is huge. For Riley, it’s a bigger test than anything Will’s done. And once again, Whispers comes through as the test-giver. As an antagonist for the overall story, he’s mostly weak and pretty ineffectual, but as source of testing for the romances, he’s extremely useful. The Commitment This one is going to have to be Chekhov’s Commitment because they really haven’t had enough time to develop a relationship, but given that Will has gone through hell and back for her (well, he would, he’s a Hero), and that Riley left her dead baby to save him and the rest of the Cluster, and that scene in the hospital where they pretty much merged emotionally, I’m gonna go with they’re committed. Also I love them and want them to be together forever. WOLFGANG AND KALA (Romantic Comedy morphed into Romantic Suspense) And speaking of traditional, classic romance, how about Beauty and the Beast? The Rake and the Virgin? This story has been told over and over and it’s REALLY retro (virgins just aren’t as thick on the ground as they used to be), and yet this is probably my favorite of all the romances, which is saying something because I’d watch twelve hours of any one of these love stories. The First Meet One thing I hadn’t noticed until I watched this strictly for the relationships is that Wolfgang and Kala are linked from the first episode: Kala thinks it’s raining on a sunny day in Mumbai because she can hear the thunder at the funeral Wolfgang’s attending. Then in Episode Two, Wolfgang is having sweaty sex in Berlin and Kala gets overheated at her pre-wedding party; she stands by the buffet to cool off, and Wolfgang gets hungry for Indian food and then looks up from his cafe table to see Kala walk by in Mumbai, and Kala looks over her balcony rail and sees Wolfgang. Comparatively speaking, they’re more in touch than Will and Riley. It’s a very subtle way of setting up that romance contract, enough to make the reader think, “Hello? Is that happening?” And then there’s that karaoke and the romance contract is right there. But their actual first meet, the first time they talk, comes after the attraction is well established; he’s outside a cafe in rainy, cold Berlin and she’s on a warm, sunny roof in Mumbai. They talk about science and miracles while all that previous attraction (see next section) simmers underneath. It’s a great first meet because they have a lot to talk about. The Attraction They’re aware of each other in that am-I-hallucinating puzzlement until Wolfgang starts singing “What’s Up” in that Berlin karaoke bar late one night and finishes at Kala’s home early the next morning. Kala’s finance Raj may have gotten the Bollywood production number, but Wolfgang’s in her bedroom. Then he shows up nude to stop Kala’s wedding, and the next day, Kala opens her closet door to find Wolfgang’s boxers and turns around to find Wolfgang naked in her bed. There’s more sexual tension in this romance than in all the others combined, including the ones where people are actually having sex. Kala does not need a naked demon in her life, but she smiles whenever she sees him. Wolfgang tends not to smile at all, but he smiles all the time when he’s with Kala. She tells him to stay away, and he says, “I try not to think of you, but every time it brings me straight to you.” She tells him their connection is a miracle, like gravity. He says, “Thank god for gravity.” Excuse me, I have to go mop up my melting heart. The Test Big test. BIG test. Kala knows Wolfgang is going to face down his uncle and he’s probably going to die, so when Wolfgang shows up in her lab to say goodbye, she’s back in Berlin with him. Our do-nothing Good Girl builds her Bad Boy a nice bomb and hands it to him so he can wipe out his enemies, then stands beside him horrified as he confesses to strangling his father when he was twelve and then empties his gun into his uncle. He tells her to marry Raj: “I’m a monster.” She’s still crying in the next scene (understandably) even while she works to save Riley. BIG TEST. The Commitment One thing to note about Wolfgang and Kala: Their test is not created by an outside antagonist; this conflict is Wolfgang vs. Kala. Yes, his uncle and his cousin are trying to kill him, but that’s his suspense plot. Yes, she’s being manuvered into marriage by her fiance and her family, but that’s her romcom plot. Wolfgang vs Kala is two worlds colliding: A lethal thief at war with a family who will kill everyone he loves, and an innocent chemist under pressure by a family who loves her to the point of oppression. The Lover vs. Lover plot usually ends with one Lover destroying the other’s life because it’s become a prison, but for Wolfgang vs. Kala, they both need rescued from their families, their ideas of reality destroyed so they can be set free from their pasts. Making a commitment would mean Wolfgang giving up his nihilism and Kala giving up her conformity to her family’s values and both living life together on their own terms. And one of the most frustrating things about this is that their test is never scored; the season ends with their love story still up in the air. Based on YouTube alone, the internet will riot if Kala marries Raj and leaves Wolfgang alone in his grimdark, self-loathing existence–hey, there’s a reason Beauty and the Beast goes back to Greek myth: It’s POWERFUL–but until we know the fallout from everything that happened to them, there’s no ending and therefore no commitment for this couple, not even foreshadowing. That’s a cold, rainy non-climax for a romance. And then there’s Sun and Capheus who do not have a romance, they’ve just had The Meet, which is good because I’m against Pairing the Spares as being too tidy, except . . . . They’re opposites (Sun is sad and Capheus is joyful) with the same values (fighting for what’s right), and when they talk together they give each other such comfort and such good advice. (Their First Meet is when Sun shows up as Jean Claude Korean Lady and beats up the thugs who stole Capheus’s mother’s meds, and that’s also excellent.) I understand why Sun’s alone; she’s carrying a lot of emotional weight and she’s solitary by nature. Why the hell Capheus doesn’t have dozens of women around him is a mystery to me: He’s handsome, he owns his own business, he works hard, he’s kind, he takes care of his mother, and he has a smile that lights up the whole world. If they pair the spares here, it could be the best thing that’s ever happened to Sun (which isn’t saying much because this woman has had nothing but grief in her life), and Capheus would get Jean Claude Korean Lady with him permanently, which, since Capheus is straight, is the closest he’s ever going to get to sleeping with his hero. Really, it’s kinda perfect.
So you want to know why I stuck with this series for twelve hours? SUCH GOOD LOVE STORIES.