In the grand tradition of Henry David Thoreau—uncredited creator of Survivorman—television characters take wilderness retreats to find out the basic elements of their being. As it should, this goes completely unstated in New Girl’s “Cabin,” but after Jess knocks out the power and the pilfered absinthe starts a-flowin’, it’s clear that what’s about to come from Jess and Sam’s couples’ retreat (which gains its plural possessive from Nick and Angie) is a whole garbage bag of messy truths. And one truth stands above all: These people think they know more about one another than they actually do.
The commotion that unfolds at Dr. Sam’s boss’ cabin is foreshadowed in the episode’s cold open—but it’s confirmed the moment the words “written by J.J. Philbin” appear on screen. New Girl scripts credited to Philbin typically mix big laughs with well-earned emotional beats; episodes like these are becoming a calling card for the series, one that mixes drama into its comedy as well as Mad Men or Breaking Bad temper their operatic heights with gut-busting comic relief. It’s an outgrowth of the way New Girl’s continuity brings us closer to these characters, celebrating in their victories and languishing in their defeats. In that light, it’s tough to admit that yet another of their romantic relationships—this time Nick and the loose-cannon stripper played by Olivia “The Last Time I Can Use The ‘Refreshingly Tolerable’ Nickname Within Reason” Munn—hasn’t worked out, and the tone of episodes like “Cabin” recognizes this. In a less-serialized show, the brushing off of such failed couplings could be a running gag—like Jerry Seinfeld’s revolving door of paramours. But New Girl isn’t Seinfeld, and as it traces the roommates’ ups and downs so closely, “Cabin,” “Injured,” and dramatic episodes not written by J.J. Philbin truly matter.
Knowing the characters so well at this point, however, it’s difficult to say what “Cabin” says about Nick, who suffers the episode’s biggest emotional blow when Angie takes off, leaving him one handwritten note heavier and a few personal items lighter. It’s not a new corner of the character's persona; it’s more the repetition of the theme that’s baked into Nick’s overall arc: This guy won’t stop building walls that keep him from what he really wants. The twist to “Cabin’s” version is that Jess knows this better than Nick does—with the payoff that when he owns up to wanting a steady relationship, it drives away fun-and-fancy-free-with-an-impulsive-Jamiroquai-tattoo Angie away. When this leads Jess—now confident that Nick wasn’t being his true self—to tell Nick that Angie didn’t deserve him, he shrugs and offers a “Whatever that means.” That’s an appropriately cagy response to something cliché that a friend tells you when you’re feeling blue, but it leaves open a fresh wound that New Girl has no interest in instantly covering up. This is the kind of hurt that lingers and festers, and it’s smart of Philbin and her fellow writers to let it do so.
It’s also smart of them to pursue a new angle while giving another spin to Nick Miller’s Greatest Hits: If these characters are going to spend so much time together—and in such close proximity—they’re going to start jumping to conclusions about what their roommates want or need. In “Cabin,” that notion gets parallel treatments: One in the dramatic range with Nick and Jess at the cabin, the other with Winston and Schmidt diving deeper into Winston’s “blackness.” It all comes about innocently enough: Schmidt just wants Winston to be happy. It’s important to emphasize this, because the on-paper details of the plot—and the squicky sources of its humor—get very reverse-racist very quickly: Working with the misplaced empathy of an open-minded, young urban male, Schmidt decides to engage Winston on “his” level—“his” meaning “stereotypically black,” like getting soul food for dinner instead of Indian takeout. Winston instantly picks up on the scent of Schmidt’s white guilt and engages his friend in a night-long prank that culminates in a trip to score some crack rock, during which the child-safety locks of Schmidt’s sensible ride become the accessory to an accidental mugging. It’s the squirm-inducing echo of and counterpoint to the episode’s A-story, one that gives the subject matter a suitably delicate treatment—while completely justifying Nick and Cece’s refusal to join Schmidt’s “honest dialogue” about race. Schmidt’s are the good intentions that invariably lead to accidentally trapping a stranger in your backseat.
This is where Philbin’s experience at Saturday Night Live comes in handy: The scene where Schmidt and Winston attempt to buy some crack from the bulky dude on the street performs some astounding comedic acrobatics, climaxing with all parties involved scared out of their wits, tossing their wallets to the people they assume are robbing them. It plays out quickly, and the way the grim mask Javier Calderon wears falls after he realizes he’s not in danger makes the plot’s most salient point: Assumption—be it based in race, profession, or the understood “rules” of a four-person outing to the woods—is a two-way street, and it’s a dangerous one at that. For further evidence, see the tracks of Olivia Munn’s saliva running down David Walton’s face.
One more chorus of “Nick Doesn’t Know What He Wants” doesn’t hurt in this instance, because it’s the mirror for a solid Winston story—a quantity season two of New Girl has sorely missed. Taking a wider view of the season, it makes sense to hold such an evergreen plot in order to pair it with the current developments in Nick’s arc. No matter how close you are to a person, you’ll never know exactly what’s on their mind—unless they’re barking it at you in an absinthe-crazed spew of anecdotes and opinions. (Nick Miller: On the record as a dog person. He also thinks that if Sam was a hat, he’d be a top hat—the tall kind, line on Monopoly.) That goes for relationships that have lasted 35 as well as three.
There is plenty of humor and pathos inherit in the mistakes that drive “Cabin”—and if that’s not a mission statement for New Girl, I don’t know what is. It just so happens that at this point in a Nick-heavy season, the humorous side of “Cabin” is its most satisfying. But that could change in light of what happens next. That’s one of the value of taking some time to pull back and mull things over, be they how you feel about your relationship or how the pieces of New Girl’s second season add up to a whole. I think Thoreau wrote about something like that in Walden.
- This week in New Girl pseudonyms: No new names, though Sam alludes to “Katie,” an elegant acknowledgement that his relationship with Jess is a weird one, built on a serialized foundation.
- I haven’t seen it yet, but descriptions of tonight’s Happy Endings episode—in which Max has an identity crisis, so Penny and Derrick ferry him to a series of themed gay bars—has me thinking about the many similarities between Winston and Max. For one: The qualities that would define the characters on lesser shows—Max’s sexuality and Winston’s race—so very rarely inform their Happy Endings and New Girl stories, respectively. It’s so crazy that episodes that are exceptions to those rules are aired simultaneously tonight. Not to start a needless flame war between shows that both deserve your love, affection, and live viewing, but feel free to compare and contrast further in the comments.
- Even as the dramatic core of “Cabin,” there’s still a lot of funny stuff in the scenes between Jess, Sam, Nick, and Angie. My favorite bit: Absinthe prevents Nick from being able to swallow a grape.
- Jess: “I do not pretend to be a perfect couple!” Of course not—if she did, she’d be played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis.
- Nick provides the New Yorker cartoon caption contest winner for an image of Angie getting all handsy while teaching Jess to shoot a rifle: “Fantasy and nightmare colliding.”
- Jess-on-absinthe wins a one-woman game of charades: “Movie” [Wild gestures] “One syllable” [Further wild gestures] “Gattaca!”
- Winston on race relations among roommates: “There is so much more that I find annoying about you that I haven’t even gotten to race.”