Throughout its first season, Man Seeking Woman has found humor in the absurd and at times painful world of dating, putting realism aside to capture the feeling, if not the facts, of singlehood for the relationship-seeking 20-something. With “Scepter,” the season draws to a close, helping Josh find closure to his relationship with Maggie and destroying the world in the process. While this is a fun episode with plenty of sight gags and interesting conceits, the finale lacks the depth and commentary of the season’s best episodes, retreading familiar ground and failing to recapture the spark of series-best “Teacup.”
After a middling opening sequence—more on this in a bit—the finale dives in with its main narrative: Josh’s attempts to right the past and hold on to his relationship with Maggie, with help from some time travel pills from the convenience store. Though the bulk of the episode is split between Josh’s time traveling and his eventual arrival in a dystopian alternate present, these halves are more closely tied than in previous installments, making for a cohesive and clearly arced finale set squarely within its heightened world, rather than transitioning back and forth between fantastical and mundane realities. This allows the episode to pair Josh’s dawning realization of his and Maggie’s ultimate unsuitability with comedy drawn from the world, balancing the more dramatic elements of Josh’s journey with the series’ most ridiculous and over the top creation yet (Hail Trackanon!).
This combination of humor and heart makes for a compelling episode, but the effectiveness of Josh’s arc is undercut by its familiarity. Josh learns that suppressing his personality and transforming himself into what someone else wants him to be doesn’t work and leaves him unfulfilled and unhappy, the exact lesson of “Branzino.” Both episodes even feature the same forced “Finishing each other’s sentences” line, with Rachel trying to fabricate the connection in “Branzino” and Josh doing so here. Had these two storylines counterpointed each other, with Rachel trying to change to please Josh earlier and Josh experiencing the other side of this in “Scepter,” the similarities would feel complimentary. Instead they’re repetitious, although to the finale’s credit, the choice to more fully explore this idea and give it over half the episode’s run time makes “Scepter” ultimately more successful than “Branzino.”
The beginning of the episode is more mixed than the main story. The idea that there are literally no women left on Earth who haven’t turned Josh down is a promising one, but it leads nowhere. A look at the toxic and frequently sexist notion of friend-zoning would have been much more interesting. Man Seeking Woman’s strongest episodes have featured social commentary and close examinations of the societal constructs of the dating world. This could have been an opportunity to dive in deep with the friend zone, à la “Gavel”’s look at nice guy cheating, and hopefully the show will revisit it in season two. More successful is Josh’s initial lunch with Maggie, where her news that she and Graham are getting married makes his heart burst out of his chest and lie bleeding on the table. The scene is well executed and both actors play it gloriously straight; Jay Baruchel’s particularly great as Josh attempts to play off his condition by inquiring about the restaurant’s french onion soup. Thankfully, Maggie is an entirely passive entity in this scene, unintentionally wreaking havoc rather than doing so maliciously. The show could have easily channeled Mortal Kombat and had Maggie rip out Josh’s heart, but it doesn’t demonize her: Josh’s inability to get over Maggie is his fault, not hers.
At the end of the season, Josh and the relationship and breakup with Maggie that predicated the series remain disappointingly unexplored, though the finale’s passing revelation that they had at least discussed getting married contextualizes his struggle to move on quite a bit. One of the strengths of “Teacup” was how well it understood and expressed Liz’s personality and state of mind. Josh likes video games, Carnivale, and not reading Infinite Jest, but beyond that, he doesn’t seem to know what he wants in life. Now that he’s come to terms with his and Maggie’s long-term incompatibility and moved on, perhaps he’ll be better able to understand what he wants and who he wants to be, areas the series will hopefully dive into throughout season two.
“Scepter” may not be Man Seeking Woman’s best episode, but it is an entertaining and confident end to what has been a surprisingly solid freshman season. From script to performance to direction, Simon Rich and the rest of the creative team have taken a high risk, high reward approach to a frequently explored topic and given it new vitality, style, and creativity. The dating world can indeed be a confusing place populated by trolls, robots, and worse and it’s been a treat to see this so clearly and cannily explored.
- The cast has been terrific throughout the first season. Baruchel rose to the occasion, consistently giving excellent performances and grounding the series, and Eric André has been a blast as Mike, committing to him fully, but it’s been particularly nice to discover Britt Lower and Maya Erskine, who add a lot to the series, even when used only peripherally.
- The “Hail Trackanon!” salute, and especially Erskine’s performance while giving it, is probably my favorite moment in the entire finale. Such a great little touch!
- Robin Duke and Mark McKinney are back here for glorified cameos and it’s great to see them, however briefly. Duke’s reading of, “Joshy” is fabulous, every time.
- Josh’s final piece of advice for his younger self—that he should grow distinctive facial hair—is delightfully random. I love that Josh’s personal grooming choices are what destroy the space-time continuum.
- The creature design for Trackanon is a bit on the nose, but it’s fitting for the series. While most will likely focus on him, my design MVPs of the episode are the costumers who put together Mike’s hilarious sex slave outfit, and of course André gets all of the props for pulling the look off.
- Speaking of sex slaves, how great is it that here, Mike is the sex slave and Liz is the freedom fighter/soldier? It’s a fantastic inversion of countless TV and film post-apocalyptic futures’ gender roles, and it’s much appreciated.