Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Master Of None season 3 offers an intimate, messy glimpse into queer domestic life

Image of Naomi Ackie and Lena Waithe in Netflix's Master Of None Presents: Moments In Love
Naomi Ackie and Lena Waithe star in Master Of None Presents: Moments In Love
Photo: Netflix

To say Master Of None’s third season feels like an entirely different show than the Aziz Ansari-led series that first hit Netflix in 2015 is an obvious understatement. After all, it’s going by a new name. While still categorized as the third season of Master Of None, the title is now Master Of None Presents: Moments In Love. It exists in the same universe as the original series, borrowing Lena Waithe’s character Denise and placing her in the spotlight this time, while featuring brief appearances by Ansari’s Dev. But it really is its own show with a distinct voice and, while finding humor in unexpected places, a much more dramatic narrative. Moments In Love trades in the zippy, early-30s NYC dating adventures of Master Of None for the quiet intimacy and existential dread of marriage and permanent partnership.

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The season is written by Waithe and Ansari—the latter of whom also directed all five episodes—making this the second major project Ansari has worked on since stepping away from the public eye following sexual misconduct allegations. The overall visual landscape of Moments In Love is stripped-down and restrained, often evoking the simultaneous intimacy and isolation of domestic life. We meet Denise and her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie, in a tremendous performance) in their bucolic life upstate. They have no visible neighbors, and their historic, fireplace-warmed house brims with antiques handpicked by Alicia, who hopes to one day open her own shop. They’re able to afford this lush and private life in the woods thanks to the success of Denise’s bestselling first book. The first stretch of the premiere is languid and lovely, lingering on still shots that are cozy, mundane, personal, like Denise and Alicia’s respective bedside tables. Here we have a quaint portrait of lesbian domestic life—Denise and Alicia dancing while doing laundry together. Even the most ordinary shots and sequences hum with life.

But, of course, marriage is more than just eating meals together and sleeping in the same bed and doing chores. Marriage is a mess. And Moments In Love wades through that mess without being overly dismal about it. It doesn’t assert all marriages and relationships are doomed—rather, that it’s infinitely more complicated than that. A weird and funny middle-of-the-night conversation between Denise and Alicia captures the goofy dynamic that comes with spending so much time with someone. Moments In Love is equally interested in conflict and connection.

Dev shows up halfway through the premiere for a dinner-party-gone-wrong that doesn’t rely on over-the-top conflict or antics. Here, Moments In Love mines discomfort for humor with impressive success. As with the camerawork, the plotting is stripped-down. The relationships feel lived-in and real. The conflict that emerges is simultaneously captivating and difficult to watch, like overhearing strangers fight on a bus. We also get a look at the complications of platonic intimacy between Dev and Denise.

Denise and Alicia’s struggles soon become clear. Denise’s stalled career, tough decisions about starting a family, codependency, miscommunications, betrayal, and a significant loss all make for compounding cracks in the foundation of their marriage. Suddenly, their simple life in the woods looks isolating and suffocating. They hurt each other. When they fight, it feels like they’re both right and both wrong. Alicia resents the ways she’s shrunk her life to fit into Denise’s.

Throughout the series, the unembellished camerawork, use of long single shots without cutaways, and acute attention to detail in the set and props makes every scene feel intensely intimate. A recurring shot of coat hooks in one episode signifies disconnect and loneliness. Props feel like much more than set dressing, and the house feels like a character itself. The physical details may be simple, but they’re meaningful, and they’re coupled with detailed character work.

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The fourth episode is easily the finest of the season and focuses on Alicia’s quest to have a child. It really does feel like a quest—insurance policies, fertility science, stacks of injectable medications, probes, surgeries, phone calls, and appointments all like riddles for Alicia to desperately solve. It’s an incisive and devastating look at the obstacles queer people face when it comes to starting a family. As a woman at the fertility clinic puts it to Alicia: Most major healthcare companies do not have a diagnosis code for “gay and desires pregnancy” and therefore won’t cover fertility costs that can be in the tens of thousands range. Ackie is brilliant throughout, often commanding scenes completely alone. There are so many gorgeous long shots throughout the five episodes, but one of the most memorable is of Alicia as she gives herself her first of hundreds of injections as part of her IVF treatment. In the span of this scene, she cycles through confusion, anxiety, sadness, exhaustion, determination, excitement, finally able to go through with it once she gets her mother on the phone.

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Photo: Netflix
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Again, while the writing absolutely acknowledges the heartbreak and fatigue of this fertility process, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Moments In Love makes space for levity, for release. Alicia’s relationship with her friend and donor Darius (Anthony Welsh) is its own warm form of intimacy. But a beautiful and hard-to-define relationship between Alicia and healthcare worker Cordelia (Cordelia Blair) also develops during the fourth episode. She’s not really a friend, not really family, and yet she sort of functions as both—Cordelia and Alicia are in this together. Queer folks often have to build alternative models for care and support, and Alicia finds a sort of partner in Cordelia, who is there for all the highs and lows of this journey. Just as the incredible “Thanksgiving” episode of Master Of None so deftly deals with the experience of coming out, Moments In Love’s depiction of a queer path to pregnancy is authentic, dynamic, difficult without being wholly tragic, and rooted strongly in character and emotion. The episode does touch on the broad implications of a homophobic and exploitive healthcare system, but it also makes this story very zoomed-in and specific. Alicia’s interiority is treated with the same attention to detail as her physical surroundings. Moments In Love makes the personal lives of its characters viscerally immersive.

Together, these five episodes tell a layered story of love—like the title promises—but also much more than that. It explores several kinds of grief: that of endings, of fertility complications, of career failures, of watching a friend’s parent die, and of uncertainty and stagnancy. Only in its final chapter does it falter slightly, a little too pat and requiring some heavy-handed exposition that makes it lag in a way most of the season does not.

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Still, the finale and premiere work as in-conversation bookends, both offering glimpses of domesticity but under very different emotional stakes and contexts. And while the ending isn’t perfect, it doesn’t need to be. Moments In Love burrows into mundanity, discomfort, and grief and still finds humor and joy along the way. It’s beautifully captured but also messy. The only perfect marriage here is the one between the show’s aesthetics and its narrative.