Season 2! “Long” episodes! This one was about half an hour, but the others seem to be mostly 22 minutes. Still awfully long compared to the 15 minutes last season. (full index of Little Things reviews here)
Really well written art manages to be simultaneously specific, and universal. And that’s what this episode achieves. It’s not funny exactly, this isn’t really a “comic” kind of show, it’s more along the lines of an improvised short film. But it brings up points to think about in how you live your life and why you live your life that way, and what your values really are, that I will be thinking about for a long time. All in a way that feels organic and natural for who these characters are and where they are in life.
The story of this episode is simple. Dhruv’s old school friend has a conference in Bombay and is sleeping on their couch for two nights. The first night they go out to dinner and Dhruv and his friend fight, the next day he goes to his uncle’s place for dinner after the conference and comes back late, Dhruv talks to Mithila about what he is feeling, and then he and his friend talk again and make-up, and embrace when they say good-bye.
But along the way, the show takes us on a three step journey that is familiar to, well, everyone! First, you reunite with your old friend and it is all just so easy and pleasant and you are nostalgic and think you should never be apart again. Then, you start to talk about things beyond your friendship and realize you have massive differences now, you have grown apart, and maybe you should leave the friendship in the past. And finally the third step, the discovery that there is something special about those old old friendships, you just have to learn how to value them while still understanding the differences you feel today.
It sounds trite written out like that, which is where the specifics of this episode come in. Other more cowardly shows would have had the differences between the friends be silly things like different slang, or different clothes. But this show went for the jugular, had real serious issues come up at that dinner, the kind of thing that truly would make you consider never speaking to each other again. The sort of things that both are, and are not, personal.
It starts slowly. Mithila arrives a little late for their dinner, and the conversation moves from childhood memories to present day in order to include her. They talk about the new metro rail being built in Delhi, fairly neutral news, and “local” to Delhi. And they talk about the meal, again neutral. But Dhruv’s old friend starts teasing him a little about no longer being vegetarian, and asks a bit too specifically “do you eat beef?” Dhruv says that yes, he does. The subject drops, but it’s a little moment saying “okay, Dhruv’s friend is a religious conservative, and Dhruv is ready to defend his choices if his friend comes at him”. And then the metro rail leads to Dhruv saying it is a terrible move for global warming, and his friend laughing a little about global warming like he doesn’t take it seriously, and then swinging it back to an argument for Dhruv to stop eating meat. Again, the subject drops. But the tension is going up and up, there are more and more landmines where they can’t go. Dhruv is worried about climate change, and isn’t religious any more. His friend is worried about religion and doesn’t care about climate change.
And they also talk about another old friend who died of cancer, and Dhruv didn’t even know. And they joke about school bench jokes. And there is a lovely moment when his friend breaks the news of the death, Dhruv is upset, and his friend tells Mithila to make Dhruv see his old friends more when he comes back to Delhi and Mithila touches Dhruv’s arm to comfort him and promises that she will.
And finally it all comes out in an unexpected burst at the end of the meal, when both Dhruv and his friend (his friend more) seem a little bit drunk. It’s time to pay, his friend offers to pay, Dhruv insists it is on them, and Mithila pulls out her wallet, there is a little wrestling for the bill with Dhruv actually blocking his friend physically from the waiter, and then his friend bursts out that he is ashamed of Dhruv for letting Mithila pay, how can he call himself a man, what has happened to him. Mithila tries to interrupt that she doesn’t care, but the friend talks right over her, and tells Dhruv he would be saying even more if they weren’t alone, then storms out.
The whole build of the first half of this episode is perfectly done. This is a show about a relationship after all, I should have seen coming that the big blow up with the friend would be over the relationship. The seeds were there, right along he was calling Mithila “Bhabhi”, trying to put her in that small acceptable place, and she kept smilingly correcting him and letting it go while Dhruv didn’t even seem to really see it. The sweetest moment of the dinner, when he told Mithila to make Dhruv see his old friends, that was because he was seeing her as Bhabhi in the best possible way, a woman who loved his friend like he did and with whom he had an immediate bond because of their shared relationship with Dhruv. But the relationship just doesn’t fit into that small space, doesn’t fit into asking Dhruv “where did you find her?” or treating Mithila like her main job is to emotionally care for Dhruv, but not financially care for him. Because Mithila is important to Dhruv, and their relationship is a big part of who he is, attacking the way they are together is attacking something that matters.
What this episode gets so perfect is that the moment of “should we be friends any more?” is not an emotional response, or an intellectual one, but often a moral one. The way Dhruv’s friend talks about beef, talks about male and female relationships, talks about global warming, it’s not small things. Dhruv’s conflict over their friendship isn’t some piddling “oh, he’s boring to talk to” issue, it’s a matter of principals and ethics and deep concerns about the world. Is it Right, with a capital R, to stay friends with this person? Or is it the right thing to do to cut them out of your life, take a stand against negativity and wrongness? Where do you draw the line?
That’s what Mithila and Dhruv talk through in the middle scene. Dhruv is feeling lost, one of his old friends is dead, and his other old friend has turned into a different person, maybe a “bad” person? The discussion they have blows right past the question of who was right and who was wrong, they were both at that dinner, they both understand that his friend is on the wrong side of a lot of things. The question is, is there something there still worth saving?
And again, the episode profiles the question perfectly. It’s not what Dhruv could put into it, or the history they have together, it’s what his friend means to him now, today. Is he just someone crashing on their couch because it is a free place to stay in Bombay? And it turns around the title of the episode, “Milk Cake”. How hard was it for his friend to bring him this childhood treat? It’s a cheap sweet, it’s common courtesy. But it’s his favorite sweet, from his favorite shop, right by their school. Does that mean his friend really cares about him, wants to reach out and make an effort? And if so, does that mean Dhruv should make an effort to?
The show ends with “yes, it’s worth it”. But it also leaves open that sometimes it isn’t. If there hadn’t been the milk cakes, if his friend hadn’t come back earlier than expected from his uncle’s house and been obviously ready to talk, maybe it would have been better to let all that childhood stuff go, to start fresh and leave him behind.
It’s just a really good discussion of a universal experience told with the specifics required to make it feel real.
And, on a character note, I love how the Dhruv-Mithila dynamic is different, and how their performances as the characters have changed. Mithila is stronger, louder, speaks out about where they should have dinner, pulls out her wallet to pay without checking with Dhruv, and when he needs her to talk through what he is feeling, he has to really firmly ask her to talk to him before she stops and focuses on him. She isn’t being a bad girlfriend, but she isn’t changing her mind and watching his reaction and talking at him and asking questions about what he wants all the time the way she was in the first season. On the other hand, this episode is about Dhruv going through some STUFF in a way he didn’t really in the first season. Mithila last season was lost at work, anxious in her relationship, just flailing, while Dhruv was generally happy about everything in his life. This episode, we see him not really interested in his job (online teaching instead of the research he was doing last season), and struggling hard with who he is and where he came from and some pretty deep stuff.
Just, SUCH a good episode!