Why We Watch Relationships Fall Apart

The latest season of Master of None charts the slow demise of a marriage. But if we don’t know what drew a couple together, we can’t empathize with what caused them to split.

A couple talks to each other in their home bathroom.
Netflix

This article contains spoilers through the third season of Master of None.

Of all the unnerving things I’ve witnessed in the anxiety cauldron that is New York’s Penn Station, one stands out. Back in 2019, I noticed a couple arguing in the middle of the squalid Amtrak waiting area. There was something transfixing about their escalating row—even before one of them stormed off, presumably leaving the other to board a train alone or cancel their trip altogether. I pondered the story that led to the dramatic departure: If that public spectacle was the final straw, what had been the private breakdowns preceding it?

Though it’s likely impossible to replicate the je ne sais quoi of unintentional public theater acted out in transit purgatories, an irresistible lineage of films, TV shows, and albums is dedicated to witnessing a relationship’s terminal stages. The newest entrant in that category is Master of None’s third season, which arrives four years after the last one. Subtitled Moments in Love, the Netflix show shifts its focus from Dev (played by Aziz Ansari) to his friend Denise (Lena Waithe) and her wife, Alicia (Naomi Ackie). After publishing one successful novel, Denise is working on her second in a quaint upstate New York home that Alicia, an aspiring interior decorator, has outfitted with vintage Black collectibles. Dev visits the house for dinner one night with his partner, and they start to argue. This activates Alicia’s anxiety about her own marriage, and she asks Denise about trying to have a child, a pursuit that comes to define much of Alicia’s onscreen time.

Like many shows and films about breakups, Master of None jumps almost immediately into the central conflict. By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that Denise and Alicia’s marriage is collapsing, and the next three episodes chart that demise closely. Not until the final episode do viewers see why Denise and Alicia enjoyed each other’s company in the first place. After years apart, the two return to their old home—now being rented out by white owners—for a low-key weekend getaway. The grievances between them no longer matter now that they’re each partnered with a new person, but their banter is still familiar. The scenes are warm and light, the kind of vignettes that would’ve established the stakes of their divorce if viewers had seen them earlier. Instead, Master of None replicates one of the more frustrating pitfalls of breakup stories: not sufficiently showing why a couple liked each other initially, thereby weakening the blow of their parting.

For the morbidly curious (or the heartbroken), stories that detail the end of a relationship satisfy several itches. Sure, they can be voyeuristically entertaining or just offer a vicarious sense of catharsis. Watching film and television protagonists survive romantic misfortunes can feel quietly encouraging; seeing them wallow in their pain can be easier than acknowledging our own or can give us permission to feel sadness that’s otherwise inconvenient. (For the particularly masochistic, it can also amplify the melancholy.)

But breakup narratives also give visual language to real-life experiences that, in their emotional intensity, can be difficult to make sense of on our own. They can depict the uncomfortable truths that follow a happily-ever-after. They clarify. As my colleague Spencer Kornhaber writes of the debut album from the 18-year-old pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo, “Great breakups aren’t just painful; they’re surreal—a space-time fissure, a smack from God, a bulletin that you’re not the world’s protagonist.”

Films such as 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 2019’s resplendent Portrait of a Lady on Fire communicate the devastation of losing not just a relationship but an entire mode of being. “You’ve got the jokes, you’ve got the songs, you have this anecdote that’s going to make you laugh three years later,” the Portrait writer-director Céline Sciamma told the Independent. “That’s what you mourn for when you’re losing someone you love. This language you’re not going to speak with anybody else.” Portrait devotes significantly more attention to its leads’ growing affections for each other than to their inevitable separation, which is made all the more excruciating for its juxtaposition with those earlier highs. The dissonance between those states—the euphoria of unexpected connection and the agony of losing the familiar—makes for the most affecting breakup stories, onscreen as in real life.

In contrast, without knowing much about why a doomed pair worked well together in the past, viewers might root for—or against—their breakups for reasons that are rooted in their own relationship missteps. (Consider how much of the #TeamIssa and #TeamLawrence drama of Insecure’s earlier seasons was about the television couple, and how much seemed to reflect simmering tensions among heterosexual viewers.)

The new season of Master of None is so committed to exploring every element of Denise and Alicia’s distance that it moves at a glacial pace—most of its five episodes come in at around 30 minutes; two are nearly an hour long. Much of the dialogue is stilted and heavy-handed: In one scene Alicia tells Denise, “You just use me as a fucking prop.” In another, minutes later: “I am not a prop in your success.” It’s certainly not Malcolm & Marie–level corny, but it does grate.

The decision to focus on Waithe’s character, whose Emmy-winning “Thanksgiving” episode remains one of the best works of television in recent years, could have been a thrilling turn. After all, Master of None was already at its best when shading in the lives of its supporting characters. And, following the 2018 story about Ansari’s alleged sexual misconduct, it’s not altogether surprising that the writer and actor would step away from the show’s spotlight—his awkward-about-love persona has always felt like direct source material for his work. (In a statement soon after, Ansari said that he’d thought the encounter was consensual, but took the woman’s “words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.”) Of course, reality serves as a metatext for Waithe’s character too. The actor and screenwriter recently separated from her wife, the film executive Alana Mayo, amid rumors of infidelity; Moments in Love’s central relationship devolves in part because both parties cheat on each other.

Infidelity is not the decisive end to Denise and Alicia’s marriage, but it does illuminate their unhappiness. The season is strongest when subtly communicating the betrayals that can present uniquely in queer relationships. When Alicia leaves Denise and attempts to get pregnant on her own following a painful miscarriage, she hits wall after wall in the process. Conceiving as a single Black lesbian is a series of small heartbreaks, and Ackie plays these scenes with vivid attention to the character’s interior struggles.

Master of None is a far less risqué production than 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, but I was reminded of how beautifully Adèle Exarchopoulos conveyed a soul-deep longing throughout that film. Master of None’s Alicia isn’t shattered by romantic misfortune the way that Exarchopoulos’s character is, but their most poignant moments of anguish stem partly from navigating a world that remains hostile to their love. So, too, do the most wrenching scenes in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

When viewers finally witness what kept Denise and Alicia together for so long in Master of None’s final episode, it feels too late. I found myself wishing that the show employed the tricks that some films have used—flashbacks in Eternal Sunshine, or the gratitude accounting that opens Marriage Story. Instead, by the time we see Denise and Alicia at ease in each other’s company, they have already separated. The rendezvous signifies that they’re comfortable with each other, not that they’re destined to be life partners. But perhaps that reinforces the point: Not every love story—or breakup story—is a great one.