HBO

This post contains spoilers.

Early on in Looking: The Movie, the group of San Francisco gay men and allies who were chronicled for two seasons by the HBO series of the same name are at a bar celebrating an imminent wedding. No one can believe it’s Agustín, the flaky, hedonistic former artist of the group, who’s getting hitched.

“I think his exact words were, ‘I’d rather seal up my butthole and never suck another cock again than get married,’” an ex recalls.

Another friend, Dom, puts on a whiny voice of imitation: “I can't believe gay people are so desperate to be straight, they shouldn’t even be called gay anymore.”

Agustín retreats to sing karaoke.

The notion of a nonconformist turning into what one of the characters calls a “Stepford homo” sums up the struggle that has defined Looking and, in fact, much of LGBT discourse in the 2000s. All along, HBO’s studiously chill depiction of gay-male hipsters has been a flashpoint for debates about whether previously transgressive aspects of queer life could or should survive wider social acceptance and the legalization of same-sex marriage. The fact that Looking closes with a wedding—like so many a sitcom—would seem a conservative turn. But Sunday’s series-ending movie didn’t just graft gay people onto a straight trope. Rather, it provided a sustained and thoughtful consideration of what marriage might mean—for gay and straight alike—after Obergefell v. Hodges.

The previously bratty Agustín married Eddie, an HIV-positive bear who works a shelter for transgender teens, for a simple reason: They love each other and want to grow old together. This wasn’t some impulsive decision, Jessa-on-Girls style, and when Agustín suffered cold feet it was less for the classic fear of commitment and more out of a fear of betraying his identity. “I used to think I'd be like Keith Haring or Robert Mapplethorpe,” he said, “but instead I've become Neil Patrick Harris.”

Harring and Mapplethorpe were artists whose contributions were deeply bound to the reality of gay life as counterculture. Harris, meanwhile, is this era’s grinning icon of same-sex desire jibing with mainstream norms: getting married, being monogamous, raising children. Does Harris conform to those norms because of a desire to “assimilate,” or does he conform to them because they’re what works for him? Just as it would be presumptuous—and a judgement of all the gay people who had similar relationships before they were recognized by law—to assume the former is true, it would be silly to assume that wedlock will turn Agustín into a square. After resolving his crisis of conscience, he told his friend Patrick, “This marriage can be whatever we want it to be.”

“Exactly,” Patrick replied. “It's not like you're going to be suddenly monogamous and move to the suburbs."

Eddie, too, had a bit of a freak-out before his wedding, but it seemed more tied to tradition and family expectations. The ceremony was to be a quick one at City Hall, in presence of a couple close friends (“maids of dishonor”). “I’m Italian for Chrissake,” Eddie stammered. “This is going to be the smallest Italian wedding in the history of time!" Agustín assured him that the ceremony is “just paperwork—we’re going to party tonight,” but it was clear that Eddie didn’t want to think of his marriage as totally punk—he’s willingly joining an institution with a history and social significance. Solution: Eddie’s mom Facetimed in for the ceremony.

But is Agustín right—is wedlock “just paperwork”? The political debate over gay marriage partly concerned the idea that it would de-emphasize marriage’s significance by further decoupling it from child rearing. Fascinatingly, Looking seemed to openly wonder whether that notion has come to pass. In the finale, the show’s one prominent straight couple, Doris and Malik, vowed to only ever “live in sin.” “Marriage is for the gays, and, poor fucking bastards, you can have it," Dorris said. Later in the episode, though, she revealed that she and her boyfriend are trying to have a child. They’d be unmarried parents, but that doesn't been they’d be uncommitted ones.

So if the straights aren’t getting married—and indeed marriage rates have hovered near their historic low for a few years now—why would the gays want to? For Agustín, formal recognition of his relationship comes across like a signpost of maturity, coinciding with him being able to (nearly) afford rent. Implied is the idea that for him and his friends, marriage is something you might choose to opt in to out of personal desire and circumstance; it’s not the near-mandatory endpoint that society once made it out to be for many straight people. In another fascinatingly ambivalent moment, the minister who joined Agustín and Eddie revealed that the wedding ring she wears is just for show—she’s not married. “Nobody wants a fat trainer at the gym,” she explained.

The other characters’ romantic story lines didn’t explicitly deal with marriage but did center on questions intrinsic to the demands of “till death do us part.” The cliffhanger that preceded this series finale came when Patrick moved in with his boss-turned-boyfriend Kevin to a high-end, gay-friendly apartment building—a symbol of the yuppification of same-sex relationships if there ever was one. But it became clear that the two men had different expectations around monogamy, with Patrick wanting exclusivity and Kevin assuming they’d entered into something more flexible. The series finale revealed that Patrick walked out on Kevin and moved back to his hometown of Denver. When they met up again over coffee, Kevin tore into Patrick for the breakup. “You quit, you run away, you don't take risks ever,” he ranted. “The risk would have been trying to make it work. The risk would have been putting in the hard graft to make it work.”

Similar statements about long-term relationships being noble struggles recurred throughout the movie (which, it must be said, is unfortunately both tidier and more didactic than the charming, naturalistic TV show that spawned it). In the end, Patrick began to rekindle things with another ex, Richie, after Richie fell out with his militantly liberal blogger boyfriend whose obnoxiousness may be another sign of Looking trying stake out a middle ground in gay politics. Another character, Dom, took himself out of the dating pool to focus on his job for a bit—a controversial decision among his friends, but one that recognizes how relationships take deep sacrifice.

But the most poignant moments were indeed around Agustín and Eddie, whose vows hinted at the reasons why society still formalizes relationships at all. “Do you promise to make the necessary adjustments in your personal and professional lives in order that you may live in a harmonious relationship together?” the minister asked them before an audience of dear friends. They said they do, and she pronounced them “partners in life” where “husband and wife” once only could have been.

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