“Looking” for Spirituality and Truth

Rainbow Colors San Francisco City Hall
“Rainbow Colors San Francisco City Hall” by David Yu via Flickr
Luís León

The second season of HBO’s ground-breaking mini-series Looking aired this week, January 11, at 8:00 PM. The premiere on January 19 of last year marks a milestone for lgbt-themed television drama: a realistic and edgy depiction of young gay men set in San Francisco, with a multicultural cast (albeit still mostly focused on white men).  Even while it’s a coup in the struggle to advance lgbt rights—depicting and thus familiarizing audiences with the interior lives of gays—creating empathy and affect— it is at once an advance in efforts to understand the human condition. Hence, the title Looking—for fulfillment, companionship, sex: “for happiness,” as one of the characters puts it, quoting Walt Whitman, “not in another place but in this place, not for another hour but this hour.” Each of the eight episodes constituting the first season is cleverly titled with an object of pursuit, of the gaze.

The show is organized around the protagonist, Patrick, or “Paddy,” played by Jonathan Groff, and his two best friends, Augustin, played by Frankie J. Alvarez, and Dom, played by Murray Bartlett. Patrick and Augustine were college buddies and subsequently became room mates in San Francisco’s lower Haight district. Good-natured Patrick, a video game designer, is a corn-fed boy-next-door type from Colorado, and Augustine is a Cuban-American from Coral Gables who aspires to be an artist. Both are twenty-nine years old. Dom, who turns forty in the first episode, is a career waiter at Zuni, a four-star restaurant on Upper Market Street. He is an aging playboy. His character is the least convincing, he nonetheless is secure in his identity as a hunky player who pursues much younger men. Yet, his certainty is fledgling as his age compels him to  confront the unsustainability of his identity: forty presents a crisis for him. Similarly, neither of the other two main characters demonstrate a true grasp for who they are.

This lack of critical self awareness drives them to seek confirmation of their selves in sexual acts. Indeed, the first episode, entitled “Looking for Now,” opens with the three friends cruising for sex in a park. The first shot is a close up of Patrick’s eyes, as he is skulking the bushes. He begins hooking up with an older, married man who wants to remain entirely anonymous. As Patrick is approached and fondled by the man, he introduces himself, asking the name of the aroused stranger, who tells Patrick to “stop talking.” Patrick attempts to kiss the bearded gentleman who rebuffs him—typical and recognizable behavior of a “straight” man who maintains the delusion of heterosexuality by claiming he only desires sex from men, not intimacy which would be signaled by kissing. While inappropriate for that context, Patrick wanted to be recognized in the sexual act, his desire was to be hailed into being, having his identity affirmed and consummated though sexual union; but to no avail.

The next day Patrick arranges a date with a thirty-something doctor he met online. The doctor is intense, interrogating Patrick to ascertain whether he is “drug and disease free,” and limiting himself to one glass of wine which he nurses while Patrick lustily slams his down and orders another. When the two begin commiserating on how difficult it is to meet men in San Francisco, Patrick confesses that he had been cruising the park the previous day, “as a joke.” That just about does it for the handsome doctor, who soon thereafter abruptly explains to Patrick that they are not hitting it off. Patrick is stunned as the doctor reaches for the check and divides it according to the amount of alcohol each consumed. “Are you serious?” the dubious Patrick asks. Preppy and boyishly handsome Patrick cannot believe that he is being dismissed summarily, especially by someone who reflects who Patrick wants to be, someone who should be attracted to him, someone like him.

In Patrick’s next scene he boards the Muni street car; dazed and confused he studies the metro map. “You lost?” he hears a passenger ask. Enter Richie, played by Raúl Castillo, a Mexican American barber in his early thirties from the Mission district. Richie appears to embody the stereotypical macho: his is cocky, flirtatious, occupying inordinate space on the train with a “man spread;” he is jauntily sporting a Giants baseball cap slightly askew. His voice is deep. He performs masculinity. But, his is gay, hitting on Patrick; this is what Daniel Enrique Perez calls the “queer macho.” Patrick is flattered, if not interested, Richie’s attention is a welcome tonic to heal the wound of the earlier encounter. Richie moves over to be closer to Patrick, eventually introducing himself and inviting Patrick to the historic gay bar in San Francisco’s Mission district, Esta Noche (This Night), where Richie will be acting as the door man. Patrick declines, explaining that he is late for a party.

Patrick’s next stop is a celebration of the upcoming nuptials of his ex-boyfriend, a very handsome white young (twenties) upwardly mobile professional. There he relates his encounter with Richie to Dom, who chides him for not pursuing the opportunity. “He’s not my type,” explains Patrick, “and he came on pretty strong.” He then asks Dom why love remains elusive; to which he is advised to stop worrying about what his mom thinks, and about what everyone thinks. Patrick takes this advice to heart. In the final scene of the episode, he appears at Esta Noche, where he encounters Richie.

At first blush Richie appears to be yet another of popular culture’s representations of a Latino male: poor, uneducated, with a dead-end job and no particular ambition. Even more, he is framed as the stereotypical gay Latino male: the exotic other, fetishized, available to fulfill a white man’s racialized sexual fantasy. In the lead up to Patrick’s next meeting with Richie, a formal date, Augustin warns Patrick  that his “cholo” boyfriend will likely be uncircumcised, or “uncut.” Thus the title of the second episode: “Looking for Uncut.” In it Patrick and Richie arrange to meet at a bar, where they get to know each other. While talking, Patrick pulls at Richie’s tight necklace to reveal a charm. “Is that Jesus?” Patrick asks. “Yea, and its Mary on the other side, do you like it?” responds Richie. Patrick, obviously surprised, manages to get out a congenial response: “yea, it’s cool, I didn’t know it was so religious.” This is the first signifier that Richie may be folksy and superstitious. The couple then moves onto a gay bar, where Richie removes his coat and Patrick discovers a tattoo (one of several) on his forearm that says “mamita,” the name of his grandmother, Richie explains. His body is marked with the ancestors. They dance to “A Little Respect” by Erasure; like much of the background music the lyrics are purposeful, they portend and embellish each scene: “What religion or reason could drive a man to forsake his lover? don’t you tell me no….Soul, I hear you calling, oh baby please, give a little respect, to me.”

Richie ends up at Patrick’s place, but Richie cannot stay out too late, he explains, because of work in the morning. Nonetheless Patrick coaxes him into his bedroom, and onto his bed where he begins removing his pants. After an awkward series of quick exchanges, Patrick confesses to Richie that he expected him to be uncut. After a bit more making out and romping, Richie notifies Patrick that he is going to leave, that the two are “looking for different things.” He reassures Patrick that it is not a big deal and consoles him not to worry. He leaves and in the days that follow he does no reply to Patrick’s repeated text messages. While Richie may appear to be yet another tired reiteration of a gay Latino stereotype, chasing whiteness, he is actually one of the strongest and most emotionally stable characters in the series. He is one of the few cast members who submits to the mandate of the Delphic oracle to “know thyself.” Richie knows exactly who he is, exactly what he wants, and doesn’t seem to care what others think of him as long as his personal integrity and self-respect are in tact. He is a true macho. And he is spiritual.

Richie doesn’t appear again until the end of episode four, where the two have a chance encounter at a bar. Patrick approaches Richie, and asks how he is: Richie responds, “I’m fine, and I’m still cut.” Patrick apologizes sheepishly, and the two make up. In episode five, “Looking for the Future,” the two solidify their relationship over a couple of days. After their first night together, Patrick spontaneously skips work and the two spend the day hanging out. During this time Richie tells Patrick that he does not worry about the “big stuff,” that he has his “señora” to do that for him. Richie regularly consults with a curandera, who can divine his future for fifty dollars a session. Patrick expresses trepidation to which  Richie charges: “maybe you’re afraid she’ll see the real you.” Richie takes Patrick to his señora, but Patrick ends up leaving without finishing the session. Patrick cannot fathom Richie’s spirituality.

"Mist-ical bridge"
“Mist-ical bridge” by Mark Gunn via Flickr

Yet, Richie presents Patrick with a scapular to wear around his neck; Richie wears one that is identical, explaining that it is for good luck. But really the scapular is a Catholic symbol of commitment. The morning gift seems to commemorate the ritual acts of the previous evening, whence Richie allows Patrick to make love to him—thereby defying the macho code which says that a macho can penetrate another man, but never be penetrated lest he lose his manliness and heterosexuality. There are no scripts or doctrines for Richie.

Patrick invites Richie to Dom’s birthday party; Richie is reluctant, protesting that it is too soon. But Patrick insists and tensions arise. Patrick is obviously embarrassed of Richie when introducing him to his successful boss and his boyfriend who is a physician for the San Francisco Giants. Next Augustin belittles Patrick, openly mocking his scapular and quietly claiming that he is “slumming” and that he can’t be serious about Richie cruelly setting him up for a heartbreak. Richie overhears and confronts him. This is the macho exploding. Augustin apologies in Spanish, addressing Richie as “hermano.” But the damage has been done. Later, Richie tells Patrick that he is upset about the events of the day, and that he takes the “boyfriend thing very seriously;” a designation Patrick initiated. Patrick persuades Richie not to withdraw but to instead accompany him to his sister’s wedding. Richie relents.

They argue on the way to the wedding and Patrick pulls over and Richie leaves the car, “I told you this was too soon,” he reminds. When explaining his absence to his mother, Patrick tells the wealthy matriarch that she would not approve of Richie: “first of all he’s Mexican,” no money, a crappy job and no ambition. His mother retorts: “he sounds like a real catch.”  Richie has withdrawn, not responding to Patrick’s calls or texts. Eventually Patrick shows up unannounced at Richie’s barbershop. Richie tells Patrick to back off and give him some space, and that he will call him when he is ready. In the meantime, Patrick is warding off advances from his handsome and successful boss, Kevin, with the live-in boyfriend. One night Kevin convinces Patrick to come in to the office, where Kevin seduces him, making love to him on the floor of the vestibule. Afterwards Patrick asks Kevin “now what,” to which Kevin responds, “I don’t know.”

In the next scene Patrick is walking home, once again dazed and confused. Much to his surprise, he finds Richie waiting in front of his apartment, wearing his baseball cap. Richie tearfully tells Patrick that he is very close to falling in love with him, but that Richie won’t let that happen because he doesn’t think that Patrick is ready. Patrick lets a tear fall and remains silent. On that note the last episode of the first season, “Looking Glass,” comes to an end.

This ending is superb! Richie in tears because he is facing the truth, while Patrick is in tears because he has no idea what the truth is. Richie is a triumph of what Michael Foucault calls “political spirituality,” defining “spirituality” as one of the freedom practices a subject enacts in order to achieve the necessary transformations one must undergo as the conditions of possibility to reach truth. San Francisco is an ideal setting for the series, and the city—it’s culture, geography, and topography—is a character in the show. Wide angle transition shots frame the city’s many hills, highlighting its peaks and valleys, suggesting that while the space is what it is, human navigation is what gives it meaning.

Luís León is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. His work focus on the intersections of religion, race, class, gender, social inequality, and sexuality.