I began watching this show out of the crudest form of identitarian loyalty, because I harbor an unshakable sympathy for any youngish woman (even fictional; even if she wears bucket hats) whose profession (like mine) requires using the word “social” as a noun with a straight face. Far be it from me to demand interiority from rom-com ingénues experiencing character development for the first time, but watching Emily utter marketing argot like “corporate commandments” and breezily brush off every cruel joke about her dimwittedness left me wondering: Does this show want me to laugh at Emily for the particular brand of sincere, millennial smarm she represents? Or am I meant to cheer at her (very American) refusal to change, no matter what her travails in Paris put her through?
To say Emily is chasing anything would be ascribing too much agency, with which even her creators have not dignified her.
In both literature and cinema, Paris has long been the milieu in which to place a certain class of mordantly restless, cosmopolitan and upwardly mobile white American woman, who finds herself in the city (often fruitlessly) chasing things her homeland has denied her: a renewed sense of self after heartbreak; liberation (both sexual and intellectual); sometimes adventure; occasionally adultery. Paris harbored Edith Wharton’s Countess Olenska when the insipid society gentleman she fell in love with hadn’t the spine or the stomach to claim their life together. In her memoir, “My Life in France,” Julia Child recalls arriving in Paris still a “rather loud and unserious Californian,” and how it was the city, along with her beloved husband, Paul, that molded her into the woman the world got to know. Paris was where Carrie Bradshaw, perpetually in love with the idea of love, finally realized that maybe all it did was make her more miserable. Emily Cooper, however, is not one of these women. To say she is chasing anything (except perhaps a steady stream of head pats of approval from her bosses) would be ascribing too much agency, with which even her creators have not dignified her.
In 1919, when Wharton, herself an expatriate in Paris, wrote that “compared with the women of France, the average American woman is still in the kindergarten,” she might as well have been talking about Emily, whose stock-in-trade is a unique brand of empty infantilism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way the millennial Emily Cooper seems engineered from a boomer’s nightmare of what young people today are like: indolent, addicted to their phones and obsessed with being rewarded for doing the bare minimum. The show’s architects have endowed her with what has come to be known as her generation’s worst trait: a compulsive devotion to online oversharing and the cult of manufactured relatability. But what sets Emily apart is that beneath the Bambi-like visage and the sweet ebullience lies a stark void of nothingness.
The Chekhov’s Bangs incident turns out to have only the most minor payoff later on, when for once, Emily makes a life-altering choice that of course fosters zero introspection. For a show that managed to make even the complexity and angst of infidelity as saccharine as the pain au chocolat that Emily posts on Instagram with the caption “butter+chocolate = 💓,” watching her give herself what her friend calls “trauma bangs” was about as abrupt an upping of the stakes in the Emilyverse as can be. But for those of us who’ve continued to watch, we do it despite our bewilderment — like Emily butchering her hair — even though we know it’s a mess.
Iva Dixit is a staff editor for the magazine. She last wrote a Letter of Recommendation about raw onions.
Source photographs: Stéphanie Branchu/Netflix