Made for Love is a half hour dark comedy from HBO Max starring Cristin Milioti (Palm Springs), Billy Magnussen (Maniac) and Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond). Made for Love was created by Patrick Somerville (Maniac, The Leftovers), Alissa Nutting, Dean Bakopoulos and Christina Lee, based on Nutting’s novel of the same name. The series explores the life and crumbling marriage of a directionless millennial, Hazel Green (Milioti), and her controlling, tech billionaire husband, Byron Gogol (Magnussen).
Made for Love uses the same edgy, absurdist tone that Somerville utilized in Maniac to examine modern relationships- human to human, human to tech, human to dolphin, human to inanimate object, and so on. It’s a story about obsession, love, fear of loss and death, desperation, need, forgiveness and humanity. Sometimes there’s more humanity found in animals, tech and inanimate objects than there is in humans, but, as Kurt Vonnegut said in Slaughterhouse Five, so it goes. As is so often true, hope and optimism play a large role in success, for both good guys and villains. Even nihilists need to believe in something to succeed long-term. Whether someone is a good guy or a villain is wholly dependent on point of view. And finding the correct app.
The show begins with a commercial for one of Byron’s pet projects, Made for Love, matching brain implants for couples that bring people so close together they’ll feel like they only have one mind. No, seriously. It’ll be like they only have one mind, instead of two. In the initial test case, that mind will be Byron’s.
Unfortunately, the commercial isn’t available on Youtube. Here is the message, starring host Byron Gogol, and his silent, vacant-eyed wife, Hazel Green-Gogol:
“Love. It’s the center of our lives. But our lives have changed. The world has evolved around us. I should know. I’m Byron Gogol. And at Gogol Tech, we evolve communication. We’ve created your phones, your computers, your software and now it’s time for love to evolve too. Now you and your loved one can truly come together. Every thought, every feeling, shared. Your brains, fully connected. A network of two. We made it possible because you were… Made for Love.”
Coming Soon, from Gogol. The sun explodes. Oh, it’s just the HBO Max production company insert. But we are in the desert in Southern California, so the air temperature is probably at least 100 degrees. The sand is much hotter. Might as well be inside an oven. Even the Joshua trees are looking raggedy from the drought.
As I was saying, in a desolate desert landscape, a single, large, windowless
prison industrial building can be seen in the distance, surrounded by huge satellite dishes. In the wilderness foreground, a hidden hatch suddenly pops open and a soaking wet woman in a sparkly green cocktail dress splashes halfway out, smiling. Before she can escape, the hatch door falls down on her head, knocking her back under. She soon opens the door again, this time more slowly, then carefully makes her way out onto the desert floor. Once she’s completely out, she breathes the sweet air of freedom, turning to give the building the finger before walking off into the desert. As she walks away, a boundary sensor beeps.
She walks for a long time.
Lord, I hope she has something on her feet.
24 hours earlier, in a lovely modern home, our heroine, Hazel Green, is being taken care of sexually by her husband, Byron Gogol, while a nearby device in the form of a tasteful brass chicken statuette monitors her vital signs to gauge the level of her responses. Hazel seems like she’s enjoying herself. When Byron comes up for air, Hazel offers to take care of his needs next, but he declines the offer. Instead he goes for a swim with his pet dolphin, Zelda, in the pool that’s just outside their bedroom.
Hazel gets dressed and sits in one of the poolside lounge chairs to read a women’s magazine. She finds a piece of broken glass on the ground next to her chair and has a vision or hallucination of a glass falling and breaking. Byron notices her distraction and interrupts her thoughts, asking if she’s up for singing at their event tonight. Hazel agrees.
Byron gets out of the pool and as he dries off, turns on a holographic video screen controlled by his earpiece. It displays a news report on riots in several countries following the release of his latest product, the Gogol Max Tablet. People were injured in multiple countries. Byron is thrilled by this sign of his popularity. He pushes Hazel to watch the report with him. The reporter continues, telling viewers that Byron and Hazel haven’t been “seen outside the Hub in ten years.” Byron rhetorically asks why they’d ever leave the Hub.
Hazel removes her ear piece and suggests that Byron send new tablets to everyone who was hurt. Byron agrees, using his nickname for her, Noodle. Byron’s top employees, Fiffany (Noma Dumezweni) and Herringbone (Dan Bakkedahl) arrive to start the business day. Fiffany asks about Byron’s swim with Zelda- the dolphin has been unhappy lately. Byron orders her to restore Zelda’s happiness.
Before he leaves with Fiffany and Herringbone, Byron tells Hazel to loosen up the guests at tonight’s event before he and the Gogol executives arrive. She smiles and says she knows what to do. But as he turns and walks away, she gives him the finger behind her magazine. Byron was facing the other way and looking at his phone, but he stops to glance back at her. Hazel can’t figure out how he might have seen what she did. They say “I love you,” to each other before he finally leaves.
And we’re back to the present day. Hazel does indeed have bare feet in the desert, which is crazy. Cactus needles have barbs on them so you can’t just pull them out, never mind all of the other pointy, sharp, stinging hazards she’d encounter. I can handle the rest of the magical realism in this show, but not the exposure of Hazel’s pampered feet to the desert floor.
Next Hazel hitches a ride with a local DJ, El Perro, who’s upset that she doesn’t recognize him. When he asks if she’s been living under a rock, she says she has. Then she picks up a stray coin and says she also hasn’t seen money in ten years.
So she really hasn’t left Byron’s Hub for ten years. And she’s so desperate to escape that she’s willing to risk life, limb, rape and kidnapping to get out. Come to think of it, her marriage was more like a kidnapping, if she has to go through all of this to leave. We just saw her picture flashed on the news. She’s an easy, valuable target all alone in the desert. Normally, a woman like her would have discrete security trailing her everywhere.
Maybe she still does. Hopefully they brought some shoes for her.
Back to the day before- Hazel plays a video game. It looks like she might be piloting an airplane. Dreaming of flying away or crashing into the side of the Hub? She’s interrupted by a review app which plays a video of her orgasm from earlier, then asks her to rate her experience with a number on a 1-20 scale. Is she rating both Byron’s performance and her own? Because her acting was definitely more nuanced. This is orgasm #3248. That gives Byron a lot of meaningless numerical data to work with.
If staying inside the Hub wasn’t already the biggest possible warning of how insecure he is, forcing his wife to rate every single orgasm after he leaves the room would do it.
She rates the orgasm itself a 5/20, but is more generous toward other aspects of the sexual encounter. Then the blandly pleasant computer chicken (Mother Hen? Little Red Hen?) orders her to take a nap. Since she hasn’t done much of anything all day, she can’t sleep. Instead, she remembers back to her childhood, when her dad, Herb (Ray Romano) traded the family car for a small, beat up plane. She and her mother, Lottie (Ione Skye) weren’t sure he’d ever get it off the ground, but he was confident he could. He also apparently had a drinking problem, but they were mostly happy.
Hazel stops pretending to sleep and uses her earpiece to call up the Gogol Earth real time satellite imagery of her father in the front yard of her childhood home. She only watches for a few seconds before a door opens in the bushes on the edge of the yard. A man wearing a hipster pack basket emerges and walks past her into the house. The door to the rest of the Hub closes behind him as Mother Hen tells Hazel that naptime is over. Now it’s time for her appointment with Bennett (Caleb Foote).
Hazel’s beautiful home and wealthy lifestyle are, in reality, a windowless room inside an industrial building in which her every action is monitored, the epitome of a gilded cage.
Hazel and Bennett have a wine tasting session, then he pulls out the scores from this morning’s sexual encounter. Byron has asked that she confirm her ratings. Hazel stands by her initial assessment of the experience. Bennett is rattled by the whole thing, makes some Freudian slips, then literally runs away.
It can be hard for the kids when things are tense between Mommy and Daddy, especially when it’s because Mommy stops pretending.
In the present day, El Perro the DJ stops at another windowless building with Hazel. It’s time for his shift at the radio station. Hazel tells El Perro she’s in danger. His response is to give her a souvenir can cozy. She can’t stop moving or she’ll be caught by Gogol, so she slips into the dark, industrial building next door, which turns out to be a strip club.
It’s another windowless sexual fantasy, as if she’s found a door into the dark side of the Hub. She already understands her place in this world and goes straight to the employees dressing room to search for another outfit to use as a disguise. Her sparkly cocktail dress stands out too much in the harsh sun of the “real” world.
Her outfit probably didn’t phase the DJ at all- with her smeared makeup and tangled hair, he just thought she was another lost hanger on whose party lasted too long. It never occurred to him that she could have escaped abuse, kidnapping, rape or trafficking with nothing but the clothes on her back. And he shut her down when she tried to tell him otherwise.
Here in the world outside the Hub, she seems to be seen as a sex worker rather than a wife, and she hasn’t even told anyone her full name yet. It remains to be seen whether this is a metaphor for how Hazel feels about herself, how Byron sees her, how her friends and family see her or how the whole world sees her.
El Perro translates directly as “dog”, but can be used as an insult with the connotations of foul and/or promiscuous.
She finds beverages, sunglasses, clothing and first aid products, then takes them to the bathroom. After changing into a red jogging suit (the opposite of green), she washes her face and cleans up her injuries from when the hatch door fell on her head. Next she practices saying her maiden name instead of her married name to the mirror.
She’s used to talking to inanimate objects instead of people.
She flashes back to the day before, when she held up her dress for the evening’s party, white with colorful botanical appliques around the neckline and bodice, and practiced saying “Hi!” in a super enthusiastic voice without introducing herself. As the boss’ wife, everyone already knows who she is. Once she’s at the event, which turns out to be a party combined with a board meeting, no one calls her anything but Hazel. They try to pry information about Byron’s plans out of her and marvel at how realistic the cube environment is (she tells them to look for the flaws in the corners). She plays her role perfectly, charming the guests, revealing nothing of importance and flirting with, but supporting Byron.
She’s the perfect corporate wife, but when Byron arrives, he whispers that she’s been lying to him, before starting his presentation to the guests. He tells everyone that Gogol is no longer a “me”- it’s now a “we”, a partnership, and calls Hazel Gogol up onto the stage. Fiffany and Herringbone had started to get excited that Byron was finally going to acknowledge their contributions to the company. Now it’s clear that he’ll continue to exploit them, providing direction and ideas but doing little of the actual research and development that the success of the company depends on. He’s a front man and marketing executive who doesn’t totally understand Gogol’s products.
Byron to the crowd: “Made for Love is operational.”
Fiffany tells Herringbone that it’s not operational.
Byron: “Comingled hearts, comingled minds, comingled identities, secrets dismantled. Pure. Union.”
Hazel: “What the f–k are you doing?”
Byron: “Hazel and I are Users One. Tomorrow, friends, Hazel and I will get our chips implanted.”
Fiffany: “One of them will die if they try to synchronize. Even with dolphins, we only have a one-way transmission. Just like the chip in Zelda’s brain. We can only see what she sees. It’s no better than a spy-cam.”
Byron: “Two bodies will remain, just like you see today, but our minds will be one. Clap!”
Hazel tries to keep smiling.
Byron and Fiffany just explained the basic rules for how the Made for Love chips currently function. On the default setting, one user can watch the other user’s every move and also receive other information about vital signs and emotional readings. On the advanced setting, when the transmission should go both ways, the app wipes out one user’s brain instead, leaving behind the dominant user.
If you’re the dominant user and all about control, this might sound acceptable.
In the present, Hazel leaves the strip club. As she walks out, there are no live girls, only video screens.
When she opens the door to the outside, she stops, realizing that she doesn’t have her next move planned and she’s in a deserted part of town. If we’re playing real/not real, right now the outdoors is real, but it may not offer a realistic plan for someone without money or a car of her own.
She spots Herringbone at the other end of the parking lot and runs back inside. Herringbone follows his GPS inside.
Hazel has already used doors clearly marked “employees only” 3 times, while Herringbone parks at the front and enters through the customer entrance. Technically, if the club is a metaphor for Gogol, Herringbone should be the employee/dancer, while Hazel is the consumer/target audience, but out in the real world, with the veil provided by Byron’s wealth and technology pulled aside, the reality that the male gaze is ubiquitous and runs the world is acknowledged. Every aspect of Hazel’s life has been observed, analyzed and controlled by Byron and his creative team for the last ten years. She hasn’t had a shred of physical privacy from Byron or his employees, just like a sex worker. Even when she takes an unscheduled trip outside of the compound, one of his employees is only minutes behind her, as if she’s an escaped convict.
Herringbone hollers his plea for her cooperation to the entire club. He pretends that he escaped too, and wants to go on the run with her. She answers him using the loudspeaker, telling him she’s not an idiot and knows he’s lying.
Gogol is the equivalent of Google or Amazon, a tech giant which owns most of the apps in our devices and can thus listen in on anything, anywhere, anytime, even if the device is turned off, if they really, really want to. If you doubt that, pay close attention to your Google and Amazon ads sometime. Hazel knows that if Lyle Herringbone was actually escaping from Gogol, he wouldn’t yell out his plans in a strip club that’s essentially filled with listening devices.
Hazel tells him she knows he plans to take her back to the Hub so they can put the Made for Love chip in her brain. He swears he won’t do that, but he has something he needs to tell her about the chip. While he’s talking, she makes a run for it. He follows her toward the door, back into the employees only section, admitting to his own status as exploited worker who’s also in real danger from Gogol. In fact, with Lyle in the club, there’s a neon cyberpunk spy thriller feel to the situation. He brings deeper, darker secrets to the mix that Hazel has been shielded from in her “perfect” life as the “perfect” wife.
Lyle finds Hazel hiding in one of the private performance rooms- she’s been giving a semi-private performance for the last ten years. She’s also found the fire ax, and when he gets too close she swings at him and (accidentally?) chops off some of his fingers. She apologizes as she runs out of the room, tipping over a vending machine to lock him in so he can’t follow her. (Never trust a vending machine. They kill twice as many people as sharks. But this seems to be a hero vending machine.)
Chopping off the fingers of anyone isn’t cool, but tech developers like Lyle depend on typing in order to use their computers. If a software developer loses the use of their hands, they lose their livelihood. Since Lyle was apparently developing evil apps, maybe that’s the show making a statement. He is trying to help Byron hold Hazel hostage indefinitely and destroy her brain.
Once Lyle has been disabled, Hazel leaves the club through a different door, which lets out onto a busier street. A passing truck stops for her and she rides away.
Back at the board meeting, Hazel and Byron sit in front of a (fake) fire and sing Mickey and Sylvia’s Lover Boy, made famous in the film Dirty Dancing, while Byron plays guitar.
As the party winds down, Hazel quietly walks out, with a smile that wants to crack and become tears. A hidden door opens into the house, where she stares at the green dress hanging on the wall in a glass case, next to a white tuxedo. She throws something solid at the case, shattering it, then takes the dress to her bedroom. She puts on the dress and her makeup as if she’s going out for the night. Lover Boy continues to play in the background.
Then she takes a sheet off the bed, turning it into a makeshift sling and gathering up several of the hated Mother Hen Hazel monitors to drop into it as weights. On her way out the door to the pool, she leaves her double wedding ring behind. It looks like handcuffs.
As Lover Boy ends, Hazel wraps the twisted sheet around her neck a few times, then jumps into the deep end of the pool.
She startles awake in her getaway truck back in the present, just as they cross a bridge into Twin Sands, her hometown. The driver, a gruff but kindly old man, drops her off in the center of town as music that’s a metaphorical combination of The Andy Griffith Show and the Bewitched themes plays. The town looks like every other small, hard luck desert town. She insults the town as the driver leaves.
Apparently, reality isn’t as great as she remembered.
Except, we’re not in reality. We’re in the Byron Zone. Hazel finds a pay phone and moves to put her one coin into the slot, but the phone rings just before she touches it. She backs away. As she continues down the sidewalk, car alarms sound and other phones ring in the distance.
A man comes out of his house who says Byron Gogol is on his phone for her. She says to tell Byron it’s too late. Byron says she’s very valuable to him and she’s not safe. He throws in a “Noodle” so she knows it’s really him. Then he reveals that she’s already Made for Love.
She’s been chipped.
Hazel runs, as her brain buzzes and she understands that it’s true. She looks at her reflection in a car window so that Byron can see her face. He’s watching on his phone and sees what she sees, as if he’s looking through her eyes. He’s smug while she yells at him to get out of her head, but angry when she breaks the window.
He’s also following her in a motorcade.
Hazel stumbles into her dad’s manufactured home, then to his bedroom, where he’s having sex with his life partner, Diane, who is also manufactured and not quite animate. Once Herb realizes they were interrupted by Hazel and not an intruder, he welcomes her home. She faints.
If you haven’t watched Maniac, I recommend it. Watch with a very open mind and go with the flow. If you can put aside your expectations for the kinds of roles some of the actors normally play and keep up with the hallucinogenic, non-linear, absurdist storytelling, it’s incredible. Made for Love seems like a toned down version of Maniac.
Made for Love also owes huge debts to films like Lars and the Real Girl, Her and Ex Machina. Descriptions of any of these films don’t do them justice. Lars and the Real Girl, in particular, is one of my all time favorites.
I’d love to see Made for Love, the TV show, take its premise farther than a film, novel or a single TV season can. Given more time, Maniac could have done so much more with its alternate realities vs mental illness take, examining the realities that were inside the heads of its characters vs the real world vs the bleed through between the two. I know other shows have done it, but they’ve done it connected to horror, trauma or something truly external like Xmen or aliens. I’d love to see a less violent take, more focused on relationships and the sort of common traumas like death, divorce, depression, sexual assault and alcoholism that everyone experiences in their circle at some point, combined with the fantasies we all play with in our heads as an escape. Undone is the only other show I can think of that was similar.
You have to wonder why the doors to the club are unlocked, but no one seems to work there. And rides show up on empty roads just when Hazel needs them. Is the entire episode actually a game scenario, with Byron using the chip to allow Hazel to play out one of her fantasies? Or did Hazel die when she jumped into the pool, triggering an extended hallucination inside her head? Is she in a coma? Is the chip malfunctioning?
The way Hazel went from the Hub to her father’s house was like a quick trip through HeII (the strip club) and into Purgatory (Twin Sands- your fate could go either way, for all time, like sands through an hourglass). The Hub could be Heaven or HeII- it is what you make of it, somewhat literally. But generally, people find they aren’t happy with the kind of perfection Byron is striving for.
Is Hazel the equivalent of her father’s sex doll? If she is a real person, has she actually been real since she went into Byron’s cube and came under his control? What will it take to make her feel real again? And what about Byron- he seems more artificial than Hazel. We saw her eat, drink and fight for her life. We saw Byron get angry, but other than that, he strives to be inhuman. He’d rather watch Hazel’s life through his phone and see her even more removed from him, through a reflection viewed in his phone, than be with her in person, in all her messy humanness.
Graffiti: “Every morning, I wake up on the wrong side of Capitalism.” Byron as Capitalism?
Images courtesy of HBO Max.