Modern Love has truly lived up to its name, as nothing gets more modern than a relationship forming on a train between a self-identified manic pixie dream girl and short haired Jon Snow just before Ireland’s COVID-19 lockdown. The episode also achieves the goal of being as realistic as possible, as nothing is more real than hearing Kit Harrington’s (Game of Thrones) Michael say, “I’m sure things will return to normal in a few days,” when discussing preliminary lockdown procedures.
But despite the realism of the setting, the characters and their relationship is anything but mundane, and the playful, tongue-in-cheek tone is a nice change of pace from the previous two episodes, and is also a testament to John Carney’s range—when the two realize their attraction is mutual, the typical guitar music in the background is revealed to be an actual character on the train who, later joined by other passengers on the train who also have musical instruments for some reason, begins to sing an entire love song about their meet cute; the transitional buffer of “The Night Girl Finds a Day Boy” was needed to keep the audience from experiencing tonal whiplash and question whether they’re watching the same show.
The episode also takes advantage of all the comedic aspects dramatic irony has to offer, the audience forced to watch in horror as Michael tells Paula (Lucy Boynton, Bohemian Rhapsody) to meet him at the train station on March 28, 2020, “when all this shit is lifted,” rather than get her phone number, then listen to all the preparations and speculations about what lockdown will be like and the constant skepticism from Michael on whether it will even happen. Though there was a wonderfully ridiculous scene where the two bump elbows in lieu of a kiss with inspiring string music backing the dramatic close up of their clothed elbows touching; a true romance for the modern age.
However, the dramatic irony provides more than just comedy, as the omniscient view of both Paula and Michael’s experience in quarantine and all the parallels and contrasts between the conversations and the people they’re staying with provide insight to the characters themselves, expanding on the initial sentiment poised by Paula that she and Michael, on paper, aren’t compatible, but also emphasize how similarities balance out the differences, which is also the case with their respective housemates; the theme is restated and hammered home without feeling overbearing or flat, each character their own entity while still representing a point being made.
The episode also took every opportunity it could to make meta jokes and commentary, a variety of characters stating that they’re in the real world and not some idealized romantic narrative, which couldn’t be further from the truth—though, to give credit, the security guard (Seána Kerslake, Hole in the Ground) was right when she said this wasn’t a movie on Netflix; it’s an anthology episode on Amazon Prime.
But even with all the laughs and the Game of Thrones reference made to Michael’s face, the episode has a much softer, earnest side that brings the story back to earth and emulates the experience of a budding relationship and the yearning for a particular person that all romantics dream about, which helps tonally tie it to the previous installments in the season.
Then, of course, comes the montage of keeping busy during lockdown backed by yet another John Carney original song, Lockdown Dublin, that takes the cake for most realistic portrayal of real life that has ever existed.
As per typical narrative structure, there’s always the point where it seems all hope is lost, and that was true for this episode; quarantine was real and many relationships didn’t survive the experience, so why should one that hadn’t even begun?
But, of course, this is an anthology episode on Amazon Prime and, just like every well-written romcom, a casual comment from the start returns to save the day and the ever attentive Michael manages to remember Paula’s address with the help of dramatic police procedural thinking music in the background adding tension.
However, in a twist that was surprisingly satisfying, there is no evidence of their reunion, the episode ending with Michael getting out of the car on Paula’s street, and while it doesn’t fit with the over-the-top dramatics, the choice to leave the ending ambiguous fits with the show’s focus on depicting real relationships; even the most ideal romances don’t have the guarantee of working out the way they would in the movies.
Overall, this episode succeeded in all it tried to do, and while it started out a bit too ridiculous—the main character wore an honest-to-god sweater vest and exuded “I’m not like the other girls” energy, she was a caricature if there ever was one—in the end, it told a story about an instant connection and mutual pining amidst a global pandemic, and while not everyone has weed-smoking housemates who bet on their relationships or proselytize about the Gal Gadot Imagine video, the want for connection with a special person is as universal as the need to wear a mask.