I started watching this show out of the crudest type of identitarian loyalty, because I harbor an unshakable sympathy for any youngish woman (even fictional; even when she wears bucket hats) whose occupation (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 primary 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 actual brand of sincere, millennial smarm she represents? Or am I meant to cheer at her (very American) refusal to vary, irrespective of what her travails in Paris put her through?
To say Emily is chasing anything can be ascribing an excessive amount of agency, with which even her creators haven’t dignified her.
In each literature and cinema, Paris has long been the milieu through which to put a certain class of mordantly restless, cosmopolitan and upwardly mobile white American woman, who finds herself in the town (often fruitlessly) chasing things her homeland has denied her: a renewed sense of self after heartbreak; liberation (each sexual and mental); 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 assert their life together. In her memoir, “My Life in France,” Julia Child recalls arriving in Paris still a “reasonably loud and unserious Californian,” and the way it was the town, along along with her beloved husband, Paul, that molded her into the girl the world got to know. Paris was where Carrie Bradshaw, perpetually in love with the thought of affection, finally realized that perhaps all it did was make her more miserable. Emily Cooper, nonetheless, isn’t one in all these women. To say she is chasing anything (except perhaps a gradual stream of head pats of approval from her bosses) can be ascribing an excessive amount of agency, with which even her creators haven’t dignified her.
In 1919, when Wharton, herself an expatriate in Paris, wrote that “compared with the ladies of France, the common American woman continues to be within the kindergarten,” she might as well have been talking about Emily, whose stock-in-trade is a novel brand of empty infantilism. Nowhere is that this more evident than in the best way the millennial Emily Cooper seems engineered from a boomer’s nightmare of what young people today are like: indolent, hooked on their phones and obsessive about being rewarded for doing the bare minimum. The show’s architects have endowed her with what has come to be generally 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 seems to have only probably the most minor payoff in a while, when for once, Emily makes a life-altering selection that in fact fosters zero introspection. For a show that managed to make even the complexity and angst of infidelity as saccharine because 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 within the Emilyverse as will be. But for those of us who’ve continued to observe, we do it despite our bewilderment — like Emily butchering her hair — regardless that we comprehend it’s a multitude.
Iva Dixit is a staff editor for the magazine. She last wrote a Letter of Suggestion about raw onions.
Source photographs: Stéphanie Branchu/Netflix