Frankie Alvarez and Jonathan Groff go leather in Episode 4. (HBO )
The first shot of "Looking for $220/Hour" picks up right where its predecessor left off: With Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and his boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) on opposite sides of a desk playing a video game.
It's a deceptive, clever start to an episode where the men of "Looking" finally start to break their established patterns.
At first, Patrick's newfound commitment to work looks to be right where left it. Here he is in the office on a Sunday — and not just any Sunday, but the day of the Folsom Street Fair. That granddaddy of leather events may not be, as Kevin skeptically dubs it, "a gay national holiday." But it's no doubt an important day in the San Francisco that Patrick inhabits, which makes his being at work fairly admirable.
Or it would be admirable, were it not for the sexual tension so clearly motivating both men to stay put.
The flirtatious discussion of butt-less chaps, the careful isolation of both men in the frame as they remark on the action below, the way Kevin hesitates before looking away and remarking "You're a mystery, Patrick Murray." Those are all clues to what "Looking for $220/Hour" later lays bare: Patrick's got a major crush on his boss, and Kevin's trying to fill the emotional void created by his long-distant relationship.
Episode writer Allen Heinberg leans a bit too heavily on cliches to illustrate that point. Kevin's discussion of finding a work/life balance could be ripped from any number of boss-employee romcoms. Were it not for Tovey's matter-of-fact delivery — the perils of long-distance dating are clearly something Kevin has thought about before — Patrick's boss would come off a little trite.
Similarly obvious: Just as Patrick begins to open up, Kevin's boyfriend calls, beckoning Kevin back to his apartment. Imagine that. Patrick watches wistfully as his boss steps away to answer the phone then hides his disappointment as the Brit leaves.
Groff has been immensely charismatic as Patrick stumbles through pitfall after pitfall; the actor's charm is the reason Patrick remains so gosh-darn likeable despite how frustratingly he gets in his own way. But beyond being winning, Groff is a remarkable actor who gives fleeting, small glimpses at Patrick's inner-life. "Looking for $220/Hour" asks him to do so a lot. The most evocative for me came at Kevin's departure, when Patrick opens his mouth to call out to the guy, then immediately self-corrects as he hears the office door close. You can see his shoulders slump as he realizes he's very much alone.
That loneliness might be why Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Doris (an again-terrific Lauren Weedman) successfully convince Patrick to head onto the street among the leather-clad hoi polloi. The exhibitionism associated with an open-air BDSM party could not be further from Patrick's scene, but his resolve crumbles when faced with peer pressure. Above all, Patrick wants to be like and needs constant reassurance. Doris and Agustin use this to their advantage, ignoring Patrick's protestations and unease to get him shirtless in a leather vest.
(Another masterful Groff touch: How always-diffident Patrick keeps tugging on said vest to hide his chiseled bare chest. That's a masterful look at how the character views himself, and perhaps a nod to the body image issues that have become a part of gay male culture.)
It's the more sex-positive Dom (Murray Bartlett) who is strangely missing from the street fair action, because he's at the florist trying to make good on a planned lunch date with local entrepreneur Lynn (Scott Bakula). Despite flower shop co-owner George's best matchmaking efforts, Dom's intentions aren't romantic so much as opportunistic. He wants advice on navigating San Francisco's apparently hostile business climate, and he wants connections. Lynn, to his credit, gets that. His maturity in the face of Dom's offer to make him dinner shows just how much Dom is stuck between two worlds. (I'd also venture that it sets up a "will they or won't they?" arc in the show's back half, but we'll have to wait and see.)
Still, it's refreshing to see Dom away from his two younger friends and put in a world with established, stable older men. Compared to Patrick or Agustin, Dom has seemed far more goal-oriented and stunningly more self-aware. Next to Lynn, he's reframed as someone with far more room to grow, but he also looks like more of a grown-up. There's finally no throwaway hookup or Grindr date in the works: He's going home to write a business plan.