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The Mindy Project's 4th season confronts the myth of "having it all"

Not exactly happily ever after.
Not exactly happily ever after.
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

The Mindy Project's move to Hulu after being canceled by Fox has been an invigorating one for the show. It lets the romantic comedy be a bit freer with its language and sexual overtones, which jibes well with series creator and star Mindy Kaling's slightly raunchy brand of humor. But more importantly, in its fourth season The Mindy Project has also evolved in an impressive way, deepening from a rom-com into a thoughtful, bittersweet exploration of the push-pull nature of relationships and the sacrifices we make — or don't — to maintain them.

Mindy takes on the work-family balance — and thrives

Even a crying baby doesn't faze Mindy. (Hulu)

The tension of the first half of the season revolves around Danny's desire for Mindy to give up working after the birth of their son, Leo, so that she can care for the baby. At first, Mindy is game, throwing herself into becoming a "stay-at-home MILF" with her usual ambitious but occasionally misguided enthusiasm. However, she soon realizes she misses work quite a bit, and when Danny's father gets sick and Danny decides to embark on an open-ended trip to California to help him, Mindy seizes the opportunity to return to the office.

The refreshing aspect of this storyline is the way the show treats this choice: While some TV shows would have had the protagonist struggle cartoonishly to balance work and motherhood, The Mindy Project lets Mindy be, if not perfect, more than competent at doing so. Beyond that, she genuinely enjoys the challenge; she loves her time at home and her time in the office for different but equally important reasons, and she is able to manage both with aplomb.

The season explores the unique sacrifices women are asked to make

All of which makes Danny's reaction increasingly hard to stomach. He takes off for the other side of the country without setting a return date, comes home to a healthy baby and a happy wife, and still feels the need to try to force Mindy to stay home so that Leo doesn't have the latchkey childhood Danny himself had. Mindy tries to assuage his fears, ensuring him their son is well cared for and loved tremendously, and when that doesn't appease him, she rightly calls him out for defining everything in their relationship — "Whenever you do something, it's selfless; whenever I do something, it's selfish," she tells him. Danny's actions amount to an especially insidious form of sexism: He says he respects Mindy, but he still acts as though he’s the only one who knows how their son should be raised and how their family life should be, and when she suggests that he give up his career instead, he practically laughs in her face.

Even worse, Danny stoops to truly underhanded tactics, secretly tracking Mindy's ovulation cycle and then seducing her into having unprotected sex in hopes of having a second child, partly as a way of forcing her to stay home. And when he doesn't get what he wants, rather than try to understand her side of things, he postpones their wedding.

Mindy's growing disappointment and unease is written all over her face, and Kaling's performance is heart-rending as she portrays a woman experiencing the deeply unsettling feeling of knowing the person she loves is asking for something that’s unfair for him to ask for. Mindy and Danny genuinely love each other, but it falls totally to Mindy to navigate the delicate balance between wanting to keep her partner happy and staying true to what she knows is right for her, while Danny tries to cajole and shame Mindy by turns into giving up the career she not only loves but is great at.

The ways these scales can tip into imbalance are explored in episode 11, "The Lahiris and the Castellanos," which sees Mindy and Danny's families meet for the first time at the couple's engagement party. Danny, talking to Mindy's father, Tarun (Ajay Mehta), brings up Mindy's "selfish" desire to keep working, and Tarun shares with Danny a bit of the experience he had with Mindy's mother, Sonu (Sakina Jaffrey).

Tarun: Did I ever tell you that Sonu put her acting career on hold to raise our family? And it was the right choice, right? I mean, that's what I keep telling Mindy.

Danny: Nope.

Tarun: She's resented me for 30 years.

Danny: Well, she always seems so happy.

Tarun: Most of the time, yes, but then, once a week, she screams, "You ruined my dreams!" and throws a scalding teabag at my face. Danny, giving up your passions is very hard, no matter what you give it up for. And Mindy is a much better doctor than Sonu was an actress.

The exchange is mostly lighthearted, but lurking between the lines are decades of fights and resentments and hurt. Tarun sees his daughter's talents and wants her to fight to keep expressing them, because he (and her mother) knows better than most the bitterness that will follow if she doesn't.

As we age, the number of paths we can take inexorably dwindles, and we have to accept the reality that the life we pictured for ourselves might not be the one we end up living, in ways both good and bad. Mindy has a son she adores and a career that makes her genuinely happy; her unhappiness comes from having to weigh the wants of the man she loves against the path she feels in her bones is the right and necessary one for her to follow.

The show is poised to flip the typical rom-com arc on its head

Mindy celebrates a big professional victory with her colleagues — but Danny's nowhere to be found. (Hulu)

The Mindy Project's fourth season has explored this idea of diverging paths before, most notably in the season premiere, "While I Was Sleeping," which saw Mindy living out a dream in which she'd never gotten together with Danny, alternate reality style. In that reality, she was unhappily married to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's sleazy producer character, and at the end of the episode she realized just how right she and Danny are for each other.

The midseason finale, "How Mindy Met Danny," goes a different route, flashing back to Mindy's first day at Shulman and Associates and exploring the story of how Mindy ended up on the trajectory she actually chose. The episode shows her immediately earning Danny's ire; he spends most of her first day bullying her and trying to drive her to quit. Only when she proves herself an excellent doctor does he soften, telling her to stick it out. "If you want to change things, stay and make them different," he says in the flashback. "Don’t ever let someone try to stop you from doing what you want. Not even me."

It's a sincere and powerful statement, which makes present-day Danny's attitude all the more jarring — and it brings the show full circle from the season four premiere. "How Mindy Met Danny" culminates with Mindy going back to the apartment she lived in before she moved in with Danny, searching for a sign from the universe for which path she should choose. Danny's transformed from a supportive colleague into a controlling boyfriend, and Mindy's gone from reflecting on how glad she is to be with Danny to reconsidering the life she'd have to leave behind to be with him.

The episode leaves her decision somewhat ambiguous, but the signs point to Mindy leaving behind a stifling relationship to pursue a thriving career. If that's the case, it would flip the usual script, of the heroine leaving her unfulfilling job to pursue a man. Mindy's twin loves are motherhood and her work, and the white dress/picket fence idea is what's holding her back from achieving true happiness. If The Mindy Project goes this route (and I'm rooting for it to), it would solidify its position as a new and thoroughly modern kind of rom-com, one in which nothing and no one — not even "Mr. Right" — can get in the way of true love.

The Mindy Project is available on Hulu.

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