The following contains spoilers from Season 3 of HBO Max’s Search Party.
“This is me, Drew. This is who I’ve always been.”
– Dory (S3E10)
A classmate in a poetry seminar I was part of in college wrote this line that I think about often: “everyone keeps saying they don’t like the new Taylor Swift, but what if she’s been this way all along?”
In a lot of ways, Dory (Alia Shawkat) and Taylor Swift have a lot in common. Beyond naturally curly hair, they both have a tape that changes the course of their life. If Kim Kardashian had not taped the conversation between Kayne and Taylor, would we have gotten Reputation? And if April had not taped Dory and Drew (John Reynolds) fighting over killing Keith, would we have gotten Gory Dory? (A fun nickname that comes in Episode 6.)
“You gotta tell the story like the way it happened to you and the way you experienced it.” – Taylor Swift, in the infamous phone call to Kanye West
And tell the story Dory does! Because God knows her lawyer Cassidy Diamond (Shalita Grant) isn’t doing great lawyering, but what a comedic delight she is to watch! In another universe, Dory would’ve been a great competitor to Olivia Pope & Associates because wow, oh, wow is she good at spinning things.
“It’s Just Really Weird Playing Myself”
For a first half that was auspiciously absent from the courtroom, the latter half of the season is rather heavily set in court. This brought me some reservations because Search Party is a show about outspoken Millennials…so putting them in a setting where they have to be silent seems counterproductive, no?
Not necessarily. It just means that when they talk it needs to speak volumes, which can be a lot for Millennials, who are not exactly applauded for their communication skills. And there’s a lot of comedy in that. Portia (Meredith Hagner) starts using words like “vitriol” in her testimony which sets off Dory’s bullshit meter.
This leads to a strategy to question Portia on the definition of the word and to use it in a different sentence, which she can’t. And just like that, the mountains of evidence that U.S. Attorney Polly (Michaela Watkins) has against Drew and Dory seems to matter less to the jury because Portia’s testimony is starting to smell like it was coerced by the police. Which it was…but it’s also the most truthful testimony to come out in court right down to Portia saying that “[Dory] really resents that she doesn’t have a sense of self.”
But a victory is not dependent on honesty or truth in a court of law, it’s dependent on who tells the most compelling story about the information in front of them. And the most compelling story is often formed when one party creates a more compelling persona to carry the story in front of them. Of course, what is considered “compelling” is whatever holds the Millennial attention span the best.
Dory had two choices in her defence (since she wasn’t going to plead self-defence): she could go the Taylor Swift route or the Donald Trump route. Both are ways of controlling the narrative, although circumstances differ.
In Taylor Swift’s example, she is labelled as a liar and a snake after the phone call is leaked. She becomes silent for a decent period of time and then returns in an unrecognizable form embracing the narrative and version of self-projected upon her via Reputation. She reclaims the labels thrown at her as her own, and never takes direct responsibility.
In Donald Trump’s win of the 2016 election, he taps into a very specific emotion of the public, and no matter what comes up… he diverts the story back to a carefully constructed narrative. In Persuasion, Lee Hartley Carter studied his victory, saying: “He knew how his voters felt. He knew what mattered to them. And he found the most effective way to appeal to them: he built a simple, clear master narrative that his audience could remember and repeat. It was supported by three narrative pillars, policies we could all remember and repeat.” Oh, and this strategy also uses the never take direct responsibility strategy.
Dory isn’t actually going to embrace the narrative and reclaim the main label thrown at her: aka murderer, so Dory takes the Trump approach which is to build a simple, clear master narrative with three narrative pillars which are: she rescued Chantal, Keith was creepy towards her, and she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time (she’s a “victim of circumstance”).
The thing that is genius about this strategy is that she is not lying…directly. She did rescue Chantal (although from no danger), Keith was creepy towards her (see: tracking device on her phone), and she really was in the wrong place at the wrong time (although she is the reason that the place turned wrong). That being said, I think the Taylor Swift/own-the-label plan is a great back-up plan and is something she could always play if the tide ever starts to not go her way. The insanity plea was brought up after all.
And I thought they were really going to use that plea! Even during the finale when Dory strangles her past self, I thought we would cut to reality and she would be strangling a random member of the jury. But both finales have already ended in someone being murdered, so I’m happy we went somewhere else. I’m not exactly happy she and Drew were found not guilty, but finding them guilty would’ve probably had slim narrative possibilities given that two characters would’ve been in separate prisons. But anyway, before I get too deep into our Season 3 conclusion, let’s look at where else we went.
“I Know It’s a Bit of an Inconvenience But So Is My Life”
Elliott (John Early) turns out to have hired actors to be his parents, his $1.2 million wedding to Marc (Jeffery Self) ultimately fails to end in an actual marriage, and—even though he returns to his Southern small town—he is quickly whisked back to NYC after Charlie (SNL’s Chloe Fineman) calls him saying they’ve been picked up for a Fox & Friends-esque talk show together. I know they’ve all been through it, but Elliott really is ending the season well, all things considered. I don’t know if they’re setting him up for some sort of Milo Yiannopoulos story for next season, but I enjoyed the hoops he jumped through. Particularly, the fact that he hated the “image” his family gave his “brand” so much so that he just bought a new set of non-union actor parents.
Meanwhile, Chantal’s (Clare McNulty) business venture turns out to be a bust when she ends up taking funding from a group that is laundering funds through her “luxury women’s shelter.” This all happens after a pyramid scheme brunch aimed at women entrepreneurs. The pyramid scheme get-together hit particularly close to home because I once got invited to one where none other than Donald Trump was on the screen touting what a great company they were to “work for.” Although small I think this packs a particularly timely warning given that tough economic times lead to increased vulnerability to pyramid schemes—and who’s being hit harder economically than Millennials right now? Anyway, Chantal gets taken away by the FBI at the end so who knows what she will let slip next season.
Lastly on the docket is our sweet Portia who was really dragged through the wringer. First by the police, then she lost her friends, then Dory’s obsessed fanboy (Cole Escola) seeks vengeance on her for testifying against Dory. It’s a particularly dark moment at Elliott’s wedding in which she’s taken, tied up, covered in honey, and rats are released towards her. Fortunately, her mic is still hot from singing at the wedding and they hear her muffled cries. That, and the fact that the rats are more interested in pudding cups than a honey brazen Portia. The kidnapping helps heal the relationship between Portia and Dory, and Portia is happy to have the friend band back together again. Her Christian band wasn’t really working out…and they didn’t get her sarcasm. Obsessed fanboy dies in hospital after getting hit by a driving wedding valet, and Portia finds the same pink, zebra print suitcase at a Chinatown store to help exonerate Dory. A happy ending is coming, right?
“Could I Have a Glass of Water, Please?”
What follows after Dory and Drew are found not guilty is an ending devoid of bloodshed, but still quietly unsettling. Drew rejects Dory’s embrace after their verdict is entered, Polly tells her karma will get her, and she goes home where she sits with her thoughts (and the ghosts of Keith and April). It seems like she will be in charge of doling out her own psychological punishment, but something darker happens. Obsessed fanboy turns out not to be dead, and he kidnaps Dory. And here is where we again see shaved-head Dory again: gratuitously chained up in some sort of vault, being filmed by Cole Escola’s mysteriously unnamed character, and softly asking for water.
I wasn’t immediately enamoured with the ending as I was with the previous two seasons, but then again no one was killed. It’s a quieter ending in that respect, but it also asks questions about the darker side of the Millennial attention span. What becomes obsessed about? Who becomes the object of obsession? And with Millennial attention shifting elsewhere so quickly, what if stan culture lets dark things slip through the cracks?
I think those are questions that we’ll engage a little bit more with in the next season (which has already finished filming!) so let’s jump to shit-disturber MVP of the season: Drew. Drew got away with a lot! He slept with a juror, got basically zero media scrutiny, and randomly went to go dig up the murder weapon to shove it in Dory’s face. His most shocking offence, though, is lying to Dory (and Portia & Elliott) that her obsessed fanboy died. I honestly forgot about it when I watched the ending because this is something he does in Episode 8, but it does give the ending a new level of depth because it was preventable.
This is the quiet brilliance of the ending, though, and an interesting capstone for the Millennial attention span. While the viewer is all caught up in going after Dory, are we paying attention to what Drew is getting away with?
Jumping back to the colour yellow in this season: when yellow is overused, its warning tone becomes abrasive. The viewer can glaze over and lose sight of background evil. It’s a very smart, very meta thing for Search Party to do. And it’s also a technique used for evil. How else would Trump be able to get away with so much in one week? How else would billionaires be able to become even richer during a global pandemic?
Search Party didn’t go the way of the insanity plea and was better for it. I’m also happy we didn’t leave Dory to her own devices at the end. It’s not the way I envisioned consequences happening to her, but this in its own way feels just. Though, I do feel bad for how little working actor Portia had this season in terms of what felt like “her own.” But hey, if that’s my only real gripe with the season, I’d say that means a lot went right. It’s not like Dory can release an album called Lover to get out of this one.