Aziz Ansari’s acute consideration for building realistic, dynamic characters in his exceptional Netflix show Master of None is maybe the series’ greatest strength, with the exception of Francesca. Francesca is an Italian woman from Modena, where we find Ansari’s character Dev learning to make pasta at Francesca’s family’s restaurant in the beginning of season two of MoN. She is also the main love interest of the season. Francesca is easy on the eyes, fashionable, feminine, has a charming Italian accent and can make pasta. While that looks and sounds nice, she’s unfortunately missing real substance.
(Spoilers to follow.)
Francesca suffers in comparison to the other female characters on the show: Denise, Dev’s mom Fatima, and Dev’s ex-girlfriend Rachel. Denise is unwavering in owning her identity and living her truth from the moment she rejected the pretty, lacey white dress her mom picked out for baggy pants, an oversized t-shirt and backwards baseball cap as a young girl in my favorite episode of season two, “Thanksgiving”, which just so happens to be devoid of Francesca. Her journey as a gay woman who endured coming out and proudly existing as herself under the conservative, initially intolerant and fear-driven eye of her mother was a challenge which was happily overcome by the end of the aforementioned episode.
Dev’s mother, brilliantly played by Aziz’s actual mother, is strong in her convictions and identity as Muslim as well as her roles as mother and wife. If it weren’t for her subtle playfulness and gentle nature she would seem overbearing, but her beliefs and values are at the root of her behavior. She attempts to keep Dev in line when he strays from spending time with his family and eats pork which is prohibited by their religion, as shown in the aptly titled episode “Religion.” She proudly lives as an immigrant even in a hostile, unwelcoming and ostracizing American political and social climate.
It’s not that Dev is only attracted to girls whose looks are their strongest attribute. Francesca’s vapid nature is not a common theme for Dev’s love interests in MoN. Dev’s ex-girlfriend Rachel is a much more well-defined alternative. Rachel has solid interests, specifically music which led to her career as a music publicist, has a sharp wit, and is brave enough to admit to herself and to Dev that she needs to dye her hair and move to Japan at the end of season one.
And then there’s Francesca. She makes amazing observations like “There’s so much stuff here!” when describing New York. I should also mention she’s engaged to her long-term and only ever boyfriend, Pino. She mistreats Dev and her fiance, in a way playing them both and leading them both on. She engages in an emotional affair with Dev whenever she’s with him in New York - playing in the leaves with him upstate, having romantic dinners, watching movies with him on the couch alone in his apartment, dancing with him in the kitchen, secretly flirting with him via text while sitting right beside her fiance. It’s possible she didn’t fully realize what she was doing, having limited exposure and experience coming from a quaint little Italian town she’s never left and only being with one man all her life - but I call bullshit.
I’m not the first to bring into question Francesca’s character. Anna Silver takes issue with her most defined quality being simply that she’s European and that she seems more like a fantasy than a real character in The Cut. Teresa Jusino gives Francesca a little more credit, defending her lack of personality as an existential crisis of sorts in a Mary Sue article. But I’d like to think Aziz is using her character more deliberately.
For a feminist show with strong and admirable leading ladies other than Francesca, I want to think there is a deeper meaning behind the decision to write her character this way. I find it hard to believe that such a thoughtful writer and creator, who is devoted to carefully constructing storylines with characters outside his own culture and race to respectfully and accurately portray them would be negligent enough to present a weak character like Francesca. So, assuming the benefit of the doubt, what was Ansari's intent with Francesca beyond the surface level?
Perhaps one of the strategies for Francesca’s character was to flip the script and show that women, like men are often represented in pop culture, can be the disruptive cause and not just the victimized effect. Francesca is holding the cards here. Dev is in love with her and wants nothing more than for her to leave her long-term relationship that seemingly has lost its luster. We mainly just see glimpses of her fiancé Pino through Dev and Francesca’s perspective, but by all accounts, he loves her and wants to spend the rest of his life with her. The fate of both men to a great extent is at the mercy of her whims. So in that respect, Francesca is powerful, albeit in a shitty way.
What does this say about Dev and his character arc? I adore you Dev. I want more for you. But maybe this is showing us that like many dating and relationship experiences, you go through some - hopefully not too many - bad ones to eventually find the good. Coming out of a whirlwind relationship with Rachel, her and Dev’s first real date after a sexual mishap was a trip to Nashville that escalated to a serious relationship that led to moving in together and then ended as abruptly as it began. Perhaps Francesca initially appeared at first to be a breezy, uncomplicated divergence. However, as their flirtatious friendship progresses we see that she and their scenario are even messier than with his serious relationship with Rachel.
Season two ends on an uncertain note with a shot of Dev and Francesca lying in bed together after Francesca finally expresses to Pino her doubts about leaving New York and returning to Italy. But are they together? Unclear. Master of None covers a wide range of issues and sub-plots, and at the forefront is Dev navigating his personal and professional path. Finding the right partner is always in sight but not yet met. And that, I think, is why Francesca exists - because she does seem to be wrong for Dev, and that will propel his story forward.
Sally Tunmer is a professional wine snob living in New Orleans. We are happy to have her as a guest blogger here at #BSG. Here a pictures of her pup and kitty, Jacky and Ozzy: