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Love

The Complicated Intersection of Love and Excellence

Our relationships are supposed to make us stronger: “you challenge me to be better,” “I learn so much from you,” “you’re my best friend.” They’re all clichés you hear at weddings and see on anniversary cards. Yet, as a recent New York Times article reminded us, relationships don’t always turn out to be fountains of support and encouragement — particularly for women.

The stats show that despite what the fairy tales tell you, women are less happy when married and our earnings go down when we have families (while men’s remains unaffected). So for many women, the struggle between love and professional excellence is on-going and often ending in loss: careers suffer, relationships suffer.

So what’s a modern, ambitious woman to do? Where can we look for role models? Please don’t point me to the thousands of starlets and women business leaders who’ve answered the “how do you balance it all” question. That’s a dead end — I’ve never found anything useful there and I bet you haven’t either. Instead, let me present an unlikely source of knowledge and understanding: Shonda Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy.

Most medical shows have life-and-death as their central conflict (and Grey certainly has plenty of that), but for the last 15-seasons, I’d argue, the show’s central question has been how do you navigate the intersection of love and excellence, the ways in which they conflict and the ways in which they merge.

Hear me out. The show literally starts with young resident Meredith Grey sleeping with her superior. Their relationship — Meredith and Derek — propelled season after season of the show and arguably still does, even after Derek dies in season 11. Yet, it wasn’t all candlelight, love triangles, and steamy sex. There was also Meredith navigating how having Derek as her partner helped and hurt her career. It starts with her subverting the perception that she’s sleeping her way to the top. Then, there’s how she changes her specialty, giving up neurosurgery because it’s better for her relationship if the two don’t work that closely together.

In the later years, when Derek’s tapped by US government (this was under Obama mind you) to head a groundbreaking research product into the human brain, Meredith has to grapple with balancing Derek’s needs and her own. How can she fight for her career and the community she’s built in Seattle if they stand in the way of Derek’s destiny to save humankind? Unsure of what to do and even what to feel, it’s Meredith’s (real) person Cristina who has the solution. She says Derek may be very “dreamy, but he is not the sun. You are.” With these words of wisdom, Meredith goes ahead and picks herself. It’s a brave and somewhat controversial chose, particularly for us women who are taught to be self-sacrificing, especially in this sphere. Her stance works for her but it’s not easy — Derek, like so many real men, doesn’t just see Meredith’s worth and respect it. He has to be dragged into accepting her autonomy and her status as an equal. And he’s one of the good ones!

Of course, Derek isn’t all bad for Meredith’s career either. Yes, he gets her more time in the OR and research opportunities (even if they’re ill-fated), but he also serves as an intellectual partner, encouraging her to challenge herself. They draw that tumor on their bedroom wall and figure out how to tackle it together. They bounce ideas off each other and share successes and failures. It’s not as simple as him standing in her way. It’s complicated.

And Meredith isn’t the only one with complex relationship dynamics. Think about Cristina’s pension for sleeping with her mentors. Burke, Colin Marlow (her professor at Stanford), even Owen — she picks her partners because she finds their brains, their knowledge, their accomplishments sexy. They teach her so much, particularly Burke whose tremor and the ensuing cover-up send Cristina’s learning and skills at cardiothoracic surgery into warp drive. But the lines get murky when this extremely ambitious woman finds that her lovers’ wants don’t match her own (see having children). When you’re in a relationship with your mentor, breaking up means a broken heart and major career setbacks.

It turns out, aligning two separate people’s dreams and ambitions is not easy. Navigating this conflict is made more difficult in our patriarchal society that puts men’s needs above women’s, particularly when it comes to career. But that doesn’t mean these issues only exist for women in heterosexual relationships. Callie and Arizona deal with it, both about going to “Africa” for Arizona’s Carter Madison grant and then later co-parenting Sophia with Callie’s very heterosexual baby daddy Mark.

In a recent episode, we see Meredith’s latest love interest Deluca unsure how to navigate his colleagues and particularly his superior Richard Webber (and Meredith’s defacto father) knowing about his relationship with Meredith. Deluca brings his awkwardness into surgery, potentially letting his love life get in the way of his learning. The scene mostly plays for laughs — it is easier for men in this particular sphere after all — yet the conflict remains.

It turns out there is no easy answer for how to navigate the intersection of love and excellence. Remember that episode in season six “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked,” when the residents discuss “if you had to choose between the thing you love, surgery, and the person you love, which would you choose?” Of course, it’s Cristina asking the question (because she’s facing it with the Owen-Teddy-Cristina love triangle to end all love triangles). And of course, Cristina chooses surgery while Izzie chooses love. But the rest of the group is unsure. Meredith tries not to answer, advising her friend not talk about it. Cristina only sort of heeds her advice, declaring later to Teddy, “I choose surgery over a guy. I’m not gonna apologize for it, especially to you… I want to be great, and I want to learn from you. I choose my gift.” And the episode ends with a tense conversation between Meredith and Derek in which she tells him “in the choice between surgery and love, You chose surgery. You chose ambition today.” And he responds, “so did you… We’re the same.”

These discussions where we clearly name how our relationships hinder and help our professional ambitions are rare. They’re infrequent in real life and on screen — even broaching the subject can be taboo. But they are vital to address the gender gap at home and in the workplace. How else do we suss out our personal priorities, get the support we need (from our partners and friends), and make the best decisions? We can’t unless we know what we are facing. So let’s follow Shonda Rhimes’s lead and recognize the intersections of love and excellence. It’ll be good for all of us.

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Finding Love and Pandemonium on “The Good Place”

In “Pandemonium,” the season three finale of The Good Place, the show makes explicit its most radical idea yet: love. Specifically, love as what gives life meaning. As Janet, the all-knowing robot says, “If there were an answer I could give you to how the universe works, it wouldn’t be special. It would just be machinery fulfilling its cosmic design. It would just be a big, dumb food processor. But since nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it’s euphoria.” This euphoria, the way the world stops spinning when you’re in love, this is the answer to the “randomness and pandemonium” of the human condition.

It’s a nice idea and backed up by the show’s emphasis on relationships. At one point in the finale, Michael encounters Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani together and says “Look at the four of you all together.” And as the camera shows our quartet, the four humans at the center of the show, I was struck. A group of friends, sometimes lovers, on an amazing adventure together. The Good Place succeeds because of the relationships. It is the drama of each character’s interactions that allows the shows to delve into the Big Ideas it’s known for. Without them, it’d be like watching a textbook.

That’s not to say that I don’t find the romance between Chidi and Eleanor a bit overdone. I’m not particularly interested in their will-they or won’t-they plotline but the season three finale got me (spoilers ahead). In it, we see the happily together couple face a new dilemma: Chidi’s ex Simone will be one of the four new humans upon which the group must prove can improve to save all of humanity from ending up in the Bad Place. Convinced he won’t be able to teach her moral philosophy without their past interfering, Chidi volunteers to have his memories washed.

After the reset, his memories will stop at the moment he originally died, effectively erasing all his relationships on the show and particularly devastating to the new, happy couple. Unlike the previous resets, the other three humans won’t be losing the memories too. Meaning Eleanor will go on knowing and missing her relationship with Chidi while he’ll have no idea what’s happened. It’s new territory for the show that’s kept its four principles all in the same position over three seasons as they reboot, go to heaven, and discover hell altogether. Now Chidi will be on his own or more precisely part of the new group of people which includes Simone and doesn’t include Eleanor, Tahani, or Jason.

In addition, because of Michael’s fear of failure, Eleanor has stepped into the architect role, acting as the mastermind of the afterlife. Her new role further separates the group, disrupting the original dynamic of four relative equals even more. It’s certainly an interesting visual: to replace Ted Danson’s old, white man, the prototypical face of leadership, with Kristen Bell’s small, casual Eleanor. Let’s just say her T-shirt did not inspire confidence in her first few scenes as the architect. But wardrobe questions aside, Eleanor’s always been the natural leader in the group. Yes, Chidi has been the teacher but Eleanor started the lessons, built the relationships, figured out the rouse first, and got the rest involved. I’m excited to see what her leadership will look like with formal trappings, especially after watching its growth for all these seasons.

So I guess the remaining question is: will love conquer all? Specifically, can it conquer the structural barriers the show has set up for season four? Eleanor and Chidi have found each other through countless do-overs so there’s certainly hope for them. That said, sometimes they end up as friends (my general preference for the two). This time will be particularly difficult because Chidi will meet Simone and Eleanor at approximately the same time, making his chance of falling for either of his two (forgotten) exes pretty even. Plus, as the architect, Eleanor won’t be in the same group or situation as Chidi and the other humans, making it even harder. I adore Simone (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Killing Eve) and thought she was a great match for Chidi when they paired up earlier in the season. I’d still argue that she has more chemistry with Chidi than Eleanor. So who knows what will happen?

The problem with rooting for Simone though is that Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship is what makes them grow. It’s what turns Eleanor from a self-absorbed “Arizona dirtbag” into someone engaged with ideas, concerned about the feelings of others, and interested in doing good. It stops Chidi from being paralyzed by his choices and let’s him finally live. So can this same growth happen if their relationship isn’t romantic? If Eleanor and Chidi are just friends? I hope so. Love comes in so many forms it’d be frustrating for a show as smart as The Good Place fall into the damaging (and often sexist) troupe that only romantic love counts.

So whether they’re coupled or not, I hope Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason keep changing because their development is what makes the show so dynamic. If these charmingly insufferable people can evolve, then there’s hope for the rest of us. I guess what I’m saying is, of all the big ideas, famous theories, and lesser known concepts The Good Place has dramatized, its presentation of love may be the riskiest. We’ll have to wait until next season to see if the gamble pays off.

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