Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
If you’re a rom-com enthusiast like myself, the first three seasons of The Mindy Project are absolute pudding. The slow-burn, rivals-to-best-friends-to-lovers storyline between Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) remains top-tier in the world of iconic sitcom couples; it’s hard to imagine anyone else coming close to their status. I mean, when the duo finally get together at the end of Season 2, the show quite literally pays homage to When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail in one single episode. It’s enough to make Nora Ephron herself proud, which only makes Season 4’s assassination of Danny’s character all the more upsetting.
Created by Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project began airing on Fox in 2012 and moved to Hulu for Seasons 4-6. The network shift—combined with Messina slowly stepping back from the series to pursue roles in film—set the writers up to completely decimate his character so that viewers wouldn’t miss him. Granted, Danny was never a perfect person to begin with. From the beginning of the series, he harbored a lot of casual sexism and less-than-ideal beliefs about traditionalism that made viewers cringe. In the show’s pilot, Danny tells Mindy that she could “stand to lose 15 pounds,” and much of their initial relationship was spent clashing. But for the most part, Danny served as the grumpy half to Mindy’s sunshine behavior, and his cynical stance on romance was mostly a result of his dad abandoning his family and his ex-wife cheating on him. He also consisted of a variety of silly quirks—including an adorable penchant for gingerbread houses—that begged audiences to look past his flaws. That, coupled with the fact that Chris Messina is the textbook definition of handsome, set Danny up to be the show’s perfect romantic comedy lead.
In Season 4, Danny’s character sees a stark 180 that morphs him from a grumpy-yet-lovable cynic into a manipulative, controlling, and borderline abusive caricature of a 1950s husband. The birth of their son Leo turns out to be the beginning of the end of their relationship, as Danny’s absolute worst qualities are dialed up. Instead of going to therapy to deal with his unresolved daddy issues, he takes everything out on Mindy, pushing her to quit her job and become a stay-at-home mom despite her objections. Whereas Mindy is constantly compromising her own comfort for the sake of her relationship, Danny continues to be patronizing and stubborn. He’s unwilling to consider sacrificing his own career to stay with their son because of his outdated views on gender roles, calling the idea itself “ridiculous.” In Danny’s eyes, Mindy’s only dreams and goals should revolve around Leo, and any personal aspirations are considered to be selfish.
Given Danny’s hellbent position on Leo having present parents, you would think that he would carry his weight as the perfect father. But no! Danny isn’t even there for much of their early parenting months. Instead, he travels to California to care for his sick father, leaving Mindy with the task of acting as a single mother, going to work and caring for their son all by herself. In Season 4’s “The Departed,” Peter (Adam Pally) visits and drops a couple of truth-bombs onto Mindy. “You let him call all the shots,” he tells her. “You moving into his apartment, you’re selling your sweet-ass place, you’re raising your son Catholic… and then Danny ditches you and now he’s not telling you when he’s coming back.” It’s here that Mindy realizes that she’s not as happy as she thought she was. Sure, one could potentially argue that Danny is being a good son by repairing his damaged relationship with his estranged father. But he leaves behind a mess of responsibilities that Mindy has to balance by herself with zero complaint, and it makes him a complete hypocrite.
The biggest indicator of how horrible Danny becomes is in the season’s 12th episode. In “The Parent Trap,” Danny attempts to get Mindy pregnant again behind her back, which she realizes after seeing her ovulation cycle charted in his calendar. It devastates her, since Mindy thought that Danny was just being extra-romantic when he was really taking advantage of her vulnerability. She starts taking birth control pills again, unbeknownst to him, and it leads to their biggest argument yet. Danny continues to recycle the same sexist talking points and berates Mindy with referendums on her character, calling her flighty, indecisive, and unable to think through consequences. “I just wish you didn’t have a list of my flaws ready at the tip of your tongue,” Mindy replies. “You’re a good person, Danny. But if you were the best person, you wouldn’t always rub it in my face all the time.” In Danny’s mind, he is the only person who is capable of making good decisions and because of this, he thinks he should be responsible for all of Mindy’s. It’s unfathomable to him that people’s goals are able to shift over time, which is made extra frustrating by the fact that just prior to him finding out about the birth control pills, Danny seems to be nearing a moment of breakthrough that gets disregarded for the rest of the episode.
After the couple calls off their relationship, Danny essentially fades into the background as a recurring character, barely seen until the Season 4 finale, where the two have sex while trapped in an elevator. Season 5’s premiere follows directly in the aftermath, as Mindy finds out that Danny is engaged and confronts him. And in classic Danny Castellano fashion, he takes zero accountability for his actions, instead blaming Mindy for “seducing him.” As the two consider the idea of getting back together, Danny reminds us that he is incapable of compromise (“I don’t want to change, I don’t need to change”), and even decides to keep his infidelity from his fiancée. It’s such a slap in the face, considering Danny refused to propose to Mindy while she was seven months pregnant, but proceeds to marry another woman after only a couple months of dating. If Season 4 was meant to show us how much of a jerk Danny is, the Season 5 premiere shatters any possibility of redemption.
In the sixth and final season, The Mindy Project attempts to bring back the Danny we initially grew to love and is painfully unsuccessful. In the series finale, Mindy gives a heartfelt speech about how great it is that people can change, which leads to an epiphany about Danny that has her running through the streets of New York in typical rom-com fashion. Yet it doesn’t provide the same endorphin rush that comes when we usually see our favorite sitcom couples get back together (I’m looking at you, New Girl’s Nick and Jess). For one, Danny is barely in the season, so their entire reconciliation feels especially rushed. Second, there’s no real explanation for why Danny was so hot and cold this entire time. He’s an absolute monster in the two previous seasons, but he comes back in Season 6 suddenly defending Mindy’s skills as a parent and acknowledging her as a working mother. While it’s nice that he is finally showing a semblance of growth, it doesn’t diminish his previously horrible treatment, and it certainly isn’t enough for us to forgive his behavior. We aren’t given enough proof that Danny has actually changed, which only makes their recoupling feel sour.
If The Mindy Project wanted us to root for Danny Castellano again, they shouldn’t have given him some of the most damning personality traits. I’m all for a good redemption arc, but some crimes just can’t be forgiven. Danny’s overt sexism, stubborn inflexibility, and complete disregard for Mindy’s autonomy shows us that even the most romantic of gestures cannot prove him to be somebody worthy of our beloved heroine’s love and attention, and it’s a shame that the series demolished such a great character to begin with.
Dianna Shen is an entertainment writer based in New York. When she’s not crying over a rom-com, she can be found on Twitter @ddiannashen.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.