The first season of Emily in Paris arrived when we needed it most. Netflix’s romantic comedy set in the City of Lights offered housebound viewers the chance to escape into a fantasy after months spent indoors away from family and friends. Now the fashionable series from Darren Star has returned for its 10-episode second season just in time to cure us of the winter blues amid another pandemic surge. And yet, for a show that puts multiple talented women at the forefront of its narrative, Emily in Paris can’t seem to stop undermining them.
When Season 2 opens, Emily must face consequences of the choice she made in the Season 1 finale to sleep with Gabriel (Lucas Bravo) when she thought he was leaving Paris. Now that he’s staying to open his restaurant thanks to Antoine’s (William Abadie) timely investment, she’s forced to choose between a romantic relationship with him or a friendship with Camille (Camille Razat), who is also Gabriel’s ex-girlfriend. Despite the fact Emily can’t stop thinking about Gabriel—she tells him she hasn’t felt this way about anyone before—Emily ultimately prioritizes her friendship with Camille. To her, this decision produces the fewest casualties (or makes the losses that do occur more manageable). It also makes her look selfless and empathetic. But what is left unsaid for most of the season is that this choice means Emily is denying herself pleasure and placing the happiness of others before her own, effectively removing her agency and giving Camille control of the situation. And because it’s a TV show, it’s a doomed decision from the moment Emily makes it, since Camille discovers the truth after finding Gabriel’s infamous omelet pan in Emily’s apartment.
Rather than direct Camille’s anger in Gabriel’s direction or have Emily and Camille discuss their messy situation to find a path forward, the writers decide the best course of action is for Camille to punish Emily at work by conducting all Champere business in French, which Emily still doesn’t understand. Camille also pretends to forgive Emily while making a pact that neither will be with Gabriel only to hatch a scheme to win him back. It’s extremely middle school. In the end, the plan works because Emily feels guilty enough about betraying her friend that she holds fast to her end of the deal. She tells Gabriel she doesn’t want to start a relationship if she’ll only be in Paris for a year and eventually begins dating an Englishman (Lucien Laviscount’s Alfie) from her French class instead. However, after being offered the chance to stay in Paris long-term, Emily decides to put herself first and rushes to tell Gabriel she loves him, only to discover she is too late. Not only have Camille and Gabriel rekindled their relationship, but they’ve moved in together.
The love triangle is a familiar scenario in pop culture that is rarely done well and in a way that portrays everyone as equals. It’s not surprising Emily in Paris is playing the greatest hits here, since it draws out the tension between Emily and Gabriel for at least another season. It’s also not surprising that it’s terribly imbalanced. But it’s frustrating to see a show in 2021 still forcing the narrative that women should adhere to an outdated girl code, or that they should have to choose between romantic happiness and friendship. Female friendship can be just as rewarding and fulfilling—if not more so!—as romantic love, with many women relying on their friends to act as an emotional support system. But since the writers are determined that Emily cannot have both, then we must consider that Emily’s friendship with Camille has never served this purpose in the narrative. Yes, she and Emily are friends, but Mindy (Ashley Park) plays the role of best friend and confidant. And with each new roadblock Camille presents, she becomes less of a character and friend than a plot device meant to manufacture drama. This is unfortunate for everyone but especially Razat, who is charming and works hard to make Camille feel genuine in a situation determined to make viewers hate her. She deserves better than being forced to play the role of the wedge that keeps the heroine and her love interest apart. While the show tries to give her more to do by having her involved at Savoir and by taking trips to her family’s home in the Loire Valley, her machinations this season make her unsympathetic as she purposefully hurts Emily (and Gabriel, for that matter).
This all coincides with the series’ other major faux pas of Season 2. Madeline (Kate Walsh), Emily’s boss at the Gilbert Group—the company that acquired Savoir and set this entire story in motion—makes a trip to Paris in the second half of the season. She’s there to observe the inner workings of Savoir, and what she finds is that the books don’t add up. The company isn’t making the money it should be because Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu) has been charging Antoine’s company the same rate for years despite his growing business and sizable bank account. This eventually leads Madeline to uncover Sylvie’s affair with Antoine. In combination with Sylvie’s reluctance to promote some of the American brands the Gilbert Group asks her to market, Madeline begins to question whether Sylvie is the best fit to run the company. However, before she can make any personnel decisions, Sylvie and the entire team resign in order to launch a new company, asking Emily to defect with them. This puts Emily in yet another impossible situation, as she must choose between two women who’ve mentored her. In doing so, she will also effectively make a decision that will likely change her career (Madeline has promised Emily a promotion once she returns to Chicago) and potentially extend her life in Paris indefinitely.
Sylvie and Madeline are powerful, intelligent women at the top of their game, but they differ in their approach to business. This underscores the divide between the French and Americans—a major theme of the series—with the former being seen as the desirable option. I cannot speak to the depiction of the French, but the writers are right to call out Americans for often prioritizing corporations and money over people and their well-being. Every time the show highlights what we’ve been taught is an asset—a dedication to hard work and an obsession-like prioritization of our careers—it’s obvious this way of thinking is detrimental to our health, be it physical, mental, or emotional. Luckily, the pandemic has started to chisel away at this mentality at the same time Emily seems to be coming to a similar conclusion. But it’s frustrating to watch this scenario play out in such a way that Madeline becomes a mouthpiece for Corporate America who is obsessed with the bottom line and has no empathy for others (or an understanding of boundaries, like when she takes over Sylvie’s office).
We’ve never had any reason to view Madeline as the enemy before. And it’s not to say women are fragile beings who can’t be portrayed in a negative light. Women contain multitudes! But it wasn’t until the show needed Emily to decide whether she wanted to stay in Paris that Madeline became an obnoxious, animal-printed tool constructed from Americans’ worst stereotypical qualities to force her hand. There has to have been a better way to approach this life-changing moment than to maneuver Emily into another situation in which she has to choose between two people who mean a lot to her.
While Sylvie seems like the obvious choice in the sense that her priorities match what Emily wants (and because taking the job would keep her in Paris and extend the show’s run), her judgment isn’t without question. She crossed an ethical line and put the company at risk when she had an affair with a client. This season, she’s been sleeping with a young photographer contracted by Savoir, which creates a conflict of interest. For all her positive qualities, she’s not perfect and she’s not always right. Meanwhile, Madeline appears to have Emily’s best interests at heart even if she’s the picture of everything wrong with corporate America (her desire to combine roles to pay fewer people and hire young and inexperienced workers so she doesn’t have to pay them as much and can shape them into what she wants is eerily familiar). This scenario could have highlighted the complexity of these women by focusing on what makes them excellent leaders and mentors, but Madeline is one-note to the point that nuance doesn’t just get lost in translation, it never existed at all. (Much like what the show wants to say with regards to Madeline’s pregnancy. It should be a rebuke of the idea that women cannot be mothers and have successful careers, but Emily has the position in Paris because Madeline became pregnant and couldn’t go, so there have been issues from the start.)
For all its intoxicating charm and romance, Emily in Paris struggles to support the many women central to its story, either through poor narrative choices or just poorly executed ones. It isn’t the first show to suffer in this regard, and it’s under no obligation to enact change through its depiction of women and their choices. But the series is both a romantic comedy and a workplace comedy, and each aspect has now relied on tropes that force women to compete against one another. Emily’s happiness also lies at the heart of both. It’s unfortunate to see an otherwise intelligent and capable heroine forgo what she wants in an attempt to appease others, just as it’s frustrating to see Camille sidelined and relegated to backstabbing Emily. But what is truly infuriating is seeing Emily forced to choose between people she cares about over and over again when each time it should be a choice about what Emily wants for herself based on what she values. Hopefully, the fated phone call that closes out the season will find Emily making better choices and putting herself first for once.
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