‘Made for Love’s Sex Doll Is so Much More Than a Punchline

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It’s hard to pinpoint what matters and what doesn’t in Made for Love‘s bizarre world. Alissa Nutting’s novel adapted by Christina Lee has so much adoration for the odd world of big tech that every detail feels a bit left of center. Are Byron’s (Billy Magnussen) meal replacing Flavor Balls a commentary on Silicon Valley’s drive to swap human experiences for efficiency? Or are they just a fun detail for a fictional tech billionaire? But there’s one weird wrinkle that deserves more attention: Herbert’s (Ray Romano) synthetic partner Diane is so much more than just a sex doll.

The series picks up as Hazel (Cristin Milioti) escapes her abusive husband Byron and seeks shelter with her emotionally distant father, Herbert. That’s when Hazel meets Diane. In Made for Love‘s first three episodes, Diane is used little more than a punchline. Often the tension of a scene is undercut by Hazel rolling her eyes as her father props this doll up at the dining room table or pushes hair out of her face. You can feel Hazel’s annoyance with her father and frustration that a grown man pretending that this plastic doll is alive has become her best option.

There is at least one sweet moment between Hazel and Diane in the series. While this unlikely trio goes to a bar to find a plane for Hazel to escape in, a random drunk townie steals Diane from Herbert’s car. Hazel doesn’t hesitate before she launches into action, running after the thief and jumping on his back, screaming and hitting him the whole time. Hazel saves Diane, but it’s clear she does so not out of any loyalty to this synthetic person, but because she loves her father.

That’s not exactly the case in the book. Early in Made for Love’s novel, Hazel asks her father why he needs a sex doll, and the answer Herbert gives is heartbreaking. In a long, overly sexual story, he tells her daughter about an elderly couple he knew. One day when the couple was having sex, the husband had a heart attack while he was on top of his wife. She was left trapped under her dead husband for days before her son found her. After the passing of Hazel’s mom, that story haunted Herbert. Every time he went on a date with a new woman, he couldn’t shake the image of dying on top of her while having sex. Suddenly, for both Hazel and the reader, Diane makes a lot more sense.

Herbert’s need for intimacy didn’t die along with his wife. It’s still very much alive. And it’s also something he fears in a way that is both absurd, yet understandable. Diane is a way for Herbert to have his needs met without letting his fears overpower him.

Is it sad? Yes, a bit. It’s clear that as cold as Herbert seems, he’s actually a caring person, a sensitive soul raised during a time when men were encouraged to repress their emotions. He’s exactly the sort of person who would dote over a living wife or girlfriend. Yet substituting this desire with Diane is a testament to just how much he cares. For the rest of the novel Hazel treats Diane with a degree of understanding and odd respect. Initially it stems from understanding what her father needs, but as the novel progresses Diane comes to have her own sort of agency, though it’s projected onto her by her living companions.

Herbert and Diane’s resulting relationship acts as another nuanced and heartbreaking conversation about the sacrifices we make for love. In the first six episodes of Made for Love that have been released to critics, that dichotomy is touched on but has yet to be fully explored. But that doesn’t mean you should write off Diane as a punchline. She’s just as important to this complicated narrative as any other person.

Three more episodes of Made for Love premiere on HBO Max Thursday, April 8. Those will be followed by the series’ final episodes on Thursday, April 15.

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