When The Mindy Project first started, it was essentially a straightforward romantic comedy. Mindy Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri was, yes, a doctor (a good doctor at that), but her dating relationships were always at the forefront of the narrative. While a revolving door of suitors is fun for a while, a show has to evolve to survive, hence season three went all-in on the Mindy and Danny (Chris Messina) courtship. While many shows have a difficult time maintaining momentum when a will-they-won’t-they couple becomes an actual couple, The Mindy Project has followed the Parks and Recreation model, assuming that a relationship can be interesting without constant breakups. However, when fans found out that Mindy was pregnant at the end of season three, it was hard not to have doubts. Part of Mindy’s appeal has always been her slightly deranged brand of selfishness, and it was easy to worry that wouldn’t balance well with parenthood.
It seems that Kaling heard those doubts and doubled down on making The Mindy Project a new, but still familiar, show in its fourth season, which is premiering on Hulu. (The latest episode, “The Parent Trap,” and penultimate before next week’s season finale, hit the site today.) Danny and Mindy are together, ecstatic to be parents to little Leo, and planning out their lives together, but the show isn’t taking a candy-colored road to happiness. With Danny away taking care of his ailing father for a majority of the first half of the season, Mindy has had to deal with being a parent and starting a new business all on her own. And, guess what? She’s really good at it. In “The Parent Trap,” we see her on top of her work at Schulman and Associates, successfully getting her fertility clinic off the ground, and starting a program for young women to freeze their eggs. She’s at the top of her professional life, but, as is the case with many successful women, that can take its toll on her personal life without a supportive partner. And no one watching this season would call Danny a supportive partner.
Mothers who work face a certain stigma that simply doesn’t happen to working fathers. No one would think to ask Danny to give up his career in order to be more present in Leo’s life, and yet Danny has done that to Mindy in nearly every episode. Danny has always been a more conservative presence on the show (played with crusty aplomb by Chris Messina), but it has been increasingly clear that he wants Mindy to be the dutiful wife and mother, even if it means putting her dreams on hold. Danny is desperate to have more children, while Mindy would rather focus on her career and being a good mother to Leo. Both are so ill-equipped to communicate with each other that Danny tracks her ovulation cycle behind her back and essentially tricks her into having seemingly unprotected sex with him and Mindy gets back on the pill, both hoping for very different outcomes to their “we’re not trying, but we’re not not trying” agreement.
When the conflict finally comes to a head and the couple is forced to be honest with each other about what they want and how they envision their future, Kaling doesn’t pull any punches. As Mindy explains yet again that loving her job and being good at it doesn’t mean that she loves Leo any less, Danny has the gall to call her selfish to her face. While Kaling is usually best at the manic comedy, here she reminds viewers that she can handle the drama, as well, tearfully telling Danny, “Whenever you decide to do something, it’s selfless. And whenever I decide to do something, it’s selfish. You get to choose all the definitions.” Instead of showing a shred of understanding, Danny doubles down on why Mindy isn’t mature enough to make her own decisions and calls attention to all her flaws. Instead of staying and listening to him tear her down in the way that only the people closest to someone can, she leaves to go successfully deliver her first fertility baby to the strain of MIA’s “Bad Girls,” hearkening back to a season one Mindy who was good at her job, and is unreservedly proud of that.
What the show has done beautifully, though, is showing that neither option is the categorically wrong choice. Mindy toyed with the idea of staying home with her son, but it was ultimately the wrong choice for her. She might want more children, but not right now. There is no one way to find fulfillment, and Kaling is making it quite clear that Danny and Mindy’s paths to success and happiness might not overlap anymore. As we near the midseason finale, we’ll have to wait and see if these two will make up or break up. Honestly, I’m not even sure which I’m rooting for.