The One I Love
Love the one you're with, lest you go home with someone else.
Released in 2014, the psychological science-fiction thriller The One I Love positions husband Ethan (Mark Duplass) and wife Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) against each other during a weekend retreat in Ojai to save their marriage. Confronted with idealized versions of themselves–doppelgängers bent on returning to the real world–Ethan and Sophie begin to drift apart.
Like most good science fiction, The One I Love explores a down-to-Earth theme: ”Is the happiness we find living up to our partner’s expectations real or imaginary?” The storyform—or narrative structure of the film—answers this question with succinct clarity. Yes, you can find happiness by meeting those expectations, but you’ll never know if it’s your partner trying to somebody they’re not—or somebody else trying to be your partner.
In other words, The One I Love is a cautionary tale about finding happiness with the one you’re with—not the one you wish them to be.
Finding True Happiness
The psychological aspect of this film’s Genre focuses the Objective Story Throughline perspective on the Psychology Domain. While Conceiving, Conceptualizing, and Becoming share equal screen time in their quest to define this point-of-view, Being stands out as the actual source of conflict. Being happy and—with the introduction of the doubles—being somebody else so you can escape escalates the tension of objective exploration.
An over-abundance of Determination drives conflict throughout the film. The Dramatica theory of story defines Determination as a conclusion as to the cause behind a particular effect. Ethan and Sophie seek the aid of a therapist (Ted Danson) in order to determine what is wrong with their marriage. The therapist sends the couple to Ojai in order to find out the reason why they can’t find harmony on a piano.
Once there, the ever-increasing efforts to determine who is real and why this is happening only extend the initial inequity created by Ethan himself.
Recreating What Was
Husband Ethan kicks things off by trying to recreate a spontaneous moment early on in their relationship. Driven to perpetuate the ideal, his Main Character Throughline introduces an Element of Unending and an Issue of Fantasy into the narrative, respectively.
Dramatica defines Unending as a continuance without cessation and Fantasy as a belief in something unreal. As the Steadfast Main Character, Ethan’s Main Character Problem of Unending indicates a source of drive rather than any personal problem. He loves his wife and wants to preserve their marriage—but in the Author’s estimation, Ethan wants to preserve the make-believe.
His focus on a lack of trust and his efforts to challenge and test his wife’s loyalty dovetail nicely with the Focus and Response of both the Main Character Throughline and the Objective Story Throughline perspectives. And Ethan’s insecurity locks both perspectives further together with a Main Character Unique Ability of Security.
The Main Character Unique Ability identified by the storyform explains why this one character is uniquely able to resolve the problems in the story. Ethan’s drive to protect their marriage and the insecurity he feels around the “beachy” Ethan keep him on his toes and inspire him to confront and confess to Sophie at the very end.
This injection of Security pushes Sophie over the edge and moves her from Determination to Expectation.
Living Up to the Dream
Sophie challenges her husband to dig in his heels with her instinctual gravitation towards the more perfect Ethan. Her fixation plays out through the Influence Character Throughline of Mind and challenges the poor guy with the Influence Character Concern of Preconscious.
Dramatica defines Preconscious as immediate or impulsive responses and Sophie’s attraction to the cooler, laid-back version drives up concerns that Ethan might lose his beloved wife.
Sophie’s laundry list of everything she likes about the idealized Ethan finds its way into the narrative through the Influence Character Problem of Determination. Her reasons why she enjoys spending more time with this other guy push and pull on Ethan and challenge him to grow, lest he be forgotten. His steadfastness eventually wins out and Sophie adapts a new approach with her Changed Influence Character Resolve.
The Change Resolve moment for an Influence Character often happens off-screen—as the Influence Character represents the You perspective of conflict, not the I perspective found in the Main Character. The One I Love adds to this trend.
Enjoying a pleasant moment together and living in the moment as befitting a Story Outcome of Success and a Story Goal of Being, Sophie heads down to make breakfast. Calling out, she asks Ethan if he wants bacon—an indication that she is now living up to his expectations, rather than her own. This Influence Character Solution of Expectation aligns with the rest of the narrative and contributes to the resolution of the story’s inequity and of their marriage.
Doing It Together
The article, Your Story is Schrödinger’s Cat, explains the source of conflict in Ethan and Sophie’s marriage:
...the conflict in their marriage focuses on what they don’t Do well together. Examples range from the lack of doing what they used to do as a couple, their inability to play piano together, doing it with other people, to even doing it with each other—without one of them even knowing it. Each of these stands as an instance of Doing as a source of conflict in their relationship.
A balance of blame lies hidden underneath Ethan and Sophie’s words and actions. Dramatica defines Cause as the specific circumstances that lead to an effect and stands out from Determination as it focuses exclusively on the reason, not on any effort to determine that reason.
In addition to this unspoken blame, Cause leans the other way with this push towards making the marriage work—forcing it to happen, rather than going with the flow and enjoying the effects of being together. This Relationship Story Solution of Effect plays out in that final scene—
—contributing a sense of fulfillment to juxtapose the confusion felt by the Main Character.
A Personal Tragedy
Ethan—and many on the Internet—ends the film unsure of the identity of the woman down in the kitchen. She’s Changed and now lives up to his Expectations—but is she truly his wife? Is this the Fantasy he fought for?
This confusion finds grounds in the Story Judgment of Bad. Combined with the Story Outcome of Success, The One I Love falls into the classification of Personal Tragedy stories: the “good guys” win, but at what cost? What level of angst leaves the Main Character—and by proxy, the Audience—with an unsteady and uneasy feeling?
Narrative structure is more than a framework to construct a story—its a framework to convey some greater meaning. The combination of Desire, Unending, Fantasy, Determination, Expectation, Success, and Bad teach us that sometimes getting what we wish results in us losing what we had.
The One I Love is a fun psychological thriller that imparts something more than a twisted account of a screwed-up weekend in Ojai—it tells us how to truly be happy.