In HBO Max’s Made for Love—in which Cristin Milioti plays a trophy wife escaping her tech husband’s fantasy world—the actress initially seems to be trapped in her own version of the Rachel McAdams time traveler’s girlfriend problem. Of course, typecasting is a common issue irrespective of genre, but its existence in SFF is further complicated by how specific these pigeonholes become: For a seven-year span starting in 2009, McAdams was stuck as the perennial girlfriend/wife of men who could travel through time, while she was rooted in place.
Similarly, since 2013, Milioti has embodied variations on the (usually SFF) dream girl trapped in some idealized box by a toxic man—beginning with her introduction as the Mother on How I Met Your Mother and continuing on into Black Mirror, Palm Springs, and now Made for Love.
To be clear, this is not to ignore Milioti’s range of TV and stage roles (Fargo, After the Blast), nor to flatten her individual dream-girl iterations into a single performance. The pattern is worth noting because there is a deliberateness to it. We are witnessing a fascinating experiment in committing to the same formula in a variety of contexts and, with each take, further chipping away at a familiar archetype until it is done away with entirely.
Not only is Made for Love‘s Hazel Green the perfect package for Elon Musk-esque tech billionaire Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), but the role itself almost feels like a machine learning algorithm that has been fed Milioti’s IMDb page: Note the sequined green dress, that she wore on her first date with Byron—also the last time she had stepped outside of the cube—and which has been preserved alongside his suit in a private exhibit to their relationship. Swoon over her and Byron’s playful duet as she calls for her “Lover Boy” and tells him “My sweet baby / You’re the one.” Watch her—or a limpid-eyed deepfake of her—embrace Byron in an ad for his Made for Love implant, which will allow soulmates like the Gogols to literally see through each other’s eyes.
Hazel Green-Gogol is the pinnacle SFF dream girl, so it only makes sense that she would begin, not end, Made for Love by breaking out of the fantasy.
Even though How I Met Your Mother is not SFF, it cemented the archetype. Season after season, as Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) sketched out the world of his twenties and the Mother-shaped hole it was missing, it became more and more daunting to imagine the perfect woman who could complement his love for old buildings and his affection for the Renaissance Faire. In the penultimate season, a dream girl appeared: a knockout with big, Disney-princess eyes, coolly playing the bass while grinning like a doof over her coin collection, chain mail corset at the ready. The smartest thing about introducing the Mother was having all of Ted’s friends meet her first, in a variety of scenarios where she offered sage advice as if she’d been part of the group for years, then having Ted’s first impression of her be a balcony rendition of “La Vie en Rose”—love at first ukulele strum.
It is no small feat to nail a dream girl persona with eight years of backstory. Milioti made audiences fall in love with her as effortlessly as if they hadn’t been anticipating her for nearly a decade—and she ultimately got killed off for her efforts. In that case, HIMYM co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had decided on the series finale when they created the pilot, and didn’t alter their plans despite the chemistry among certain co-stars or Milioti’s charismatic exceeding of expectations. Tracy McConnell was always going to be Ted Mosby’s dream girl, share a decent span of life (but by no means a lifespan) with him, and then die crystallized as his perfect, lost-too-soon partner. This would pave the way for a second chance at love with Robin Scherbatsky, flawed by contrast but somehow deemed more compelling, the reality to the dream from which he eventually awoke. That Milioti did so much with the role in her own limited time speaks to her career longevity.
Milioti immediately followed up her stint as the Mother playing someone else’s dream girl on the similarly romantic but shorter-lived sitcom A to Z, complete with a beloved voice narrating in hindsight (Katey Sagal) that Andrew and Zelda would meet in episode A, and date for only eight months and three weeks (with their ultimate fate to be revealed). The series never made it to the end of the alphabet, in part because it tripped over itself trying to construct a similar mystery to the Mother—involving Andrew trying to determine if Zelda were “the girl in the silver dress” he had glimpsed at a concert and imagined an entire life with. Surprising absolutely no one, she was.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when Milioti was beamed aboard an abusive man’s Star Trek pastiche power fantasy, that it felt like she found a more fitting justice for her HIMYM fate. Black Mirror’s “USS Callister” starts out from the perspective of awkward, unappreciated CTO Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), but it quickly abandons all sympathy as he uses his company’s virtual-reality technology to make a copy of his new employee Nanette and upload her into a simulation of Space Fleet, his beloved childhood sci-fi series in which he is the dashing and omnipotent hero.
From the moment that the digital copy of Nanette opens her eyes aboard the ship, dressed in a bad Halloween costume take on a Starfleet uniform, the story becomes wholly hers. At first it’s a narrative of being trapped in this pocket universe with the other avatars of Daly’s coworkers-turned-victims. But as her desperation mounts, Nanette uses Robert’s infatuation (with her, with power) against him by letting him think she’s given up and decided to go along with his narrative, in order to usurp and trap him in his own prison. Yet even this victory is bittersweet for Nanette, as she has to hurt herself—her real-world self, threatened with revenge porn into helping the VR copies—and “freedom” means still being confined to this sci-fi afterlife, albeit as the captain and with infinite space to explore. Nanette escapes Robert’s fantasy, but she’s still stuck in a fantasy world.
While the flesh-and-blood Hazel exists in Byron’s innovative Cube compound, she may as well be a digital file stored in an infinite universe: From the moment she steps into the Cube on their first date, she never sets foot outside again until a decade later, when she claws her way out via a literal escape hatch. In the intervening time, Byron presents Hazel with everything she could need—virtual trips all around the world, food condensed down to essential nutrient balls, a coterie of attendants to massage and optimize her—while subtly withholding the freedom that she wants.
For Ted, Tracy seems like a dream bestowed by the universe because she has literally been written to complement his every personality quirk. Robert zeroes in on Nanette not because she’s a coder good enough to be at his company, but because she’s an adoring fan. And Hazel? Byron chooses her like she’s a refurbished device, something he can wipe clean and rewrite to his needs and desires.
Rachel McAdams never got the chance to be the time traveler. Instead, she pivoted into comedy, building on her success in the Wedding Crashers ensemble to eventually take on starring comedic roles in Game Night and her best effort yet, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Even so, she’s still occasionally dipping back to that role, reprising her role as Doctor Strange’s linear love interest and confidante in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Yet one can’t help but imagine that McAdams’ confinement to this SFF archetype has helped influence the eventual rise of female time traveler stories—or, at least, women trapped in time loops: Russian Doll’s Nadia and Happy Death Day’s Tree both reliving bad birthdays, and perennial hot-mess wedding guest Sarah in last year’s Palm Springs… played by Cristin Milioti.
Tracking this pattern is particularly interesting considering a recent interview with Vulture in which Milioti confessed her fear that “people thought I was only capable of one thing.” Though she was talking about her pre-HIMYM career, one imagines that she has carried this awareness throughout her bevy of dream girl roles, especially as Milioti mentioned that her ultimate role was The Bride from Kill Bill—for her rage, yes, but perhaps also because she herself is a subversion of the victim archetype.
Sarah marks a turning point in Milioti’s infinity of dream girls because she doesn’t come prepackaged as some ideal mate. At the start of Palm Springs’ perpetual wedding, she is the bride’s less dazzling sister, too drunk to give her maid-of-honor speech and seemingly checked out of life even before she gets trapped in Nyles’ (Andy Samberg) time loop when she tries to help him the first night.
As she pushes against the boundaries of her suddenly-limited world and slowly gets to know Nyles, it is revealed that every morning Sarah awakens next to the groom, having had sex with him the night before. Even before the loop began, she regretted it; to wake up every morning, after an endless and/or violent day, to this reminder of her failure is enough to make her want to give up.
Worse, Nyles eventually reveals that he lied when he said that they had never slept together before she got trapped in the loop—drastically altering the dynamic between them, as she realizes that he has seen her vulnerable in a way that she had no experience of. This theme repeats in Made for Love, in which Hazel confronts Byron about pressuring her into letting him go down on her every morning (and rating her orgasm, with five stars being necessary to her continued survival) but always keeping their sex one-sided. “I gave you all my vulnerabilities,” she cries at him in the season finale, “and you gave me none!”
“That’s what I love about the time-loop mechanism,” Milioti told Vulture. “At the beginning [of lockdown], people were like, ‘We can’t escape ourselves!’ One of the great works of one’s life, I think, is to learn how not to escape yourself.”
It’s this quote that makes me read deliberate choice into each and every dream girl Milioti has embodied. Rather than try to escape the archetype, she is interrogating every facet of it and finding a new way through.
Like Tree of Happy Death Day, the slasher-victim-turned-horror-veteran, Sarah eventually devotes her time to learning the rules of her world—but instead of Final Girl principles, it’s the laws of quantum physics. She doesn’t do this alone; she asks physics professors for remote help tutoring her in general relativity as she plots how to put those concepts into practice via some nasty-looking combustibles. In this way, Sarah is able to literally explode her and Nyles’ way out of their loop—an irreversible decision that she must commit to with the press of a detonator.
Unlike Rachel McAdams’ lateral career move away from her SFF archetype, Milioti is exhausting every iteration of the dream girl, hollowing it out from the inside until it is a husk from which she can emerge triumphant. Even back in 2011, in her first big TV role as 30 Rock’s “sexy baby,” Milioti was digging her way out of a cringey trope: What makes the “TGS Hates Women” episode so brilliant is that Milioti’s Abby Grossman adopts the male wet-dream of bouncy, cooing Abby Flynn not due to societal pressures but as protection from her murderous ex-husband. She subverts the sexy baby persona into armor, only for Liz Lemon to strip it off and force Abby to flee into her next male fantasy—this time as a redhead.
With Hazel Green-Gogol, Milioti may have quantum-leapt into her final SFF dream girl form. The world into which she escapes is not necessarily better than the Cube: She returns to her shitty hometown, with her deadbeat dad Herb (Ray Romano) and his synthetic partner Diane. Though Hazel is initially disgusted by her widowed father taking up with a sex doll, she ultimately comes to a strange affinity with Diane, seeing in her the better version of being a doll maintained at someone else’s desire, but relieved of the hassle of needing anything.
Made for Love’s first season builds to Hazel having control over her life for the first time in a decade, which makes her big decision to return to Byron and the Cube disturbing on multiple levels. Despite him offering up some vulnerability, that’s not why she goes back to him: It’s to save Herb, who is dying of cancer, who can’t afford the kind of treatment that the Cube can provide, and who would refuse it from a mix of pride and stubbornness.
That means, then, that the only way to save her father is for Hazel to have Byron’s people drug him and transplant him into his own Cube recreating his modest home down to every detail. In the final scene, Hazel has transformed from prisoner to jailer, betraying the one person that matters to her—ostensibly out of love, but at the cost of his agency. The fate of the series remains unclear, but hopefully it will get a second season in which to explore what happens when the dream girl places someone else in her nightmare.
Palm Springs’ turning-point scene, in which Sarah realizes she has to be the one to save herself, made Milioti ask herself, “What if you just trusted yourself? What if you trust that you’ve done all the work?” Made for Love makes it clear that she has done nearly a decade of the work, and so whether or not there’s more Hazel to be deconstructed, Milioti’s experiment has been successful.
Natalie Zutter will never forget watching Cristin Milioti act opposite an adorable robot on-stage and have to redo an emotional monologue when said robot glitched. Tell her which SFF archetypes you want to see exploded on Twitter!