I'll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don't know …
The Velvet Underground

"I wish I grew up the second I first held you in my arms," Perfume Genius sings as couples cling to each other on the dance floor at San Francisco dance club The EndUp.1 Patrick (Jonathan Groff) watches them. He's alone, but his face reveals that he's okay – after an emotionally turbulent day and night, his mind is clear, possibly for the first time ever, about who he is and what he wants.

Here is the final appearance of a mirror in HBO's Looking: The Movie2 (Andrew Haigh, 2016) – an entire mirrored wall, and Patrick stands with his back to it. After nine months of self-imposed exile in Denver, he's been home for a few days, to celebrate the marriage of his friends Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Eddie (Daniel Franzese). At the end of season 2, Patrick left San Francisco, "pressing the reset button and starting over." As the night bleeds into day, Patrick watches his friends, all in various states of coupled bliss. He has sworn off relationships but he also has unfinished romantic business in town. Then, all of a sudden, that business reappears in the mirror behind him.

Patrick has often looked in mirrors when feeling lost. But here, the audience is looking into the mirror for him; so we see his ex, Richie (Raúl Castillo), before he does, as an out-of-focus form entering the frame. As Richie's reflection sharpens, Patrick spots him too, standing in front of him. Patrick smiles, nervously. Richie moves closer, walking towards Patrick, just like he's stepping out of the mirror – Patrick's dream made flesh.

In Looking season 1, Patrick is looking for love but afraid of the feelings and the responsibility that it brings. His terror is magnified by his relationship with Richie, a working-class Mexican–American barber. Patrick and Richie have a fast, deep connection, but Patrick sabotages their relationship when he feels things moving too fast. Time away from San Francisco has provided Patrick with a clearer view of the past; now back in the city, he is ready to look at his future, and at Richie, differently.

From its first episode, Looking played with the wider implications of the idea of looking – built into the title of every episode and implicit in the show's themes of self-discovery and yearning. In a more specifically queer context, the idea of looking evokes cruising, now supplanted by the less public eyeing of potential sexual partners permitted by hook-up apps like Grindr.

Looking is primarily structured around Patrick's quest to figure out who he is, what kind of life he wants and who he wants to share it with. When we first meet him in "Looking for Now" (season 1, episode 1) he's out in the wilds looking for an anonymous hook-up. Later, he goes on a humiliating blind date. Returning from that, Patrick first meets Richie on Muni, the San Francisco light rail. Richie looks at Patrick from across the aisle and when a seat becomes available, moves and sits right in front of him in order to get a better look. Later, after their first official date and a misunderstanding in the bedroom, Patrick explains to Richie, "That's not what I'm looking for."

Mirrors play their part in Patrick's search. They are more than just objects; mirrors are a key element of Looking's mise en scène; a symbol for exploring the space between people. At its most basic level, to look in a mirror is to look at oneself. On screen, mirrors offer a moment of confrontation, reflection or speculation. Looking repeatedly places Patrick before a mirror at key moments of crisis about his relationships. In addition to Richie, Patrick's other significant relationship is with his boss, Kevin (Russell Tovey). They become lovers while Patrick is still with Richie and Kevin with his long-term partner. After a furtive affair they move in together in "Looking for Sanctuary" (season 2, episode 9). But, things implode quickly in the season 2 finale, "Looking for Home" (episode 10), when Patrick realises he and Kevin don't see their relationship the same way.

Mirrors are also used somewhat counterintuitively throughout Looking, never as a site for vanity. For Andrew Haigh, Looking's executive producer and the writer and director of some of the series' finest episodes as well as the film-length finale, mirrors are an ongoing concern. His acclaimed films, Weekend (2011) and 45 Years (2015) also position characters before mirrors at key moments of doubt and discovery. Within this visual logic, we never see Patrick admiring or preening himself. He looks in the mirror seeking something that exists beneath the surface; looking to see himself more clearly. Sometimes he accepts what he sees; other times, after a drunk Kevin kisses him in "Looking for a Plus-One" (season 1, episode 7) in front of a mirror, we are not so sure.

In "Looking in the Mirror" (season 1, episode 6), Patrick marks the beginning of the end of his relationship with Richie while standing in front of his bathroom mirror. Earlier that day Richie shows Patrick that he is serious about their relationship. He gives Patrick an amulet or escapulario, like the one he wears for good luck. But by the episode's end, Patrick stands naked, fiddling with the amulet, evaluating whether he and Richie fit. Whatever he has seen reflected in the glass is temporarily lost in the darkness as he turns out the light and the episode ends.

Looking features these physical mirrors, but also mirrored scenes. In the season one finale "Looking Glass" (episode 8), Patrick and Richie, temporarily parted, have a tearful talk that settles things. Richie tells Patrick, "Pato, I'm this close to falling in love with you … and I don't think you're ready." By the end of season 2, this exchange is mirrored, in front of the mirror at Willy's Barber Shop where Richie works. Having walked out on Kevin, Patrick ends up getting a haircut. Richie, clippers poised, asks "Are you ready?" Patrick looks at Richie, then looks at the two of them in the mirror together, and says, decisively, "I'm ready."

The mirror, though, has its limitations. For a character like Patrick, already crippled by self-loathing, self-examination has a tendency to magnify it. Nonetheless Patrick makes important discoveries in Looking: The Movie as a result of what other people reflect back to him and force him to face about himself. He has a number of important conversations, with Richie, Dom (Murray Bartlett), Agustín, Kevin and Doris (Lauren Weedman) as well as an explosive showdown with Brady (Chris Perfetti), Richie's boyfriend, which highlights Patrick's newfound sense of his own self-worth.

After that argument and before Richie's return to the club, Patrick takes refuge in the EndUp's bathroom. Washing his hands, he looks at himself in Looking's penultimate mirror. He shakes his head, perhaps sensing there is no easy solution; perhaps admitting that, as Brady accused, he did return to San Francisco hoping to win Richie back. He looks away. A slight smile forms on his face – a sense of resolution, not necessarily of how things are, but of how he feels. In that moment, Patrick accepts that he loves Richie. In that moment, he turns away from the mirror, to look beyond himself.

There is some magic, then, in the looking glass. Patrick has often looked into the mirror hoping to find answers to big questions. By reversing the position of the mirror in this dance floor scene, Haigh brings the answer to the biggest, recurring question of the series to life. In Looking: The Movie Patrick finally sees that Richie, the answer to his question – what am I looking for? – has been standing in front of him all along.