Part of the allure of Catfish — MTV’s runaway hit about the super-bad side of online romance — is the way that its scenarios could conceivably happen to anyone with an Internet connection and a penchant for reaching out beyond their friend circles. Online personas are, after all, a construct; until Google comes up with a version of Glass that beams a user’s every thought to the world at large, people select their own selfies, bon mots, and friend lists for putting out to the world, and even to those who they consider their intimate friends. The tension of Catfish hinges on this paradox; the show’s Season Three premiere brings it to a horrifying, overly complicated place full of long-distance manipulation, Facebook photo-syncing gone awry, and nights spent staring at one’s phone waiting for something to happen.
Meet Craig, a sweetly lonely Pittsburgh dude who’s stuck in what he calls the “Heartbreak Hotel” because of a North Carolina woman named Zoe. The two chatted constantly for about a year. Craig fell for her, but every time they tried to meet up she’d bail, citing “family emergencies” and other vaguely defined obstacles. Eventually she edged away from Craig emotionally, but that didn’t snuff out his curiosity. “I think he’s really sweet, but a little naïve,” co-sleuth Max Joseph says, as he and Nev Schulman are boarding the plane to meet this week’s mark.
This is a bit of an understatement, as shown by the pile of shared passwords, vengeance-posted photos, and broken friendships that makes itself more visible over the coming hour. Craig got to know Zoe through his sister Mirah, who lives in Florida; she, in turn, was introduced to Zoe by a couple of her friends, who as it turns out aren’t speaking anymore because of Zoe’s antics. While the two were becoming closer—”Zoe gave me the love that I was looking for from ex-girlfriends, my mother, my family, friends,” he tells Nev and Max—she was also messing with the Florida-based clique who had introduced the two of them, threatening the posting of nudes and other airing of grievances.
This was in part because Zoe demanded Craig’s Facebook password, which he gave to her — even though they’d never met — in order to prove that he was trustworthy, although she flipped this trust to constantly figure out what his password was each time he’d change it. One friend (Kayln) had texted him a photo of her in lingerie that was apparently automatically uploaded to his Facebook account; Zoe, upon spotting it, turned around and posted it to Craig’s wall, complete with airing-out of Kalyn’s behavior. “She’s kind of a social-network bully,” Nev says at one point. (Lots of understatements in this episode!)
Another time photos were synced to Craig’s Facebook account, one selfie stuck out — it had been posted by Zoe, but didn’t look like the photos associated with her profile. “Oh, that’s my friend Cassandra,” Zoe told Craig at the time. Nev and Max’s sleuthing, which begins with a search on Zoe’s phone number, snakes through North Carolina before arriving at an actual Cassandra — Cassandra Rozmus, who happens to be very physically similar to the “friend” who Craig had stumbled upon months earlier. More sleuthing uncovers Cassandra’s YouTube channel, which, unlike her friendship-wrecking adventures on Facebook, is under her own name. It not only gives Nev and Max the chance to offer up audio evidence that Zoe and Cassandra are the same person, it allows viewers who are multi-screening to see Cassandra’s dancing skills (it was 2010, so Soulja Boy is involved):
(Note the hoodie with her name on it, too.)
Once presented with the evidence, it’s time for The Confrontation. But Cassandra/Zoe isn’t answering her phone, so Nev, Max, Craig, and Mirah travel from Florida to North Carolina for an ambush. Her house is giant; when the Catfish crew rang the doorbell to no answer, I wondered if nobody was in a room where they could actually hear the thing. Cassandra eventually returns, exiting her car extremely slowly. “How’d you get my address?” she demands. “It really wasn’t that hard, actually,” says Nev, his voice dripping with more contempt than it has been during the show’s entire run in total.
Can she explain herself? “I don’t got no excuse… it was just a joke and it got out of hand,” Cassandra tells the assembled. “You don’t have to sit there and tell me what I’ve done, because I’m fully aware. It was just a game, a joke, to put people on blast, basically… just to mess with people.” Sounds like your garden-variety sociopath who claims that she’s just “keeping it real” from a distance!
Eventually night falls, and perhaps because of their persistence Cassandra invites her visitors inside. She offers a stiff apology to Craig. “You want answers, but it just doesn’t matter”; any hope for reconciliation, let alone a goodbye embrace, is snuffed out. He walks back to the truck to sulk about his niceness and eat chips, and Max and Nev tell her that she’s pretty much awful. It’s here that she breaks down and talks about how people bullied her all through her life, and how she felt so terrible and that making people feel lousy made her feel better. Nev and Max persuade her to change, to be a better person. She acquiesces; they retreat back to Florida “It was her losing you that pushed her over the edge,” they tell Craig on the ride home. “Right,” he says, completely unconvinced.
Six weeks later, the Catfish crew catches up with both parties. Craig got a job and cut off The Former Zoe; Cassandra struggles with the idea of reactivating the Zoe profile to give herself that bullying charge every day. (During last night’s show she was Tweeting and Facebooking up a storm, but the posts have since been made private or deleted — ah, the circle of bullying life.)
THIS WEEK’S LESSONS FOR BETTER INTERNET LIVING (AND LOVING)
1. If someone flakes on your first meeting more than three times, you’re probably not meant to be. The process of realizing that The One is more likely than not a zero is painful, but ripping off the Band-Aid ASAP is worth it in the long run.
2. Google is your friend. This should be the No. 1 lesson of Catfish, given that much of Nev and Max’s sleuthery is actually just the result of power search engine usage. (The glee Nev exhibited when he realized that “Zoe” and Cassandra used the same text string in their Facebook profiles’ URLs was a lovely geek smoke-signal.)
3. Never share your Facebook password, especially if you haven’t been in the same room as another person. This should be pretty “duh!” — but apparently not.