Do not read on unless you’ve seen “Twenty-Two,” Wednesday’s episode of FXX’s “You’re the Worst.” And if you haven’t the episode (or the show), rectify that situation as soon as you can.
I laughed out loud several times during “Twenty-Two,” which is one of many compliments this spectacular episode deserves. “You’re the Worst,” which was renewed today, never tires of showcasing the inherent absurdity of life, and it has characters that are custom-made to shine a spotlight on the idiotic and sympathetic things friends are capable of, as well as the impulsive and contradictory life choices of alleged adults. On this show, those choices range from admirable to amusingly deranged, and yet tonally, “You’re the Worst” is never confused about what it is or what it’s going for. It’s one of TV’s most reliable pleasures — but part of its appeal is its willingness to take chances, as it did in “Twenty-Two,” which made me tear up as well as laugh.
The short black-and-white movie at the very end was a hilarious send-up of a certain kind of student film, and its title cards were priceless (“Damn, playa!”). And it was so beautifully ironic and so perfectly apt, in a “You’re the Worst” way, that Edgar’s psychic breakthrough was almost immediately undercut by some L.A. douchebags acting like L.A. douchebags.
The film crew people were not the worst — that award would go Jimmy and Gretchen in this episode — and they quickly veered away from being complete stereotypes, but the show wrung the maximum amount of dry amusement from the fact that these self-absorbed artists never noticed Edgar’s distress. His decision to not commit suicide was made once he saw the paper boat — it was a completely random and sweet object that made him feel better for a few seconds, and sometimes, for a person who’s in the abyss, that’s enough. But as far as the crew was concerned, he was just some random dude who messed up their day.
Those people don’t know Edgar: They don’t know that he’s capable of sick dance moves and makes a mean breakfast fritatta. They don’t know that he served his nation honorably in the armed forces (even if he didn’t know it was a school), and that, for some reason, thinks that he’s less important than everyone around him. It’s this kind of character specificity that makes this show work; it’s the rocket fuel of “You’re the Worst” and the exploding number of amazing, emotionally complex half-hour shows.
Knowing who Edgar is and what his problems are powers this installment in a host of effective ways. We’ve now seen him struggle for more than two dozen episodes, and most of us probably realized this crisis was coming, but it was depicted with such insight, economy and craft that it had a very powerful impact. It was never sappy or predictable or sentimental, and yet how could someone not care about what this man was going through? It’s worth noting that Desmin Borges needed to display almost every part of his range in this single half-hour, and he went above and beyond the call of duty and came through brilliantly. This showcase was a long time coming, but Borges and “You’re the Worst” knocked it out of the park.
Much of Season Three has had an unmistakable an air of desperation: All the characters have realized they need to move forward and attempt to grow up in certain key ways, but there is a sweaty, hyper quality to the decisions they’re making and the paths they’re taking. Gretchen finally started therapy, but it’s as if she made a decision to be the most difficult, demanding and selfish patient her therapist has likely ever met (and that’s a high bar to clear in Los Angeles). She is likewise keen on rushing Jimmy through his grief over his father’s death, so that it doesn’t impact her in any noticeable way. Jimmy himself is determined to control, mock and repress his grief in the ways he deems fit, as if he gets to be in charge of how those emotions will play out. Good luck with that!
Oh, and Lindsay stabbed a dude. Not long after “accidentally” putting a knife in her husband’s back — Lindsay’s not one for subtle metaphors — she threw herself at a man who engaged her in conversation at a baby-products store. She wants to force herself into “family” mode, but so far, it’s just not taking, in part because she, like the other characters, wants to get to a particular destination by taking a rash series of short cuts.
Edgar sometimes tries to plan things out and often thinks about the feelings of others, all of which makes him frequently more admirable than his fellow Worsties, but he is no different when it comes to taking questionable short-cuts. He ditched all of his meds, which has led to a whole array of psychological problems that Stephen Falk, who wrote and directed the episode, sketched with admirable concision and brevity in the first third of the episode.
Sound was expertly used to create a sense of distance from the other characters; their voices at the breakfast table sounded as though they were coming from another dimension, or from the bottom of a well. Other voices and sounds often faded out completely as Edgar wrestled with everything he was seeing — or possibly not seeing — which included a “mysterious man” whom he spotted several times throughout his day. The idea that the man was spying on him, and that people at the store were tracking him as well, was just one indication of Edgar’s skewed perception and growing paranoia. Another indicator of the growing crisis: His lost time at the store (one moment, the store was empty, and the next, there were dozens of other customers).
Last season, the show got a ton of deserved praise for depicting Gretchen’s clinical depression with accuracy and for grounding her struggles in the specificity of that character. It wasn’t a “very special season,” it was the story of one woman’s experience of mental illness, and that character-driven approach is continuing this season — and it’s worth noting that the show’s commitment to these kinds of narratives is both novel and commendable.
Mental illness, like grief or PTSD, is not something that just exits a person’s life after a short amount of time, but TV has shown a noted lack of commitment and consistency of vision when it comes to depicting complex and/or diagnosable psychological issues over time. Thank goodness, then, for the wave of comedies of the last few years; they have often used their short-ish running times to tell stories that distill difficult and confusing emotional experiences in poignant, funny and heart-piercing ways. (This is my way of telling you that if you like “You’re the Worst” and you’re not also watching “Transparent,” “One Mississippi,” “Atlanta,” “Fleabag,” “Better Things,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Catastrophe,” “Lady Dynamite” and the upcoming “Insecure,” you’re missing out.)
In season two, the show took a very savvy chance and told much of one episode from the perspective of a couple who lives near Gretchen and Jimmy, the better to emphasize Gretchen’s profound distress. This season, “You’re the Worst” wisely turned its focus almost entirely to Edgar, whose PTSD has been referenced many times since the show debuted. We saw various Season Three events and moments from his perspective, a tactic that emphasized just how isolated and disconnected the character had become. That can be one of the side effects of depression and PTSD; they can take whatever feelings of loneliness and hopelessness you have and magnify them in dangerous ways, and you can end up convinced that no one else will ever understand what’s going on.
I am not a veteran, but in the past, I have dealt with depression, anxiety, panic disorder and PTSD, and one of the most profound things about this episode is how perfectly it depicted how callous other people can seem when you are just barely hanging on. Edgar’s friends have no idea how much he’s struggling to keep it together, let alone make pancakes, which makes their insults about his breakfast that much more painful.
They don’t notice what a clinician would call a “flat affect” as he rotely moved through the kitchen, trying to be invisible. Their comments almost have no effect on him, so consumed is he by pain and confusion, and that, to me, feels very accurate as well. He’s desperate, but he feels utterly alone (and that’s one reason that certain comedies have done such a great job with intense, potentially painful personal scenarios: Would you want to watch 45 minutes of that kind of struggle, or 25 minutes, with some jokes? In fairness, “Mad Men” and some other dramas have done this kind of thing exceptionally well, quite often because those shows are often very funny too.)
Like the other characters, Edgar is trying to take a step forward, which is, in some ways, much harder than just letting a problem fester. That moment when a person rips off the bandage, so to speak, can be the most vulnerable and scary time; he’s struggled for so long, and no one has come to his aid. To try to dig yourself out of a hole mentally when it’s all you can do to sleep or feed yourself is astonishingly difficult — not that Jimmy or Gretchen notice, or care.
But that’s probably why Edgar has gravitated to them: He wanted to numb everything out and yet have a purpose at the same time. He defined himself through his passivity, but now that desire to hang back and not upset the apple cart too much might kill him. The moment in which everything changed, I think, was when he told the film crew guy not to speak to him in that mean way. That point was underlined not only in his conversation with Dorothy but also in the great scene in the tow truck, which was just so wonderfully played Borges and Brad Hunt.
Edgar and all veterans absolutely deserve a responsive V.A. that will help them — and the episode’s title, “Twenty-Two,” refers to the number of former service members who commit suicide each day. That is a shocking, awful statistic that the episode folds into the narrative neatly, but “You’re the Worst” doesn’t let you forget how real that possibility is for a character who is so lovable and brave.
As the driver pointed out, part of what might drag Edgar out of his personal hell is his own belief in himself, and his ability to advocate for himself, or to simply try new things. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution; therapy and medication might be part of it for him, perhaps being part of the V.A. study (if he is ever allowed in the building again), and maybe listening to his cheesy soft-rock tapes will be another thing that gets him through. Obviously, those kinds of efforts are so crushingly hard when one’s mental state is at its worst. This episode of “You’re the Worst” does the neat trick of not sugar-coating that reality while making what is, in the end, a swift, compassionate, smart, acerbic and funny episode of television.
“Twenty-Two” is also very moving. No character on this show has been more consistently kind and thoughtful, so to see him lose his composure in the office of the V.A. bureaucrat was galvanizing, and of course, on some level, appropriate. (Sidebar: Julie White is an amazing actor and she played the doctor’s pragmatic and ultimately hypocritical sympathy very well). To see Edgar crouched in the corner of his room, terrified by the thought of continuing in so much pain and also by the possibility of failing to get help again, was heartbreaking. As for his moment near the freeway considering suicide, well, like much of the episode, there was very little dialogue. “Twenty Two” had done such an empathic and intelligent job of mapping Edgar’s frustration and despair that we didn’t need it.
Minutes later, he appeared to be floating on air — but was it a disaster? It was not, thank goodness. Edgar had found a friend, and the sliver of hope he found in that conversation with the tow-truck driver might be enough to get him through to the next stage of his recovery. It was glorious to see the reveal regarding his moment of joy, when he was standing up and waving his arms through the sunroof. Edgar didn’t choose to die in traffic. Edgar was in his own car, getting a lift in more ways than one.
* One final note: The fictional band Starlight Tidepool produced the fictional album (“Dreams of Tangier”) that Edgar played in his car. In the cover photograph, the members of that “band” were Franklin Hardy (a “You’re the Worst” writer), Adam Blau (the show’s composer) and Corey Brill, who played the mystery man (the utility worker, the cop, etc.) that Edgar kept spotting. I hope that song will be sold online somewhere; it was pretty catchy.