“Do it fast, or I’ll blow your brains out!”
The words belong to a man in a ski mask, and he’s urging the cashier at the Foremost Market to fill a black bag with all the money he can find. Behind him, hidden in of the store’s aisles, Dee, Dennis, Mac, Charlie, and Frank crouch in terror, trying to decide what to do. The camera focuses on each face one by one, and as the screen dissolves into white, we start our journey. These are their hero fantasies.
Mac is probably the simplest character on the show, so it makes sense that he goes first. Using his best throaty Batman voice, he struts out to the robber and gives him a last chance to run. When he refuses, Mac delivers the first of his action movie lines—”say cheese”—and uses a ladle to slather his eyes with hot nacho sauce. He dispatches the man with ease and accepts the praise from his friends (their only quibble was the pun), but there’s a problem; when Mac unmasks the intruder, the tattoos reveal that he was Yakuza. Suddenly, ninjas dressed entirely in black begin flooding through the doors. Mac uses his karate to fight them all off, springing around the store like Bruce Lee and looking far less awkward than usual. Soon he’s killed them all, and an old man emerges from the back of the store slow-clapping. Mac thinks this is the big boss, so he kicks him into a cold refrigerator, but it turns out the man is the cashier’s father. As they contemplate this, one of the dying Yakuza throws a ninja star into Mac’s neck. He dies with his friends crying over his body, but his soul rises to heaven, where musclebound angels escort him to the right-hand seat of God, where together they’ll sit and ignore everyone’s prayers.
Dee is next, and in a fantasy that doesn’t start out too far from reality, the rest of the gang offers her to the gunman. Or, as it turns out when she removes her mask, the gunwoman. Dee manages to get her hands on the gun, at which point she shoots the rest of the gang with a bitter smile, shoots the cashier, and then pins it all on the robber. The police put her in witness protection, where she plays a British male butler to a rich widower and his two children. She’s so convincing that they make it into a TV show, and soon Dee is a movie star. She marries Josh Groban, who writes a song for her about how she looks nothing like a bird, but she soon leaves him for Brad Pitt.
Dennis’ fantasy is by far the most bizarre. After trying to approach the gunman as a fellow con (“a fisherman always spots a fellow fisherman from afar”), he gets shot in the head. But he doesn’t die. Instead, he gets rehabilitated at the hospital by Jackie Denardo, the beautiful weather-woman who has become a nurse. Soon Dennis is punching heavy bags and running through the streets, and he confesses his love while rollerblading. But Jackie veers the wrong way and careens into traffic. She’s mangled—broken pelvis, pierced lung, scratches on her face. Dennis quietly asks the doctor what happened to her breasts, and the bad news is that they were “obliterated.” Luckily, he says, she has Dennis to help her recover. Dennis asks for a moment of privacy, and when the doctor leaves, he uses the pillow to smother her to death.
Frank’s fantasy: To use the robbery distraction, and the ensuing shootout, to eat as many hot dogs as he can stomach.
In Charlie’s deranged mind, everything is animated. The waitress walks through the front door, and he shoves Dee into the path as the gunman shoots. Dee goes down, but Charlie and the waitress escape. The rats in his apartment turn her into a beautiful bride, and build them a house. Charlie is still a janitor, she’s still a waitress, and so are all their kids. Pretty soon, the whole fantasy turns into Pixar’s Up. The waitress grows old and dies, the grass grows over her gravestone, and after a depressing interval, balloons begin popping out of the house’s windows, carrying Charlie into the sky.
Finally, the gang snaps back to reality. None of them have the courage to act out any of these scenarios, and after checking in with each other, they grab as many items as they can from the shelves and dash out of the store.
The structure is very basic in “The Gang Saves the Day,” and it works precisely because it cuts through the plot and allows us to see the (mostly terrifying) inner workings of their brains. There are some hilarious side games, such as Dee dying in three of the five fantasies (and maybe four—we never see her at the hospital with Dennis). Another: When he awakes from his gunshot wound, Dennis’ second question is, “does my dick work?” When the answer comes back negative, he asks to die. And Mac’s Yakuza fantasy is perfect, right down to the quibbling over his puns. The only real missed opportunity, oddly enough, was Charlie’s fantasy, which had the clever Pixar animation but lacked the chaotic madness that characterizes the King of the Rats. He went last, and it offered the perfect chance to heighten things to absurd, disturbing levels, but the cartoon felt more like a cop-out than a capstone.
The good news, though, is that halfway through season nine, It’s Always Sunny is hitting its stride as an ongoing character study. The missteps of the early episodes are well in the past, and the obsession with intricate plots seems thankfully to have vanished. Instead, we’re burrowing into their heads to unearth new layers of selfishness and nouveau-American horror. Like the gunman’s bullets, or Mac’s whirling feet and fists, this is an approach that can’t miss.