Though Gretchen explains Jimmy’s time in the treehouse by way of Dead Poets Society, and Lindsay angles for a job with the woman who “dressed Porter Potty for The Good Life premiere after being re-tweeted by Crabby Applepants,” the pop cultural point of reference for this week’s You’re the Worst is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
From the faint echo of the title to the long, agile shots of Jaclyn and Shitstain’s “elopement party,” “The Inherent, Unsullied Qualitative Value of Anything” is, like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film, more audacious in form than in function, at once a change of pace after “Talking to Me, Talking to Me” and a continuation of its central dilemma. Bringing to a head the brewing discontent in its three main relationships—Jimmy and Gretchen, Lindsay and Paul, Edgar and Dorothy—the episode reflects the unevenness of the series’ third season, its ambition and its lack of control. “Everything I am, or have, is suspect,” Jimmy says, recalling the crisis of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, but his attempt at self-evaluation feels strangely empty, not so much virtue as vice.
Still, “The Inherent, Unsullied Qualitative Value of Anything” features what has become You’re the Worst’s trademark, an admirable willingness to push itself in new stylistic directions; the clockwork stagecraft of the extended takes, their tense high-wire act, is an uncommon thrill. The episode also features a few corker lines of dialogue, including Honey Nuts’ winsomely funny admission: “You know public speaking is one of my greatest fears,” he relates. “It’s public speaking, hikes, and waking up with a scorpion in my mouth… When I’m not rapping, I’m just Zachary from Reseda that likes hard cider and losing myself in a graphic novel.” (Lindsay’s aforementioned series of malapropisms—for Parker Posey, The Good Wife, and Tavi Gevinson—is even better.)
In shoehorning the culmination of a season’s worth of romantic troubles into a single, fast-paced half hour, however, You’re the Worst loses its sense of each relationship’s weight in the service of its impressive set pieces. As in Birdman, the camera’s darting and dashing becomes one of the avoidance strategies against which the series itself warns: Rather than earning the reckoning each couple confronts, “The Inherent, Unsullied Qualitative Value of Anything” forces the issue, as if the writers realized they’d run out of time to carry off a more organic conclusion.
The elopement party, in this sense, is both an apt setting for the characters to come to Jesus—such events can strain even the most stable relationship—and an all too easy excuse for the suddenness with which things fall apart. Lindsay, under duress, reveals to Paul that she had an abortion, and Edgar’s neglect of Dorothy deepens, but in neither case does the pair in question have much space to grapple with the consequences. There’s too much going on.
This is, to be frank, where You’re the Worst reaches the limits of its invention: The season has, on the whole, struggled to strike a balance between acerbic humor and sincere emotion, to the point that the series has fallen victim to its own formula. The fleet-footed, darkly comic episode that veers into sorrow in the final moments is effective once, twice, three times, but to replicate that structure week after week is to lessen its impact by increments; the moment in “The Inherent, Unsullied Qualitative Value of Anything” at which Gretchen realizes Jimmy’s list of “negative things” is neither “dumb” nor “little” is potent enough without being capped, as in “Talking to Me, Talking to Me,” by images of the distance between them.
Divided by the aisle, or driving home in separate cars, our protagonists’ mournful recognition that their romance is on the rocks is cheapened by the sense that this is now just the series’ baseline—a bunch of brilliant lines and aesthetic experiments that nonetheless go exactly where we expect.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.