The magic of the roller rink dissipates so soon it’s as if Gretchen (Aya Cash) dreamed it, and perhaps she did: By the time dawn comes, Stephen Falk’s images of effortless motion on the parquet floor seem long ago and far away, already in the process of vanishing. In her friendship with Heidi (Zosia Mamet), her hometown, her life, Gretchen embraces nostalgia’s seductions, the imagined possibilities of a time that’s since passed—the career in cephalopod studies, the Twenty-Year Plan—though You’re the Worst, as one might expect, refuses to see through the same rose-colored glasses. Even the rink’s renovation, the idea for which Gretchen claims as her own, suddenly sours near the end of the episode; echoing her whining lies to her father, Gretchen demands one half of the profits, which do not exist. It’s a fantasy, in other words, one “Not a Great Bet” unravels by increments, convinced of the dangers of trying to go back.
The episode’s animating tension, then, is not between Gretchen and her family (from whom she absents herself), or between Gretchen and Heidi (who seems game enough), or even between the two thirtysomethings and the quartet of teenagers they meet at the mall. No, it’s when Gretchen’s gauzy memories encounter the truth that “Not a Great Bet” springs to life—when her attempt to recapture the fiction she finds in yearbooks and photo albums and “sense memory overload” inevitably fails. “I’m so in debt,” Heidi confesses in the early going, foreshadowing the disappointments to come. “It’s not what I thought.”
There are other clues, at the outset, that Gretchen’s expectations are bound to be dashed, though she cannot see them, or doesn’t want to: Mr. Collins’ repellent leer at the car rental counter; the mall’s abandonment to “stray dogs, meth heads and teens”; the edgier exchanges she shares with Heidi, especially on the subject of L.A. (“What do you have there that’s so different?” is sharp enough to draw blood.) The episode’s evolving aesthetic suggests much the same: From the past Gretchen invents in her childhood bedroom and the rink’s bright colors to the long night at the mall and the cold light of morning, “Not a Great Bet” traces the creation and dissolution of Gretchen’s fantasy, which is to pinpoint the moment it went awry and start again from there. That this is impossible on multiple levels—even Jägermeister and wine coolers can’t initiate time travel, and there’s no single decision that determines the rest—is not a guard against the yearning for another outcome, unfortunately, and Gretchen leans into the dream just as it’s coming apart.
Heidi’s unstinting assessment of Gretchen finally breaks the nostalgia’s spell—she’s been a “shape-shifter” for some time, easy to like or want, and not to know—but I suspect that’s because Gretchen possesses the antidote already. Despite her protestation that “it’s all downhill from here,” despite her (accurate) claim that “grown-up stuff sucks,” the increasingly unpleasant mall sequence, culminating in a cat food “gag” that the series itself seems to realize is more ugly than funny, is proof enough that adolescence is no more as we remember it than adulthood is what we thought it would be. (If you’ve ever been thirtysomething and far from where you began and worried that you managed to fuck it all up, “Not a Great Bet” should come with a warning label: Professional actor. Closed course. Do not attempt this at home.) In the end, those teenagers—overwhelmed, unsure, willing to shift their shapes at the slightest pressure—are closer to the truth than any story Gretchen concocted about the person she used to be, and that truth is grimly, almost nightmarishly, without nostalgia. You really can’t go home again, in tonight’s You’re the Worst. But why would you want to?
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.