Wilfred’s ambitions have always been an integral part of what makes the series endearing. The show may be shot on the cheap in various L.A. locations, but it makes it a point to never feel cheap, incorporating a heady mythology, and beautifully precise camera work to help transcend its practical limitations. It’s the small show with the big ideas. While the quality of these big ideas can wax and wane from episode to episode (the Cult material has actually been fairly strong this season), the writers have rarely let it get in the way of the most important component—the endearing, if highly dysfunctional, central relationship between Ryan and Wilfred.
With the exception of a humorous montage, “Courage” stands as perhaps the most insular entry of this season. The action mostly takes place in the two main houses (Ryan’s and Jenna’s), and the interactions are almost entirely between Ryan, Wilfred and Jenna (with a doctor character thrown in at one point). The lack of heady visuals, memorable guest stars, or outrageous set pieces leaves us with only the characters. Here, it becomes quite clear that the Wilfred creative team has put in the proper time developing their leads, thus allowing them and their relationships to carry this episode forward.
Still joyful after the encounter with the car left him with three legs, Wilfred appears to be having the time of his life. That is, until Ryan takes him to the vet, who discovers that the mandog might have a growth on his lung. Not wanting to burden Jenna with the possibility of bad news in the wake of Wilfred’s crippling and her recent separation from Drew, Ryan decides to stay mum. Despite Ryan’s assurances that he’ll be fine, Wilfred becomes convinced he is bound for death and decides to tick off everything on his “bucket list,” including finally catching his tail (Ryan helps in that department). Cue the montage, which provides a nice respite before the heavy stuff hits.
The shift starts with perhaps the most heartbreaking scene of the entire series (and that’s saying a lot). Wilfred decides to give up Bear to another dog, but not before wishing it a fond, heartfelt farewell. The absurdity of the Bear/Wilfred relationship has always largely been played for laughs, so the sincerity of the moment really catches you off guard. The fact that it lands so well is a testament to the strong writing and fantastic performance from Jason Gann.
Jenna eventually discovers that Ryan has been withholding Wilfred’s possible sickness from her, and angrily dismisses him. The mandog, however, demands that Ryan move past his fears and finally confess his true feelings to Jenna. When he expresses reluctance, the three-legged Wilfred confronts his own fear by climbing up the porch stairs without anyone’s help. If he can overcome his fear, he argues, so can Ryan.
Though still not entirely convinced, Ryan arrives at Jenna’s house to find her weeping on the couch. The prognosis was worse than Ryan thought—Wilfred is terminally ill and only has a few days to live. Caught up in the emotion of the moment, the two end up kissing and having sex. Ryan, finally heeding Wilfred’s advice, tells Jenna he loves her and she requites his feelings. Ryan then finds Wilfred hiding under the porch. When he tells his friend what has occurred, Wilfred seems happy. Through his impending death, he has fulfilled the prophecy of Mattdamon, and led Ryan to happiness.
“Courage” is a real gut-punch of an episode. While the coupling of Ryan and Jenna may have come about a bit cleaner than seems likely, there’s still two episodes remaining and there could very well be some complications in this. As it stands, one could very much see this as a quasi-series finale, albeit an enormously bittersweet one. It remains to be seen what crazy scenarios the writers have prepped for the final two entries (set to air back-to-back next week), but they have successfully laid the emotional groundwork here. “Courage” may not have as much humor as last week’s fantastic “Responsibility,” but that also speaks to its penchant for experimentation. Like fellow FX program Louie, Wilfred is a show that’s not afraid to pull heavier punches or diminish its comedy in favor of more dramatic moments. Granted, it doesn’t go to the extreme that Louie does, but that show is about the oft-dreary life of a middle-aged comedian, and this is a show about a man who seems to be seeing a man in a dog suit. The fact that the two can even have comparable moments is a testament to how sharp the Wilfred creative team has been this final season.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.