Television endings are hard.
I’m sure even in the case of the most celebrated series finales such as Six Feet Under’s “Everyone’s Waiting,” M*A*S*H’s “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” or Next Generation’s “All Good Things…,” there are some people who view them with the same contempt that others hold for the finales for Seinfeld, Quantum Leap or—God forbid—Lumberjack Dexter. The fact remains that it’s impossible to please everyone. And while some will no doubt grumble about the relative simplicity of Wilfred’s final hour, it remains an impressive and poignant conclusion that anyone who’s grown with the show should find something to latch onto.
In any case, let’s talk about the mystery of Wilfred right off the bat. It turns out the simplest answer is sometimes the right one. Wilfred is neither a god, a demon or any form of an alien; rather, he’s merely all in Ryan’s head, a way of dealing with the turmoil of his life. That’s not to say the show’s entire mythology has all been a cheap misdirect. While not explicitly laid out, it’s clear that Ryan’s past experience, whether it involved his years in the Cult of the Grey Shepard as a toddler or his traumatic experience with Sneakers have all merged and resulted in the manifestation of a man dressed in a dog suit. Is it the most mind-blowing concept? No. But it’s what works for the show.
The two-part finale begins with “Resistance,” which carries over from last week’s monumental shift. Ryan, at long last, is now in a relationship with Jenna, while Wilfred is now knocking at death’s door. Needless to say, it’s a bittersweet time for Ryan. To complicate matters, Jenna’s estranged husband Drew comes barreling back into the picture. In the wake of Wilfred’s death, Drew seems determined to win her back.
For his part, Wilfred is incensed. If Jenna ends up with Drew again, it means that he will have failed his ultimate purpose—to lead Ryan to happiness. Wilfred goes into an emotional fit which eventually leads to him collapsing. An emergency visit to the vet confirms the worst—Wilfred has reached the end, and all that’s left to do is say goodbye. After an emotional Jenna leaves the room, Ryan is left alone with his friend. Via some form of mental connection, the two end up in a beautiful, heavenly area that looks to be the real-life location of the painting from the basement.
After a quick game of catch, the two say their goodbyes. We then bear witness to one of the most heartbreaking shots of the series—as a tearful Ryan bends down next to Wilfred’s dead body, the camera moves up and we see Wilfred as the rest of the world sees him—a cute, shaggy dog. Ryan is further crushed when Jenna announces that she is moving back to Wisconsin with Drew. A devastated and angry Ryan ends the episode by tossing Wilfred’s tennis ball into the ocean.
The subsequent episode, “Happiness,” draws an explicit parallel to the pilot episode, not only in its title (the first episode was also called “Happiness”), but in its opening scene. Here, Ryan once again preps himself for suicide. This time, there’s little fretting about the wording of his note and, upon seeing Jenna loading up her car, he bids adieu with bitterness rather than longing. He only gets in the briefest sip of his pill-heavy smoothie, however, before Catherine bursts in, putting the brakes on his death wish. Her visit culminates in a big revelation. In the wake of Kristen’s birth (ah, Kristen—always messing things up), Catherine began to feel more and more distant from her husband. She ended up taking off to leave with the charismatic Charles, who founded the Cult of the Grey Shepard. Enticed by his ideas, she ended up shacking up with him, which resulted in the birth of Ryan. Charles latched onto the idea that Ryan was a “Chosen One,” and started performing bizarre ceremonies. It was then that Henry swooped in and took his family away from this mania. Charles subsequently was placed in prison, and died there (more on that later).
Shortly after the incident, Ryan suddenly begins seeing Wilfred again. The mandog reiterates that he is, indeed, a god and that he’s currently “in between” Chosen Ones. After learning that Ryan and Jenna’s relationship didn’t work out, however, Wilfred swears to lead Ryan to another kind of happiness. He guides Ryan to a rural farm where our hero stumbles upon a grizzled old man with a shotgun. This man is Charles (a perfectly cast Tobin Bell). Apparently both he and Henry thought it best that Catherine simply believe he was dead. Ryan’s excitement at locating his birth father, however, is significantly diminished when Charles reveals that none of the Cult’s rituals held any merit. They merely stemmed from aspects of his delusional brain. It’s here when Ryan finally realizes that he’s inherited Bruce’s illness, and that Wilfred has merely been a figment of his mind.
From here, Ryan attempts to ignore Wilfred, even as the mandog screams at him during work. Eventually, however, Ryan decides that his life is a “dull” and “ordinary” one without his companion. The two decide to head out on a walk, but not before Ryan goes upstairs to get his sweater and ends up taking one last look into the closet/basement door. We don’t see what he sees, but whatever it is makes him smile, thus lending these last few minutes a bit of ambiguity.
There are certainly nitpicks that one could harp on with the revelation that Wilfred was always just Ryan. In the premiere episode, for instance, Wilfred takes a cell phone pic of him and Ryan driving, the angle of which does not seem like it could have been done by Ryan. I’m sure there are moments from the first three seasons that some might use to dispute this notion as well. Ultimately, however, to dwell too much on these details would be akin to not seeing the forest through the trees. More than anything, the final two episodes of Wilfred narrow in on the core themes that the show established in the beginning—namely—what is happiness, and how does one find it?
For the past few years, Ryan has entertained the notion that a relationship with Jenna will be the thing that brings him happiness. It’s certainly the answer television, and media as a whole, has conditioned us to believe. Wilfred wisely averts this clichéd notion, and asserts that happiness has to come from within. More than anything, it’s all about perspective. At the beginning of the series, Ryan was contemplating death because he felt unfulfilled (in his words—“the diamond in the rough that’s never going to shine”). Over Wilfred’s run, however, he has learned to appreciate and take pleasure in his life. On the way, he has managed to reconnect with his family. Even his combative relationship with his sister is given a sweet spin this time around. “Not everyone is lucky enough to have a brother like you to help them get their shit together,” she tells him in their final exchange.
In the end, as much trouble and anxiety as Wilfred has caused Ryan over the last four seasons, he’s unmistakably been an instrument of change for the better (sometimes). Displaying a nice piece of quasi-metahumor towards the end, Wilfred even outlines his role in Ryan’s life and in the show in general. “I tell you the right thing to do, you ignore me, so I make your life a living hell so you have no choice to do the thing I told you to do in the first place.”
What’s more, “Happiness” (2.0) finds a Ryan that is now comfortable in his own skin. While his delusions will continue, he now will be able to reconcile it with a healthier lifestyle. Wilfred will always be there, but he doesn’t need him controlling his life any longer. Although the show has traditionally drawn comparisons to Fight Club, this ending brings to mind a significantly less gritty film—the 1950 classic Harvey, where James Stewart plays a man who claims to see a six-foot tall rabbit that no one else can see. The conclusion of that film finds Stewart about to receive a serum that will cure him of his visions. It’s a this point that one character warns that he will merely become “just a normal human being—and you know what stinkers they are.”
And that’s the Wilfred finale in a nutshell. As Ryan gazes out into the ocean and the near mystical tennis ball washes back to shore, he’s not in danger of ever being a “stinker.”
That’s a wrap on Wilfred. It’s been a fun, strange journey, and one that I will greatly miss getting to talk about each week. Take care everyone—and Matt Damon bless you!
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.