You’re the Worst‘s Timely Season Finale Tests the Limits of Empathy

(Episodes 3.12 and 3.13)

TV Features You're the Worst
You’re the Worst‘s Timely Season Finale Tests the Limits of Empathy

You’re the Worst’s erratic third season, part exasperating and part sublime, reaches its pinnacle in the penultimate episode, a climax that’s also a collapse. As with “Twenty-Two,” “The Seventh Layer,” and “The Inherent, Unsullied Qualitative Value of Anything,” “You Knew It Was a Snake” departs from the mean, scuttling between stinging arguments: Its defining sequence shifts from room to room in Jimmy’s sprawling house, eavesdropping on three relationships’ sudden dismantling.

Abrupt and hard-edged, cutting mid-conversation from Edgar and Dorothy to Lindsay and Paul to Gretchen and Jimmy, the moment corresponds with the episode’s tone, caustic and unforgiving. As accusations and recriminations fly—of unsupportive partners and also of stifling ones, of ambitions cut short and promises broken—the fragments of each couple’s failure come to form a coherent whole, culminating in the line of the title: “You knew it was a snake,” Lindsay says solemnly, “when you picked it up.”

Amidst calls to “empathize” with our political opponents, which have been aimed, in the main, at Clinton supporters incensed by Trump voters, and not the reverse, “You Knew It Was a Snake” points to the limits of understanding. In suggesting that Paul is also culpable in the disintegration of their marriage, trying to “master” her as if she were one of his hobbies, Lindsay acknowledges that the attempt to see the world through another’s eyes only succeeds when it works both ways. The catalyst for the episode’s trio of fights, after all, is the impulse to demand empathy without being willing to grant it: The first act focuses on a fast-spiraling competition to advocate for one or another of the demographics (Latinos, white women, immigrants, American-born men) made familiar by pollsters, with Edgar, Dorothy, Jimmy, and Paul angling to be the most put-upon of the bunch.

If You’re the Worst signals where its own empathies lie—Paul compares himself to self-confessed shootout participant and “software millionaire” John McAfee, which is hard to read as a compliment to either—the episode nonetheless nods at the sincere sentiment in each character’s plea to be heard, which is a sense of profound disillusionment. Even the birth of Rebecca and Vernon’s baby, as yet untouched by life’s traumas, presses pause on the hostilities only momentarily: “There just isn’t room,” as Gretchen confesses, “for you to be broken right now, too.”

It’s strange, given the strength of “You Knew It Was a Snake,” that You’re the Worst should tack on an extended coda, though “No Longer Just Us” is an apt conclusion to a season in which the series’ bleak harmonies always seemed oh-so-slightly off key. Despite a handful of highlights—Lindsay licking her breakfast sushi before Edgar can snatch a bite; Lindsay drawing a cat on a slip of paper to open a negotiation; Lindsay, finally free, smiling at the scurrying cockroach and clanking pipes of Dorothy’s old apartment—the episode is one long feint, approaching contentment only to cap it with the series’ cruelest disappointment.

Edgar learns to embrace his own dreams before submitting to someone else’s; Gretchen’s therapist celebrates her small comeuppance after an endless string of indignities; Vernon relents to domestic responsibilities while Paul yearns once again for Mexico: “No Longer Just Us” ties together the season’s threads and then proceeds to cut us loose, that final, fireworks-spotted split screen—as Jimmy flees from Gretchen after she accepts his marriage proposal—an emblem of the same formula I castigated last week. It’s brutal, but blunt, a measure of You’re the Worst’s own failure of empathy, unable to bring Jimmy’s grief to a full boil. Having never understood just how keenly he felt his family’s absence, it’s tough to credit his wordless abandonment of the chance to form a new one.

Still, “You Knew It Was a Snake” is such a coup that it brings the season full circle, a brilliant finale that just happens to fall an episode too early. Here, as it imagines the consequences of the characters’ selfishness, You’re the Worst rediscovers, for a spell, its animating principle, which is that empathy is the first step, not the solution—that becoming strong at the broken places, as I wrote of the season premiere, requires the work to repair what’s been shattered, and that the healing inevitably hurts. “It all counts,” Lindsay said then, more resigned than regretful, and for once, it turns out, she was right.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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