“Oh my God. I get it. I get it.”
Sometimes words fail.
I’m sitting here staring at my computer screen after my first watch-through of the last episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s 13th season, “Mac Finds His Pride,” and I’m gonna need a minute.
Okay, I took 21 minutes, the length of this episode. So here goes.
“Mac Finds His Pride” is the ultimate referendum on the show’s running joke about Mac’s tortured denial of his homosexuality. And for the first 15 minutes of “Mac Finds His Pride,” it’s a really shitty one. The setup sees Frank bursting into Mac and Dennis’ apartment (gruesomely whanging his nose in the process) and unsuccessfully hectoring the depressed Mac into being the token dancing gay guy on Paddy’s pride parade float. Attempting to buck Mac up so he’ll help “rope in the gays” with some performative commercial-minded gayness, Frank takes Mac to an underground gay S&M club and a drag bar before urging Mac to finally come out to his terrifying, thankfully still-imprisoned father, Luther. (Gregory Scott Cummins, never more unnerving.) When that fails—Luthor assumes Mac’s elaborate lead-up means Luther’s about about to be a grandfather—Frank gets a leather-clad Cricket to fill in, much to Charlie and Dee’s cruel but understandable disgust. Frank, his face ballooning horrifically from his unwisely self-administered nosebleed-staunching techniques (fiberglass insulation isn’t the worst of it), decides enough’s enough, and braces Mac again about telling Luther.
Then we get to minute 16.
Some things work on so profoundly unexpected a level that spoiling them for someone else feels like a crime, or a sin. This is one. So, as much as I maintain that it’s verifiable proof of critical head injury to read a review before watching the thing being reviewed and then complaining about spoilers, I’m gonna go ahead and slap a big old SPOILER WARNING right here.
Throughout the episode, Mac has been struggling to explain to Frank why he’s not all-in on the whole “dancing on the pride float” thing. “I never really got you,” admits Frank in exasperation at one point, explaining that Mac’s finally acknowledged homosexuality is even more puzzling to him. Luther says the same, even without knowing about the gay thing, telling his own son offhandedly, “I never really got you.” Frank, giving it a shot in the drag club where Mac explains his inner struggle in terms of a vision of a dance in the midst of a raging storm with a hot chick who’s actually god, can only assess, “The Catholics really fucked you up.” And they did, Mac’s lifelong need for love and acceptance from literally anyone in his life turning him into a comically twisted zealot, unaware that he’s protesting way, way too much in his quest to curry favor with a god (and a father) he’s been taught thinks little of him, if they think about him at all.
Sunny walks the line all “edgy” comedies do, that of satirizing boorishness, bigotry, misogyny, and ignorance while mining those very behaviors for belly laughs. Mac’s gradually revealed closeted gayness was never a joke on homosexuality, but about bigotry and sexual repression—and what they can turn people into. Even so, the show’s comic mission gives Frank, tonight, cover for blurting out the foulest old-school offensive shit. Like when he picks up on Mac claiming no one in the clubs Frank has taken him to knows what’s going on inside him, sneering that it’s “five or six super-viruses, fighting it out.” Or when Frank constantly reminds Mac to “watch his back” so that the “fairies” don’t “poke [him] full of holes.” Frank’s an old asshole, so it’s funny to laugh at the horrible things he says, even as the joke is that Sunny is being so naughty by letting him say them. Later, when unveiling the suspiciously well-made float for Mac to lure in those “high-spending gay men,” Charlie dismissively talks about how the shower system he’s installed will allow Mac to do his “gay dance, or whatever,” returning to the show’s treatment of Mac’s sexuality as just one more thing about him that the rest of the Gang finds trying and ridiculous.
The whole episode (up until minute 16) is like that—a series of tired in-jokes, asides, and rehashed bits that make “Mac Finds His Pride” feel like its suffering from the sort of imposter syndrome that beset the last two episodes. It all seems like the sort of desperate, self-imitative, tired schtick you’d expect from a show in its 13th season. And the fact that Sunny—which has defied all expectations and precedent in largely avoiding such series decay—appeared to be succumbing to it finally is a real downer. Another of Glenn Howerton’s intermittent absences is tossed off with one line. Wheeling Cricket out to show off his scarred and malnourished torso in bondage gear just feels sad. Frank’s bled before, just as copiously, but far, far more imaginatively. Even Charlie and Dee’s signature outbursts feel forced.
Meanwhile, Mac’s morose moping feels at first too grounded, and enlightened. Telling Frank, “I don’t know where I fit in as a gay man and it’s starting to get to me,” Rob McElhenney, from the start, makes Mac too self-aware, too much of a person, if that makes sense. Even his predictable crumbling in the face of Luther’s crazy-eyed enthusiasm for a grandson (“If it’s not a boy you flush that shit out and try again!,” he rages in toxic masculine rage) can’t undo the episode’s take on this Mac as someone edging too far out of what’s permissible on Sunny in terms of personal growth and self-knowledge. Sunny will allow its five characters the occasional glimpse of what their squalid, selfish, self-destructive lives look like from above, but the show can’t exist in the air up there. They have to be dragged back down, their blinkered, egomaniacal prejudices and weaknesses reasserting themselves just in time to reestablish Sunny’s sewer-level status quo.
So when Frank—taking inspiration from the truly upsetting bloated pumpkin-head his efforts to staunch his flowing nose has made of him—addresses Mac one final time, it’s . . . wrong somehow. Old pro Danny DeVito brings a gruff loveliness to his appeal:
I been in agony the whole day, but I came to this realization that sometimes you gotta let the blood flow in order to start the healing. Some cuts you just can’t plug up. And that’s the same for you. You got this thing inside of you and you’re trying to plug it up, but you gotta let that shit out, you gotta let it flow. Otherwise, you’re gonna be in agony for the rest of your life.
But where is this coming from? What’s the gag? Frank doesn’t get Mac, and, like the rest of the Gang, largely despises what he does comprehend. And Mac, seemingly willing to accept what he thinks is Frank’s pitch to monetize his gayness for the sake of Paddy’s and his relationship with his father, appears willing to cave, until Frank stops him. In coming out to Luther that way, Frank says, Mac would be “doing it for the wrong reasons.” When Sunny announced the title of this week’s episode, it looked like McElhenney and episode co-writer Charlie Day were going to have that referendum on the show’s comic treatment of Mac’s homosexuality. And, as the first 15 minutes played out, it honestly looked like a poor job, creaking with hacky gay jokes and atonal, show-breaking sentimentality. Until the episode reveals just how masterfully we’ve been set up.
When Frank and Mac go back to the prison, “Mac Finds His Pride” indeed does break the show. In fact, it breaks it so unexpectedly, so thoroughly, and with such seeming irrevocability that I was—and remain—unconvinced It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia can go on into its already announced 14th season as the same show it’s been. The swing the show takes here is so big, and so successful in what it sets out to accomplish, that I’m at a loss for what to compare it to. I want to say the breathtakingly unexpected musical interlude in Magnolia, maybe. But that’s not quite right. (Same goes for the frogs.) Fellow critic Emily L. Stephens opined that it’s like Sunny was pulling a Louie (minus, you know), which feels closer in terms of redefining a supposed sitcom’s expected shape. Lingering over the last five minutes of “Mac Finds His Pride” again and again, I’m still lost. I still don’t know if it works as part of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, or if it, indeed, redefines what the show will be going forward. I know I have been left in awe, every time. I know it’s the single most surprising and impressive sequence I’ve seen on television this year. I know it’s glorious.
Mac comes out to his father in a dance. A five-minute, exquisitely choreographed piece of interpretive storytelling through movement as impressive as any I’ve ever seen. (Sure, I’m hardly an expert on the subject, but I’ll stand by that.) With Frank’s enabling wealth greasing the skids for an impromptu, presumably mandatory prison performance, complete with the rain machine the episode had tossed off as one of Charlie’s float improvements, Luther is seated front and center for a visual and auditory expression of the interior struggle Mac’s been trying and failing to articulate all episode. A storm inside. A beautiful woman, who’s an angel, or god. The need to come out to his imperiously terrifying and distant father (see: god) in the way he truly wants to—and has been working himself up to for what is clearly a long, long time.
The joke of Rob McElhenney’s newly ripped body pays off here, revealed to be not just another “it would be funny” transformation like season six’s, but the need to be the full physical expression of the sculpted, ideal, but tortured figure Mac wanted to portray. With the partner who earlier Frank assumed Mac was banging in order to fulfill Luther’s demand for a child (the stunningly talented Kylie Shea), Mac expresses his lifetime of conflicted feelings and urges in a shockingly physical but graceful two-person ballet to Sigur Rós’ haunting “Varúð.” The joke of the series’ two previous Gang-written, would-be triumphant musical sequences being undercut by the Gang’s unimpressive, lunatic self-deception pays off in the fact that, here, the rug never gets pulled. There is no joke. There’s no payoff other than Frank’s awestruck applause alongside the prisoners around him, and his tearful, gasping, “Oh my God. I get it. I get it.” There’s no punchline to the dance’s denouement, where, after their wrenchingly beautiful enactment of Mac’s battle with who he is, the beautiful woman cradles Mac’s exhausted Greek statue of a form in her arms on the soaking stage and repeats, “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.” There’s no winking, no irony. There’s only a blinding light from above in Mac’s interpretation of divine blessing, the applause from a cavernous room full of brutal men (although not the departed Luthor), and Frank’s worshipful benediction to end the episode, and the season.
I do not know if It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is the same show after this. For McElhenney and Day to conclude their creation’s 13th season with such a devastatingly, unprecedentedly heartfelt and redemptive arc for one (and maybe two) of “the worst people in the world” suggests that they have plans to take their show into another direction entirely. I suppose they could handwave the return of something like the old Mac (and maybe Frank) as they largely did after Dennis’ similarly emotional departure at the end of last season. I suppose I wouldn’t mind too much—Sunny remains one of the only successful practitioners of its kind of high-wire dark comic brilliance on TV. But I will not forget this Mac (and maybe Frank), whose exorcism of the oppressive forces that have deformed Mac’s life into one long sick joke is as realized and, yes glorious, as anything I’ve ever seen.