At the beginning of the episode, Walter climbs out of the tent he slept in to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Falklands War and reports, “I had quite an erotic dream.” Harry’s quick with a response. “Burt Lancaster again, sir?” No, the erotic dream wasn’t about Burt Lancaster. It was about a woman suggestively named Death Sentence Suzanne, and sex with her led Walter to an incredible feeling: the total erasure of self.
Later Walter tells Dr. Weiss, the analyst, he’s had a lot of sex but very little happiness, because he’s afraid to reveal himself. (He quickly changes the subject, not wanting to reveal himself even on the subject of not wanting to reveal himself.) He’s too guarded to let go and experience that total erasure of self he craves.
The result is Walter spends his whole party—again, a celebration of the end of the war—watching other couples find exciting moments together. Celia and Jim appear to have found a room together, erectile-dysfunctional Harry takes Sylvia the porn actress into one of the backyard tents, even John Hodgman’s gotcha LA Times honcho hits it off with someone, in this case a clown who was paid to be there but is probably off the clock at that point. Clowns deserve love too. So Walter lies down on a lawnchair for one and shuts his eyes.
The whole episode feels like a dream, at least until the actual dream, which is viscerally real; post-structuralists might have some things to say about that. But as for the dreamlike quality, start with the crowd of faces at Walter’s party, including people he wouldn’t normally have invited, like the gotcha Tumblrist. Consider also the seemingly random connections among those faces. Gardner’s there with Emmanuel, the anti-genital-mutilation expert from Walter’s show. Apparently, according to Gardner, “He was in the men’s room, and holy shit did one thing lead to another.” Brett Gelman’s porn producer comes over with a “petting goat,” helpfully distinguished from other types of party goats. There’s a second Rosalie, this one much younger but also blonde and with a distinct voice. Martin explains, “It’s just a coincidence sort of.” It all feels like it could be the jumbled design of Walter’s brain, filling in the extras at his party with faces he’s met lately.
The costume design has all these weirdos trying to dress up but looking kinda funny nonetheless, whether overdressed or underdressed or just misdressed. Special mention goes to Shelly’s no-nonsense sleeveless black ensemble, the better to show off her arms for the ladies. The crowd’s punctuated by carnival performers with even more garish costumes. When Walter pulls a sword out of a swallower’s mouth, he says, “I feel like King Arthur.” That’s definitely something he’d dream up after hearing a bedtime passage from The Once And Future King.
There’s also the way the party moves. We glide from one vignette to the next. For instance, a server crosses our field of vision and we follow him as he sneaks a sip, and we’re with him until he backs into Jim, who gratefully takes the sipped drink. Later, right after Rosalie tells Martin that it’s perfectly okay he’s seeing another Rosalie, she rounds a corner and who should she run into but the analyst. “Is everything all right?” he says, like she just showed up for her appointment. This is one of the breeziest party episodes I’ve ever seen, effortlessly flitting from one little scene to the next, with nothing taking particular prominence like it’s an A-plot in a script. Everyone’s personal stories matter equally, whether that’s just Vivian making sure Walter’s okay with her dating Moby (who, a selfie gag points out, is of a type with Walter) or Celia helping Jim learn how to have fun at a party.
It’s almost too neat the way many of these stories culminate in acts of selflessness, which is not the usual foundation for a party episode, but take Jim and Celia. Ostensibly she’s trying to help Jim. Ostensibly she’s trying to be on her best behavior for Walter, and having a selfless project like this is supposed to keep her focused. But after a single round of “let’s tell each other an embarrassing secret for every drink,” she sends Jim off in search of more liquor, and from then on it’s all about her. She hasn’t been swept into the episode’s overriding themes. That might have bent her character too much. Instead Jim’s the one who winds up giving up his night, or maybe more accurately dedicating his night to helping her. He’s anxious about parties because of an unfortunate history with people spitting food into his mouth (e.g. drinking out of the same glass as the server), but he likes Celia so much he’s happy looking after her. He doesn’t expect anything in return.
The same goes for Rosalie, who does feel strongly attached to Martin. She says he brings out the old Rosalie, the first Rosalie, the young woman who married a man who died young of leukemia. She’s a commanding woman drawn to men in need. Now Martin may not need her, and it hurts. But when he asks if it’s okay, she assures him as sincerely as possible: Of course it’s okay for Martin to seek love and affection from a single woman his age.
Finally at the end of the night, after Shelly hits it off with Walter’s Sex Addicts Anonymous sponsee, after Phil the piano player finds a match for the first time in years, after Dr. Weiss, the secret star of the episode, floats off on an ambulance gurney reassuring Walter that a cardiac event means it was a great party, Walter drifts off to the Falklands. We already know the story. Harry tells Jim earlier that day that he was bleeding from a shrapnel wound and that Walter risked his life to rescue him. That’s why Harry considers it the least he can do to knit the major a hat, or try anyway. Walter might come to regret being a dick about the hat by the end of the night. The Falklands War scene is muted in coloring. Snap-zooms suggest a frontlines documentary. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, not because everything’s moving so fast but because everything’s so spread out and isolated. But we hear Harry yelling for help, and we see Walter rushing to his rescue. Walter wraps a tourniquet around his leg, and Harry says, “You didn’t leave me.” Walter responds, “No. Of course not.”
It’d be a moving moment on its own, even in a war story about these two hilarious oddballs. But it’s heightened by the dream. And the party. And the early scene when Harry mentions wanting to talk about the unseen scars of the war. It’s similar to Walter’s quest for self-erasure. They can’t get over the scars, because they never talk about them. Yet they bring up the Falklands War a lot more than most. Now Walter’s dreaming about the time he risked his life to help a friend. At the 33rd anniversary of the end of the Falklands War party, Walter doesn’t find self-erasure in sex. But he does find it.
- “I Brought A Petting Goat!” is written by Jonathan Ames and directed by Tristram Shapeero.
- Shelly starts exercising on Martin’s desk. He asks, “What are you doing?” “Push-ups! I wanna look buff for the party.” “I can’t believe how fast you’ve become bisexual.”
- Walter’s forced to preempt his Falklands piece for a breaking scandal involving a conservative Congressman and his gay prostitute. “So what Congressman Roberts stood for is reprehensible, but what he did in the privacy of a hotel room is not. I for one would love to see a day when there would be no judgment and no labels for what consenting adults do when being sensual in their private lives. No straight or gay or bi or trans, just human beings in their endless variety, none more wrong or more right than the next.” I know Walter’s heart wasn’t in it, but swing and a miss.
- Hershel explains how he knows Walter: “He’s my Sex And Love Addicts sponsor. He don’t return my calls but…”
- After Hershel accidentally spits a chunk of hot dog in Jim’s mouth, Shelly basically tells him to walk it off. We stick with Jim as he walks away, but we can hear her in the background telling Hershel, “I put hot dogs in my mouth all the time.” Take it down a notch, Shelly.
- Harry tries to throw John Hodgman’s writer out of the party, but he protests: “Unhand me. I’m a member of the press, and this is my tennis elbow.” He’s very keen to stay at Walter’s party for some reason. “You look like my father who was institutionalized when I was a child, so if we could be friends…”