“Stop trying to prove yourself in all the wrong ways!”
It’s easy (because accurate) to describe the It’s Always Sunny Gang as “the five worst people in the world.” An episode like “The Gang Chokes” goes a long way toward really illuminating what that means. It’s not just that Dee, Charlie, Mac, Dennis, and Frank suck. It’s that their individual and collective amplifications of human awfulness are so specific—yet so rooted in archetypes of human failing—that they become something akin to an entirely separate, yet still queasily recognizable, mutant subspecies of humanity.
When the Gang gathers at a new-to-them fancy restaurant at Charlie’s insistence to celebrate yet another year of their gloriously grubby co-dependent bond, Frank starts to choke on an amuse-bouche. Red-faced and sputtering (more than usual even) as his air supply runs out, Frank looks around at his four friends (at least three of whom are sort of his children) and sees a slideshow of illuminating, horrifying non-assistance. Charlie looks skeptical and annoyed. Mac freezes, shooting panicked looks to Dennis for guidance. Dennis himself looks on in impassive, insect-like (or, if you like, serial killer-esque) blankness. And Dee looks positively thrilled with anticipation at the prospect of Frank dropping dead at her feet.
And while each character’s reaction is amplified to an extent in the episode that follows (once Frank is given the Heimlich by the seemingly cursed Waiter, who’s returned to Philly and a new job at a supposedly Gang-free restaurant), their collective inactivity stems from a tangle of rotted, deep-running roots. Charlie, while thoroughly devoted to his life-bond with the father who unsuccessfully tried to have him aborted, is so bound up in his big speech about how much that bond means to him that he’s prepared to sit in a snit while Frank croaks. Mac’s passivity can be traced back to his lifetime of stunted heroic self-delusion and the resulting ineffectualness that’s left him wholly focused on Gang alpha Dennis for approval. Dennis truly doesn’t give a shit, his egomaniacal sociopathy causing him to view the squirming death of his one true father figure with chillingly hollow-eyed indifference. And Dee—although the prospect of watching someone die kicks off a ghoulish thrill-seeking streak—has plenty of reasons to relish the thought of the abusive jackass who’s treated her even worse than the rest of the Gang dead.
Now, there’s more to the Gang’s individual manias, weaknesses, and genuine awfulness than just those traits. But Frank turning blue and wordlessly begging for their help really brings some stuff into focus, a dynamic that first-time Sunny writer (and Kaitlin Olson’s former deviser of terrible behavior on The Mick) John Howell Harris mines for some big, old school Sunny laughs. As Frank moves out of his and Charlie’s apartment in a justified huff, the rest of the Gang sees their Frank-stimulated reactions blooming forth in fruitful (if poisonously so) ways. In Mac’s case, that’s not a metaphor, as we find that his desperate need for Dennis’ love and approval has seen Mac embark on a campaign of debilitating poisoning, the endless supply of “health shakes” he keeps proffering to Dennis packed full of everything (cheese, gluten, pollen, sugar, carbs) that sends the aging Dennis into a half-psychosomatic fetal position. You know, since then Mac can take care of him, as when—after Charlie’s gentle basketball pass seemingly crushes Dennis’ shoulder—Mac carries the obliging and whimpering Dennis all the way back to their apartment. (He dropped Dennis a few times, as we find out later, Mac’s lingering muscle mass still warring with his inevitable bumbling.)
Dennis’ feverish efforts to preserve his youth looks to be a potently funny theme this season, as last week’s revelation about the daily beauty regimen he uses to keep him from looking his vice-riddled age is joined here by an arch verbal attitude of almost spinster-esque fragility. (“You didn’t tell me there was to be pollen today!,” Dennis rails at the cowering Mac once the guys’ abortive basketball outing hits the cool Philly air.) Throughout, there are asides about how old the Gang is getting, with Charlie’s late-night, Frank-less attempt at a midnight pizza party seeing him running up against Dennis’ everything-intolerant desire for sleep. “What are you, like, in your 40s?,” Charlie sneers, with Dennis responding, “Yes, as are you!” (Dee tries the same insult, only for twin brother Dennis to remind her that they are exactly the same age.)
Charlie, without his partner in Nightcrawling, dump-diving, and other scabrous pursuits, tries to recapture some of that old school guy energy, with pizza, basketball, and the studious exclusion of Dee from all things. There’s a runner where Charlie, left alone with Dee after Mac and Dennis’ whole dynamic scuttles his effortful plans, rebuffs Dee’s attempts to hang out with the slumped posture and bereft, inartuculate “no” of the old, neglected Charlie. After Frank leaves their apartment (stuffing his gear in a trash bag), Charlie rails unconvincingly to no one, “Go back to me being young and cool. I used to be cool. I’m cool . . .”
Dee’s transformation is arguably the most extreme (which is saying something, considering Mac is actively poisoning Dennis), with the forbidden thrill of close-by death turning her into an adrenaline junkie, especially after a near-miss with a speeding car. Naturally, Dee being Dee and Sunny being Sunny, Dee’s first foray into near-death arousal is to run through “the Puerto Rican part of town,” making fun of “their big fat asses and asking if they were Dominican.” Admittedly, she really had to lean into the bigotry at the end there (with an incongruous Mexican Hat Dance), since, as Dee conceded, “It’s a really lovely community.” Dennis, true to form, is only horrified at the prospect of some justifiably infuriated people storming the basketball court and beating his increasingly fragile body to dust, berating Dee, “You have put us all at risk with your suicidal race-baiting!”
On the topic of “broad,” then there’s Frank, whose understandable pain at being left to expire on the floor of a snooty restaurant by his supposed friends sees him swinging way, way out there in an attempt to forge a new bond with the one person who seemingly cared enough to save him. Breaking into the tidy little house of the Waiter (longtime returning guest victim Michael Naughton) with a hammer, Frank surprises the hard-working guy with a cheery hello, a breakfast of terrifying blue food (“Blue has the most anti-oxygens,” Frank assures him), and the utter conviction that they are now to be best friends. And the Waiter, while initially taken aback (like, way aback), succumbs to Frank’s promises (a nice retirement home for the Waiter’s catatonic mother, a re-entry into the airline pilot career track the Waiter abandoned to care for said mother). So, bad move there, Waiter.
You see, the Gang is a black hole, and to venture too close to it, by chance or choice, is to doom yourself to utter ruination at the hands of people whose idea of affection and charity is inextricably bound to their twisted, stunted morality. And the Waiter is all-too susceptible, even though Frank’s offer comes with his customarily blunt assurance that the mother won’t be left in the care of “one of those bang-’em and bin-’em joints” you hear about on the news. Confronted with the merest whiff of ingratitude by the Waiter (that blue food is simply too much to deal with), Frank snaps, rescinds every offer of financial assistance (and leaves the Waiter suddenly tens of thousands in debt), and cackles that he definitely left the guy’s mom in one of those bang-’em and bin-’em joints.
Does the Waiter deserve to be completely destroyed for the sin of saving the life of one of the worst people in world? Of course not. Sure, we’ve been conditioned to dislike the poor guy for years, basically because his baseline professionalism and fussy humanity got in the way of the Gang’s destructively entertaining shenanigans. And, sure, he does admit to Frank that not being put into even a decent home was his mother’s one steadfast wish. But the Waiter is only the Waiter (and not the Pilot) because he put his entire life on hold to care for his mother, and Frank’s forced largesse, while on the surface sort-of sensible and kind, merely serves to find purchase in the cracks of the Waiter’s human failings, take root, and rip him apart. Such is the Gang’s gravitational pull. Such is the Waiter’s inevitable doom as one of those who imagined he could stray into the Gang’s orbit and emerge unscathed and unsullied.
That carries over even when the episode’s tendrils all come together once more. At that same restaurant (the Waiter’s just there to beg for his job back), Mac, Charlie, and Dee have all settled upon the one plan they imagine can get them all what they need/want—another poison milkshake. This time loaded with enough histamines to send Dennis, or Frank (whichever) into a near-death anaphylactic shock that only Mac’s well-timed EpiPen jab can save them from. Naturally, the three conspirators are at cross-purposes. Dee wants to see Frank “flatline” to feed her Thanos-esque death-lust, while Mac stresses, in his most naked yearning yet, “Then Dennis will love me.”
Mac was left in flux in the stunning end of the last season, leaving us wondering how his un-ironically glorious, long-repressed acceptance of his sexuality would—or would not—change him. And here, I’m put in mind of a sequence in the 1992 French-Canadian coming-of-age fantasy Lèolo, where the young protagonist’s big brother, after being ruthlessly bullied by a neighborhood tough, embarks on a Mac-like campaign of body transformation. Emerging a burly bodybuilder, the brother confronts the now-runty bully once more, only to crumble immediately back to his youthful victimhood. Mac turned himself into the slab of beefcake he always pretended he was, and stood up to his terrifying bigot of a father in the most creative, courageous public manner possible—but he’s still Mac. Dennis’ quote from the top of the review here is mean, sure (it’s Dennis, after all), but it’s on the money in that Mac, for all his hard work, still hasn’t addressed the crushing shame and inadequacy that’s marked him for his whole, misbegotten life. Trying to prove himself once more in the wrongest possible way, he refuses to jab the convulsing Dee, who couldn’t take the suspense and chugged the poison shake herself, telling Dennis defiantly, “She wanted to see the other side and I want Dennis to see I can make my own decision!” In the Gang’s Philadelphia, the war between our better and worse angels will always end in defeat, simply because the Gang’s rare good impulses come loaded down with their lifetime of squirmy, self-deluding baggage.
In the end, the Waiter once more saves one of the Gang he hates, simply because, as he stated to Frank earlier, “I only saved you because that’s what any decent person would do.” But decent (or even half-decent, in the Waiter’s case) just isn’t going to be enough to save anyone in the Gang’s vicinity. Dee snaps back from her longed-for near-death experience gasping in horror, “I didn’t like it! I hated it! It’s just blackness—there’s nothing there! It’s just darkness, that’s it, just lights out!” In the grand scheme of things, the void is probably the best that any of the Gang could hope for, afterife-wise. But, still, as the Waiter discovers, the Gang’s Philadelphia is close enough to hell as it is. Even though Charlie and Frank’s make-up exchange is the sort of thing that would be genuinely touching coming from anyone else. “I should have saved you, and I’ll always save you from now on, I promise,” says Charlie sincerely. “Thanks Charlie, I knew you had my back,” is Frank’s touched reply.
(It’s still sort of touching, despite myself. That’s how they get you.)
- Charlie, warning Frank against gulping own that appetizer, reminds him he hasn’t had his teeth sharpened in a while.
- Later, explaining his inaction, Charlie protests, “I don’t know how you wanna die, you only talk about how you don’t want to die.” Top two on Frank’s list of ways he doesn’t want to go: in a hospital bed, and “being spit-roasted” by two members of the Latin Kings gang.
- Charlie’s gift of pizza is revealed to be mostly about the gesture, as he admits he ate the cheese, crust, and sauce, separately, on the way over.
- Frank, admonishing the Waiter about his home’s lack of security while a hammer sits on the table next to him, “I could have bashed your face in before you knew what hit you—which would have been this hammer.”
- Dennis, allowing Mac to carry him off the basketball court, blames the strain of “Dee-shaming,” claiming, “That’s depleted me even more.”
- Dee, after “Free Solo-ing” her way up the side of Dennis and Mac’s building, bursts in to critique how slow Mac’s plan to “Munchausen syndrome-by-proxy” Dennis really is.