We start out in the same place, the episode intro ominously labeling the setting and time as “unknown,” the Gang back in that white room in their white robes, and everyone doing their best to rationalize why they shouldn’t be judged to harshly for, it seems, sinking an entire ocean liner. With signature lack of focus, the Gang gets sidetracked on whether they should recap the events leading up to the disaster for their unseen interlocutor, with Dennis eventually barking, “The amount of energy were using talking about whether or not we should recap, we may as well just recap!” He does pause long enough to slip in his defense that his genuinely terrifying attempt to frighten a young woman into sex was “not a rape,” but mostly he and the Gang cannot, as usual, stay on target for any significant amount of time. That’s part of the charm of this season finale, as the Gang, trapped within the bare metal walls of the cruise ship’s makeshift brig, sees the lack of distraction force them to turn on each other.

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Luckily for them, the brig isn’t completely bare—a couple of buckets, a quarter, a chain, and a brush lead to an extended Stomp-esque period of syncopated goofing around, and Charlie finds a flare gun at one point, leading to a speech of magnificent Charlie logic, followed by predictable disaster. And, deprived of all other amusement, they all take turns giving their impressions of what they think the ship’s seemingly stalled engines should sound like, feasting on imaginary food, and doing ill-advised racial impressions for a while. As she did in last week’s episode, Dee may complain that all she wanted on this trip was a vacation from the Gang, but the episode just cements the fact that no one in the world but the Gang could countenance, say, a four-hour and six-minute debate on engine sounds. (Looking at the bright side of their confinement, Dennis notes that it’s cut their “conflict resolution time in half.”)

So there’s a lot of farting around in the episode, is what I’m getting at, a structure of unstructured, concentrated interaction where the Gang’s toxic stew of interdependent awfulness can come to a boil. Which it does even before the compartment (flipped on its side by an unknown, shocking impact) starts filling up with actual water. But farting around with this Gang, and these actors, has never been dull, and the spectacle of them going five different kinds of crazy in a sinking metal box makes for a lot of great, sometimes essential Sunny moments. Dee tries to entertain them with her impressions, her initial reluctance to do Obama giving way to predictably insulting stereotype. Everyone’s horrified (“That’s our President,” scolds Charlie), another example of the Gang’s shifting morality—the guys aren’t so much aghast at Dee being racist as they are jumping on the opportunity to call Dee a racist. Mac muses on his perpetually incarcerated father’s advice about staying sane in the hole with signature childish vulnerability. (“It’s like my dad said, ‘Son, you’ve got to keep your mind active. Also I love you.’”) He also, embracing his new-admitted homosexuality, throws an imaginary dinner party based on his own narrow concept of gayness (“Wow, just diving right in there, stereotypes and all,” muses Dennis), unsuccessfully forcing everyone to dine on boiled chicken and rice, and admonishing that he and Dennis don’t allow dogs in their immaculate house (“Our house?,” Dennis asks, taken aback). But, as the time goes on and things get desperate, things get real when Charlie finds that flare gun inside the bench Dee’s sitting on.

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We’ve seen Charlie go dark before, and seen his usually childish demeanor curdle into improbable (if tinged with crazy) competence, but his speech here is easily one of his best ever. Holding the Gang at flare gun-point (Mac: “I don’t think any one of us should have a gun.” Charlie: “Well, one of us does, so… the end”), Charlie lashes out with a glorious assessment of blame, Charlie Day making Charlie’s mounting anger and terror worthy of a Bond villain, or someone trapped in a particularly intense Twilight Zone. Behold:

I figured it out. We’re dead, we died. I don’t know when it happened. It might’ve happened on the cruise ship. Might have happened on the drive to the cruise ship—you were going awful fast, Dennis. I dunno, maybe it happened weeks go in the bar—in some sort of colossal and awesome event, I would imagine. But we’re dead. And we’re in hell. We’re just being toyed with here. Or no, maybe we’re not in hell yet. Maybe this is purgatory and we’re on our way to be judged. And soon, oh boy [unhinged laugh]… Yeah soon we’ll really be in hell, won’t that be something… Nah, we’re already dead. I’ll prove it. [Shoots himself suddenly in the head, screen goes black.]

Damn, Charlie.

Naturally, Charlie doesn’t die, although he wakes up (rather touchingly curled up in Frank’s lap) with a nasty burn on the side of his head and the compartment filling up with water. (Dennis, trying to rally the troops, suggests that they might have hours, or even days before the ship really starts to sink. Cue the title card “10 minutes later.”) With death seemingly inescapable, the Gang does what they do best in times of crisis—turn on each other like the actual drowning rats they are. Staring death in the face, Dee kicks off the requisite deathbed confessions by ratting out Mac for having a Tony Romo jersey that he wears when no one’s looking. (Charlie can only shriek in abject horror.) That the Gang views this as the time to get in one final betrayal is both de rigueur and incredibly funny and revealing, as Mac reveals that Charlie keeps changing the prescription on Frank’s glasses so Frank won’t ever leave him (the perfect Charlie mix of endearing and terrifying), and Dee yells at Frank for actually confessing something about himself (he was involved in the Chappaquiddick incident, apparently) snapping, “Frank, we’re not doing confessions, we’re doing tattling. Keep up.”

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But it’s Charlie’s reveal that Dennis has been reading and destroying the many letters Mac’s father has sent from prison over the years that provides the kicker, as Dennis admits that he only did it because he didn’t want to deal with Mac talking about the letters (and, yes, that he’s afraid the frightening Luther will kill them in their sleep someday). Even for Dennis, it’s a dick move of the highest proportions—Mac’s arrested development stems almost entirely from his little boy’s desire for his father’s love, and when Dennis spills his secret here, Rob McElhenney has Mac simply go limp and hollow, saying flatly, “I could have had a relationship with my dad but you ruined it. Normally I would attack you but I don’t have any fight left,” before simply sitting down in the rising water. It’s a devastating moment, which means, naturally, that the show undercuts it, and masterfully. Dennis launches into his own tour de force speech of apology:

Dennis: Shit man, I hurt you. I can see that and, uh, you know. It was wrong of me. Gotta tell ya, I see how much pain you’re in right now and its just, um, its tearin’ me up inside.

Mac: Dennis you’re crying.

Dennis: You’ve turned me into a blubbering fool here, because I’ve hurt not just my friend, but my brother. I’ve hurt my brother.

Charlie: Onion!

Yup, as Dennis explained earlier, he often keeps some onion in his pocket “in case someone needs me to feel something about what they’ve said or what they are doing,” coloring in further the show’s depiction of Dennis as a sociopath of some, unfathomable stripe. Glenn Howerton’s outstanding here (everyone in the episode is, actually), turning on a dime as he, as ever, looks to make himself come out on top in every situation, his condescending explanations of his own superiority absolving him (in his mind) of any and all responsibility for his awfulness. Trying to soothe Mac about the letters, his lulling tone only makes his self-exoneration more appalling. Mac: “Does he still write?” Dennis: “No, pal. ’Cause you never wrote him back. But if it makes you feel any better, I read all those letters and he never once said that he loves you. He mostly wanted you to send him pornographic magazines and put drugs up your butthole.”

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When the end finally comes, and the Gang is treading water with only moments to live, their goodbyes, too, find that Sunny sweet spot between moving and hilariously horrible. It’s a function of how indelibly the show has drawn these characters that they’re capable—in spite of essentially everything about them—of making us care. Deciding to drown themselves before the sea can do it for them, the Gang goes out on their own terms. Frank yells, “Highway to hell, baby!” Dennis, for the first time since the first season by my recollection, tells Dee, “Sis, I love you,” before Sweet Dee dives to her death with a dismissive, “Whatever.” Mac and Charlie, left alone, find the core of innocence that have made them—to varying degrees—the most vulnerably human of the Gang in the end. I admit to tearing up in spite of everything at their final exchange:

Charlie: Should we do this?

Mac: Let’s go be with the Gang.

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And, of course, they don’t die—their unseen judge turns out to be a nondescript clerk from the insurance company investigating the disaster, their oversharing means that they won’t get any money from their ordeal, and Mac, convinced that there is a God since he saved them after all, proclaims that he’s straight again. You might call cheating on the whole “unknown place, unknown time” bit in these last two episodes, and some of the cartoonish nature of the Gang’s antics last week remain unexplained by any sort of “all a dream” scenario. But the offhand denouement is really the only way this season could have ended. The Gang can change in the moment—even in the last extremity—but, given the chance to resume their normal (for them) lives, they will, thankfully for us, always be the Gang.

Stray observations

  • It must have been a bitch of a time filming, but the whole underwater rescue sequence is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year, the Gang’s hand-holding solidarity in the face of death turning to hilariously excessive self-interest as soon as hope arrives. The sight of Mac taking the time to repeatedly punch Dennis in the stomach as he tries to be the first out of the water is amazing.
  • More Charlie logic: “If the room’s on its side, does that men the boat’s on its side? I don’t know how boats this big work!”
  • Even in his new gay lifestyle, Mac still insists on serving blue Gatorade with the imaginary dinner. When Frank—demanding an imaginary milkshake instead—says that blue isn’t even a flavor, Charlie has to disagree. “It does taste like blue.”
  • Charlie does finally address the fact that he’s not freaking out at the prospect of leaving Philly any more at least, ranting that the Gang constantly whisking him off to faraway places has numbed him to the danger. “Used to be I would never leave Philly. Next thing you know I’m stuck in a box on a sinking ship!”
  • The runner with the Gang picking up Dennis’ new method of distracting Charlie with “Oi! Oi! Oi!” works every time.
  • In addition to his Luther, Dennis’ CCH Pounder impression is actually not bad. It’s that high, nasal quality that even Frank can recognize her as her character from The Shield. “I just assume she’s a no-nonsense black broad from the precinct.”
  • “Why can’t we imagine whatever we want?” “Because it’s my dinner party.” “THEN TAKE US THERE!”
  • And that’s a wrap on A.V. Club coverage of season 11 of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, people. As a final summation, I’d call this a very funny season of television that, nonetheless, wasn’t Sunny at its best, mainly because it felt a little complacent to coast on what it knew would work rather than reach down into the depths. I maintain that this show is one of the great sitcoms of all time, and while this was a successful season by any standard, it was often like watching a great batter hit long homers off the tee. That’s plenty enjoyable, but you really want to see him go up there and take ferocious cuts at live pitching—it’s more dangerous that way. Anyway, thanks for reading, as always. See you next season.

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