Sandy Martin, Lynne Marie Stewart, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney (FX)

While the Gang’s collective awfulness is uniquely their own, there’s undeniably a lot of reaction against parental shortcomings in the mix. It’s shocking to think that Dee, Dennis, and Frank have the healthiest parent/child relationship, Frank’s many, many failings as father subsumed by his status as their peer—sure, they hate each other, but their hate has settled into one of mutual equal footing with Frank’s gradual acceptance as one of the Gang. For Mac and Charlie, however, the specter of their respective parents’ distance, indifference, absence, inappropriateness, and/or outright hostility is more disfiguring. On “Mac Kills His Dad,” we see them both forced, once again, to confront the massive, unbridgeable chasm between their idealized desires for loving parents and chain-smoking, dude-banging, violently murderous reality, and, as ever, the results are both very funny, and deeply sad.

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As the title implies, the episode centers on Mac’s oft-imprisoned and ever terrifying dad Luther, played as ever with an implacably baleful matter-of-factness by Gregory Scott Cummins. In the six times Luther has appeared, Cummins’ resolute unwillingness to give even a glimmer of fatherly affection (or even recognition) to his desperately yearning son has been a marvel of characterization, the granite-faced epitome of paternal withholding, and Mac’s continually optimistic denial that his frightening father simply does not care about him is one of the show’s darkest sources of comedy. There’s always danger in ascribing too much human empathy to any one of the Gang’s actions, but Mac’s unfailing attempts to make his horrible, rightfully fractured parents into the idealized family unit he so desperately wants always paints Mac at his most sympathetic. Coming to see Luther in jail after the news reports that he may have decapitated a guy (with a stop sign!), Mac brings a picture of his mother (in hopes that her perpetually scowling and chain-smoking visage will make Luther run back to her), and engages in his traditional brand of Mac denial, telling Luther he knows he’s innocent since Luther couldn’t have swung that stop sign, what with the bad shoulder that always kept him from having a catch with little Mac. Charlie, along at Mac’s insistence, spends the whole visit reacting incredulously to Mac’s continued self-delusions, giving Charlie Day some outstanding opportunities to underplay. (Mac: “We’ved gotta let him know that we know he didn’t do it!” Charlie: “I know, but I believe that he did, so…”)

When Mac and Charlie, despite Luther’s emphatic and scary admonition, strike out to prove Luther innocent, it gives Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day a chance to pair their signature blend of denial, insanity, and stupidity to reliably funny effect. Sunny has a shifting comic alchemy, an episode’s humor formed from whichever combination of Gang members are teamed in that week’s schemes. The Charlie/Mac pairing, comprised as it is of the two characters with the least controlling intelligence, mines laughs from Charlie’s irrational, unworldly leaps of logic and Mac’s sweatily desperate efforts to keep the various balls of self-delusion under which he operates up in the air. So this week, despite not sharing Mac’s belief in Luther’s innocence, Charlie takes the lead in the investigation due to his love of Law & Order-style TV drama and his continuing belief in himself as master of “bird law.” Meanwhile, Mac’s attempts to play bad cop result in him ineptly (and inadvertently) threatening witnesses, and reacting to the news that Luther was in fact innocent because he was double-teaming—and then “completing” singly with the latter—with Charlie’s mom and one Eduardo Sanchez (who actually did decapitate that guy afterward) results in some of the tortured denial Mac’s famous for. Mac’s lightning fast construction of a palatable reality in the face of his father’s apparently happy (if terrifying) bisexuality is, in McElhenney’s hands, a thing of beauty (“Oh, my God, do you know what this means? My dad was trying to establish dominance!”)

A word about casting—in a world populated by uniformly awful people, Charlie and Mac’s parents have really outdone themselves, with the three actors involved crafting uniquely horrible creatures. (While it’s almost a lock at this point that Frank is Charlie’s biological father, his aforementioned position as part of the Gang puts him in a whole separate category of awful.) Cummins’ Luther we’ve already covered, his dead-eyed disdain for his son and ex-wife the soul of indiscriminate male propagation and neglect. Matching him is Sandy Martin as Mac’s still-unnamed mom, whose barely sentient, bovine, grunting (“Ok, you’re off words again, that’s great,” says Charlie at one point) creature of a mother remains so singularly inert a creation that it’s always surprising to realize that Martin is a respected actress and playwright and not a genuinely alcoholic lump plucked from the dregs of Philadelphia’s genetic stew. As Charlie’s cheerfully, indiscriminately promiscuous mom Bonnie, Lynne Marie Stewart is a more broadly comic type, but Stewart (who’ll always be Miss Yvonne, “the most beautiful woman in the world” alongside Phil Hartman’s Captain Carl to me) has also made her seemingly one-note character into someone memorable. Unlike the others, she genuinely loves her Charlie—it’s just that she, too, is so tragically damaged a creature that her incessant, lifelong wantonness continues to deform her son who, like Mac, longs for a love and stability she can never provide. What could be a mean joke—the matronly mother figure unashamedly delivering lines like “I can’t lie to my Charlie. They were both inside me. Eduardo was in my mouth and Luther was in my butt”—is, in Stewart’s performance, less sniggering and more nuanced and sad. (And, yes, hilarious.) As Frank discovered in season three, Bonnie has literally no self-esteem, and her ongoing receptiveness to male attention is both a response to that fact, and a constant horror to Charlie. After her overly graphic description of the night of the murder, Charlie Day’s escalatingly aghast reaction is some prime Charlie Day histrionics:

Jesus Goddamn Christ, mom—if you know that, just say that. Don’t tell me the whole thing about banging every single guy that comes in the house! If you just know that part about the murder, just say the murder part!

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The horrible parent theme continues in the episode’s B-story, to funny but less affecting effect, as recurring character Bill Ponderosa appears in a tuxedo at Paddy’s and announces he’s there to drink himself to death. The Ponderosa family connection to Sunny has always been one of the show’s weakest, with Dennis’ abortive marriage to Maureen Ponderosa being one of my least favorite storylines. Lance Barber’s Bill has played the depressive, self-destructive drug addict to much greater effect elsewhere, and while Dee, Dennis, and Frank’s attempts to first save, then profit (via semi-illegal insurance policy) from Bill’s cheerful death wish delve into some fruitfully dark comic territory, the storyline feels extraneous. That being said, their visit to Bill’s understandably awful family provides another layer to the episode’s examination of just how much damage selfish, irresponsible parents can do to their kids, with Bill’s dramatically Goth young son exclaiming that he intends to use his inheritance on a gun even taking Dennis aback (“Oh shit no!”)

In the end, Bill’s happy offer to go to the chair in Luther’s place is derailed when he’s swayed to abandon his suicide by the cheesily happy t-shirts Frank foisted on everyone, Luther swears vengeance (again) when Mac and Charlie’s efforts make it look like he’s a snitch, and Mac is crushed by Luther’s bald pronouncement that he unambiguously does not love him. But don’t worry—Mac will forget that soon enough.

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Stray observations:

  • The ongoing setup of an episode’s title functioning as a punchline is one of It’s Always Sunny’s enduring stealth gags. Here, Mac’s resolute, “I’m gonna save my Dad’s life!” is followed immediately by the black title screen “Mac Kills His Dad,” a construction underlining the show’s knowing deconstruction of the sitcom genre’s premise-heavy realities. They don’t do it every time, but it’s never not funny when they do.
  • Mac calling Luther “Daddy” shouldn’t break my heart, but it always does.
  • Charlie’s investigative world view, shaped entirely by Law & Order. Mac: “Why would he know anything?” Charlie: “He’s moving crates from one place to another.”
  • The Charlie and Mac good cop/bad cop dynamic:

Charlie: “How do you not know what a threat sounds like?

Mac: Oh, the lips thing? He’s got words in his lips and I need to get them out.

Charlie: I know the words are in his lips, I saw them in there. Just let me coax them out, or else you’re gonna freak the guy out. Sir, your lips are fine—

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  • Charlie and his mom, reestablishing boundaries:

And mom, try not to bang every guy that walks in the house, okay?

Ok, I won’t sweetie!

  • Dennis, responding in signature fashion to Mac and Charlie being taken aback at the life insurance scam: “We’ve justified this already, so just move past it.”
  • Apart from being yet another casualty of proximity to the Gang, the plastic surgery train wreck that is Maureen Ponderosa doesn’t bring much to the episode. Although Dee and Frank getting off track and speculating on how she can further transform herself into cat-woman is typical of their inability to care about one thing for more than ten minutes. Frank: “You could go full cat and then wear humans on your sweatshirt.”

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