David Hornsby, Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day (FX)

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia continually keeps viewer empathy off balance. It’s tempting to attribute the Gang’s present awfulness to their past history of abuse and humiliation, especially when we learn more and more about their childhoods and, most pertinent to tonight’s episode “Psycho Pete Returns,” their high school years.

As revealed most tellingly in the season seven finale, “The High School Reunion”/”The High School Reunion Part 2: The Gang’s Revenge,” that cauldron of adolescent cruelty forged Dennis, Dee, Charlie, and Mac inextricably into the codependent nexus of self-loathing and denial that’s run roughshod over unsuspecting Philadelphians for nigh on a decade now.

But, with customary Sunny rigor, all of the crushing defeats of their high school years—Dee’s back brace, Charlie’s status as spider-eating carnival geek, Dennis delusions of “golden god” popularity, Mac’s barely tolerated pot dealer utility—partially explain without ever excusing. (Frank, his pathology formed from similar experience in the previous generation, fits right in with his progeny and their friends.) As Dennis laid out (to no one in the Gang’s lasting edification) last week, they are all bound together in a delusional, defensive symbiosis as the only people in the world who can stand each other—even if they can’t stand each other. The Gang are ultimate losers whose desperate need to prop themselves up through the collective myth that they are winners gives them terrifying destructive power and resilience. Truly, when Philadelphia finally burns to the ground—probably because of something the Gang has done—they will be the last five cockroaches atop the ashes, making fun of all dead and reassuring each other that they’re doing great.

Enter Psycho Pete. Mentioned in the reunion episodes as a lost member of Mac and Charlie’s “freight train gang” who, back in high school, not only tolerated the Gang but also delighted them with his antics (like screaming into babies’ faces on the street), his rumored reappearance has Mac and Charlie overjoyed. Strutting into Paddy’s with a boom box blasting The Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” the guys are baffled when Dee, Dennis and Frank don’t share their enthusiasm, fixating instead on the little details.

Frank: “The guy you went to high school with that killed and ate his family?”

Charlie: “Yeah, but don’t get all caught up on that.”

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So when Psycho Pete shows up as a polite, soft-spoken lug expressing remorse for what he used to be like and proclaiming that therapy and medication have let him find peace, it sets off a two-pronged reaction of signature Gang insensitivity and horror. Dee, Dennis, and Frank, convinced that, as Dee puts it, “It’s actually really sad, but once your brain’s a piece of shit, it’s always a piece of shit,” set out to have Pete recommitted. While Charlie and Mac hatch a plan to get their old, fun Psycho Pete back by calling on Rickety Cricket.

Matthew “Rickety Cricket” Mara is the Gang’s picture of Dorian Gray. Through the course of the series, his every association with the Gang results in him suffering more and more horrific physical and psychological disfigurement while they remain as untouched as ever—give or take a Fat Mac. Here, Mac and Charlie hunt him down to use his defrocked priest powers to free Pete from his newfound sanity through confession and/or exorcism, finding Cricket huddled under a bridge and sporting a new wound—the grotesque facial burns he suffered when Frank accidentally burned Dennis and Mac’s apartment down at the end of last season. As Mac’s tortured cosmology provides the engine for this plotline (and because it’s a hilariously illuminating glimpse into Mac’s head), it’s worth quoting:

You know, Charlie, the real problem with these people going to state-run looney bins is the separation of church and state. You spend all your time talking to a therapist instead of a priest. A priest is gonna let you off the hook for everything you’ve done. [Pete] needs to be absolved so he can go psycho again. Look, I feel guilty all the time for all of my thoughts and urges, but I’m not going to talk to a therapist that’s gonna make me, like deal with it, or confront my issues.

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David Hornsby’s performance as Cricket partakes of the tonal balance that is Sunny’s trademark, his inevitable destruction at the hands of the Gang ever offset by his masochistic willingness to take part in his own debasement in order to be allowed into his tormentors’ orbit. There’s a touch of madness in poor Cricket which, even before all the things that drove him to his (current) nadir, made him susceptible to being the Gang’s sub-Charlie whipping boy. It even freaks the Gang out at various times in the episode, with Charlie’s squeamish, “Cricket, anything we can do to have you not talk about sucking penises or getting raped in the butt?” being answered by Cricket’s blasé “Just keeps popping up.” (Dee’s horrified “Oh—oh oh” at seeing Cricket’s burned visage is another indication that the Gang, who all claim to not remember Cricket being present at their fiery Thanksgiving, are still capable of being shocked by what they’ve done to him.) Cricket’s complicit victimization marks him as part of the Gang’s world.

Not so Psycho Pete, who, we discover, never killed and ate his family or was anything but a depressed and confused teenager acting out for attention and acceptance, a revelation that knocks the episode a-tilt. Dominic Burgess’ Psycho Pete is built up as a powder keg of repressed, homicidal insanity to be detonated by the Gang’s typically short-sighted and horrible quick-fix solutions. When it turns out he’s just come back into the Gang’s orbit because his “social anxiety disorder mixed with depression” made him seek out his old friends because, as he says with heartbreaking sincerity, “You always liked me, so you guys’d help me cope with it,” the poor bastard’s all-too-real fragility and misguided earnestness sucks the comedy out of the bar.

The episode’s tonal problems are exacerbated by Frank’s subplot, where a visit to Pete’s now-closed mental institution (or “nitwit farm,” in Frank’s estimation) leads Frank on a series of jittery flashbacks to his own childhood, when he briefly lived in the same place alongside a half-seen half-amphibian monster-child named Froggy. These scenes, shot horror movie-style by director Todd Bierman as Frank remembers snatches of his past and seeks out former psychiatrist Zimmerman, are intentionally transparent, leading to a funny reveal when Frank immediately recognizes the truth that Froggy was just his imaginary friend. (“Oh yeah, I see that.”) Unfortunately, none of the rest of it is especially memorable, ending with a broadly silly and inexplicable joke where the aged Zimmerman chases Frank out of his nursing home with just the sort of oversized butterfly net Frank told Dee and Dennis he’d been chased with as a child.

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In the end, Pete’s fate—the Gang ships him off to Los Angeles on a train in lieu of helping him or returning his friendship—is, like much of the episode, too rushed to be truly satisfying. Although, of course, a cross-country train speeding far, far away from Philadelphia is the best place for Psycho Pete.

Stray observations:

  • Glenn Howerton’s having a great season so far, and his scene in the asylum, whipsawing between outrage at the mentally ill being cut loose and equal and immediate outrage at the possibility of his taxes being raised to stop it is a wonder.

Dennis: How could they do that? That’s insane!

Dee: I guess it’s either do that or raise our taxes.

Dennis: What?! Raise my taxes? How much do these vultures need? I already pay a ton in taxes.

Dee: Then I guess they’re gonna have to shut down more of these places.

Dennis: What!? We gotta have somewhere to keep our lunatics!

Dee: Then they’ve gotta raise taxes.

Dennis: WHAT?! I’m not paying more in taxes, Dee. I won’t do it! Don’t speak of it again!

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  • That one’s good, but Howerton’s real triumph is at the psychiatrist’s office, a bravura display of the barely-concealed demons lurking inside Dennis Reynolds:

Dennis: Dee, I swear you would be of more use to me if I skinned you and turned your skin into a lampshade or fashioned you into a piece of high-end luggage. Add you to my collection.

Dee: Are you saying you have a collection of skin luggage?

Dennis: Of course not, Dee. Think of the smell. You haven’t thought of the smell, you bitch! You say another word and I swear to God I will dice you into a million little pieces and put those pieces in a box, a glass box that I will display on my mantel.

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  • Kaitlin Olson, too, is killing it this season. Terrible actor Sweet Dee is always great, Olson throwing herself into Dee’s awful, improbably shifting accents with utterly misplaced confidence. Extra points for her tale of burning her roommate (with unidentifiable accent) “down to the bedsprings and now I have a hankering to do it again.”
  • Dennis Reynolds doesn’t agree: “You will sit here and you will say nothing. Your bad acting will only confuse him, and it will infuriate me.”
  • Fat Mac’s still in there somewhere: “What are they feeding you, dude? Look at all that mass, it looks great!”
  • “This is the nitwit school, the one I was Shanghaied to when I was a kid!” “The one that you had your mommy tell them to tell you you didn’t have donkey brains?”
  • Dee, upon hearing Frank’s tale of being chased with the butterfly nets: “Did you grow up in a cartoon?”
  • “Yes, do you have some sort of donkey brain database?”
  • Charlie refers to Cricket as the Phantom of the Opera, and if he does end up kidnapping Dee to some sort of underground lair at some point, it won’t be a surprise.

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