Christine Woods, Jaxon or Lucas Korossy, Glenn Howerton (Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX)

Season finales have never really been It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s strongest outings. The perceived need for a big finish tends to elevate plot over character, and the busyness, as a rule, distracts from the joy of watching the characters do deep dives into their collective and individual madness. “Dennis’ Double Life” looks like it’s going that way as well, what with the revelation that Dennis sired a child while killing time at an Applebee’s after he ditched the Gang’s cross-country beer bash in “The Gang Beats Boggs.” As the chipper-accented Mandy (Christine Woods) and her adorable son, Brian Jr. (Dennis passed himself off as longtime alias Brian LeFevre for the seduction), wait patiently for Dennis/Brian to spend some time with his secret family, Dennis and the Gang brainstorm their usual cavalcade of elaborately bananas scams to send her on her way.

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Mac wants to pretend that he and Dennis are a couple, his recent openness about his sexuality allowing him to spin ever more elaborate fantasies about the nature of their sexual relationship. (The guys’ unexplained knowledge thereof coming into play as Mac casts Dennis, variously, as his “power bottom” and “gimp.”) Frank wants to “Indecent Proposal” the lady, setting out to find a millionaire willing to offer up cash to sleep with her (though not a million bucks, since that’s a lot of dough). Charlie’s Charlie logic sees him already inspired by Dennis’ predicament to trap the Waitress by somehow getting her pregnant. (“Okay, he’s already onto another thing,” snaps the annoyed Dennis.) Dee protests being skipped, saying she knows the guys will just ignore her anyway, which, of course they immediately do, after dismissing her for being so emotional, like a woman.

So, business as usual. Except that when the dust settles, Dennis leaves Philadelphia to go be with his new family.

Glenn Howerton (Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX)

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As cliffhangers go, Dennis leaving isn’t, in itself, a major deal,* even though it’s more forward-looking than most other Sunny finales. It sets up the idea that season 13 will open with family man Dennis going insane in the politely snowy Middle West and plotting his return or the Gang realizing that Hell without Dennis Reynolds isn’t as satisfyingly horrible and plotting to spirit him back to Philly. It’s most likely a combination of the two. At any rate, the show’s not about to become It’s Always Sunny In Bismarck. Still, Glenn Howerton’s goodbye—like Charlie’s pre- and post-coital scenes with the Waitress (we’ll get there)—is sold in the performance, Dennis’ defiant pledge to leave behind his life of vanity, deceit, and perpetual “person of interest” status informed by how tenderly and sincerely he says goodbye to his infant son in a filthy Philly alley.

Sunny’s cast excels at that, the second-skin familiarity of actor and character making moments of genuine emotion possible, even in the midst of the most darkly ludicrous circumstances. (You know, like pretending to take a bullet as special agent Dane Brass just to get out of connecting with the mother of your bastard child.) In these moments, watching Sunny is like watching a science fiction (or more accurately horror) movie, where you’re allowed the briefest tragic glimpses of the humanity that once animated (or should once have animated) the shambling, destructive monster laying waste to everyone and everything that could conceivably accept it.

Charlie’s obsession with the Waitress is objectively horrifying. When—after luring her to his apartment for a chat with the promise of a dollar a minute—he unveils the two presentation boards tracing his unwilling beloved’s inexorable decline, Charlie is oblivious to how instrumental he has been in the Waitress’ plight. And yet.

“At this point, I just don’t know what else to say.”

“Oh, my god, stop saying things to me! Don’t you understand that this is never gonna happen, so let it go!”

“Okay, but… why? You just say no and you won’t give me a shot. I don’t understand what’s so terrible about me.”

“What’s so great about me, Charlie?! What’s wrong with you? Why are you so obsessed with me? I mean, you said it yourself, I’m a mess! So why don’t you go find somebody better?”

“Well, because… there is no one better. And I love you.”

Here again, real-life husband and wife Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis are so good in this exchange that their immediacy creates its own, sincere little world where Charlie hasn’t been maniacally stalking the Waitress since high school. (We find out tonight that he’s aware of her desire for a child, because he’s been following her while she looks longingly at the little kids in the neighborhood.) There’s discreetly swoony music under the scene, adding to the indie drama vibe, but it’s the pair’s performances that make the unthinkable improbably believable.

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Naturally, such bubbles of humanity can’t survive in Sunny’s jagged, rusty, rocket-launcher-strewn environment, and the afterglow of what turns out to have been a shockingly satisfying sexual experience for both parties dissipates once the clouds of Charlie’s stubborn madness and the Waitress’ demanding nature roll back in. (Yes, she’s absolutely correct that Frank and Charlie’s filthy, lead-paint-slathered warren is no place for her to raise a baby, but the gap between Charlie’s idealized conception of the Waitress and her actual grubby personality has always been part of the joke.) Faced with the reality of an uncompromising, flesh-and-blood woman in his life, Charlie flees, complaining to Dee, “It’s one thing to trap a person with a baby, but when you have a baby, then you become trapped.”

He winds up at Dee’s, along with Frank (who needed to vacate his place so Charlie could make his move), and Mac and Dennis, squabbling both about Frank’s abortive attempts to “decent proposal”-bang the unimpressed Mandy into abeyance (for five grand), and Dennis’ unwillingness to sleep in Mac’s “home gym.” (Which is just an empty room with the Asspounder 4000 crouched ominously inside.) As is often the case, Dee’s episode-long fury at being ignored, imposed upon, and inconvenienced is written off as womanly emotionality by the guys, with Kaitlin Olson mining Dee’s perpetual afterthought status for some outstanding double takes, gape-mouthed incredulity, and, finally, the horrifyingly hilarious threat to smash Dennis’ newfound son to the floor. (Points to acting twins Jaxson and Lucas Korossy, who demonstrate appropriately side-eyed wariness at the Gang’s profane shenanigans throughout the episode.) When she finally gets the guys to listen, it’s to her plan to have Dennis adopt his second identity of the episode and fake his own death, naturally.

Mandy sees through the ruse (the mistimed gunshot sound doesn’t help the illusion), her no-nonsense Midwest demeanor revealing her to have no ulterior motive whatsoever, except to introduce Dennis to their son. Dennis is taken aback by the concept of someone without multifarious hidden agendas, and the simple fact that Mandy is going to leave with little Brian Jr. is enough to—as no doubt Dennis would put it—unman him.

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The rest of the Gang, having no such epiphanies, do their variously absurd victory dances to the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love,” while Dennis stares off into the middle distance, before exclaiming:

I can’t do this any more. What are we doing? I can’t do any of this shit any more. Okay, I’m leaving. I’m gonna go be a dad. [In response to Frank’s objections]: You know what, Frank? I’ll figure it out. Because I don’t want my kid to grow up like I did, with some asshole dad who’s never even around.

Once more, Howerton sells the hell out of the moment, telling off his father to his face and waving a dismissive hand at all the nonsense that makes up the Gang’s daily existence. As with Charlie and the Waitress, the moment can’t last long, as Dennis, unable to resist his need for a big moment, declares the bar “over” before turning out the lights. When the others protest that they’re still in said bar (along with the usual ragged straggle of drinkers), Dennis impatiently snaps at them for ruining his exit, signaling the fact that you can take Dennis out of Paddy’s, but Paddy’s is coming along with him to South Dakota. Still, it’s an exit, and a momentous one. At least for an episode or two.

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*Post-episode news-related development: It might actually be sort of a big thing. Whoa.

Stray observations

  • According to a briefly glimpsed and appropriately phallic poster, there’s a Thundergun Express sequel out—Thundergun II: Still Gunnin’.
  • Once more, Dee raising Brian Jr. threateningly above her head is fucking hilarious.
  • If you need more of Kaitlin Olson comically mistreating children, there are still a few episodes of The Mick left this season.
  • The Gang’s victory dances are all delicious fan service, from Mac’s signature martial arts moves to Dee’s inflatable tube man to Charlie’s storied butt dance. Anyone know if Frank’s vague, old man shuffling is a reference?
  • Mac and Dennis’ burned-down apartment is all fixed. Mac, having won a bet, redecorated it by re-creating it, down to the last wall sombrero. The only difference is only one bedroom for the two of them, something Dennis is even less thrilled about.
  • Dennis’ out-of-breath rundown of his many lies to Mandy makes for some big laughs, as Mac declares he wants to be someone else, Dee is still his sister, although she’s now named Prudence, and Charlie is bogged down deciding whether Brian LeFevre is left- or right-handed. (“At least go with the hand that I am, for chrissakes,” blurts Dennis.)
  • When Mandy leaves, there’s a lovely three-quarter shot of Dennis’ face—with a swarm of circling Philly trash flying in the background where Mandy was. That’s about as close to beauty as it gets around here.
  • The Gang (minus Dennis) spares about 30 seconds’ rumination on Dennis’ departure before blowing up what appears to be Dennis’ Range Rover with the rocket launcher Mac got him for Valentine’s Day. I would expect no less.
  • And that’s a wrap on the A.V. Club’s reviews of season 12 of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. It has been, as ever, a blast, gang.

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