In the end, Wilfred has an answer. It’s not an ambiguous answer, it’s not a half-assed answer, it’s not a hand-waving answer. It is, about as clearly as it could possibly, an answer that says that Wilfred, the humanoid dog, was Ryan’s mental illness projected onto his neighbor’s entirely normal dog. And Ryan accepts this, putting it in a manageable corner of his brain and moving on with his life.
This is a surprising ending. For almost its entire run Wilfred has wallowed in ambiguity. It’s raised questions and laughed at people, and itself, for wanting to answer them. It’s come to the verge of providing a clear answer, then walked that right back (usually in the next season’s premiere). Given all that, it made by far the most sense to me for Wilfred to have an ending of some ambiguity. By this logic, it is thematically inconsistent with most of the series to come down so hard on this one direction.
Yet it is not, I think, thematically inconsistent with this, Wilfred’s final season. Over the course of these ten episodes, we’ve seen Ryan become more comfortable with himself and assertive to others. He is no longer the “pathetic loser” of the first season, needing Wilfred to guide him (poorly or well) through any kind of difficult situation. He is, if not totally healthy (and who is?), competent to live on his own and able to help others as much or more than he needs help himself. His sister, once the bane of his irresponsible existence, says as much: “Because, you know, not everyone is lucky enough to have a brother like you to help them get their shit together.”
By picking an answer—well, by picking this particular answer—these last two episodes get to move in a direction that would otherwise be impossible. If Wilfred were an actual god, particularly a trickster god, the finale would at some level have to be loud. There would be a revelation about the true nature of reality, and everything would change. Instead, the story becomes one of quiet acceptance; of slow, calm conversations between Ryan and his family. The former could be excellent, of course, but in the last two seasons Wilfred’s apparent budget restraints have led it to be a show that isn’t capable of doing “loud” with much success. Instead, we get this slow set of revelations that is, more than anything, beautiful. That’s not a term I’d have used to describe Wilfred before this, but that’s largely because it’s comedic ambiguity about Wilfred’s nature and disposition took precedence. I’m glad that the entire series wasn’t like this, but it’s not a bad way for the show to go out.
On the other hand, from a plot standpoint, I’m not sure it works so well. Part of the reason for the consistent, successful ambiguity about Wilfred’s nature is that he has at varying times played different roles. Does he actually help Ryan or not? Does he actually take action on the external world in a fashion that would be impossible or implausible for Ryan to have done alone? I think the answer to the second question there is likely yes, especially in early seasons. Just in the first episode of these two, the idea that he would tell Ryan that he was going to sabotage Drew’s presence, then leave a squirrel head, is something that would be implausible for Ryan to do, especially if the show’s point is that Ryan is now healthy. Or in the season premiere, the photo Ryan and Wilfred in the car, sent to Ryan’s father, was taken at an angle that Ryan couldn’t have done on his own.
By my recollection, events like that were even more common in the previous seasons. I’d bet that, upon seeing this, fans are out there collecting examples of all the times Wilfred did things that Ryan couldn’t do. And I’m not sure they’d be wrong to do so. The show has walked a difficult tightrope across all four of its seasons. It’s had to provide clues as to solutions to its core mystery without actually making one side too obvious, and it’s had to make that mystery important enough to be compelling without drowning the show in Lost-style speculation. I don’t think it’s entirely succeeded at accomplishing those things, but I think it’s done well enough that providing a direct answer, even if it’s not totally supported by the text, is at least possible without the entire thing crashing in on itself.
Although there may be a “Tony’s dead” segment of fans who simply disagree with the explicit text of the series finale and decide that an implicit understanding of what happened makes more sense. In this case, Ryan accepts Charles’ explanation that the Cult Of The Grey Shepherd was always bunk. It would not be exceptionally difficult to simply say that Charles’ current beliefs are wrong, and he did actually have the right of it in the beginning. I would say that the relatively short length of the episode not giving time for every thing to be explained or shown is what makes this idea seem more viable, but I wouldn’t say it’s totally wrong. (The ambiguity about what the basement was, at the end of the last episode, reinforces the idea that maybe the ending’s not as clear as it says it is.)
Through this review I’ve been primarily focusing on the second of these two episodes, “Happiness,” but that’s because it’s the one that provides the “answers,” and, of course, closes out the series. But the previous episode, “Resistance,” might have been the better episode and offered more closure. In this episode, we saw the end of Ryan’s relationship with Jenna. He realized, in the end, that his love for “the girl next door” wasn’t real, and he lashed out a bit: “No, I do. I think I finally understand. I’m in love with a fantasy. That smiley, bubbly persona is just bullshit.” But I think the more important thing is that Ryan gave Jenna the space she wanted and needed, and even if that meant that he lost his chance at her, he was able to not desperately hunt her. Ryan’s nice guy persona, which paralyzed him into overconscientious indecision early on, had morphed into a legitimate ability to attempt kindness.
And then there was arguably the most touching moment in the entire series, as Ryan sits quietly with the dying dog Wilfred, and suddenly Wilfred is a real dog and not a man in a dog suit. This quiet sad beauty suggested the end of the series more than the quest for answers, using a simple visual to convey what a series of monologues wouldn’t have been able to. Wilfred, both the series and the character, went out elegantly.
- Not too many jokes in these episodes, but enough. “Ryan, I’ve eaten all kinds of shit. Cat shit. Rabbit shit. Deer shit. But I draw the line at carrots.”
- “It’s time to stop digging, mate. Just be.” Well yes, but there is an episode of digging.
- “It’s for a free clinic so I’ll only be treating poor people. But on the plus side at least I’ll be around people more miserable than I am.” Kristen!
- “There was a time when your father and I were very happy together.” “So, what happened?” “Kristen.” Kristen!
- “Nazim doesn’t bottom out til Thursday, so I thought I’d stop by and do a victory lap.”
- “I miss you, Wilfred. Without you my life is so ordinary. And flat. And dull.” There’s also an argument to be made, and it sounds superficial, that Wilfred existed for Wilfred the show’s sake. That what Ryan needed, in his odd, dull, suburban existence, was adventure. It’s kind of an argument for pets in general.
- Speaking of, it turns out that Ryan’s mom talking to a person in a cat outfit WAS the explanation for everything.
- “You mean, I tell you the right thing to do, you ignore me, so I make your life a living hell so you have no choice to do the thing I told you to do in the first place?” Hey, someone’s been reading my reviews!
- Let’s spare a mention for Robin Williams, whose appearance in the second season premiere made that one of series’ best and most memorable episodes.