FX

This post contains spoilers for the full third season of  You’re the Worst.

From its pilot onward, You’re the Worst has defied popular expectations for “rom-com TV.” Its central couple is an awful woman and an awful man, Jimmy and Gretchen, whose collective awfulness at times makes it impossible to root for them. The FX show’s opening theme song consists of the lyrics “I’m gonna leave you anyway” repeated over and over. So the sad twist at the end of the show’s third-season finale on Wednesday was in many ways built into the premise.

In the last scene, the pair (played by Chris Geere and Aya Cash) find themselves in a secluded spot overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Then: Jimmy pulls out a ring and drops to one knee. He delivers an overwrought, passionate speech: “Extraordinary, confounding Gretchen. She who emits more energy than a dying galaxy ... Together we transcend the mundanity down there.” Gretchen cries. They embrace. He asks her to marry him; she says yes. It’s disgustingly, delightfully romantic. As Jimmy heads to their car to get a blanket for them to have celebratory sex on, Gretchen calls after him to note the significance of their engagement. “We’re no longer just us,” she says. “We’re a family now.” And as Jimmy back turns around, his face changes, darkens, the reality of Gretchen’s words sinking in. And he does the only thing that makes sense to him: As fireworks begin exploding above them in the inky night sky, he gets into his car, and he leaves her there.

It’s the kind of reversal You’re the Worst has pulled before: the commitment-phobic Jimmy and Gretchen take a big step forward, whether deciding to move in together or become exclusive, only for the episode to end on their respective looks of what have I done? horror. So it’s a testament to the show’s brilliance that, despite signaling the couple’s doomed-ness from the start, the finale still hit so hard. You’re the Worst’s wonderful third season undoubtedly saw the most psychological and emotional progress yet for its stable of chaotic characters. It built incrementally on the notion that the pathologically selfish Jimmy and Gretchen, along with Gretchen’s best friend Lindsay and Jimmy’s war-veteran friend Edgar, aren’t totally hopeless 30-somethings. In their respective journeys toward becoming better people, each gained a new, more complicated understanding of selfishness—coming to terms with, yes, its pitfalls, but also, its hidden virtues. And yet, as Jimmy’s jilting of Gretchen suggests, this newfound emotional maturity can still have devastating consequences.

After a raucous first season with only hints of darkness, season two surprised many viewers with a full arc exploring Gretchen’s depression. You’re the Worst began its third season with a theme that felt like a logical next step—the difficulty (and humor) of managing mental illness. Over the last 13 episodes, though, You’re the Worst broadened its scope from mental illness to the more general task of self-improvement: of confronting tragedy, taking responsibility, learning from mistakes. Of trying, slowly, frustratingly, to become less “the worst.”

Gretchen started the season by seeking out a therapist (played by Samira Wiley) and, after several disastrous sessions, she finally realized how her mother’s impossibly high expectations fueled her depression. Jimmy, a novelist working on his second book, came to terms with how his desire to please his withholding father influenced his writing—after learning his dad had died of cancer. Edgar (Desmin Borges) discovered that marijuana was the only thing that helped his severe combat-related PTSD, and landed a comedy-writing gig. After trying to force her marriage to work, Lindsay (Kether Donohue) accepted that starting a family with her lovable but nerdy husband Paul would be a mistake, leading her to have an abortion and ask for a divorce.

One of the biggest hurdles the characters faced was moving beyond their self-centeredness. Given how terrible Jimmy, Gretchen, and Lindsay are, the comedic effect of all their striving was often like watching cats try to bark: simple in concept, endlessly amusing in execution. And yet, they tried. Gretchen moved out of her comfort zone to support Jimmy after his father’s death (though she had debated not telling him the news so they still could go on their “Famous Pets of Instagram” cruise). Jimmy planned a grand romantic gesture to lure Gretchen to his surprise proposal spot, where he opened up and thanked her for bravely going to therapy, “for us.” As for Lindsay, she tried to swallow her own misgivings about her marriage so as not to hurt her husband, and in another episode, she put her problems aside and helped Edgar have a breakthrough about his PTSD. If these all sound like acts of basic human kindness, that’s because they are—but in the context of the You’re the Worst, they’re virtually Nobel Peace Prize-worthy.

In trying to think more about others, the characters were often paradoxically forced to focus more on themselves. This season, they all learned about that more enlightened form of selfishness known as “self care,” and recognized that putting yourself first can also help those around you. Hence, Gretchen and her therapy-related efforts to practice “mindfulness” in her daily life. Jimmy and his attempts to “find himself” in the latter half of the season by opening himself up to new experiences. Edgar working to get the VA to help him with mental-health treatment, partly because of the toll it was taking on his actress girlfriend, Dorothy. And Lindsay openly communicating with her husband about her sexual needs to preserve their relationship.

Even Edgar, the only main character who couldn’t be credibly labeled “the worst,” was forced to reflect and grow. Though he’d long functioned as the show’s main avatar for generosity, in the later episodes, especially after getting his PTSD under control, Edgar had to confront his own ability to indirectly hurt others. The main conflict between him and Dorothy in recent weeks was how he instantly landed a comedy-writing job, while Dorothy had been repeatedly overlooked despite working for years in a sexist and ageist industry. When Edgar tells her he had considered quitting the job for her, Dorothy—rightly—points out that he pities her, and that pity isn’t the same as love. After they break up, Edgar confides in Lindsay, “I think once she said [she wanted to end things], part of me wanted her to go. She was kinda bumming me out. How horrible is that of me?”

But the hard lesson of this third season was that neither selflessness, nor selfishness has entirely good consequences, because it’s impossible to fully disentangle one person’s well-being from that of another. Before, when the characters focused solely on themselves, the interpersonal fallout was expected, a natural consequence of their lifestyles. But by stepping up the moral stakes of the story and the moral capacity of its characters, You’re the Worst moved into more complex territory, one filled with contradictions, spurned good intentions, and a more informed skepticism of traditional bonds between people, including marriage and family.

In addition to self-improvement, the notion of “family” was a focal point of season three. Both Jimmy and Gretchen realize for the first time how their families played a role in screwing them up and making them so self-centered. Lindsay, too, fears striking out on her own, because she wants to be part of a family (a word she dreamily repeats to herself in most episodes). Eventually, Jimmy declares that he is “post-family,” claiming that, “Family is portrayed as a safe harbor, but nay: It is often the very Charybdis that yanks us to the fathoms.” That sentiment leads to the disastrous final act, where Gretchen calling them a “family” is enough to scare him away. Perhaps, to him, family is just another kind of societal trap, one that obscures how people relate to and care for one other. The concept is antithetical, in some ways, to what all the characters are trying to do: to give and take, to be selfish and selfless, but out of desire, not duty.

The season-three finale didn’t undo all the progress the characters made, though. While Jimmy and Gretchen were left in a moment of crisis, reevaluating their choice to break with their narcissistic natures, Edgar and Lindsay found comfort in nurturing one another. In their last scene together, they exchanged words that were somehow more shocking than the expletive-laden quips that fill every episode. “Are you okay?” Lindsay asked Edgar gently as he reflected on his recent breakup. “Are you sure you’re gonna be okay?” Edgar asked Lindsay moments later, as he helped move her into her new tiny, roach-infested studio to start a new life. Are you okay? Are you going to be okay? It was the simplest, smallest gesture of selflessness, but after nearly 40 episodes of watching You’re the Worst’s characters reaching ever new heights of egotism, those words meant everything.

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