It’s no secret that I love It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There may be no more vocal champion of the show writing today. But before the season finale, even I wasn’t expecting it to earn its place in so many end of year lists. In another world, in which the finale didn’t happen, I might have argued for its inclusion somewhere in our #2018Rewind extravaganza. I might even have gotten it a spot, based on passion alone.
But we don’t live in that world. In the world we live in, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the 13-year-old anti-sitcom that brought us The Night Man and Rum Ham, has arguably produced the best, most beautiful scene of the year.
No finagling. No caveating. It just has.
I’ve already written extensively about the Always Sunny season 13 finale “Mac Finds His Pride.” If you’d like to read my review, you can follow this link. If you’d like to read my rundown of the evolution of Mac’s sexuality and what it means for the show, you can follow this one.
If you’d rather not, that’s fine. We can talk here.
The last five minutes of “Mac Finds His Pride” take place in a prison rec room, where Mac’s perpetually incarcerated father Luther and his fellow inmates have been gathered to see a Blake Shelton concert. Blake was never coming, however, and the real reason for the meeting is so that Mac can finally come out as gay to his dad. He’s insisted that he do it “his way,” and his weird hints at what that might entail instill a huge amount of tension in the viewer. Always Sunny is a harsh, raucous satire, and its characters have never been known for their grace or social skills. What could Mac’s coming out — which for some reason requires a stage — possibly entail?
The answer, it turns out, is a beautiful, emotive dance in the rain with incredible professional dancer Kylie Shea, set to the haunting song “Varúð” by Sigur Rós. The dance progresses, and the minutes wear on, but the tension doesn’t dissipate. It only mounts as, breathlessly, you wait for the other shoe to drop, for the joke to come. And it never does. So you hold your breath until the end.
And then something happens. It’s not a release, per se, and it’s certainly not a joke, but it is a monumental event as Frank Reynolds, weird old dirtbag extraordinaire (played by the always stellar Danny DeVito), is moved to tears and whispers “Oh my God. I get it.” The crowd of prisoners erupts in a standing ovation, Frank smiles in empathy and pride, and you can finally breathe again.
It’s beautiful. It’s cathartic. It’s cinematic. And it’s sure as shit not what you expected.
The first three quarters of the episode are funny enough as Mac explores gay culture with the world’s least likely spiritual guide : bigoted, out of touch, disgusting Frank, who for good measure is in every scene stuffing something new and more horrific up his nose. It’s fun but normal, middle-of-the-road Always Sunny fare — the orgies all have buffets, Cricket is covered in lesions and dancing for pennies, and Mac’s dad has cut out his cellmate’s tongue with a rusty pair of pliers. It’s just another day in Philadelphia.
That’s what makes the last five minutes especially incredible.
But the end of “Mac Finds His Pride” isn’t so powerful just because it takes you by surprise, but because it has the emotional chops to back the surprise up. The artistry and tone may come out of nowhere, but the evolution of Mac’s sexuality has been woven into the show since the beginning, and the years of jokes can be re-read, with very little difficulty, as serious and vital character development.
Since day one, way back in 2005, there have been hints that Mac (played by creator and showrunner Rob McElhenney) might be gay. In the very first episode “The Gang Gets Racist,” our heroes accidentally turn Paddy’s Pub into the hottest gay bar in Philadelphia, and Mac’s gay cousin Brett couldn’t be happier for him.
Of course at this point Mac has not actually come a long way. For the rest of the episode he’s intent on returning the bar to its non-gay identity, no matter how unprofitable and miserable it is — a fitting analogy for the next twelve years of his life.
And then in last year’s superb episode “Hero Or Hate Crime?,” Mac finally came out of the closet for good. In the dozen or so episodes since, he’s embodied his newfound sexuality in a way that’s wonderfully funny and true to the character — insisting that everyone always thought he was straight, beginning every other sentence with the battle cry “as a gay man,” and showering his best friend Dennis with all the overzealous and unthinking affection of an excited puppy.
But the season finale (even the funny part) approaches Mac in a way it never has before — as a real person, a sad and confused man struggling to come to terms with the identity he only very recently was able to voice out loud. And the final scene (which is what we’re really here to talk about) expresses that struggle in a way the show never has before — in a five minute wordless dance that’s deadly serious and unequivocally beautiful.
Depending upon who you ask, you’ll get interpretations that Mac’s dance has a very clear meaning, and also that it’s intentionally meaningless. I’m honestly not sure which camp I’m in. I know very little about dance (at the risk of sounding too much like Frank, I never really got it), and I’m not here to give a confident but uninformed analysis of the choreography.
But I will say that Mac’s decision to portray God as “a very hot chick” is deliberately both meaningful and muddled. In Mac’s mind, reverence of God and attraction to women go hand in hand. Together the two are a given, a fact of life, and inextricably intertwined. Being Christian (which he is) means being straight (which he’s not). And dancing with a partner who represents both those things can make for calculated confusion — an interaction in which it’s never clear who’s leading whom, or if the goal is to comfort, fight, or seduce.
Whatever else it is, Mac’s dance is his representation of two vital aspects of himself in conflict.
One of the best jokes of the season comes when Mac is asked if he’s more gay than he is Catholic, and he answers “I don’t know. They’re at war.” It’s funny, but for Mac it’s a serious consideration, and one that may have just dawned on him for the first time since he came out. It’s not just a joke — it’s two tenets of his existence clashing against each other.
As Frank says, the Catholics really fucked him up.
(It’s worth noting that this is the first season to feature regular, uncensored f-bombs, but they’ve been carefully limited to less than one per episode. That scarcity means that when the word does break the seal, it hits you like a slap you’re not ready for. It’s a classic case of less being more, and it gives Frank’s ultra blunt summing up of Mac’s situation a wonderfully deft punch).
But in spite of Frank’s analysis, the final scene of “Mac Finds his Pride” isn’t an indictment of religion. It’s not a celebration of it, either. It’s an expression of self and a wish, really, for what religion could be. Mac doesn’t want one side of himself to win the war against the other. He wants, more than anything, to be told that it’s okay to be who he is. He wants to hear it from God, and he wants to hear it from his father.
Because that’s another aspect of Mac’s character that’s held steady from the beginning — he desperately wants approval. He wants it from his mom, he wants it from Dennis (a whole other can of worms that isn’t approached in this episode because it would only muddy the waters), and more than anything, he wants it from his dad.
And he doesn’t get it.
Beautiful as it is, the final scene is gut-wrenching. Part way through his dance, Mac looks to his father and watches, in front of a rapt crowd, as he storms out. It’s the coming out nightmare scenario, made all the more unbearable by the medium and the setting. Mac’s position could not be more vulnerable.
And his decision to finish the dance, at the urging of Shea’s character, could not be more brave. Reflecting Mac’s urgent and driving need to see things through, at least for his own sake, the music builds and gains a frenetic, pulsing, electric quality. The choreography becomes more acrobatic and daring, culminating in Shea running across the stage and launching herself, sideways, against McElhenney’s body and letting out a raw and involuntary gasp at the collision. I promised I wasn’t going to try to interpret the dance itself, but that gasp is incredible, heightening the intensity and the emotion of the scene in a masterful way.
Paired with Mac’s strangled cry when his father leaves, it’s the closest thing to “dialogue” in the whole performance.
That is unless you count Shea’s final line — “it’s okay,” whispered over and over to Mac as she cradles him in her arms. Should her repeated assurance be read as part of Mac’s script: the kind insistence, from the God he’s always tried to please, that he’s not sinful or broken, and he’s enough the way he is? Or should it be read as Mac’s dance partner and friend slipping out of character and comforting him at the end of an impossible ordeal?
I think it’s meant to be both and either. Whichever you choose on your current viewing. Each interpretation is beautiful, and it’s the part of the scene that touches me, personally, the most.
Gorgeous, heartbreaking, life-affirming, and not in the slightest bit funny, the last five minutes of “Mac Finds His Pride” are a departure from almost every convention Always Sunny has ever set up. And at thirteen years, those conventions were firmly set indeed. The show has always had a good heart, but it’s never shown it in earnest, and doing so in an unabashedly artistic way was a huge risk. Undertaking such a drastic departure is immensely brave, and executing it flawlessly (the only way the risk could truly pay off) is worthy of endless praise.
I’m honored to get to write about it, and I look forward to adding it to every list I can in the coming weeks.
Watch it for yourself below.