This essay is part of our series Episodes, a column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry looks at the anti-love story You’re The Worst and its formative episode “LCD Soundsystem.”
Love is for suckers. At least, that’s what Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) think when they decide to pursue a casual relationship at the beginning of Stephen Falk’s caustic comedy series You’re The Worst. Forget a meet-cute: the two start dating after recognizing a mutual ugliness in one another at the wedding of a woman they both despise. Gretchen is an impulsive, irresponsible publicist, while Jimmy is a narcissistic, mean-spirited novelist. The two are a match made in hell.
Romantic cynicism may be part of the tagline for You’re the Worst, but it’s not exactly the through-line. Early in its five-season run, the series begins to incorporate hints of vulnerability, cracks in the armor of its ironic veneer. In the Season 2 episode “There is Not Currently a Problem,” we learn that Gretchen has suffered from depression for years, while Season 3’s “Twenty-Two” shows us what an average day looks like for Jimmy’s kind, PTSD-suffering roommate Edgar (Desmin Borges). By series’ end, You’re the Worst evolves into a brutally honest take on mental illness, love, dysfunction, and companionship. Along the way, though, it takes some detours, and none are as strange and surprising as the events of “LCD Soundsystem.”
The ninth episode of You’re The Worst’s second season, it’s the first with Falk credited as director and one of only a handful that the series creator both directed and wrote. “LCD Soundsystem” opens with a couple making love. They’re shot intimately, close-up to the point that we can’t tell who they are. Are Gretchen and Jimmy suddenly the touchy-feely type? When they finish, we see that it’s not our central duo, but a couple of randos played by Justin Kirk and Tara Summers.
Kirk and Summers play a suburban married couple named Rob and Lexi, whom we soon learn are the blissful definition of LA hipsterism. He works in film restoration, while she’s a green space architect. They make breakfast for their young daughter, Harper, cooing to her about the benefits of unions after Lexi reads an article about worker’s rights. They go to a cafe, where they run the gamut of hip adult topics in rapid-fire, throwing out buzzwords like “prix fixe” and “backsplash.” “Quentin’s showing one of my prints at the New Beverly,” Rob says offhand, and they joke about the time Lexi went on a date with Margaret Cho. Their Mad Libs-style conversation, a mash-up of Hollywood-adjacent cool and new-parent nostalgia, is almost gratingly idyllic.
For several minutes, “LCD Soundsystem” doesn’t seem directly linked to the story that You’re the Worst has been telling us thus far. Falk lets us linger in our confusion as he brings this couple’s life into focus. During the cold open, Rob and Lexi walk past a trash bin that’s overflowing with empty cans and bottles and say wistfully, “Remember that?” They’re in front of Gretchen and Jimmy’s house, so we know now that the two couples are neighbors. After the cafe scene, though, we fall back into their daily life. Rob asks Lexi if he should name his garage band “Not Penny’s Boat.” Lexi gets a text letting her know they’ve landed an interview for a prestigious preschool. “Our lives just got so cliche,” she says. “Are we really gonna become this?” We even see the couple settled on the couch in the evening, trying to decide whether they should fool around or continue binge-watching a cable drama. Their dog, a pug named Sandwiches, won’t stop barking outside.
Then there’s a sudden perspective shift. We cut to Gretchen. She’s standing outside, watching the couple through their window. She’s wearing black and smoking a cigarette. Sandwiches is barking at her. The moment feels like a horror movie, with one of our series protagonists taking on the role of the stalker in the night.
It turns out that the first impression isn’t far off from the truth. Immediately after this scene, we see the same day replayed through Gretchen’s eyes. She first sees the couple in the cafe, where she hones in on their conversation with an almost hypnotized gleam in her eye. After they leave, she follows them all the way home, waving at baby Harper from across the street.
It’s hard to overstate how jarring “LCD Soundsystem” is upon first watch. The episode takes place soon after Gretchen has told Jimmy about her depression, and instead of embodying her emotional struggles in any conventional way, Falk takes an edgier, more suspenseful approach. Cash is always utterly phenomenal in her turn as Gretchen, but she’s rarely better than when the character is possessed with the manic, borderline dangerous energy she reveals for the first time in this episode. For twenty-two minutes, we have no idea what’s going to happen next, and at times, that unpredictability is downright scary.
Gretchen continues to secretly invade these strangers’ lives. She approaches their dog and feeds him nachos through the fence. The next day, she follows the family to a Whole Foods-like store, where some conveniently spilled juice allows her to swoop in and hold Harper for the family’s nanny. When the nanny steps away to clean up, Gretchen walks Harper through the aisles, baby-talking to her about kombucha and fair trade coffee beans. She even briefly slips out the front door with the baby, before ultimately returning her to the by-then distressed nanny.
Gretchen’s imposition doesn’t end there. Another brief glimpse into Rob and Lexi’s life is cut short when they realize Sandwiches is missing. Cut to Gretchen, who’s gleefully going for a run with the dog on a leash by her side. She takes him to a dog park, then to an outdoor workspace. When a stranger asks her about the dog, she parrots back conversation points she overheard from Rob and Lexi, wearing their perfect life as if it’s her own. “I miss our Largo days,” she tells Sandwiches, an exact quote from Lexi.
In lesser hands, this would seem like straight-up serial killer shit, and while it’s still disturbing, the situation is complicated by Gretchen’s display of raw, childlike emotions. She lights up when holding Harper, when running with Sandwiches, and when masquerading as Lexi at the dog park. She visibly pouts when both the nanny and the dog park stranger don’t buy her facade. It’s as if she’s worried that her failure to convincingly pass as a happily married woman signifies something about her own brokenness, a stink on her that everyone else can pick up on.
Finally, after several of these nerve-jangling, taboo-skirting scenes, Gretchen returns Sandwiches to his rightful owners. Rob and Lexi are overjoyed, treating Gretchen like a hero as she lets herself into their home. It’s here that we get to the crux of the episode, which is also, in a way, the thesis of the series. The three drink and chat, and we fast-forward to the middle of a deep conversation about marriage. “[We’re] totally aware of the pitfalls and the hazards and the compromises, and yet still doing it,” Lexi explains. “Conventional and scary? Hell yeah. But the death of fun? Not necessarily.” She goes on to say that anyone who’s caught up in an idea of coolness misses out on authentic lived experiences. This is incredibly wise advice that gets to the heart of the series’ conflict between ironic distance and genuine emotion, yet both Gretchen and Rob aren’t really listening. Gretchen is starry-eyed at the very idea of this perfect couple, while Rob is caught up in the nostalgia of their kid-free partying days.
Gretchen invites Jimmy over to walk her home, playing up their couple status with a kiss. When Jimmy leaves to check out the family’s homemade treehouse (because of course, they have one), Gretchen is left with Rob. She’s all smiles as she tells him how great his family is. It’s clear now that she wants what they have for herself, and that she feels trapped by the walls she’s built around her heart and so loudly championed in her relationship with Jimmy. But then things take an unnerving turn one more time.
Rob, who’s a little bit drunk, starts to ramble about everything he doesn’t like about his life, from Lexi’s Mini Cooper to their mortgage to the loss of freedom he associates with their daughter. He says he’d love to get a drink with Gretchen, then backpedals a bit, before going all in and confessing that he’s thought about divorcing Lexi. Kirk, who previously worked with Falk on Weeds, is a talented actor whose presence as a guest star usually indicates bold and unexpected storytelling. He effortlessly embodies characters who can shift gears between charming, dickish, and pitiful, and as such, he plays this moment perfectly. All at once, Rob is tumbling headfirst off the pedestal Gretchen placed him on, deflating into someone who’s depressingly predictable and breathlessly desperate. He calls to mind Jason Bateman’s character in Juno, a girl’s hero-worship figure who turns out to be little more than a confident disappointment. When he asks Gretchen to hit him up the next time they go out — ”seriously, Lexi goes to bed crazy early” — he’s almost in tears.
When Jimmy returns, a clearly shaken Gretchen makes an excuse to leave. The two walk down the darkened street while Lexi and Rob’s now-arguing voices echo in the background. Jimmy, jaded to the bone, cracks condescending jokes about every perfect detail of the couple’s life. He doesn’t notice Gretchen crumpling into tears at his side.
“LCD Soundsystem” unfolds like a masterful short story for the screen. It surprises at every turn and leaves its most profound ideas unspoken. It also, in a way, becomes the sun around which the rest of the show orbits. When it comes to love, should our protagonists buy into Rob’s cynicism or Lexi’s optimism? Is commitment a form of control or of freedom? The show never lets the concept of marriage off the hook. Even in the series finale, Jimmy calls it “a false guarantee that protects us from exactly nothing.”
Gretchen’s own skewed ideas about marriage and her deeply ingrained sense that she’s unlovable — first laid bare in this episode — undercut her and Jimmy’s relationship at every turn. At the same time, his own pessimism and failure to recognize her emotional needs leads to disaster time and again. The subtly devastating third act of “LCD Soundsystem” is brilliantly reversed in the series’ final episode, however, when Gretchen and Jimmy finally commit to one another on their own terms and start a family despite years of protestations. The series ends on a pitch-perfect final scene, in which the two skip their own wedding and happily share a plate of pancakes, all while discussing the fact that their union could end in catastrophe. Love is for suckers, sure, but sometimes it’s okay to be a sucker.