Rob Delaney & Sharon Horgan On How 'Catastrophe' Ends
"Thanks for coming to our living room," Rob Delaney, co-creator of Catastrophe, says to me from the sofa as he gestures at the weird, homey decor surrounding us in the hotel room. Sharon Horgan, the show's other star and creator, is sitting next to him. In real life, as on TV, there they are on the couch, staying buoyant, just.
The BAFTA-award-winning Catastrophe (Amazon Prime) began with Rob (Delaney's character), an American businessman, knocking up Irish schoolteacher Sharon (Horgan) on a trip to London. The two decided to get married, and gave us one of the finest depictions of birth I've seen on screen: Sharon screaming "Push it back in and cut it out of me!" as the midwife tells her the baby is almost out, with a silent cut to the sticky, cuddly aftermath. From there, Rob and Sharon have dealt with bitchy mom groups, friends' divorces, a second child, a separation, dead pets, dead parents, bridesmaids with bilious head injuries, Irish baby names no one can pronounce, and accidental boob massages in Paris.
The fourth and final season picks up where the last left off: Rob is recovering from his lapse into drinking. "It's like he's on a crusade, but to somewhere boring, and we all have to come," Sharon explains in the show.
What better way to explain marriage?
It is a brilliant finish to a brilliant show (more about the ending below, in a section cordoned off by shark nets). Catastrophe never lied about the messiness contained in a person. And whether Rob was shoving a dog's body into a garbage bag, or Sharon was lying in bed giving Rob instructions for the event of her untimely death, I loved being in the midst of it. The show gave us room to be selfish, difficult, uncapped, forever waving our wine glass in front of our alcoholic counterpart.
In the final six episodes, characters struggle to let out whatever it is they've been withholding: Rob sits in a Quaker meeting waiting for someone to say something; Fran silently endures her son's full-frontal performance in The Twelfth Night; Sharon refuses to grieve a loss and call out a sort of sexist boss ("He hadn't done anything that you could outright claim was harassment," Horgan explains); Rob's sister Sidney (Michaela Watkins) appears to be mystically at peace with her divorce until a nasty phone call that ends with her vomiting into the kitchen sink.
When Sidney throws up, "You're like 'Oh! Great!'" the Real Rob explains to me. "It endears you more to her because it makes her more human and you see that she's really affected by this [divorce]."
"It's such a relief when good people have flaws," the Real Sharon says, sighing. "It just makes you feel so much better."
It really does. From Horgan's previous show Pulling, about a bunch of hens in a share house, to Motherland's somewhat grim look at mom groups, to Catastrophe, there is the sense in her work that you can be unsalvageably you, that things can be laughably bad, but it's never the end of the world.
And nothing proves that better than witnessing someone else's universe crumbling around them, proof that we are all trapped in our ~earthly bodies~, as Father John Misty put it.
Earlier in Catastrophe, Sharon's mum (Frances Tomelty) is alarmed to see a bloody diaper in the garbage can. "That's mine," Sharon says without a bother. Humors abound in season four — there is a blood-spattered nightmare and a mysterious moist patch on Sharon's desk. Rob's dad's ailing liver has turned him chartreuse. The death of actress Carrie Fisher, who played Rob's mother, Mia, is addressed with one jubilant, final, bile-ridden celebration of life.
At her funeral, Rob reads out a climactic emailed rant she sent a friend revealing that she donated eBay profits to disabled children: "I bet Mike Pence spends his Sundays throwing disabled kids out of windows, that [REDACTED] microwaved apple-[REDACTED] looking [REDACTED]," goes the email. "She goes on, but it gets worse," Rob says, folding the paper back up and popping it in his pocket.
Sharon gets her moment of catharsis with the great Balls On Desks Soliloquy, and there is the ever-present black banter between Rob and Sharon throughout the season. In a who-has-contributed-more-to-this-marriage contest you will recognize, Sharon lists out "countless blow jobs" as one of her offerings. Rob shoots back, "Countless? Pretty sure I can count to... 23... over four years." "I get claustrophobic!" Sharon cries.
As usual, the truth packed me in. On one of the nights I was shotgunning screeners for Catastrophe, I decided to crack out a bottle of Foria — a THC-infused lubricant — I had come into, with the idea that I would give my husband the gift of me actually being into sex for once. I got the children into bed and spritzed myself, but by the time my husband got home decided to just pop myself off to bed without telling him I'd used it and sleeping the deep, satisfying sleep of a selfish person.
These are the existential crimes in partnership we couldn't admit to before Catastrophe came along.
It's such a relief when good people have flaws.
Sharon's dry Irish wit and stoicism has always been a perfect foil for Rob's more demonstrably emotional ~American~ way: she is small and prickly, he is puffed up with obvious vulnerability, like a bear who has gotten his foot stuck in a trap. The show is universal, but it was also impossible not to read it as intensely personal (I am a foreigner having children in a strange land! I thought watching it. I hate sharing other people's grief, just like Sharon! I should be happier than I am!)
Over the course of the show's four-year run, everything has happened. Unimaginable grief has touched multiple cast members on the show. Carrie Fisher died after filming her scenes for season three. Mike Pence happened. I think back to Eileen Walsh's character braining herself after slipping off a taxi in season one, and can see how clearly the show mapped parenthood and coupledom not as additional coats given to a person, but as a dirty, painful stripping off of layers.
"It's okay to be hurt by people that we open ourselves up to," says Delaney on the couch. It's important to convey how warm he is in person, how open his face is, how willing he is to take a poorly phrased question from a reporter and shape it into something thoughtful. I only have 10 minutes to cover the show, which seems to contain everything. It all comes to a head in your thirties and forties: marriage, children, the acquisition of a "kitchen garden," dying parents.
In parenthood, you are straddling several worlds at once; Rob and Sharon are also, of course, bridging the Atlantic: Rob's family are in the U.S., Sharon's are in the UK, her mom separated by the Irish Sea. Even as Sharon admits that she would rather spend her entire salary on childcare to not spend all day with her kids, both Rob and Sharon feel guilty about what their parents are missing out on, as far as the grandkids. Aging, they agree, is brutal.
Late in the season, Rob suggests that they move to the U.S. in a hail Mary to turn back the clock.
He is "discombobulated by grief, by the recent death of his mother," says Delaney. "He learns that his dad is gonna die soon. His roots are super threatened. He's like, 'I've got all these problems, maybe perhaps I could address them better if I was close to home.'"
We are all a long way from home at this point.
I get the wind-up before I get anywhere at all, but I don't want to leave their fake living room.
Catastrophe has always ended on a cliffhanger. In Season One, Sharon goes into labor prematurely. In Season Two, Rob discovers Sharon's drunk hookup. In Season Three, Rob is in a nasty car accident. Season four ends on a cliffhanger, even though we know there will be no season five.
The ending is so profound that I asked Delaney and Horgan to dig into it a little bit, but if metaphorical spoilers concern you, I urge you not to go beyond this shark net:
Rob and Sharon are driving along the Massachusetts coastline at sunset when they realize both kids are asleep in the back. They pull over and sit on the beach, leaving the kids in the car. Sharon suggests they take a dip, "have some fun." She is already in the water when Rob realizes there is a "DANGEROUS RIP TIDE" sign behind them. He calls to her, but she's already too far out to hear. So he peels off his clothes and swims out to join her. The two of them bob around in the water as a violin hums the high note from the beginning of Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs (Continued)."
It is ominous, melancholic, a harmonic of Jaws, and an echo of the more celebratory radio-single version:
If I could have it back
All the time that we wasted
I'd only waste it again
It's a love song dedicated to our great accidental lives. As the camera pans up, Rob and Sharon are tiny specks miles from shore, the car visible in the distance with the children still inside. We don't know if any of them will be okay; there is the sense that in marriage and kids you are out to sea, you don't get an "okay," you just paddle your way toward the shore whether you'll make it or not.
"We knew we wanted to be in the water," says Delaney. "We wanted to be in a different element. 'Cause Rob starts the whole show out of his element."
In the final moments, Rob and Sharon are somewhere between their separate worlds, on the edge of the Atlantic.
"I was like, 'Are you sure that whole song is gonna fit in? Cause if we don't have every single last, the tiniest little note of that song I think Rob and I would be really really sad and angry,'" says Horgan, who notes that of course production chopped the song down.
On the way out, I tell them both that my literal-minded swimmer husband was very worried about the rip tide.
"He should be," says Horgan.
Catastrophe Season Four is available to stream through Amazon Prime on March 15.