Time passes quickly on Catastrophe. We're averaging roughly a month per episode, going by Muireann's current age, which means this season has spanned an exhausting period in the lives of Sharon and Rob. And in that time, things have piled up to a point that the show can introduce a new dynamic. In the penultimate episode of the season, Catastrophe often has the energy of a domestic drama, rather than the filthy neo-rom-com we're accustomed to watching.
"It's just hard to know how to do things," Sharon whimpers to the principal at her school, just as she realizes she's not ready to come back to work. In this case, she's talking specifically about the choice to leave her children and teach full-time again, but the statement could just as easily apply to any of her and Rob's increasingly stressful dilemmas. What to do with aging parents, whether to advance a dubious loan to an irresponsible relative, how to navigate a "morally challenging" work situation: These are all very adult problems. They're mundane enough to seem frivolous to outsiders observers, but incredibly trying within the context of a committed partnership.
We know that Rob and Sharon don't do well together under stress, which makes this steady buildup of intramarital tension all the more alarming. During Sharon's breakdown with the principal, she reveals that she and Rob almost broke up following the complications and trauma of Frankie's premature birth. It's easy to believe it, too, as we know how much they've floundered in these first weeks and months with Muireann. Remember how, in the first episode of the season, Sharon's mom advised them to put their marriage above their children? That seems awfully prophetic now.
At least Rob and Sharon are attempting to staunch the flow of parental stress. The episode opens with them researching their contraception options — IUD vs. vasectomy, though they both agree using condoms would be ridiculous — looking for the best option to ensure they won't have to repeat these horrors again. It's within this context that Sharon broaches going back to work full-time. Rob initially balks at the idea, since Muireann is only four months old and they'd need a full-time nanny to watch her and Frankie in Sharon's stead. (This particular story line is intrinsic to the series' setting; were it set in the U.S., Sharon would be lucky to get full four months of maternity leave, compared to the 52 weeks that's standard in the U.K., Canada, and other parts of Europe. Sigh.)
Sharon quickly lashes back at Rob about the unfair expectations placed on mothers to stay home with children while fathers are free to work. But a few scenes later, when Rob broaches his own solution to their child-care woes — quitting his terrible-but-lucrative job to become a stay-at-home dad — Sharon trots those traditional gender roles back out. "I just think the time to quit your job would have been before you had two kids," she says, suggesting that his position as the family breadwinner is non-negotiable at this point, and that perhaps he just needs a "fulfilling hobby" to cure the soul-cancer his job has given him. Rob's frustrated response is funny — the way Delaney spits out the word "golf" like it's a threat is beautiful — but also highlights how trapped he's become professionally, and how little Sharon seems to understand that. As it turns out, though, even he doesn't know the extent of his work woes. Their disagreement is about to get a whole lot stickier.
It's easy to forget in his interactions with Sharon — which demand more and more dramatic heft from Delaney and Horgan — but Rob is a genial oaf at heart. (This version of Rob hews closest to Delaney's comedic persona outside of Catastrophe, and it's nice to see him tap into it, as with the repeated gag where he shouts into his phone after the person on the other end hangs up.) This dopey side comes out at work, particularly around Olivia, which winds up being his undoing. Since rebuffing her advances, Olivia's open hostility has thrown Rob seriously off-guard, so when she shows up in his office offering mea culpas, he pounces on the opportunity for reconciliation like a puppy with a ball. He's so eager to smooth things over, he doesn't even realize how deep he's shoving his foot into his mouth.
The shrewd Olivia certainly does notice, and Rob's wide-eyed conciliatory statements about how beautiful she is — and how he would have loved to take her up on that offer of casual sex — give her all the ammunition she needs. Frankly, it's disappointing that Catastrophe didn't come up with a more nuanced take on Olivia than the standard vindictive femme fatale. Making her a purely malevolent force allows for lots of enraged spluttering and indignation on Delaney's part — again, something he excels at — but it simultaneously absolves Rob of his bad behavior.
But something tells me Sharon won't absolve him when she finds out — though Catastrophe leaves us temporarily hanging in that regard, as the episode ends on the cusp of Rob dropping the bomb about his "leave of absence." Sharon's not the forgiving type, and Rob's work shenanigans will compound the anger she already has toward him regarding his ill-advised loan to her brother. Rob's justification for loaning Fergal £15,000 — "I thought I was being noble or some bullshit." — doesn't pass muster with Sharon, nor does Fergal's explanation of why he invested her family's money in a shady real-estate deal in Montenegro. "Things are expected of me because I'm a man," Fergal pleads, while she scoffs at her brother's fears of losing his house and wife. Sharon's oblivious to the fact that she's placed these same expectations on her own increasingly desperate husband.
And yet, it's hard to judge Sharon too harshly. She's always been a brash, unapologetic presence, which can translate as cruelty in the face of others' suffering — particularly Rob's, due to his aforementioned affability. But Horgan is canny when it comes to letting vulnerability peek out, and over the course of this season, it's been made very clear that Sharon's antagonization of her husband and family stems from a broken and self-destructive instinct. Sharon had motherhood thrust upon her at the last minute — Fergal reminds her that before Rob came "swinging in on a vine," she was on the fast track to parent-minding spinsterhood — and she's still reeling from it. Her breakdown in her principal's office is the culmination of three years' worth of emotional whiplash; she doesn't know how to reconcile her old personality with her new life, and it's turned her into a mess. She's facing down the struggles of a life she's not sure she ever really wanted, and directs the blame to Rob, Fergal, and her children — the personifications of those struggles — no matter how much she loves them. (Thank God for Horgan's ability to express that love in subtle, believable ways — the way she smiles, almost sadly, when she looks at Muireann, the way she looks at Rob when he makes a joke — or Sharon could come off as a bit of a monster.)
After shuffling toward self-ruin all season, Sharon and Rob are now dancing on the precipice of disaster. (And that doesn't even take into account whatever's going on with Dave, whose fallen off the wagon so vigorously that Rob can't even seem to process it when he encounters him, fully wasted, in the middle of the day.) We know they've pulled out of a nose-dive like this before, when they almost crashed and burned after Frankie's near-death*. But the accumulated pain of the last four months has an entirely different sort of potential for ruin. It's not just one horrible thing, it's all the horrible things at once — and neither Sharon nor Rob seems strong enough to shoulder it, alone or together.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this recap incorrectly described Frankie's premature birth.