Catastrophe’s extremely short seasons are marvels of economy. Each one can feel like a breezy watch, even as it’s offering remarkably dense half-hours of television. There’s a tremendous amount to unpack in every episode, and given the amount of work that Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney put into constructing their world of seemingly freewheeling chaos, it’s easy to forget how intentional it all is.
The way Catastrophe sets up dramatic arcs is quite like the way it does everything: chaotically. Conflicts major and minor whirl in narrative eddies, tossing its characters in ways sometimes gentle, sometimes drastic. Rob and Sharon both struggle together and separately, trying and often failing to be forthright with one another about the things that try them the most, until, of course, it spills over into their shared life. That, as Catastrophe seems to say, is just how marriage works.
For most of “Episode Five,” Rob and Sharon are apart, taken on separate journeys that turn out to be the climaxes of their individual emotional arcs this season. It’s bookended, however, by two moments that have them together. The first is one of those bedroom catch-up arguments that Catastrophe does so well. Sharon wants to know how Rob is doing now that he’s back to work. “You going back to a job you hate so we can keep our home gives me a massive horn,” she teases, before fretting about how they might not be spending enough time with their children now that they’re both going to be working.
This little dance — wherein Sharon moves from genuine interest in how Rob’s doing, to worry about how she’s doing as a parent, to finding something about a mutual acquaintance she can rip on with Rob and thereby feel better about herself — is a testament to how well Catastrophe understands Rob and Sharon’s relationship. In just a handful of hours, it’s established the rhythms of their bond so strongly that it can slide in and out of them with ease, even through seismic shifts like Sharon’s infidelity or the chaos of unemployment or children.
It’s also worth mentioning how much mileage this show gets out of a slew of jokes that are hard to describe in any other way than extremely British. I’m sure there are many gags that I miss, but even as an ignorant Yank, the ones that get through to me are incredibly funny — like when Sharon gets the news that her father Des suffered a stroke on the plane back to Ireland and Fergal sobs, “Fucking Ryanair!” (I had to, however, look up Findus Crispy Pancake.)
And so, Sharon goes with Fergal to Ireland to see her parents at the hospital, where she finds out that this is, in fact, her father’s second stroke — the first being the cause of his dementia. (As the doctor explains, Des also had a hard time getting to the hospital, thanks to a perfect storm of traffic stirred up by a hot-ticket Ireland-France football game and an Ed Sheeran concert.)
With their father back home recovering, Sharon and Fergal spend some time reminiscing. It’s here that Sharon finds an unsent letter Des wrote to Fergal among some old photos, confessing that he knew his mind was starting to go and wanting to say one last time that he’s proud of Fergal. Trouble is, he left no such letter for Sharon. Driven by deep-seated feelings of neglect, Sharon goes in on her mother for always seeming to love Fergal more, with his hare-brained schemes and half-cocked businesses in spite of her labors to be the more sensible one.
“Do you know how many terrible men I’ve had to sleep with because dad loves that asshole more than me?” Sharon shouts, indignant. “Not many! But actually this is really upsetting!” In an act of petty revenge, she then airs all of Fergal’s dirty laundry: the money he owes (“embezzled,” in her words) Rob, the fact that he wants to leave his wife in Spain, his failed business. Ultimately, though, their mother still regards Fergal warmly — all he has to do is say that Dad’s stroke really brought everything into focus for him.
Some people get off real easy. Rob, however, is definitely not one of them. Not only does his return to work come with a cover story that he has to maintain — Harita has told everyone that he’s spent the last six weeks teaching a course at McGill University in Montreal — but there’s a new guy named Rafe who seems determined to bait Rob into a compromising conversation. It starts out friendly enough though: Rafe tells him about a new company mixer they’ve started doing on the roof every Friday. Free tacos! Who could say no?
At this point, Sharon is still away in Ireland and Rob is splitting kid duty with Anna the babysitter. Oh, and Chris has taken it upon himself to mind Rob a bit, waiting for him at home just to make sure he gets in all right. “You told me more than once you had a problem with booze,” Chris says, explaining why he was waiting for Rob to come home. “When somebody tells you something about themselves, I’ve learned it’s a good idea to listen.”
The rest of Chris’s agenda that night is a little less solid: He follows Fran’s new boyfriend Douglas to a bar to tell him off, both for dating the woman to whom he’s still legally married, and for being in his house around his son too much. (“I suppose you could say I wish you ill?” Chris tells him.) It doesn’t play well, and Douglas proves himself to be the pro asshole we saw him to be in the previous episode, mocking Chris with “blah, blah, blah” like a very mature adult and revealing that he planned to leave Fran anyway. Oh, and he sticks Chris with the bill.
I bring this up because I’m not quite sure where Chris and Fran are going to end up. They’ve continued to serve as mirrors of a sort for Rob and Fran, equal parts sounding board and cautionary tale. I wonder if that means they’ll just continue to diverge in the finale, making up as Rob and Sharon fall apart, or falling out entirely as Rob and Sharon emerge stronger than before. But that’s no guarantee, because things are finally coming to a head.
At Rooftop Taco Night, things quickly start to get weird between Rafe and Rob, as Rafe continues to ask all sorts of inappropriate questions that Rob gracefully deflects … with a beer in hand. First, Rafe asks how much he thinks their co-worker Tina weighs (Rob’s answer: “70 pounds less than me”), and then he poses a ridiculous hypothetical, wherein everyone in the world is wiped out in a bombing except Rob and Harita. How long would he wait before he tried to have sex with her? “I wouldn’t be horny,” Rob replies, suspiciously, “because I’d be sad.”
Finally the truth comes out: According to Rafe, everyone at work knows Rob left because of “sexual misconduct.” Nobody buys the McGill story. Rob is furious to hear this, leaves the rooftop, and immediately heads to a bar.
Catastrophe’s approach to Rob’s alcoholism has been subtle and understated, smartly avoiding big benders after his initial tumble off the wagon at the end of season two. Instead — as he told Chris at the end of the previous episode — he’s become a person who has “the odd drink” now and then. It’s a small lie of control: Rob knows how bad he can get, and since he hasn’t gotten that bad in the last few weeks, he can pretend he’s not sick. He can pretend it’s not a problem.
Except Rob wakes up the next morning on his couch, not knowing what happened the previous night. If it weren’t for Anna’s conscience — in spite of a standing date with someone who would’ve done things to her that make Rob nearly sob out of apologetic sympathy — things might have gone horribly for baby Muireann or Frankie after he passed out. This is Rob’s come-to-Jesus moment, fueled by the quiet, unexpressed terror over what might have happened to his children because he drank. So he gets in the car and drives to where his wife is, ready with a cry for help on his lips as soon as she opens the door. Only he can’t really explain what he means, because Sharon has her own horrible news: Her father is dead.
And so Rob and Sharon spill into each other once more.