Gretchen’s actions in L.A. are selfish and self-destructive, but when she’s surrounded by her band of not-so-merry screw-ups, she can sometimes come off as, if not someone with her head on straight, someone who is at least not as bad as whoever is standing right beside her. At least she’s not as sociopathic as Jimmy! At least she’s not as hapless as Edgar! At least she’s not as moronic as Lindsay!
But this week’s episode finds Gretchen far from the city that enables and indulges her worst, most hideous impulses. (You’re the Worst really seems to have it in for L.A., does it not? It feels like we’ve veered away from “loving send-up of an absurd but ultimately fun place to kill your 20s and 30s” to “scathing satire of a city of trash people.”) She’s back home, and it doesn’t take long to piece together that of course Gretchen was the kind of person who always mocked the place she grew up and never did that thing you do as an adult where you realize, actually, you weren’t better than anyone, and leaving doesn’t prove anything all that substantial about you, except that you happened to be someone who would rather be somewhere else. She still feels — or, more likely, pretends to feel — like she’s too good for some stifling, soul-sucking suburban cul de sac.
What brings Gretch back to the loving arms of her awful parents, who, if I remember correctly, brought out this subservient, preppy side of Gretchen that chugged glasses of milk on command? Her brother’s wife is having a baby.
It’s strange that Gretchen would go so far as to schlep all the way home, only to compulsively lie to her dad upon landing about her ETA at the hospital, and then just ghost on the birth of her niece. Not that it’s out of character — though part of me thinks she would’ve just lied to get out of the trip altogether, especially since things were just starting to look up with her not-actually-married fuck buddy — but it is really, really sad. This entire episode feels profoundly sad. It starts with an encounter with Gretchen’s pathetic, gross former teacher — he was a creep when she was in high school, and Gretchen later confirms that he was fired for taking upskirt photos of his students — and escalates to a scene so upsetting and disgusting that I physically gagged while watching it.
Gretchen can tell that her real life is too disappointing to share, so she lies to her ex-teacher, now rental-car guy, that she did become a marine biologist, just like she always planned. (“I basically play with octopuses all day.” “Don’t you mean octopi?” “No, we changed it back to octopuses.”)
She goes home to find, as we all eventually do, that her parents have turned her childhood bedroom into a guest room. (Sometimes this is an improvement! Like, say you had Good Will Hunting posters and tearouts from Teen People on your wall, and now it turns out Ben Affleck is … not the best. It’s probably a good thing that your parents took all that stuff down and painted everything greige. Also, twin beds are for infants.) Enough of Gretchen’s high-school paraphernalia is still lying around, though, and she finds a photo with a friend who, last she checked, had cancer. In case you were thinking, “Maybe Gretchen cares enough about this person to know what happened to her,” well, nope! Her first Google is for her obituary, and then she finds out that the friend, Heidi (Zosia Mamet), survived and bought the old roller rink.
Now would be a great time for Gretchen to go to the hospital. But she hits up the roller rink instead to roll (ha! Okay, sorry, that was weak) down memory lane with Heidi. What I love about this encounter, as it leisurely unravels over the episode, is that Heidi never humors Gretchen’s false nostalgia. She doesn’t pretend to have missed her all that much. She doesn’t act like she’s particularly happy to see her again. She doesn’t feign embarrassment over her life. She’s just matter of fact, unsparing, and grounded. One of my favorite moments is when Gretchen, so used to charming people with her display of practiced immaturity, goes on this idiotic tear about how crazy it is that Heidi knows how to buy cinnamon — “Is there a spice store? Does it come in sticks? Do you have to grind it up like a frontiers lady?” — and Heidi just yells at her: “Don’t be stupid! I mean, Jesus. You’re an adult.”
Gretchen, having apparently avoided contact with any mature adult for the better part of her adulthood, fails to pick up on all of Heidi’s cues and gets awfully far in the friend-date before she realizes, with horror, that Heidi is unimpressed — repulsed, even — by who Gretchen has become. In fact, she was never all that taken with Gretchen, even when they were kids. Gretchen’s forced observations all feel like she’s trying to craft Instagram captions — “Remember when something like cinnamon could make you happy?” — and her compliments are all condescending. (“You’re doing it! The whole big fish thing!”) She also delights, sickeningly, in seeing that Heidi survived long enough to get wrinkles.
Every scene with Heidi and Gretchen has a surreal, dreamy quality to it, like reality went fuzzy around the edges. They bail on the roller rink to go to their old mall, which, like so many American malls, is now “just stray dogs, meth heads, and teens partying.” The experience is “sense memory overload,” even though the place is gutted. They walk in on a bunch of 11th-graders, who are engaged in some relatively good clean fun until Gretchen eggs them on. Turns out Gretchen’s senior prom date’s daughter is in the mix; this only encourages Gretchen to taunt the girl with stories about how they “totally fu — danced! We danced three times! Well, three and a half.”
After Heidi punctures Gretchen’s cinnamon rant, Gretchen lashes out the only way she knows how: by doing some sexually transgressive thing just to prove she can. Unfortunately for everyone in this situation, Gretchen’s transgression of choice is telling one of these junior boys, “If you eat this entire can of cat food, I will suck your dick.” A beat passes. He wolfs it down.
Gretchen looks horrified, but she has no more allies. “You made a deal,” Heidi tells her. The other boy eyes her, ravenous. “Do you have another can?”
Gretch is on her knees with this boy’s zipper down when the police sirens blare and everyone bolts. Instead of just pulling over when the police chase them, as Heidi begs her to do, Gretchen floors it, veers into a field, and crashes into a scarecrow.
They stumble back into town, car trashed in their wake, and Gretchen is already romanticizing their objectively terrible night. She makes one last desperate, oblivious plea for Heidi’s approval: “What if I moved back here and we ran the roller rink together?” Heidi’s rejection is so precise and brutal. Gretchen only has that picture with Heidi because everyone got a picture with her when she was, in Gretchen’s words, “all cancery.” There was no hospital visit because they weren’t really friends. Gretchen became, as Heidi put it, “a shape shifter … everyone liked you or wanted you, but no one knew you.”
Does Heidi want to know Gretchen now? “I made a life. I’m happy. I think, no, Gretchen. Not really.”
Gretchen does eventually make it to the hospital. She looks in at her baby niece through the window. Then she leaves without talking to anyone.
The worst: Gretchen. But specifically Gretchen telling the teen boy to eat a can of cat food in exchange for a blow job, because Jesus Christ.
Runners-up: That creepy teacher, ghosting on your family when your sister-in-law is in labor, compulsive lying, only feeding Banshee a cheese stick, corrupting youths.
A few good things: Heidi, how Heidi’s life turned out even though I get that the roller rink isn’t quite what she thought it would be, Gretchen’s baby niece (she’s cute!).