‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“Because tonight, we go out!”
“Because it’s Friday! It’s Friiidayyyyy night!”
“Where was Friday night last week? And it’ll be Friday night next week, and every week, until we’re dead. And even then the whole rotten business will go on and on and on…”
Black Books is a lot of fun. It’s full of un-fun people, but it’s infinitely funny as a result of this. Created by the wonderful Graham Linehan, who’s been behind classics like Father Ted, Brass Eye, Jam, and The IT Crowd, Black Books makes fine company amongst the rest of these series. The British comedy looks at Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), the ornery, asshole-but-isn’t owner of the bookshop Black Books. As one might expect, Bernard isn’t the biggest fan of his customers or the outside world in general. The few people Bernard can manage to tolerate are the shop’s assistant, Manny (Bill Bailey), and Fran (Tamsin Grieg), who used to run a store next door (‘Nifty Gifty’ for life!). The series sees much of Manny, the beleaguered account who has entered Bernard’s life, acting as the perfect foil to him, slowly evening the crotchety man out.
A typical Black Books episode will see Manny and Fran trying to open Bernard’s horizons and bring him out of the depressing shadow pockets of the world, only for him to ultimately drag everyone back in with him. In that sense, this final episode is the perfect illustration of that, as Bernard is persuaded to go to a party of all things.
It’s very telling that the episode contains a sequence of the trio running through the list of things they can go out and do with their night, as they immediately riddle each one with bullets of nihilism. Even when the party is decided on, the two minutes it will take to get there are deemed unacceptable by Bernard. These are not people who are meant to take advantage of a Friday night, as much as they might claim to want to. Black Books – and by proxy, the safety of the known, acts as their security blanket, with this episode acting as a staunch reminder of such. It’s likely no coincidence that similar themes would find themselves weaseling into Linehan’s IT Crowd, with the sanctuary of their basement operating much like Bernard’s workplace here.
It’s not unusual for an episode of such a claustrophobic nature like this to involve unrequited love that is suddenly placed in a pressure cooker. Manny has a crush on a certain Rowena (of all names), and with her being at an upcoming party, it seems like common sense for Manny, Fran, and Bernard to appear at said party. Bernard, never the social butterfly, is willing to brave the ugly outdoors out of sheer fascination towards the sort of woman that Manny could be so wrapped up in (and could be wrapped up in him accordingly), while Fran is motivated by much vainer, simpler things, like a perfect hair day (but in her defense she is more her than she’s ever been).
The titular book store from the series often functions as the series’ de facto set, with it not only acting as their place of work, but also where Bernard and Manny live. Black Books is often depicted as a black hole, to put it lightly. It’s a pit of despair and ruin that works perfectly here, but holds even greater resonance in this case because the hint at escape is offered up this time. We hear high tales from Manny about this party, and even though they make it there, we as an audience don’t get to see them in this sterile, up kept environment. These people do not belong amongst socialites; they should return to the dust bunnies and abandoned copies of Chaucer that they’ve come to know so well. These are the same individuals after all that are performing impromptu haircuts with butter knives at the drop of a hat, and pulling off dance moves that are so ugly they’d make David Brent look like a professional.
So it’s almost satisfying when the episode returns from an act break and we learn that we’re not going to be seeing any of the magic at the party, only the disheveled mess that it’s made of all of them (and they all are fairly broken down upon their return, almost as if a confirmation that they should have never gone outside). This more than anything cements the fact that this group is not supposed to be amongst other people. We don’t see their mingling for a reason.
If the show has ever been about these characters needing to be cleansed or go through some sort of metamorphosis, it’s now in a place like this. It’s no coincidence that many of the storylines in “Party” are about judgment. It’s like everyone’s on the bridge of purgatory, waiting to find out their fate while they’re trapped in the holding room.
The significance of doing this for a final episode is about the strongest vote of confidence you can have towards your characters. This is just about them, watching them ping pong off one another. It feels like the sort of final episode that Always Sunny will have, where rather than spectacle, we just get to watch these terrible people be terrible. What more do you want, really? It’s the sort of finale that you can feel like Seinfeld was trying to go for, as their villainous nature is made to be the centerpiece. “Party” even feels reminiscent of that at times, and it makes you wonder how Seinfeld’s final episode would have functioned if Jerry and the gang went to a party, offended absolutely everyone there, but you saw none of the climax, merely the aftermath. It’s a concept that you can fully get behind because you’ve seen an entire series worth of evidence of how awful these people are. If you think that’s a fascinating jumping off point, then you’re likely going to admire what Black Books chooses to do for its send off.
If the first half of the episode focuses on why these miscreants are trying to avoid going out into the world, the second half solidifies why that’s a good idea. With the party now an afterthought we just watch these bleeding souls engorge their livers (a staple for bottle episodes, although their selection – beetroot liqueur – is original), falling further down the black hole that is their collective neuroses. For this series to go out with the gang getting hammered at the store, it presents a deeply honest ending that you can easily picture being the future for these guys. This is one night amongst many. This is not the first party they’ll go to that they shouldn’t.
Towards the end of all of this, Manny defends his attempt at trying to connect with another human being at the party, even if it was a failed one, and goes as far as drunkenly yelling that Bernard doesn’t have a heart (but might have a piece of flint there instead). What’s beautiful here is that this all feels par for the course. Manny venting at Bernard is nothing new, but the combination of the alcohol, and the unseen party, and the finality of all of this gets Bernard to respond to Manny’s haranguing in a monumental way.
He says that he had a girlfriend, named Emma, who died.
That’s why he’s like this.
What’s why he’s “not human,” or “Homo-Bernardus,” or a flint-chested drone.
Only she’s not dead.
But he doesn’t know that. Until he does.
Regardless, suddenly this rote – albeit enjoyably so – character is given layers upon layers to peel back and we get to spend our final moments of the show looking at him in this new light. Sure, it’s not as revelatory a statement as it could be. But it’s something, and one would imagine that had the series continued on we’d eventually see Fran and Manny pushing Bernard to overcome the loss of Emma and find another piece of flint to hit against his own until he’s started a fire.
Just as much as this episode proves to the audience that these people only have each other, this somber ending shows that that doesn’t need to be a negative thing either, as Fran and Manny are there to help Bernard through all of this.
A sliver of hope is offered up at the end as Rowena shows up at Black Books, with Manny’s actions having made an impression on her after all. Even if Bernard is still miserable, and Fran is living in obliviousness, maybe a fourth person can pierce this bubble of negativity and turn some light onto these shadows. There’s plenty of beetroot in the meantime.
Now let’s all have a drink in the name of Napoleon.