Catastrophe has never been a show interested in the newness of things. It’s both fueled by and fascinated with the darker side of love, but it’s also thoroughly couched in how relationships develop when you aren’t young. This thinking was at the heart of Sharon and Rob’s messy, middle-aged hookup, pregnancy, and marriage in season one, and it’s also what made season two’s sudden jump to the birth of their second child such a stroke of genius. Catastrophe isn’t a show about a couple figuring things out; it’s a show about two people who are simply in it together, for better or for worse. Over the course of a mere dozen episodes, it’s become an exploration of relationships as stories of mutual survival.
That isn’t a terribly sexy perspective, but in Catastrophe’s hands, it’s remarkably funny, insightful, and painful. Just consider last season’s nerve-wracking cliffhanger, wherein Rob found a receipt for Sharon’s hastily purchased morning-after pill, obtained after she learned that she drunkenly left a bar with Nico, the Hot Young Band Dummy. That finale strongly implied that Rob was about to unload a barrage of furious questions about the receipt, but instead, he hesitates. As this third season begins, he’s unable to come out with it even though Sharon senses he’s bothered about something, and they wind up getting into an argument about the horrible fate of Alan Turing. Naturally, that hesitation doesn’t last for long: After more married-couple patter about the smell of Frankie’s baby pee — a label Rob disagrees with on principle: “He’s not a baby, he’s 3, he eats steak,” — he demands that Sharon explain the Plan B receipt.
Sharon lies, of course, though she does it for several reasons. First, it’s easy, because her makeup sex with Rob gave her an airtight alibi. There’s also the simple fact that she feels tremendously guilty; she doesn’t want to come forward after having just reconciled with her husband. Finally, and most upsetting: She doesn’t even know the extent of her infidelity.
It’s quite unlike Catastrophe to be concerned with the immediate fallout of specific incidents. The show has a knack for knowing where the most interesting (and funny) parts of a conflict lie, and it’s rarely in a character’s first reaction to an inciting act. But in following Sharon’s journey toward admitting to Rob why she bought the morning-after pill, this episode pivots away from the ambiguity of the finale — wherein she left the bar with Nico and potentially had sex with him — for something far more difficult.
After lying to Rob that she’s off to a charity concert with Melissa, Sharon meets up with Kate at the bar where Nico’s band is performing. She wants to ask him for the truth, and the truth is that she drunkenly made out with him that night, took his penis out of his pants, then said something about scoring poppers and weed before borrowing some money and never coming back. This revelation is distressing — few shows leave me more distressed over middle-aged white people the way Catastrophe does — because it’s much more nuanced than Sharon just outright sleeping with Nico. It’s unquestionably a sex act and a betrayal, but it also sidesteps the clichéd “YOU SLEPT WITH HIM?!” type of blowout fight.
Instead, Catastrophe focuses on a more subtle exploration of infidelity, making it more explicitly about the betrayal of trust while also minting several great jokes about a very specific sex act that didn’t turn into actual sex. (“I probably touched my children with fresh penis on my hand!” Sharon laments.) That exploration happens, in true Catastrophe fashion, in the middle of an emergency room, after Frankie gets a nasty cut on his forehead and they race him to the hospital. Moments after Rob apologizes for his suspicion about the receipt, Sharon finally spills everything. “I took a man’s penis out of his pants, and I looked at it, but like, for a second,” she says. “But apart from that, nothing happened.”
One of the biggest themes in the second season of Catastrophe was the way starting a family makes navigating a romantic relationship much more difficult. The abstract notion of the family Rob and Sharon made almost became a third figure in their relationship, one that needs to be considered and preserved, often at the expense of their own desires. Home from the hospital, Rob grapples with that need, scoffing at Sharon when she asks if he wants to break up with her. (“What are we, 14?”) She tries, feebly, to justify her behavior by explaining how upset she was — “It’s a tough time! There’s a lot of … Brexit, you know … your new president” — but ultimately, the family they’ve built means more to Rob than anything else. “The bottom line is they need a mom,” he says. “And I hate the idea of whatever you did with him less than I love them.”
Although the moral balance is weighted in Rob’s favor by the end of the episode, he isn’t absolved either. After falling off the wagon in last season’s finale, he continues to sow the seeds of his own marital disaster by hiding his drinking habit from Sharon. Given how we leave things — with Rob unwilling to say if he still loves Sharon, then telling her to sleep on the couch — this little secret certainly won’t lead to anything good.