There are so many reasons to relate to Sharon and Rob, the lead couple played by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in Amazon’s Catastrophe, but one of the biggest is that they’re in their 40s yet often seem bewildered by basic demands of marriage, parenthood, and adult life generally. They aren’t sure how to talk their co-workers and bosses, ask for help or understanding from friends, discipline their kids or calmly address disciplinary problems with other people’s kids. They’re hyperverbal and hilarious when casually bantering — the one-take, walk-and-talk conversations that open most episodes capture the heart of their intense sexual attraction — but sometimes, when their relationship is in a delicate place and meticulous specificity is needed, self-defeating provocation pours out. And then one of them says something unexpectedly sweet to the other and detente is restored. “Do you like me again?” Sharon asked Rob in season three, after getting entangled in a kinda-sorta infidelity. “I’m trying not to,” Rob tells her, “but it’s not going very well.”
The fourth and final season of Catastrophe may not be its best — I’d still give that honor to season one, a perfectly judged mix of slapstick, romance, pathos, and hard-nosed observational humor that kicked off with a five-minute lust-and-courtship sequence that felt like “Previously On” highlights from a nonexistent season zero — but it’s the most affecting, thanks to the cumulative weight the series has built up. (Spoilers ahead; I’m assuming that’s okay with y’all because Amazon released all the episodes at once.)
We know it’s the end for us as viewers, if not for Rob and Sharon as a couple. And because we’ve been on this journey for 24 episodes and 12 hours, we know them about as well as we know anyone in our actual lives. The closing scene of the season — Rob wading out into the sea to join his wife and the mother of his children — would’ve been a kindhearted, understated ending all by its lonesome, but the panoramic images of their tiny figures in the sea give it the power of an organizing metaphor: We’re all adrift and treading water, or something like that, something Rob and Sharon would make fun of us, and themselves, for analyzing too deeply.
The title of the series, which seemed quite specific in season one, has become multilayered and multivalent. We’ve watched Rob and Sharon and their friends and relatives all muddling through their own personal catastrophes, ranging from the separation, brief singlehood, and eventual reuniting of Fran (Ashley Jensen) and Chris (Mark Bonnar), to Rob’s relapse into alcoholism (climaxing with season three’s car wreck cliffhanger), and the deaths of older relatives in Rob and Sharon’s families, portending the inevitable cycling of the generations, and of life itself.
The latter series of losses is capped by the death of Rob’s mother Mia, played by the late Carrie Fisher, who got about as good a send-off in season three as an actress could hope for — she told Rob about how his no-good father got drunk and broke her jaw, and warned him, “You put a plug in the jug, mister, because if you ever hit Sharon, I’ll fucking kill you.” Mia’s death and funeral doubles as a lovely farewell to Fisher, who was not only an aspirational movie star for performers of Horgan’s and Delaney’s generation, but also an influential memoirist and screenwriter, a primary architect of the sort of literate yet self-deprecating, modern-screwball dialogue showcased here, and a great chronicler of her own experience with addiction and recovery.
The more meditative, measured tone of season four suits all the drama we’ve pushed through with Rob and Sharon. We now see both of them, Rob especially, slowing down as they steam on towards 50, partly as a result of having spent so much energy on fabulous/disastrous life adventures of a sort that weren’t supposed to befall people in their late 30s and early 40s: sudden, deep love; equally sudden marriage; multiple pregnancies; a drastic change of lifestyle for both; an overseas relocation for Rob; and the aforementioned tests of intimacy brought about by Sharon’s straying and Rob’s drinking and brief foray into unemployment (might as well call it a midlife crisis).
To say they’re older and wiser doesn’t mean they’ve become saintly or even exemplary people: I love how Sharon decries the casual sexism and bro-favoritism of the visiting CEO of Rob’s company (Chris Noth, sporting a silver-fox haircut and mustache), encouraging him to refuse an undeserved promotion, only to relent and urge him to call back the next morning and ask if the position is still open. This sort of hypocrisy is a lot more common than TV comedies about basically liberal characters would care to admit. They’ll decry the inequities and indignities built into the capitalist system, as seen in Sharon pushing back against her new headmaster’s sexual harassment, but they won’t take a bold public stand against it — not this time, anyway — because they need the money.
And yet there are signs of true growth here. One of the most dryly funny recurring bits in season four is Rob’s increasing disinterest in social gatherings that have to be lubricated with alcohol to be considered fun. He stands his ground when refusing to participate — not in a censorious or strident way, but in the manner of a person who has made his decision and doesn’t appreciate being pressured to revise it just so others won’t feel, somehow, vaguely judged. The visual of Rob in a neck brace in the first couple of episodes is one of many examples of Catastrophe’s knack for taking an ordinary prop justified by the script (Rob was in a car wreck, after all) and letting it accumulate deeper significance merely by putting it onscreen and making us stare at it. He and Sharon have sustained plenty of damage as a couple — much though not all of it Rob’s doing — and once they’re sufficiently healed, the brace disappears. And after a while, verbal references to the wreck disappear, too.
This is how all basically healthy couples push through, well, catastrophes — those visited upon them from without or generated from within — and emerge on the other side not stronger, necessarily, but functional and in good spirits. That Sharon and Rob would make fun of me for having written that part, too, is one more reason to love and miss them.