Iron Tongue of midnight is a blog by chris diggins, a writer and critic living in new jersey. it's a place for him to put his errant thoughts and deeper analysis about media pop culture.

You're The Worst, Emotional Honesty, and Understanding

There's a little moment towards the end of the first episode of You're the Worst. Jimmy and Gretchen are on the phone, just starting to realize how much they like each other. Gretchen decides to open up and admit that jumping into a new relationship scares her; Jimmy reciprocates. Having established that it can never work, the two conclude there's no harm in trying. Then Jimmy ruins the moment by clumsily segueing back to his foot fetish. On the page, it's a good enough scene, funny and cute and just the right note of awkward, but it's the performance that really brings it to life. Jimmy and Gretchen are shown in split screen close-ups, and we can see every expression they make: Gretchen cringing at her vulnerability, Jimmy wincing at his stupidity. But most of all it's the pure expressions of joy they both have when they realize the other is willing to give it a chance that makes it clear how much they want this. The pilot as a whole is pretty good, but this scene shows that the magic that makes You're the Worst one of TV's best shows was always there: a total commitment to being emotionally honest.

When I say emotionally honest, I don't just mean that actions always feel true to the characters taking them. That's certainly true, and is an important element of most great writing, but it's something that many other shows have mastered. What makes You're the Worst special is how even in its most outlandish situations it manages to feel true to the human experience. The apprehension and joy of that scene is just one example of how the show captures moments that are profound in their honesty. From the big moments in life to the tiny daily struggles, the show succeeds in getting to the heart of these matters and using them to create compelling drama and affecting emotional beats.

If you've never seen You're the Worst, that claim may surprise you. Its very title proclaims a rejection of soft edges and easy sentimentality. And make no mistake, it does reject them. The show is filled with black comedy and caustic wit. It revels in the horrible behavior of its protagonists. Gretchen is incredibly irresponsible and constantly disregards the feelings of others. Jimmy is relentlessly cruel to everyone, the sort of person who uses “honesty” to excuse his contempt. And they both rarely consider how their behavior affects others. Yet beneath their cynical surfaces, Jimmy and Gretchen are two people who are desperately trying to figure out how to navigate the world. That's the story that You're the Worst is interested in, and the empathy it displays in pursuit of it is nothing less than miraculous.

The penultimate episode of the latest season is a great example of what the show can accomplish. In just one half hour, three separate plotlines about three different relationships come to a head in three massive arguments. Each explores the complicated dynamics between these specific people as well as the more general difficulties in relationships that each problem represents. And it does all of this while completely empathizing with and understanding the positions of all six participants. No one is entirely right or wrong, no one is unjustified in their feelings, and the solutions are never easy.

Take the fight between Jimmy and Gretchen's lovable PTSD-suffering veteran roommate Edgar and his girlfriend Dorothy. After a rough period where he quit all his medications, Edgar found peace through medical marijuana and a new comedy career. The latter sends Dorothy into a spiral of her own, as her career has been stalled for years. The shifting dynamics in their relationship soon cause explosive problems. The two argue over their disadvantages as a Latino man and white woman, whether Dorothy can deal with her formerly struggling boyfriend getting better, and if Dorothy has any chance of an actual career. The two clearly care for each other, but their relationship can't survive, and that might be better for Edgar. It's a sad ending to a sweet relationship, one that is both necessary and tragic.

Gretchen's best friend Lindsay's relationship with her husband Paul, meanwhile, is perhaps the most comically ill-advised one in the show. Lindsay has been monstrous to Paul, ignoring him and cheating on him and stabbing him and pressuring him to agree to an open relationship and secretly aborting their child when she decides she doesn't want to stay with him. Yet there is a surprising degree of nuance to the dissolution of their marriage. Paul vents his rage about the years of mistreatment, but she has a point when she argues that he has tried to mold her to his idea of a perfect family. Lindsay, as clueless as she usually is, manages to make Paul understand that they are mismatched people who ignored the truth to get what they thought they wanted. If Paul has not been as bad to Lindsay as she has been to him, he has at least contributed more to the problem than he was willing to admit. And now that they both understand, they can separate on the amicable terms they could never live with each other on.

And then there's Jimmy and Gretchen. They've been on a collision course all season, the death of Jimmy's father causing him to reevaluate everything while Gretchen is recovering from last year's breakdown. After a season's worth of build-up, the two fight over how both feel that the other should be strong and take care of them. But unlike the other two fights, when they reach the point of saying that their relationship can never work, they commiserate about the beauty of struggling against the impossible. Then Jimmy realizes the erotic novel he's been writing has been subconsciously inspired by their relationship, and Gretchen eagerly demands to hear everything he's written. A full day of reading later, they have answered no questions, solved no problems, gotten no closer to figuring things out. Yet they're together, and feel no compulsion to change that. And isn't staying by someone even when it makes no sense, even when facing down insurmountable problems, what love is all about?

You're the Worst manages this honesty not just about love's problems, but about all the struggles of adulthood. And it's incredibly difficult to depict these things and have it feel this real. But what does it mean for something to be so honest? Most great art gets at truth in some way, but this thorough depiction of life is rare. And it's not like it's necessary. We don't need to have become space wizards and fought an intergalactic empire to identify with Luke Skywalker. But there's an advantage to this understanding: it makes you feel understood. Seeing the same struggles you go through depicted can show you that you aren't alone. In a world where it's easy to feel isolated, that's tremendously powerful.

Which leads us to why You're the Worst affected me so much. The show received heaps of praise for the second season's core storyline. It concerned Gretchen's battle with depression and the strain it put on her relationship with Jimmy. The praise was well-deserved: it was a heartbreakingly accurate portrayal of living with depression. The outward signs of normalcy paired with inner turmoil. How it can explode out of you as anger and irritation. How you push away people who want to help because you think it's pointless for them to try. How the hopelessness eats away at you until it's too much effort to even speak, let alone stop the things you care about from slipping away. How you feel so worthless that you become convinced everyone is better off without you. And I should know. I suffer from depression too.

I first watched You're the Worst just a couple months after going through a difficult break-up. I won't go into details, but my issues with depression played some role. So watching Jimmy and Gretchen drift apart because of her depression hit uncomfortably close to home. I saw the same problems I had dealt with play out, and it broke my heart. Because filtered through the show's well of empathy, it was clear what was happening was no one's fault. Gretchen pushed Jimmy away because she was dealing with a condition that told her she was not worth his effort. Jimmy tried to help because he cared about her but couldn't fully understand what she was going through. And when she became angry at his attempts, his frustration was entirely understandable, even when that frustration lead him towards someone else. Then the ending to that plotline came.

Jimmy plans to run away with the cute bartender he's been flirting with when he finds Gretchen catatonic in their house. Despite having already decided to leave, he makes one last desperate effort to help, inviting every one of her friends to talk to her. It doesn't work, leading Gretchen to snap at him and say she will always be this way, and Jimmy doesn't deserve to suffer with her. Jimmy, heartbroken, leaves...except he doesn't. When his date arrives, one look at Gretchen's clunker of a car convinces him to hide. After she finds him in the bushes and leaves in a huff, he comes back inside to find Gretchen sleeping. When she wakes up, he's built an adorable little pillow fort for the two of them. The quivering of Gretchen's lip and the small, shocked little “You stayed?” that she asks tell you everything you need to know about what this gesture means to her. And for the first time since my break-up, I cried.

I had tried so hard to communicate what I was feeling and what I wanted. In the end, I couldn't figure it out. Because it's hard. It's so, so damn hard. But here was a simple, elegant declaration of the only thing I really wanted: for someone to stay. And I think that same lesson applies more broadly too. Doesn't everyone want someone who will see your worst self, get to know all of your flaws, even be told that they deserve better than you, and still refuse to leave? Isn't that the kind of love we all want to find?

Yet that wasn't what had the biggest effect on me. There was one episode left, essentially an epilogue. Jimmy's gesture had brought Gretchen out of her funk, but in their discussion afterward, he discovers that she does not take medication or go to therapy. Annoyed, he gets smashed at a party so she'll have to take care of him. She does so, and as they sit outside afterward, she says she'll get help. “It's always been just me, you know?” she says. “Now it's not.” And with that, the idea that I'd failed to understand was suddenly clear: taking care of my own mental health is as much about my responsibility to the people who care about me as it is about myself. I'd heard this idea before, of course. But this was a much more visceral understanding. Because You're the Worst had made me feel understood, had demonstrated that it knew me and what I went through, it was able to make me understand too.

I'm not trying to say that You're the Worst, or any show or movie, is going to change your life. I'm not saying that it should, or even could. I'm just trying to demonstrate how powerful these things can be. It's been a hard road for me, and it still is, but things feel a little bit easier knowing that there is something out there that made me feel understood, even just for a moment. That's special. That's rare. And it was only possible for it do that in the first place because this show is so radically honest, so deeply empathetic. Beyond all the amazing jokes and great plot, that's what makes You're the Worst so incredible. And I think it's something we should all be striving for, both in our art and in our lives.

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