'You're the Worst' Keeps Getting Mental Illness Right

The popular show about misanthropic narcissists understands mental illness in a way that most television shows don't.

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Sep 29 2016, 9:00pm

Still from 'You're the Worst'

Last season, You're the Worst aired what was possibly the best depiction of clinical depression on television through a multi-episode, still-ongoing plot. The storyline was a jarring addition to a sitcom that is, essentially, a backward romantic-comedy about two misanthropic narcissistics (Gretchen and Jimmy) trying to maintain a relationship. It was remarkable not just because of the brutal honesty and realism—ranging from Gretchen's determination to keep self-medicating to the smaller details, like wearing the same shirt for three weeks straight—but also because the series has committed to keeping it going.

Gretchen's depression is still a major factor in season three, a storyline that has yet to be resolved because clinical depression itself isn't something that is magically resolved. You're the Worst understands mental illness in a way that most television shows don't. Wednesday's episode only strengthened this argument, this time through post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Twenty-Two" switched the focus from the often terrible but occasionally lovable main duo to the series's sweetest and most sympathetic character: Edgar, a formerly homeless addict and Iraq War veteran who has spent the last two seasons quietly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He's had trouble forming relationships, was prone to alcoholic rages pre-medication, and finds himself obsessing over homeless encampments. Edgar's diagnosis didn't come of nowhere—his PTSD has always lingered in the background of the show, sometimes brought up in the form of a twisted joke or a vague reference to combat—but it's never been an explicit storyline. This actually makes "Twenty-Two" all the more powerful; the episode was always an inevitability and a culmination of smaller moments from the 27 episodes prior. And when it finally did occur, boy, did it ever.

The best piece of advice Edgar receives essentially boils down to "stop looking for someone else to cure you."

In a brilliant form of storytelling, "Twenty-Two" recounts the same day as last week's "Men Get Strong" but follows Edgar instead of Gretchen and Jimmy. The same pancake breakfast switches from silly to depressing, focusing not on the banality of morning conversation but instead on Edgar's shaking hands, his increasing paranoia, his forced smile while his friends insult his cooking. In some ways, "Twenty-Two" can feel like an exaggerated version of mental illness, but that's because PTSD itself can feel like an exaggeration: It makes simple events and random people seem much bigger and scarier than they actually are, twisting the mundane into something dark and sinister. A frying pan becomes a symbol, a shopping trip becomes an impossible mission, a construction worker becomes an enemy.

In some instances, we're not entirely sure how much of what Edgar is seeing is real and how much is in his head—but then again, neither does he. He's stuck in a peculiar place where he knows that he's suffering from PTSD but the knowledge of that doesn't make it easier to separate the paranoia from reality. He knows that he needs help, but it's impossible to get.

"Twenty-Two" doubles as a devastating story about the frustrating lack of resources for military veterans, as highlighted in a scene where he argues with a callous bureaucrat at the VA. She's dismissive of his issues (when he mentions his 11 different medications, she laughs it off with, "I take 15, and I never went to war!") and exhibits an eerie sense of calm—even boredom—when Edgar flips out and smashes a chair. Her reaction speaks volumes: She's seen this before, with many veterans, and it doesn't mean shit to her.

There's an undeniable sense of anxiety you get while watching "Twenty-Two," as if Edgar's hopelessness and desperation are contagious. It's what makes the show such an endlessly compelling watch. The series has never shied away from the depressing realities and complexities of simply being alive but has dove headfirst into them, fully committing to accurately telling the stories that sitcoms like to ignore or gloss over in a Very Special Episode. You're the Worst goes a step further than dragging serious issues to the forefront: It puts forward the notion that there isn't actually a set solution. It's why Gretchen is still depressed a season after her original reveal and why "Twenty-Two" doesn't include a triumphant scene where Edgar finds a solution or starts taking his medication again. Even in a cathartic conversation with another veteran, the best piece of advice Edgar receives essentially boils down to "stop looking for someone else to cure you."

You're the Worst knows that this problem isn't fixable, and it has no interest in pretending so through a mental illness fairy tale. Rather, the show prefers to give us something better: the reassurance that everyone else is trying to fix themselves, too.

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