“If a normal courtship is a dance, then ours is, like, a heart attack or seizure or something.” This is how Sharon sums up her romance with Rob early on in Catastrophe. It’s a love story, sure, but one that “sounds like a letter some sadsack wrote in to Chat magazine.” From the very start, they both declare their relationship is fucked – and plough on anyway. For creators and actors Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, their characters’ marriage was always cheerfully chaotic: a pledge to hold hands while hurtling towards disaster. It’s in the bare bones of the show: the premise, the theme music (jovial yodel or existential howl?) and, of course, the title, a play on a Zorba the Greek quote: “I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.” Or, in Sharon’s more colloquial philosophising: “It’s the 2000s. There’s, like, 300 wars happening around the globe. I might like someone to shovel a path for me and my baby in the… nuclear winter.”
Catastrophe captured the daily texture of a marriage built on love, mean-spirited humour, clear-eyed cynicism, a deep and precise knowledge of each other’s flaws, and constant, low-level fear: the gnawing thought that everything’s just about to go tits up. A tumult of resentments, sacrifices, small betrayals and disagreements were background noise in a home defined by the fact that two people who made each other laugh had chosen to be with each other, and weren’t going to change their minds in the face of handjobs, eternal AA meetings and workplace scandals. Sharon (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Rob (email@example.com) even often seem to enjoy arguing with each other, letting off steam while secretly relishing each other’s creative insults and cruel jokes. The couple – and the scripts themselves – have a knack for ruthlessly mockery while maintaining a foundation of empathy, respect and love. But even as the audience knew they wouldn’t – couldn’t – separate, bigger and darker obstacles came their way.
It’s hard to wrap up a show that takes mundane, daily strife as its running theme – how do you resolve the minutia of conflicts that the show itself has shown us will continue to resurface day after day? It’s even harder to end a show that found its momentum by seeing its characters perched on the precipice of calamity. Do you pull them back or push them off? Or do they jump, hand in hand?
Last night, after four seasons, the finale of Catastrophe aired. After a holiday met with tragedy, a funeral, and some of the most brutal, painful arguments the couple had experienced yet, we left Rob and Sharon on a beach, promising they would do it all over again if they could. Leaving their sleeping kids in the car, Sharon ran into the sea – Rob, after spotting a sign warning of rip tides, jumping in after her. A wide aerial shot saw Rob and Sharon in miniature, far out at sea, laughing and inching slowly back towards the shore, motes against the current. It’s a poetic, metaphorical snapshot of their relationship thus far – two people swimming against the tide together.
Some have read it more literally. Jack Seale wrote in the Guardian that “several carefully placed shots strongly imply that … everyone’s died”: Sharon and Rob drowning at sea, their two young children overheating in the car. Delaney, when urged on Twitter “please don’t kill every character off I couldn’t take it”, cryptically replied, “everybody dies (Not on the show but in real life I mean)”.
I can’t quite share this take on the scene. And yet the show, as it always has done, invites us to think darkly. It’s an ending that makes you think, even just for a tiny, heart-palpitation-inducing second, Oh, God, they’re going to make it, aren’t they? They are going to make it, right? It’s a question Catastrophe has made us ask all along. Maybe it’s testament to the show’s philosophy of survival-instinct pessimism that all it takes is a threatening sign, a glance towards a car, and a wide open ocean for viewers to put two and two together and make four horrific deaths.
The threat of real catastrophe has always dangled menacingly over the characters, just out of sight. Sharon’s “pre-cancer cancer”. Rob’s alcoholism. A car crash. Rob and Sharon are scared, and so is everyone around them who is even vaguely tolerable. “Why shouldn’t you be scared?!” Chris (Mark Bonnar) asks, baffled. “Who are you that you don’t need to be scared? If you’re alive, you should be scared sometimes, the world’s a fucking slaughterhouse! I’m scared.”
Life is scary. Sometimes horrible, unspeakable things happen for no reason. Catastrophe lurks round every corner. But you can choose to hang on to the things that make it feel safer, like the people that love you even when fear makes you objectively horrible. I choose to hang on to an ending where Rob and Sharon make it to the shore, laughing, getting back into the car with sand and salt water still in their underwear, chafing all the way back to the airport.