“As soon as I figure out who or what I am, you will never see me again!”
The Gang will never end. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has to, some day, I suppose. But The Gang, for all the narrative feints and come-to-naught hints about “things never being the same again,” will never disband, not really.
Dennis left for a while, engineering a big blow-off speech that suggested he had, finally and irrevocably, seen through to the heart of The Gang’s destructive dysfunction. Mac redeemed his fate as The Gang’s most self-deluded member with a shockingly realized public expression of his identity. And, at the end of “The Gang Carries A Corpse Up a Mountain,” Charlie has the sort of epiphany that, were change in the show’s world actually possible, would, just maybe, lift Charlie Kelly out of his squalid existence in search of a better one that he finally realizes he deserves.
These last two episodes of this choppy and truncated Season 15 conclude The Gang’s sojourn in Ireland with some typical Sunny shenanigans. Repeated desecration of a corpse, unspeakable soups, hints of pedophilia, a soupçon of Dee-devouring quicksand, that sort of thing. We find out that The Gang’s traditional mockery of Mac was behind his destabilizing identity crisis. Sick of Mac parading his Irishness in anticipation of their trip to the Emerald Isle, they bribed Mac’s mom with “a couple of loosies” to lie that Mac is Dutch. (“Your mom does not like you, dude,” Dennis notes.)
Thus Mac’s quest for an external source of validation continues, as his hasty decision to hurl himself into his Catholicism merely allies him with the friendly student priest, Gus, whose reassuring talk of God’s accepting nature stems from his own predilection for “the wee lads.” “God. Dammit,” Mac pronounces in recognition that, once more, his search for an all-encompassing, all-accepting outside entity that will tell him who he is has come to crushing disillusionment. (Also, his dad’s real name is not “Luther Vandross,” sadly.)
Shitty parenting plays into the wrap-up of Dennis’ episodes-long episode of fast-moving COVID and possible possession by an Irish murder-ghost, as he, plotting how best to transfer Charlie’s affections back to Frank, spies a “murder-hole” in his rented castle. “The sickness and anger inside of you is diabolical,” Frank muses in admiration at Dennis’ plan to dump boiling oil on Shelly Kelly. Dennis’ own little moment of clarity comes in the dead-eyed response to his father/not-father, “I suppose all of your years of neglect and misdeeds have allowed me to harness the darkness inside of me and release it, without conscience.”
Season 15’s breakneck eventfulness has included some only partially realized twists, and the whole “Dennis being possessed” angle never worked entirely. Dennis’ self-aggrandizing sociopathy and terrifying fragility have been well established as the result of—well, Dennis lays it out pretty succinctly in that quote. Throwing a supernatural haunting gag on top of his madness is a hat on an already unsettling hat, even if Glenn Howerton makes Dennis’ repeated assertions that his hot oil plan “also happens to be the castle’s preference for how this is all gonna go down,” archly funny.
Dee gets shunted off into a literal narrative quagmire in the penultimate episode, fittingly titled, “Dee Gets Stuck In A Bog.” Visiting Dennis in an Irish hospital after the axe-happy cliffhanger last time out, Dee meets a hunky doctor and, setting out on an ill-advised turf-harvesting expedition, indeed stumbles into some sucking muck while attempting to send her date a selfie. (Dennis, as it turns out, was too COVID-weak to even lift the axe we saw him with, crapping himself as he passed out at Dee’s feet.)
Dee’s position as the most cruelly and casually discarded of The Gang is part of the joke, naturally. (The guys all confess that they were separately contemplating throwing Dee off the cliff in “The Gang Carries A Corpse Up A Mountain.”) Still, this latest humiliation is telegraphed from far, far away by the setup, with the seventh episode seeing Colm Meaney’s Shelley tell Charlie about the Kelly curse, involving “a gruesome woman covered in filth with long stringy hair, horribly shrieking in the night.”
That The Waitress once more happens into Dee’s orbit just in time to torture Dee with the promise of a rescue (only if Dee remembers The Waitress’ name) is funny enough. (Kaitlin Olson and Mary Elizabeth Ellis make mutual seething hatred reliably hilarious.) While I get that Ellis is (literally) part of the Sunny family, however, and that shooting in Dublin last year no doubt made for a nice trip, The Waitress’ inclusion as Dee’s cross-Atlantic nemesis sticks out as sloppily convenient. That The Gang can ruin this poor woman’s life even outside of Philly makes for an explosively funny showdown, though, as Dee, taken to task for leaving The Waitress stuck in the same bog, ultimately asserts her right as an American to do whatever she wants. (“Get her, bitch,” Mac urges the furious Dee, in a moment of rare intra-Gang solidarity of awfulness.)
The heart of this season, especially once The Gang hits Irish soil, is Charlie and Frank’s relationship, though. Unlike Mac’s painful reminder that his friends are monsters, it does appear that the very Irish Shelly Kelly is, indeed, Charlie’s birth father. And if we do discover that Shelly has some pretty deep-seated misogyny as part of his world view, the inevitable dissolution of the Charlie-Shelley relationship comes not from any suggestion that Shelley is otherwise a conveniently disqualifying weirdo.
Instead, it’s Shelley’s corpse The Gang effortfully and disastrously hauls up an Irish mountain in the season finale, the cheesemaker’s lungs having given out thanks, possibly, to some Gang-transmitted COVID. I get that It’s Always Sunny’s take on the ongoing pandemic would involve some truly irresponsible ugly Americanism, but the season’s loosey-goosey manner of dealing with all the cross-infecting and quick recovery involved is also uncharacteristically lazy.
That said, it’s in Shelley’s fate that “The Gang Carries A Corpse Up A Mountain” finds another genuinely affecting and thought-provoking way to examine the unbreakable bonds that hold The Gang together. First taken aback by Charlie’s pride at the “ruse” he’s used to gather everyone at the base of a picturesquely steep Irish mountain (“What ruse? Asking us to go on a hike with your dad and us saying yes?,” asks Dee), The Gang gets the real shock when Charlie revels Shelley’s dead body, encased in a duffel bag.
Like much of this season, Shelley’s demise (speculated as either the unvaccinated Dennis or the bogus Trump cure-taking Frank’s fault) drops gracelessly into the narrative flow. Chalking it up to COVID hardships and/or the cast’s various other gigs is one excuse for this season’s unevenness, even if that doesn’t make this short season any more assured. Still, The Gang’s eventful trip hauling Shelley’s corpse up for what Charlie assures them is the Kelly (men’s) tradition of being hurled off a cliff into the sea makes for illuminatingly funny chaos.
Frank, desperately smarting over Charlie’s abandonment, has come prepared with hiking gear, including a canteen full of urine “in case things go bad.” Dee is pissed that Charlie’s successful appeal to the guys (“Bros before hos,” he intones, solemnly) is nonsensical as well as sexist in the situation, but only abandons the slog once Dennis reveals that he dumped that boiling oil on Dee’s doctor date instead. (“You weren’t there to enjoy him, so I enjoyed him—as per the castle’s wishes,” Dennis explains.) Dennis, it turns out, has been hanging from Shelley’s canvas-wrapped body instead of helping to carry it, and likewise leaves in a huff, his “Vitruvian” back a shambles.
Mac bails after the reveal about his mom’s lie, stomping away determined to get yet another shamrock thigh tattoo. (Dennis screeching, “Don’t you dare get another shamrock tattoo, you son of a bitch!,” is Glenn Howerton at his vein-throbbing, enraged best.) That just leaves Frank, at least until Charlie drinks from the wrong canteens. (Frank got confused, leaving neither of his water bottles unsoiled.) Before then, the tentative rapprochement between the two allows us another glimpse of their uniquely co-dependent—yet still improbably affecting—relationship, as Frank manages a sincere-sounding, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I’m not your real dad.” Charlie agrees, sadly, at least until he drinks from those canteens and explodes, “Why is it always something crazy with you?!”
Continuing on up the ruggedly endless mountain path alone, Charlie drags his actual father’s now-battered body (“Can we please not make dropping my dad a thing?,” Charlie asks in vain at one point) until, with a cold Irish rainstorm pelting his lonely, incremental progress, he collapses. “I’m sorry, dad, I can’t do it,” the exhausted Charlie apologizes, before everything pent up inside this 40-year-old feral and neglected manchild erupts in tearful agony:
This isn’t fair! I shouldn’t have to carry you up this hill. You never carried me up a hill. You never picked me up from school. You didn’t read me bedtime stories, you didn’t carry me on your shoulders, you never bounced me on—You weren’t there!! And I needed you! You were supposed to carry me! You were supposed to carry me.
A lot’s been made about It’s Always Sunny’s unprecedented longevity, and how, despite the occasional misstep, its astoundingly consistent quality. As time’s gone on, the extreme difficulty built into Sunny’s singularly dark and bitter formula has only made that consistency more impressive. Especially as the creators’ naturally seek to flesh out their characters without unbalancing Sunny’s world through encroaching growth or sentimentality. Dennis’ departure, Mac’s dance—they were so affecting because of how perilously close the show came to tipping over into unrecoverable humanity.
The Gang are human. They are us, as much as we’d like to deny it. Self-interest, cruelty, ignorance (willful or actual), bigotry—The Gang, at its worst (and Sunny’s best) reflects ourselves back to us, even as we try to squirm away from the merciless truth. The Gang has to be human for the show to continue, but their squalid group humanity can never actually improve itself. And so we watch Charlie, finally, confront a person whose own blinkered insufficiency left Charlie Kelly the illiterate, abandoned, dangerously needy and thoroughly unloved creature crying out to the Irish heavens.
And we cry. (Well, I cried—I don’t know what stone you people might be made of.) Shelley Kelly told his son a tale of a Kelly who died from eating stones in his guileless village idiocy, and if Charlie Kelly hasn’t died from eating cat food, or huffing glue, or any of the other death-defying calamities that make up his daily existence, then I suspect it’s because Charlie’s unthinkably hard and lonely life has turned him into the world’s holy fool.
And so we cry along with Charlie as he, alone on a mountain far from Philadelphia, tells a dead man the things Charlie Kelly needs so badly to tell everybody in his life, but never will. After all, The Gang comes roaring to his rescue, don’t they? In a borrowed pickup truck blasting “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Dee, Dennis, Mac, and Frank, having soured on their own futile attempts at expatriate reinvention, realize that The Gang is, in the end, all they have. Or will ever have.
It’s a crushingly triumphant mockery of love and friendship, as the five dutifully hurl Shelley’s body over a cliff—onto the low tide-exposed and jagged rocks far below. “It’ll be a Stand By Me situation,” Mac rationalizes, upon spotting the innocent children about to discover a very abused dead Irishman as part of their beach day. Charlie, too, rationalizes (although not without clarity) that Shelley “was a deadbeat,” and The Gang marches back to Philly, chanting “USA! USA!” The Gang is The Gang, and they will always, always have each other.
- Mac’s perpetual, heartbreakingly pathetic need for love and acceptance is summed up in his pretzel-logic explanation to Gus about his desire to enter the priesthood, describing his current dilemma as, “When God took away my Irish identity and made me Dutch to smite me for the urges that he gave me when I made the original sin of being born.”
- Frank’s attempt to humiliate Shelley in front of Charlie involves him, yes, shitting in the man’s soup. Charlie, suspicious, makes Frank eat the floating “meatballs” in what is—arguably?—the single grossest gross-out moment in It’s Always Sunny history.
- Frank, explaining his thinking to an aghast Dennis afterward, states, “He had me up against a wall. What was I supposed to do?” “Not eat a poopy!,” exclaims Dennis. This Dennis also could have done without it, honestly.
- Mac has worshipfully memorized Dennis’ evaluation of his “perfect” back, parroting that Dennis’ dorsal side represents, “the symmetry of the Vitruvian Man, and its the foundation of your structural essence.”
- And that’s a wrap on The A.V. Club’s reviews of Season 15 of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. It was most welcome to have The Gang back, even if, again, this won’t go down as the strongest season in Sunny history. (Plus, we got such a small portion.) Come back soon, Gang. We need you. Season grade: B.