When Wilfred first began it was a weird show.
Four years later, as it has reached its finale, it’s still a weird show. But it’s also the most poignantly beautiful mix of comedy and dark themes that has aired on modern television. And that’s a remarkable feat.
I was thrilled when I first saw a Wilfred preview and that didn’t change when I saw the first episode of the American version. (The FX version was adapted from an Australian series, co-created by Wilfred himself, Jason Gann.) I’m even more thrilled that the show ended at the perfect time, in a way that makes it something truly special, instead of carrying on past its expiration date.
There’s a line that Wilfred says at the very end of the series, as he’s sitting with Ryan on the beach. It sums up so much about the show, but also about the struggles Ryan (and really everyone) is faced with on a yearly basis. Wilfred says: “It’s not about parades and fireworks. It’s about that pair of tits there, that’s happiness. A scratch behind the ear. The sun in your face. A decaying seagull carcass. Happiness is in the quieter moments, mate.”
For Ryan, happiness may not be a decaying seagull carcass, but it is getting high in a closet with his neighbor’s dog. And Ryan realizes that’s okay. He realizes that what other people dub happiness shouldn’t be something he strives for. What other people think is important to focus on may not actually matter to him. And that’s okay. It’s okay for your best friend to be your neighbor’s dog. It’s even okay for your best friend to be a delusion you’ve created.
In a way, that just means Ryan is his own best friend, which is something that’s certainly relatable. We’ve all had moments where we realize that we just want to be alone. We spend every moment of every day with ourselves, and hopefully there’s at least some small part that everyone can enjoy about themselves. Perhaps that’s why we, humans, love dogs so much. Dogs are loyal, and really can adopt whatever personality you need them to. They can take on whatever bits of conversation your mind creates. Granted, it won’t always be to the extent that Wilfred does, but a dog can be everything you want in a friend without all the other bullshit complications. Simply take it for a walk, give it some food, and then you can say whatever you want to a dog, with zero fear of repercussions. If Ryan was going to create a best friend for himself, it only makes sense that it would be from a dog.
That’s a main theme that runs along the foundation of the entire series. Ryan is a lonely guy, but he’s able to find solace in a new friend. As the elements of that friendship are examined the show goes from an enjoyable comedy with a few dark elements to a completely surreal drama. But what’s most impressive is how well it worked as either of those things.
A striking bit of intentional ambiguity is the decision to not show whether the basement is actually real. From conversations I’ve had with other fans and things I’ve read on the internet, it seems to be accepted that it was just a closet. The couch on the beach at the end is being used as proof that Ryan realized he could make the closet absolutely anything, and so he’s doing just that. I don’t know that I’d jump to that conclusion.
There’s a reason the closet wasn’t shown. I know about all the hints through the years that Ryan doesn’t have a basement. But still, we have no real way of knowing whether he had a hidden basement or if he was just getting high in a closet all those years.
But if Ryan really was just making the basement what he wants, then that does fit with just about everything else that’s shown in the series. It’s no secret that Ryan’s an unreliable narrator. This is a technique being used more prevalently than ever in modern media, but it’s still an extremely powerful one when used well. After all, we’re even unreliable narrators when it comes to our own memories. There’s a reason people want to see a story told from someone’s point of view as opposed to an omnipotent third-person narrator. When we see what people see, we’re better able to feel what they feel. And what they feel doesn’t change based on whether what they’re seeing is actually real.
I bring up this storytelling technique for one simple reason: there are no certainties when it comes to this show. Anything that’s being regarded as an absolute from the final season simply isn’t. We don’t know what has happened in reality and what has happened in Ryan’s head, and that’s okay.
There’s a scene after Ryan realizes Wilfred was just a dog where we see clips of previous episodes. Except, instead of a man in a dog suit dunking his head in the toilet, or putting a shock collar around his neck, it’s just a man torturing himself as a small dog sits, patiently staring at him. That sequence is absolutely heartbreaking. I teared up while watching it. Then I realized, that may not be so. What’s to say that Wilfred wasn’t really some sort of dog god sent to lead Ryan to happiness? Sure, almost everything that’s explained goes against it, but nothing should be ruled out when it comes to this show. Perhaps Ryan was simply seeing those memories again as someone else would have, in part because he didn’t want to believe Wilfred was dead and in part because he does have some serious mental problems.
And even if it was just in his head, does that really make it any less real?
The show is your tennis ball. Just play with it.
Instead of the magical explanation (or deitical one) that many of us expected, the actual explanation has to do with an adopted father, some repressed memories seeping through and a cult. I’m still torn over whether this is the explanation I hoped for, but it certainly is an interesting one.
Essentially, everything in the series is made possible by Ryan’s memories from living in a cult as a child and being deemed the chosen one. Whether Wilfred really is some form of Mataman can be debated, but regardless of where you land on that one, seeing where Ryan’s reality comes from is crazy. There are layers to this show that can now be unearthed, and it’ll likely take many viewings to pick up on everything. All because of a crazy cult.
Perhaps my favorite reveal of the last few episodes, at least for the sake of having a laugh, is the fact that Bruce has been a dog all along. Thinking about the previous interactions between Bruce, Ryan and Wilfred, they’re all made so much better through the realization that Bruce’s human form is another figment of Ryan’s imagination. My favorite bit to remember is the arc where Bruce moves in with a nice family, is cleaned and dressed nice, but still willing to play meatball games with Wilfred. At the time, those episodes were a bit jarring and confusing, but looking back, that may be the most hilarious of all Bruce’s antics. Just a stray dog, adopted by a well-off family who is willing to take care of him.
The reveal of Bruce as a dog/figment does lead to some questions. The one that instantly jumped out at me is: How much of his involvement was just imagined by Ryan? Obviously, Ryan didn’t come home to a dog hiding in his basement with a lampshade on his head. It’s one thing for Ryan to see a dog as a person, but it may be a new level of crazy, or at least willing-crazy to just completely imagine another being playing games with your neighbor’s dog. I’ve ultimately come to the conclusion that thinking too hard about any of the minute aspects of the show will cause more headache than it’s worth. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it anyway.
Ultimately, these reveals are going to make watching the show through another time a completely different experience, which is something I’m very excited about.
Happiness Pt. 2
“Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them.” – Leo Tolstoy
I didn’t start writing this article until a few days after I watched the last episode, and that’s probably for the better. I’ll admit, after the finale I was in a weird place. Most of this season put me there, but only the last few episodes really stuck with me after watching. On the one hand, I was very happy that the end of the show was handled so well. But on the other hand, it certainly wasn’t the crazy, other-worldly ending I had spent four years trying to decipher, and that was a bit of a bummer.
Really, in this final season, Elijah Wood does so many things that prove again why he’s one of my favorite actors to watch. There’s raw emotionality in a way that few other actors are successful at conveying. And that makes the painful themes explored all the more painful. It’s a weird feeling to be so happy with a show’s ending and yet so sad by it, as I am with Wilfred.
In the end, it’s hard to tell what happened with Ryan’s suicides. His second attempt looked pretty serious, and things got even weirder in his head and on his couch afterwards. I’m not totally convinced he didn’t succeed that time. Actually, I can’t say that he didn’t succeed the first time he tried, but that seems much less likely than the second attempt being a success. He took a hefty swig of his suicide cocktail, and the show takes a drastic change after that.
Of course, watching him attempt suicide again was rough, and it was made even more so by the fact this episode aired the week that suicide was at a forefront of the national consciousness more than it had been in a long time. Still, maybe the saddest realization of the final three episodes comes with the reveal that Ryan essentially killed Wilfred by giving him lung cancer. So not only is Ryan losing his closest friend, but the reason why he’s losing him is entirely his own fault.
As I said earlier, Ryan is a very lonely guy. That made it all the worse when he talks about not being able to go on without his best friend. It’s sad thinking about that best friend being the Wilfred he sees, but it’s even sadder when you realize that he’s that upset about losing someone he created in his head. Then, when Ryan realizes that’s his reality, it hits him hard, and it hit me hard. But then, Ryan’s able to find a way to move on, even if it isn’t in the conventional, happy ending sense.
Ryan said in the very first episode that what he wants doesn’t matter. By the end of the show, he realizes that what he wants matters above any expectations from society or from people he knows. He realizes that everyone can let you down, and more than likely, they’re going to. And when nothing is what it seems, you might as well just go with the thing that seems the best.
I enjoy my sanity, but if I had my choice, I’d opt for happiness every time.
As fun as watching any show is, it’s almost always just as much fun to speculate on possibilities of the ending afterwards. I’ve already spent many hours discussing the finale, and I don’t expect that to end any time soon. I’m sure some people are upset about the final season (as is the case with any show) and I’m sure others couldn’t love it more. But, then again, it’s not about where we ended up. It’s about the journey. Because no one can really know where we ended up.
“How’s this gonna end?” Ryan once asked. “This. Us. What’s gonna happen?” Wilfred’s reply was simple: “Dunno.”
Wilfred will go down as one of the great mysteries of the half-hour comedy world and also one of the best shows to ever deal with mental illness. Or at least it should if it’s given its proper place in media history.
And in the end, it boils down to the fact that you should always trust Wilfred… Except when you shouldn’t.