Like last week’s episode, this week’s season finale “The Gang Squashes Their Beefs” seeks to reward longtime viewers by revisiting old favorites. After Mac and Dennis discover that Liam and Ryan McPoyle are running the last video store in Philly, the only place they can get their hands on the long-awaited unrated director’s cut of Thunder Gun Express, (including, according to Dennis, “four extra seconds dedicated solely to the dong shot”), they’re taken aback that the McPoyles still hold a grudge against them. You know, for breaking up Liam’s wedding to Maureen Ponderosa, thus costing Liam his bride and an eyeball. Heading back to Paddy’s, the guys further discover that Dee’s brought them gasoline-smelling gas station sandwiches, since their much-abused cousin Gail the Snail now works at their preferred hoagie place. And she’s still holding a grudge because young Dee and Dennis used to throw her in the dryer. Also: the Gang rejected her grubby friendship after her father’s funeral. Surveying all of the collateral damage they’ve caused over the years, they all realize, as Dennis puts it, “We’ve got too many beefs all over town, and it’s jamming us up.” So with Thanksgiving around the corner, he says it’s time “to squash some of those beefs.”
It’s a fine setup for an episode full of references to past episodes, recurring jokes, and guest stars. “The Gang Squashes Their Beefs” is a season finale to delight diehard fans and give some beloved recurring characters another turn in the spotlight, as the Gang invites a good many (but by no means all) of their victims to Dennis and Mac’s place for some food and holiday beef-squashing. So why is the resulting episode so underwhelming?
Well, for one, most of the callbacks are to some of the show’s weakest episodes. “Thunder Gun Express” is one of my least favorite shows in Sunny history, a needlessly scabrous and clumsy Seinfeld imitation. I respect Mary Lynn Rajskub’s fearlessly schlubby grossness as Gail the Snail, but her one appearance doesn’t mark her as a particularly memorable or formidable adversary/victim. And was anyone hoping for more Bill Ponderosa? (The whole “Dennis Gets Divorced” arc was a weak beginning to season six.) Throw in Charlie and Frank’s dour landlord Hwang (who won’t fix their heat until Frank pays the rent), and that poor bastard whose car the Gang inadvertently destroyed in “The Gang Solves The Gas Crisis” (invited after, again, they mix him up with Dennis and Dee’s birth father), and that’s an underwhelming guest (star) list. At least the McPoyles are there, with Liam now sporting an eye drawn on his flesh-colored eyepatch, making it look as if a terrifying cartoon version of Liam is trying to emerge into this reality. But even their reliably unpredictable madness seems uncharacteristically subdued. From the multitudes of Philadelphians the Gang has wronged in nine years, these are the best to invite to a Thanksgiving beef-squash?
In addition, the script (credited to Rob Rosell) gives these largely forgettable returning characters an equally lackluster script to work with. Nate Mooney and Jimmi Simpson, as usual, make the McPoyles unnervingly watchable, whether underplaying in the scene where Dennis and Mac attempt to get them to sign Dennis’ peace treaty, or finally going insane and taking the predictable Thanksgiving food fight to the next level, hurling a hatchet into poor Rickety Cricket’s arm. (He wasn’t invited, but David Hornsby’s amiable victimhood as Cricket is always welcome as well.) For a season finale, and one loaded with returning characters and in-jokes as this is, the episode is startlingly lacking in memorable lines, relying on viewers’ recognition of old jokes as new jokes. (See: “She’s mashing it,” “jabroni”). The episode is both trying too hard and not hard enough, overloading its running time with would-be crowd pleasing references but failing to appropriately build comic momentum.
There are laughs to be found scattered throughout—it is Sunny after all. The Gang’s beef-squashing plan deftly captures how little they understand the true suffering their assholery causes even as they feverishly try to make amends (victims will simply sign the peace treaty without receiving an apology or restitution of any kind). Dennis’ motivations behind crafting the peace treaties is appropriately self-serving and unsettling: “When something’s in writing, that means it’s set in stone. And that means that nobody can stop me.” And his exasperation at the over-literal interpretations of the metaphors for the gathering from Charlie (cooking only beef and squash for the dinner), Dee (theatrically wiping an actual slate clean), and Mac (bringing a bucket of dirt and an actual hatchet) is rewardingly emblematic of the Gang’s shifting competence dynamic. Also, I could watch Frank menacingly locking eyes with Hwang while the Tom Tom Club plays in the background for a long time. The way in which the Gang latches onto a particular word or phrase for an entire episode reliably builds in absurd laughs as well. Dee: “This is getting way too confusing! We’ve got too many beefs, I can’t keep up.” Charlie: “I feel like we’re just creating more beefs.”
So as the gathering draws to its inevitable, catastrophic conclusion (in addition to the accumulated ill will and destroyed dinner, Frank set the apartment on fire spitefully burning the rent in front of Hwang), there’s a definite sense of noisy anticlimax. While the Gang’s decision to not only leave the burning apartment, but seal the door so that no one bothers them as they all leave to watch Thunder Gun Express at Frank and Charlie’s hews appropriately to the show’s principles—these are the worst people in the world and they will not learn anything, ever—it’s a shame that they have to go out on the weakest episode of what has been, overall, a remarkably strong ninth season.
Episode grade: C+
Season grade: B
- I didn’t recognize the picture of the star on the cover of Thunder Gun Express—anyone catch it?
- Frank’s conclusion, “We don’t need anyone else, we’ve got each other!” would be slightly more heartwarming if it wasn’t accompanied by the frantic cries of the people the Gang just locked inside a burning apartment.
- The McPoyles bought the last remaining video store in Philly. Insane though they are, it’s hard not to feel for them, seeing as how I dedicate all my non-A.V. Club time to my own, seemingly foolish employment at the last video store in Portland (Maine). While the McPoyles wait to corner the market after all the other stores have succumbed to the entertainment cancer that is Netflix, the rest of us just cling on by our fingernails in hope that people will realize that the neighborhood movie store is of value. Honestly, I don’t know which of us is crazier...
- Thanks for reading, gang—and thanks for the (relatively) civil discussions. Hope to see you all when the Gang returns for season 10.