“We set controls for the heart of the sun / One of the ways that we show our age.”
Rob (Justin Kirk) and Lexi (Tara Summers) have made a good life together. He’s a film restorer, she’s a greenspace architect. They have a home together complete with a subway tile backsplash. They have a child named Harper who has a crucial interview at a top preschool coming up. They have a dog named Sandwiches who barks a little too much at night. They go on hip date nights. They binge-watch TV and drift off to sleep in each other’s arms. They banter. They joke. They’re relaxed. They are a couple.
Rob and Lexi are getting older, at least old enough to fondly reminisce about their “Largo days” when they were young and reckless. They can look at a neighbor’s trashcan filled to the brim with empty bottles and say, “Remember that?” The two of them got together on a whim after having sex in a bathroom at the Echo (another hip indie concert venue), and despite all of the inherent risks of dating someone whom you meet under such trifling circumstance, they’ve made it work. But beneath the casual rapport and the comfortable routine, there hides a familiar story of roads not taken, chances lost, and a deep, desperate yearning that healthy domesticity can never truly mask.
But Gretchen doesn’t know that. She’s just secretly spying on them from the bushes, suddenly wanting everything that they have, believing wholeheartedly that living their life is the key to filling the emptiness inside.
“When once you had believed it / Now you see it’s sucking you in.”
Let’s get this out of the way: “LCD Soundsystem” is a phenomenal episode of television. It functions as a discrete, stand-alone story about the natural doubts and disappointments of aging, and how established ideals can collapse with just the briefest moment of honesty. Two weeks ago, I said that “There Is Not Currently A Problem” was You’re The Worst’s best episode, and I mostly stand by that. It’s the best episode that uses the entire ensemble and allows fixed characterizations to bounce off each other to powerful effect. But “LCD Soundsystem” is something else, an episode that completely shattered my expectations of what the series was capable of doing. It’s comparable to a subtle, aching short film that lingers in your heart and mind long after it’s over.
Written and directed by Stephen Falk, “LCD Soundsystem” is technically a Gretchen-centric episode, but it doesn’t operate within standard You’re The Worst rhythms. It follows new characters for the episode’s first act and mostly eschews the entire main cast save for Gretchen and Jimmy (and even Jimmy is only in it for three scenes). It’s meant to be a brief glimpse into a world outside of Jimmy and Gretchen’s relationship, one that’s more stable and healthy, but not necessarily one that’s any less complicated. But Rob and Lexi’s appearance of “normalcy” attracts Gretchen as she’s already tuned out of her own reality, going through the motions with Jimmy’s nonsense ramblings about writing and his punishment-based deadline system. Maybe she could have what they have. Maybe that would make everything okay.
At one point, Gretchen sits at the bar watching Jimmy “work” and thinks out loud about how one different decision could have changed the course of her life, and wonders if her “shot” had passed by her. There isn’t a single person on Earth who hasn’t thought about this from time to time, fearing their life has already been written for them. It makes sense that Gretchen would confront this idea when she’s currently living with a boyfriend whom she fears will never truly understand her. So what does she do? She surreptitiously lives through Rob and Lexi. She stalks them, conveniently holds their baby for their nanny, and eventually steals Sandwiches for a day just so she can bring him back and enter their house. It’s devious and a little cruel, but it’s mostly the actions of a depressed, desperate woman searching for something better at all costs, even if it’s in someone else’s life. There may not be a more quietly heartbreaking moment in the series than when Gretchen parrots lines she overheard Rob and Lexi say to a stranger just so she can feel like an adult. “I miss our Largo days, Sandwiches,” she says. “I miss our Largo days.”
“And this is what you waited for / But under lights, we’re all unsure / So tell me / What would make you feel better?”
Gretchen’s real mistake isn’t living vicariously through strangers. Instead, it’s making the assumption that all the traditional signifiers of success and stability guarantees happiness or eliminates existential uncertainty. Gretchen, like us, only glances into Rob and Lexi’s lives, and yes, from the outset it’s mostly okay, but it’s telling that the moments she doesn’t see reek of clichéd desperation, particularly with Rob. It bums him out that Lexi goes to bed early leaving him to smoke pot by himself. He plays guitar in a band that probably won’t go anywhere. He is less interested in his job by the day. He desires his carefree youth when he didn’t have a child or a mortgage, and could just hang out without the burden of responsibility.
When Gretchen finally meets Lexi and Rob, she’s at first pleasantly surprised by how seemingly satisfied the two of them are with their lives. Yet, the slight cracks show their faces in ways that Gretchen isn’t quick to pick up. While Lexi loves that they live close to amazing ramen and coffee, Rob loves that Harper can take music lessons at a place owned by Flea. Lexi downplays their relationship’s unlikely beginnings, but Rob can’t get enough of it (“[It was] in the bathroom at a secret Primus show…Vince Vaughn was there!”). But then Lexi spits some truth that Gretchen so badly wants to hear:
“To be a slave to an idea of coolness is why some of your friends never grow and in the end are actually less themselves, and counter intuitively live less authentic lives than the buyers-in.”
That’s the rub. It’s a simple truth that escapes so many people: A cool, fun youth is ultimately unsustainable, and hopelessly clinging to it only separates you from the inherent joys of aging. In the beginning of the series, Jimmy and Gretchen were two people who never wanted anything to do with a grounded, settled relationship, and yet Gretchen is in Rob and Lexi’s house, pretending to be closer to her boyfriend than she currently is, just to get a taste of what they have.
Then, Rob’s youthful longing and Gretchen’s futile attempts at maturity collide in a scene that’s both so mundane and yet so overwhelming. Rob gives a quiet monologue about how he can’t believe how his life has changed before his eyes. He used to live in a studio and swing dance his nights away, but now there’s a Mini in the driveway, and they’re talking about schools for Harper, and all he wants to do is go out and get a drink. Neither Falk nor actor Justin Kirk overplays or underplays this moment. There isn’t a hint of sexual tension between them or even just a bit of flirtation. It’s just a guy letting off some steam with a stranger who just wants to hang out with some cool kids again. It’s a tragically normal moment, one most people have heard at some point in their lives
But for Gretchen, it’s devastating. She sees someone who appeared like he “had it all,” but he’s really floundering in the same doubts and fears that she’s facing. It’s interesting the way Falk frames this moment, mostly capturing the two of them in lonesome close-ups, both of them sharing their dissatisfaction with the direction their lives are heading. Her fantasy of the happy life next door falls apart as soon as she hears Rob. It’s too much for her to take. She abruptly leaves Rob and Lexi’s house with a confused Jimmy in tow, and the last image we see of them is, again, through a window of the two them having a familiar fight over familiar territory in a familiar home.
“You don’t know what you really want.”
Over the course of three studio albums and a decade of activity, LCD Soundsystem made music that captured the feeling of aging out of youth better than almost any of their contemporaries. Whether it was through warm melodies encased in thumping beats or lyrics that said everything and nothing at once, leader James Murphy and co. embodied the perspective of a person engaged in youth culture slowly coming to terms with no longer being a part of it. Their music was as much about dancing and having fun as it was about letting go of dreams while finding new ones, giving up drugs in favor of responsibility, and learning to love the younger generation even if you can’t understand it.
When Rob asks her if she likes the band, Gretchen says that she doesn’t really. Rob gives her a knowing look and says, “I know what you mean.” It’s a small moment that could mean many things (or nothing at all, quite frankly), but I take it as slight recognition that the main subject of their music is decidedly uncomfortable, even if it is dressed up as dance music. It’s easy to keep living a life in opposition to “buying in,” but eventually you’ll be left alone on some dance floor, telling stories and getting drunk, wondering where the hell the time went.
But even if you do buy in, that doesn’t mean there won’t be regrets that await you in the future. As much as you hope that feeling goes away, it never quite does, simply because life is a series of missed opportunities and shots not taken. It’s also filled with happiness and good times, but that perpetual aching inside doesn’t just disappear with a relationship and a house. Falk leaves us on that moment of recognition as he closes in on Gretchen’s tear-stained face while Jimmy prattles on about how lame Rob and Lexi are. Gretchen wanted to believe that they were their future, but instead they’re just like them, just a little older and maybe a little wiser. As much as Gretchen wants to keep it together with flashes of fantasies, she’s losing her edge bit by bit each day on the hollowed ground of The Real.
- Apologies for going a bit long. I had a lot to say.
- For those who couldn’t pick it up, the italicized quotes are lyrics from LCD Soundsystem songs.
- Didn’t have space/time to talk about this in the main body, but Falk’s direction in this episode is spectacular. He says so much with nondescript images, like how the framed Pixies poster in Rob and Lexi’s house screams “domestic cool couple.” Better yet is how he juxtaposes the images of Rob and Lexi’s intimacy with Gretchen’s loneliness. Compare the two of them trudging up a hill together with a stroller with Gretchen standing alone in a convenience store framed by the medication behind her.
- Both Justin Kirk and Tara Summers do stellar work here, providing a lived-in feeling to their relationship.
- For all the cinephiles out there, Rob is a film restorer who brags about “Quentin” showing one of his prints at the New Beverly and complains about how 75% of silent films are lost. (He is right about how film is far more stable than digital storage.)
- Jimmy is at his most funny and most annoying in this episode, whining on and on about his “writing process” when he’s really just getting drunk.
- “I mean, the old lions had it easy. The only distraction from writing was the encroaching tide of fascism, and the occasional syphilitic seizure.”
- “Oh, dammit. I’m late for work. The bar opened twenty minutes ago.”
- “Do you like Kombucha? Yeah, me neither.”
- “Can you make another decision, or a series of decisions that could get you back to the alternative life you never got to lead?”