The most obvious thing to say about Catastrophe is that it’s a skewed rom-com, taking the conventions of the genre — meet cute, surmountable obstacles in front of true love, happily ever after with marriage and children and the whole bit — and putting them in new contexts or lights. You’ve watched this show too, you get it. “Episode Five” once again dealt with rom-com conventions and this time it was gender roles involved in that whole happily ever after part. Women are caregivers, men are breadwinners. In this episode, both Sharon and Rob fight against this notion, succeed in bucking its conventions, but fail at bucking them as well.
Sharon opens the episode by telling Rob she’s ready to go back to work. Rob is totally amenable to the idea but doesn’t understand why Sharon would want to funnel her entire teaching salary into a babysitter. Even Fergal puts Sharon in this place of a caretaker, assuming that one day she’d move back to Ireland to care of their parents when they became infirm. She was 40 and childless, he reasons, it was only natural. That is, until Rob “swung in on a vine” to save her from this fate. It’s at moments like these when I appreciate Rob Delaney’s physical humor the most. He’s subtle about it, never resorting to pratfalls, but he knows how to use his large body and open, sweet face in such a way that his mere presence adds to the joke.
But just as Sharon wants to buck this idea that it is her job to stay home and be with the kids, she also relies on it when she figures out she’s not ready. Sharon Horgan slowly lets Sharon anxieties and sadness come through as she meets with her principal and starts describing how hard being a mom actually is. “It’s just hard to know how … to do things … best,” she says trying to talk through tears. It’s the delivery of lines like this where Horgan really shows how good she is, trying to make vulnerability with a strength that sometimes fails her when she most needs it. Sharon reveals more about what happened when Frankie was born: Not only did he almost died, but Sharon and Rob almost broke up, and the effects of Frankie’s premature birth are not entirely resolved. Sharon has the luxury of figuring out that she might need a little more time before going back to work. (Sharon also has the luxury of not going back to work because she gets a full year maternity leave! Do you know how much maternity leave is required in the U.S.? Ha, if I answer that I will cry.) I want to make it clear that it’s not a judgment that Sharon decides she needs more time with her children before going off to a job where she takes of other people’s children. She’s the one who carried Muireann, and doesn’t just have an emotional attachment to her kids but is still physically healing. One of the reasons she can stay at home is because Rob has a stable job that he had to go back to right after the kids were born.
Sharon also uses Rob’s role as a breadwinner to keep him from quitting his job when he comes home and discusses how miserable he is. Harita wants him to market for a drug they’re “not certain it does anything but testing suggests it might not do nothing.” Olivia, after Rob rejects in favor of the sanctity of marriage, is pissed at Rob, making his work life even more miserable. But when he tells Sharon that maybe they switch roles, she says that quitting his job is something he maybe should have thought of before having to two kids. The reasons she gives Rob for wanting him to keep his job is that now they have financial choices that they didn’t have before, but she’s not being entirely honest about the emotional toll that going back to work would take on her. It’s his job to care of them. Fergal is feeling the same burden. When Sharon confronts him about the loan Rob gave him, he justifies it by saying, “Things are expected of me because I’m a man.”
This idea of man as protector even pervades Sharon’s issues with her father, who is slowly losing his faculties. I want to reiterate that this stance doesn’t make the show any less-female friendly or feminist, Sharon is still a strong female character who is allowed to have faults and flaws, but also has a fierce wit and intelligence. Sharon is independent and strong as a grown woman. But as a daughter she still sees her dad as the guy who took on the nuns for her. “The high-ranking ones. The dangerous ones. The ones that could fuck you up,” she says. Her reluctance to care for her dad perhaps could be attributed to this image she still has of him in her head. He’s the guy who shielded her from the wrath of the nuns, but now he farts in public. He can’t protect her anymore and so she can’t bear to protect him. And that’s where Sharon fails a caregiver.
But so does Rob. Dave is spiraling out and Rob can’t seem to care for him at all. As I said in my review of “Episode Four,” I sympathize with Rob on this one because I’ve never particularly liked Dave as a character and Rob has his own disasters to avoid. As Rob tries to make his case as caregiver if Sharon becomes the breadwinner, he can’t even take care of the only friend he had when he came to London. Rob has also gotten himself into a situation that destroy is his role as breadwinner too. I was weary of Olivia in her first appearance but let it go because I figured she was more of a symbol of temptation than an actual character. But now she has actual consequences. Olivia’s lack of characterization and confusing motivations — her being French isn’t enough — might be a function of the short season, but destroying a man over a quite polite rejection is too far afield for. But Rob’s initial reaction to Olivia’s faux-peace offering is so completely him: big and open and excited to make everything right. His reaction blows up in his face in the office. Judging by Rob and Sharon’s past — both the one we’ve seen and the one we’ve simply heard about — it most likely won’t go well for Rob at home either.