It’s impossible to imagine the central couple in Catastrophe apart, but Rob and Sharon don’t make staying together look easy, either. Played by series creators Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, the married pair live to delight each other, especially through mordant humor and soul-baring honesty. But after several years together, the domestic existence they’ve built with each other and their two young kids never feels quite stable. If the romantic comedy has traditionally hinged on keeping apart two people meant for each other, Catastrophe—which began as a mild subversion of the genre by pushing two horny strangers into a marriage via unplanned pregnancy—gained maturity in its later seasons by focusing on the challenges of marital endurance and the ripe satisfactions thereof. The fourth and final season, which dropped on Amazon Prime on Friday, falls somewhat from the series peak of Season 3 but still bids a splendid farewell to Rob and Sharon on an elegiac but thrilled-to-keep-carrying-on note.
Death and disaster have always creeped toward Rob and Sharon’s London hearth. Season 1 featured a cancer scare for Sharon, and Season 2 saw her struggle with postpartum depression and her father’s worsening dementia. Season 3 embodied the show’s central tension best, its wit, buoyance, and sexiness sparring with darker topics like adultery, alcoholism, and parental death. When we last saw the couple, Rob admitted to his wife that he wouldn’t beat the Breathalyzer test as police sirens drew closer to the car crash he’d just been in. The current season, which was preceded in real life by the deaths of Delaney’s toddler son and recurring guest star Carrie Fisher, initially draws back from the heavier subject matter but gradually settles into the more somber realities of middle age, as well as the terrifying political trends in both the U.K., where they live, and the U.S., where Rob grew up. (Spoilers from here on out.) “It’s weird,” Sharon notes on a visit to New England, where they arrive to bury her mother-in-law (an unseen Fisher). “When you’re here, you don’t feel like you’re in a white nationalist ethno-state, run by a fake theocratic dictator.”
An inescapable sense of precarity drives Season 4, which finds Rob and Sharon aging far from gracefully. Rob faces a condescending ninny of a judge in the season premiere, but it’s implied that if the magistrate’s mood had been a smidge worse, he could have ended up serving time for his DUI. Sharon’s fears that her husband will relapse sends her on a brief shoplifting spree—a “garden-variety cry for help,” as Rob later calls it. When she’s caught, Sharon quickly realizes that she and Rob were unwittingly whisper-close to the possibility of both of them ending up in jail and their children being taken from them; it would’ve taken so little for them to sink into the unthinkable. Later episodes involving new bosses for Rob and Sharon shake their self-conception as established professionals. Mundane as such changes are, they remind us, and them, that the couple is just barely hanging on, and that these tiny shifts in the atmosphere could just as easily bring them together as they could wrench them apart.
Delaney has stated that he chose to end Catastrophe before he runs out of things to say about a young marriage, but it feels like a letdown that he’s ending a show about resilience and sanity-salvaging at a time when we crave one most. Much has been made about the recent resurgence of the romantic comedy, particularly on Netflix and television at large, but Season 4 feels like the rom-com we need during the Trump years, when panic and paranoia have taken over the larger civic climate, and we cling to our loved ones even as our efforts to make one another happy are hampered by our emotional and psychological exhaustion. A storyline about Rob’s bunker-stockpiling American pal is played for laughs, but the episode in which Rob is sprayed in the face with juice by a teenager in the park—a cruel, ripped-from-the-headlines prank he initially mistakes for an acid attack—speaks to the sense of societal unraveling many of us are feeling. Sharon’s inability to sympathize with Rob’s mortal fears at the park feels like a relatable example of when a partner’s emotional bandwidth is completely used up and they have nothing left to give to their loved ones, and so they choose to mock the victim in lieu of realizing or owning up to their fatigue. In the series finale, when Rob grieves for his mother, the couple switch roles, as he lashes out at Sharon under the stresses of responsibility, compromise, and loss. Rob and Sharon’s marriage looks hard as hell. But Catastrophe somehow managed to make their struggle a romance for the ages.