[Edits: The following contains spoilers from “Catastrophe” Season 4, including the finale.]
“Catastrophe” creators and stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan would never kill off their own characters in the finale of the Amazon marriage comedy — but they’re OK if viewers got that sense of foreboding in the closing scene. As their kids sleep in the car, the married protagonists swim in the dangerous ocean full of rip currents as the camera pulls up and out.
“Why couldn’t [the kids] also die? Couldn’t the emergency brakes malfunction?” said Delaney, getting into the spirit of the dark scenario. “Did you see us roll down the windows? We want the pessimists to be comforted in knowing that everything that could go wrong, does go wrong, and that they’re going to have to stagger the funerals.”
He’s joking, but his pitch-black humor represents a show that has never been afraid of going too morbid, too ugly, or too painful to examine the complex hilarity of what it means to be alive and in love.
Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, “Catastrophe”
“We wanted it to be emotional without being able to put your finger on exactly why,” said Horgan. “We wanted all the things to converge at that point; a little bit of what they were saying on the rocks, a little bit of the feeling of that they’re at sea. We wanted it to all come together and make people feel something that they wake up the next morning thinking about a little bit, hopefully.”
Delaney added, “We wanted to create a big buffet of feelings in that final scene.”
A surfeit of feelings is how Rob the American businessman and Sharon the Irish schoolteacher got into this mess in the first place. After a one-week-stand resulted in an accidental pregnancy and then a deliberate marriage, the lusty couple has never been shy about expressing all of their emotions, even the less noble ones. Throughout the four seasons, Delaney and Horgan have perfected the art of writing scathing insults because those who hurt you the most are the ones who know you the best.
“We certainly love writing mean things to each other,” said Delaney. “How can we make each laugh harder? Oh, by saying meaner things in the writers’ room.”
In the finale, this skill culminates in an onscreen argument that is as difficult to watch as it is breathtaking. As the couple walks back during sunset from a seaside memorial service, their conversation devolves from sympathy and exhaustion to Rob blurting out, “From the day I met you, I’ve struggled to make you happy, and it never works… You’re mean and selfish, and nobody likes you. More importantly, I don’t like you.”
Horgan said, “I remember it being fairly easy to write. The only thing was condensing it down a bit ‘cause it has to go from quite a sweet place to a really terrible place in two minutes. It was a horrible argument in a beautiful setting, which is the best way to do it.”
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, “Catastrophe”
The writing partners have had to learn to condense everything in “Catastrophe,” with rich and effective results. As with most British-made sitcoms, “Catastrophe” has short, six-episode seasons. With four seasons, 24 episodes is the same amount for one season of many American sitcoms. They make every scene or joke count by layering in emotion, backstory, and personality.
For instance, Rob’s phone still has his wife’s contact information saved under Sharon London Sex. That ID flashes on his phone’s screen during a crucial moment.
“We love that the characters Rob and Sharon find that funny, and that’s the reason why he kept it on his phone,” said Horgan. “And then maybe when every time it rings, it’s slightly delightful.”
Delaney said, “It would’ve been cheap if we had done a little montage at the end where you see them again first seeing each other in the bar, or in front of the hotel. We wanted to make you think about how they met and the circumstances in which they met, so you can kind of rocket through that journey again one more time quickly before the credits roll. That’s one little way to do it.”
Sadly, the final season had another challenge beyond wrapping up Rob and Sharon’s tumultuous relationship. It pays homage to former cast member Carrie Fisher, who had died after shooting the last season. While Season 3 included her perfect, posthumous performance and a dedication, Delaney and Horgan felt an obligation to address Fisher’s character Mia, who portrays Rob’s mother in Season 4. To do this, they decided that Mia would be alive offscreen in America, at least initially.
“We made her alive for ourselves a little bit in the second episode, when Rob’s sister comes over [to London] and says that they’ve spoken,” said Delaney. “Even though audiences know certain things, people are very trusting. If you tell an audience, ‘Well, in fact she’s alive,’ they’ll accept. ‘Oh, I guess she’s alive!’ We like to be told stories.”
It’s only when Rob and Sharon decide to visit his sister Sydney (Michaela Watkins) in Florida that Mia’s fate revealed. As the couple was on the plane that morning, Sydney found their mother dead. It’s a blindside that mirrors how much of the world learned of Fisher’s real-life death.
“We also wanted that moment to be a shock, somehow, for Rob and for the audience,” said Horgan. “We have them turn up in America and everything’s ‘tickety-boo’ until he gets in the car and his sister breaks down. It still felt like it would have more of an emotional punch than any other way of doing it.”
Michaela Watkins and Rob Delaney, “Catastrophe”
At the seaside memorial service to honor Mia, Rob decides to read an email his mother sent to a friend that details how she learned of a way to raise money for children in need of spinal surgeries. While Mia’s intentions are good, her message is as blunt and opinionated as ever:
I heard about these babies. Their spines are like corkscrews, but once they have these surgeries, they can do anything. It’s beautiful. They can play hockey or rollerblade. I mean, I wouldn’t have to do it at all if this government gave a rat’s ass about disabled kids. They’d be happy to just throw them out the window. I bet Mike Pence spends his Sundays throwing disabled kids out of windows. Looks like he would, that fucking microwaved-apple-looking ass motherfucker.
“Basically, ’cause we wanted Mia’s goodness of spirit to kind of come out obliquely,” said Delaney. “And really if you’re writing an email to a friend you’re not going to be like, ‘Here’s my character statement.’ You’re going to do small talk, and so we thought it would be funny if her small talk just happened to brutally shred the Vice President of the United States of America.”
Horgan said, “You don’t have a huge amount of time in a half-hour sitcom, and that scene we wanted to say as much about the Mia character and also Carrie. You get to find out a lot about her as a mother and as a human being, in a short space of time. I think we hope that it’s something that Carrie would’ve had a good old giggle at.”
“Oh, definitely we wanted to make her laugh up in heaven,” said Delaney.
All four seasons of “Catastrophe” are currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.