The portrayal of Gretchen’s depression has resulted in the character I identify with the most from any show.
[WARNING: There are brief spoilers for Veronica Mars Season 1, Breaking Bad Season 5a and obviously discusses You’re the Worst Season 2 (duh)]
This is probably going to be the most personal thing I have ever, and will ever write (unless I ever make it big enough that I end up writing an autobiography) so I’m going to just lay my cards on the table from the outset. I’m a crier. Or at least I’m a crier when it comes to TV.
I get choked up at the final moments of Friends, the final episode of Parks and Rec is such a beautiful testament to that show’s optimism and dedication to making its characters happy that I can’t help but tear up at the final moments, or the final Raptor ride in Battlestar Galactica, I’m a wreck from the moment between Annie and Jeff in the library in Community’s final episode all the way through the use of Lord Huron’s ‘Ends of the Earth’, I always hope that the Angel episode ‘A Hole in the World’ is some kind of sick joke that Joss is playing on me and I won’t have to watch the biggest gut punch in the Whedonverse due to how it’s juxtaposed with the ending of the previous episode. Wesley’s final story beat in ‘Not Fade Away’ is just as hard to watch. I used to be able to make it through ‘The Body’ from Buffy the Vampire Slayer before the waterworks started, but now I’m lucky if I can hold it back any longer than the tracking shot lasts. There are definitely more examples that I could list, but we’d be here too long and we’d start hitting moments in shows that would make you wonder if I was really okay, whatever that means.
However, I wouldn’t say my… frequent and literal outpourings of emotion are necessarily a bad thing. It helps me to know I can feel something. Which was a major concern when I was suffering from the major bouts of depression I had to contend with in my final two years of high school and life just seemed to be a thing that happened rather than be a thing that I lived. I used to use ‘The Body’ as a form of self-medicating, to force myself to cry in the hope it would let me get out emotion related to real life stuff and overcome grief or stress so I could move on.
There’s a piece from Eric Eidelstein on Complex (and it’s in the link dump below) where he discusses TV being like a therapist in his eyes due to how you lie on a couch and discuss what things mean and how they (and characters) make you feel and it’s a piece I agree with wholeheartedly because, as I’ve demonstrated with the examples above, I’ve used TV as a means of confronting my issues.
All of this said, I don’t think I’ve cried at a show more than I have at You’re the Worst which is impressive because Gretchen’s depression is only a factor in Season 2 (although others have had real life experiences that they were reminded of it in Season 1, again it’ll be in the link dump) and even then it’s only fully unpacked in the latter half of the season. If I’m being asked to identify the initial breaking point then it’s Gretchen’s breakdown in ‘There is Not Currently a Problem’, on the rewatch then it’s in ‘All About That Paper’ when Gretchen first leaves in the middle of her night, now knowing what its setting up. TV might be the best means of therapy (without actually going to therapy) for someone, but if a person came to me and wanted a specific therapist [read: show] to sit down with for 30 minutes a week and get to the heart of their issues, then without thinking I would say You’re the Worst because of how strongly it’s committed to portraying depression honestly.
I feel like I should preface the rest of this piece by pointing that, yeah I agree it’s a little strange that I identify with Gretchen Cutler the most out of every character I’ve ever seen (minus the copious amount of drugs and alcohol she consumes). I mean, I’m white and I’m male with brown hair, there’s no shortage of characters that could act as my perfect audience surrogate for me due to looking exactly like them.
But there’s not an abundance of characters like me
That isn’t to say, there are no characters with depression on TV or that there hasn’t been character with mental illness on TV because that would be intellectually dishonest. It would also be a serious counter argument to my claim I know pop culture. The titular character of Bojack Horseman has been trying to put himself on the track to recovery over the course of the show in spite of his depression (and one would hope that he’s able to stay on said track following Season 3’s ending), Maria Bamford’s semi-biographical show Lady Dynamite is a retrospective of sorts after a severe bipolar episode, both Betty and Don in Mad Men could be diagnosed as people who are depressed at various points in that show, Breaking Bad’s Skyler attempts suicide and Logan in Veronica Mars loses his girlfriend and his mother in a short period of time and it knocks him into a real funk. On the flip-side, you have Wonderland which has been criticised for perpetuating stereotypes. When dealt with correctly, you end up with a character like Rebecca in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend who clearly has issues, but even if there are jokes, she and her condition aren’t the joke, when done incorrectly you end up with a character like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory who hasn’t been confirmed to have Asperger’s, but illustrates tendencies akin to people with Asperger’s and he’s frequently the butt of the joke. I also personally take issue with the idea put forward from Mayim Bialik
“We don’t talk about medicating them or even really changing them”
because it either suggests that they’re not interested in delving into character or working through mental illness. It’s one degree away from romanticising it. [WARNING WARNING WARNING: THIS IS A SUBJECTIVE STANCE, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO AGREE WITH IT]
It’s tricky to portray mental illness because it’s still very much a taboo subject which makes many uncomfortable and you have to commit to confronting it head-on rather than sweeping it under the rug like a character arc or plot that isn’t well received [read: the murder in Friday Night Season 2]. You can’t just say that a mentally ill character ‘got better’. Mental illness is a constant battle, even when you’re not suffering a bout of depression, the knowledge it could come back is ever present and it’s very easy to let that idea consume you followed by the actual depression.
Which is why I identify with Gretchen
Because I’ve been there.
These are the notes I made when rewatching the season for this piece.
Episode 1-3: No real hints, show still humour driven. Gretchen seems fine, maybe’s she forcing herself to be fun and someone people want to be around – butt stuff, cocaine, trying to get the gal pals to stay
Episode 4- Isolates Gretchen, she isolates herself – suffering in silence
Episode 5 – Joke about suicide, largely ignores the subject
Episode 6 – Slobbish, everyone else hesitant to ask, insistence everything is okay, Jimmy convinced by Gretchen about that.
Episode 7 – The linchpin of the season, Gretchen lying on the bed, her breakdown, slow decline during the get together. Trying to be/have fun. Others can’t understand it. She’s open about it, insistent she can’t be fixed.
Episode 8 – Aimless, reluctant to do things with friends. Jimmy’s need to fix her.
Episode 9 – Looking for something, broken on the inside. [Honestly there’s not a lot here for ‘LCD Soundsystem’ in spite of it being the best episode the show has made and the fact it’s in my top 10 episodes of TV ever, but that’s partly due the fact I was watching through a field of tears, but also because it’s an episode that deserves being unpacked in its own article]
Episode 10 – Withdrawn
Episode 11 – ‘Feel Nothing’, trying to recapture the fun, sorry she doesn’t feel anything.
Episode 12 – Finding it hard to talk, doing it through text, scraped out, acceptance she is depressed and there’s nothing she can do.
Episode 13 – Looking for others to help – therapy, leaning on Jimmy
Maybe I’m extrapolating, maybe I’ve over-analysed this more than Breaking Bad fans used to over-analyse each individual frame of that show, but I can see myself and experiences I’ve had in Gretchen’s arc.
I broke down in the middle of English as a project I’d meticulously planned and imagined in my head fell apart. I’ve hidden under my duvet for a day and hoped that I’d just get better. I used to make excuses so I didn’t have to interact with people because I knew I couldn’t. I didn’t tell people what was going on because that would mean a giant ‘I HAVE DEPRESSION’ wedge would be stuck between us and it would make it harder for us to interact because I couldn’t explain it and if I couldn’t do that, how could I ask someone to understand it or not to try to help because even if I appreciated the effort, that wasn’t going to make a difference at that moment in time. There isn’t a ‘feel better’ in the world that works like that when it’s got it’s claws stuck in.
I had stretches of time where I couldn’t force myself to shower in the morning and commit to getting on with the day. I had impending exams looming over me and I couldn’t force myself to work and get ahead. I forgot the inane shit like what day it was and where I needed to be next and it fucked me up for the entire day.
I thought that this is how I was going to be from that point onwards. That I wouldn’t get better.
I had multiple points where I wanted to have a general conversation with someone, but we sat in silence because I couldn’t bring myself to force the words out.
I lived vicariously through others when I couldn’t see the point in living any longer, I let them take the lead in things so I could be there and have those memories without needing to be the initiator or active in them. I broke just like Gretchen at the end of ‘LCD Soundsystem’ when I realised that the idealised versions of those peoples’ lives that I’d constructed in my mind to live through were lies because they had problems as well.
And There’s Follow Through
But Gretchen’s doing one thing I didn’t do at the time. (No, I’m not talking about the cocaine or offering to do butt stuff, minds out of the gutter please)
I tried therapy. Once. I didn’t go back; I thought it wasn’t for me. That was probably the worst decision I made, because it meant I committed to keeping all of my problems internal rather than laying them out and working through them. If I’d committed to going, then maybe I wouldn’t have suffered as bad a second bout as I did.
Sure she’s a character and not a real person, but with the decision for Gretchen to go to therapy then it means, regardless of if you see it as Gretchen deciding to or Stephen Falk and his writers’ room deciding she’s going, that she’s looking to work through it. Which is the important thing, the committal to pushing forward in the hope that the darkness is about to pass and the light will be back. One of the reasons I didn’t understand, how I couldn’t understand how to deal with my depression is due to the lack of conversation in pop culture regarding it. Yes there are characters on TV that suffer from depression, but at the time I was suffering from it, none of them were actively having a conversation about it.
Essentially the show is holding a mirror up and making me watch what I’ve already done and experienced. At the time, sure it was easy to acknowledge ‘spend time with friends and go outside’ as a viable coping strategy, but it was a battle to commit to doing that. Now I’m not currently coping with being depressed for an extended period of time, I can identify what I should do and drill it into my head as a plan of action that I can put into effect the second I realise it’s creeping back. In an ideal world, it never comes back and I never have to worry about it being that hard again, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping your guard up. Complacency is how it wins in the first place. You gotta fight it.
And to fight it I gotta have a plan. And I got reinforce that until I can’t forget it.
I’ve been reworking this piece over and over for the better part of the week, trying to make it perfect and slowly resenting my decision to write this piece, because god damnit it’s hard to convey what you mean when you don’t truly understand it. Mental illness is like that. But maybe my time agonising over this is a blessing because it means I held off on publishing this before seeing Caroline’s tweet above and it almost makes this easier. This piece isn’t perfect, I’ve been staring at it for so long I no longer know if it’s even coherent, but it’s helping. It’s making me get all of this stuff out. The show has that effect on you. It throws everything into disarray and makes you think how to put it back together. I don’t fully understand my mental illness, but because of this show I’m going to try. If anything, this piece shows how it’s helping because I now have the stuff to build the foundation. I just need to work at it. I need to reorder it so it makes sense and one day I’ll be able to write How ‘You’re the Worst’ Helped Me Come to Terms with My Mental Illness.
So if TV is therapy and You’re the Worst is the specialist I’m working 1-on-1 with, then for the next 13 weeks, I’m going to sit down and confront it head on in a situation I’m comfortable with, with characters I know and with a surrogate for me that I identify with and can say the things I have been unable to say. I’m going to deal with my problems in a way I can deal with them and with any luck; I’ll be able to deal with them effectively should they rear their ugly heads again.
I don’t know if they’ll read this (I’m going to do my best to show them somehow), but if they do – then thank you Stephen Falk. Thank you Aya Cash. If you worked on You’re the Worst in any capacity then thank you for starting the conversation about depression and coping with it so I could start my own dialogue about it.
Thank you for reading. As always, if you think someone would appreciate reading this, whether they suffer from depression and would benefit having a conversation like this in their lives or if they don’t and you just think they’d want to read this, then I would be eternally grateful for you sharing this on various forms of social media.
P.S Season 3 looks like it’ll be dealing with Edgar’s PTSD with the same respect it’s given to Gretchen and depression. I hope that by the end of the season, a dialogue has started about that as well. At the moment I’m intending to recap Season 3 as well, so I’m going to do my best to help keep that dialogue going.
[UPDATE: My schedule’s looking pretty hectic at the mo, so I’ll do my best to do short write-ups about the episodes and aim to do a season review to make up for it]
If this piece has inspired you to check out the show, then here’s where you can catch up on the first 2 seasons.
Season 3 starts tonight on FXX at 10/9c.
‘TV as Therapy’ from Eric Eidelstein is a genius piece of writing because it’s not jumping to a conclusion, in retrospect and reflection it makes perfect sense and helped me to realise why I connect more with TV than I do with Film.
Todd VanDerWerff’s piece on being married to someone with depression. It’s interesting for me to read something that puts me in the shoes of someone dealing with someone with depression rather than how someone deals with their own depression.
Where I found Mayim Bialik’s response to Sheldon and whether he’s autistic.