It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia revels in showing you how thoughtless and self-centered its characters can be. The show’s core group of characters almost never breaks out of their comfort zone to empathize with anyone else, and the idea that any of them would understand enough about their true selves to communicate truthfully seems to go against the themes of the show. Who are these people if they don’t have their delusions and co-dependent relationships?
Which is why Mac’s extended, beautifully shot, erotic interpretive dance number that ends the finale of season 13 is such a stunning move for the show. There is no punchline on display, other than the meta-narrative of an actor getting into ridiculously good shape and enduring months of training so his character can finally express something true about themselves.
The in-universe reason for the sequence, set to the Sigur Rós song “Varúð,” is that Mac, played by Rob McElhenney, wants to tell his imprisoned father that he’s gay. This is the best way he can think of to do so.
There is no warning
The dance number wasn’t teased ahead of time, nor was it shown anywhere in the trailer for the episode. It also seems to be the apex of an ongoing physical joke that McElhenney began in 2011, when he put on nearly 60 pounds to portray Mac as both overweight and out of touch with his body. Always Sunny was never scared to show off Mac’s engorged form, nor his relative lack of dancing skills.
The dance sequence works partly because the show was able and willing, across years of episodes, to take us from this:
Always Sunny only recently made explicit something that the audience has known for years: Mac doesn’t understand or accept his body because he wasn’t in touch with his own sexuality as a gay man. That’s a heavy concept for a comedy about a group of narcissists who destroy everything they touch.
And this episode draws a strong line between the setup and the payoff. The dance, which goes on for five minutes and closes the finale, looks like nothing else the show has ever done. It takes place across a seemingly immense black stage, with sweeping camera moves and explosive moments of catharsis. During one moment, near the end of the dance, the female dancer (played by ballerina Kylie Shea) runs across the stage and throws herself onto Mac’s body with a loud grunt. He doesn’t catch her as much as he absorbs the impact.
Mac’s father, the intended audience of the show, walks out before it’s over. The rest of the audience, made up of prison inmates, seems both stunned and moved by the performance.
But did they mean it?
I watched the episode twice in a row, partly because the final moments are so beautiful, and partly because the rest of the episode does nothing to tip its hand about what’s coming next. You get 20 minutes of the bruising humor you’d expect from Always Sunny as the characters try to help each other by centering themselves, and then this.
I was skeptical of the intentions behind the scene. It’s effective emotionally, but it’s also the sort of grand, sincere effort that Always Sunny mocks instead of attempts. I felt almost like I was being taken in by a joke at the audience’s expense by accepting the dance at face value.
But no, it sounds like it was meant to be a sincere moment of emotional validation for a character who has always struggled with their identity.
“I mean, one of the great things that we get to do is try different things with our episodes, and some of the uncharted waters, if you want to call them that, were genuine emotion,” Charlie Day, who co-wrote the episode with McElhenney, told E! “And once we stumbled on the episode becoming more about Frank being more tolerant and accepting something, we thought, well, this is something we haven’t really done, which is our characters rarely change or learn ... But it was nice to try something, for lack of a better term, heartfelt.”
Having a woman play God during an intense dance number as Mac dances his way through confusion about his sexual identity could have come across any number of ways, but sincerity is the tone I least expected. This is what Mac is feeling, and he’s found a way to share it with others. There is no “gotcha” at the end of it.
“His goal was to figure out how to make people laugh and cry and really be touched,” Todd Biermann, the episode’s director, said of Rob McElhenney. “You’ve always seen Mac brush off his father’s lack of interest in him and this is the first time you really saw that land with any kind of emotional impact.”
“Ambition” doesn’t even begin to cover it. The production team hired a camera person from Dancing with the Stars to show off the movement of the dancers. One of the show’s actors and writers went through a complete physical transformation in one direction, and then took it even further in the opposite direction before spending over half a year learning the routine. This happened across multiple seasons.
The dance takes place in simulated rain, with water puddled on the stage, which made performing the routine safely, across multiple takes, even more difficult and dangerous. Everything about the scene was created by going through the path of most resistance.
And it works. Beautifully. One of the nastiest, most mean-spirited shows on TV just explored the sexuality of a character through dance. Mac’s father may have missed much of the performance, but sharing ourselves with others this way is only partially about the reactions of the audience. Mac found himself this season, and then presented that struggled in the most over-the-top manner possible.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia went into the most shocking direction it could have this season: earned, emotional, honesty.