Farewell to 'Wilfred,' the Weirdest, Darkest Show on TV

August 18, 2014

Many spoilers for Wilfred, the series finale of which aired on Wednesday, below.

I think it's fair to say that Wilfred was one of the weirdest shows to air on a major television network in recent memory. Don't get me wrong, we're living in a golden age of kind of weird stuff—Grimm and Orphan Black and American Horror Story all make a decent case for themselves as "weirdest show on television"—but Wilfred was especially odd. It's about a depressed man (Ryan, played by Elijah Wood) who engaged in philosophical debates with his next-door neighbor's dog (Wilfred, played in a dog suit by Jason Gann) after trying to kill himself. Imagine Calvin and Hobbes but starring a grown up stoner-lawyer instead of an underaged kid with ADD and a talking dog instead of a talking stuffed tiger.

Much of the last two seasons of Wilfred involved efforts by Ryan and Wilfred trying to figure out what, exactly, the dog's deal was. Was he some sort of trickster god, a deity sent to help Ryan become "the one"? Or was something more mundane at work?

The mystery was fine (we'll come back to it in a moment), but Wilfred was at its best when the titular canine was acting like, well, a canine. Perhaps I'm easily amused, but it's always funny to watch a man dressed as a dog doing dog-like things but vocalizing his distress in human ways—for instance, hearing a doorbell and running toward it and yelling, "I'll get it, I'll get it, I'll get it, why aren't you getting this Ryan?" Dog owners recognized something of their own pet in Wilfred, something universal about the master-pet relationship.

So it was strangely affecting when Wilfred, following his diagnosis of stage four lung cancer, crawled under his owner's deck to get some alone time in the penultimate episode. He was dying and wanted to be alone. It's what dogs do. And after he passed—hooked up to an IV in the vet's office, Ryan at his side—we finally saw Wilfred as everyone who isn't Ryan saw him: as a big, shaggy dog. It was like those moments in Calvin and Hobbes when an adult would be in the room so the tiger would revert to his inert, stuffed status.

The show couldn't end like this, however. That would be too simple. So we dove back into the world of cults and mysticism and bribes and lawyering and other stuff that had preoccupied much of the last couple of seasons. Ryan, in an emotional tailspin because the neighbor on which he has had a crush for the show's four seasons has decided to leave town, begins the finale by trying (again) to commit suicide; when that fails he begins to see the ghost of Wilfred. This apparition leads him to a barn where he finds his real father (don't ask) and discovers the truth behind the cult he has been trying to track down. It turns out his birth father had a history of mental illness—one that involved talking to a dog—and a person who spent all of his time messing with people and looks suspiciously like Wilfred lived with Ryan and his mother and his father in a commune for a number of years.

All of which means that Wilfred, this whole time, was just a figment of Ryan's imagination, a manifestation of his mental illness. And we see a few moments from the just-completed season proving this argument's truth: We are shown snippets of Ryan putting on the dog's shock collar and zapping himself as a non-human Wilfred quizzically looks on, for instance. The "ghost" of Wilfred? That's just a continuation of that mental illness.* Ryan's not better. He's not going to get better without some serious help. And he has no interest in getting that help. So instead of fighting his schizophrenia—and there is a good deal of evidence to suggest he has suffered a rather substantial break from reality in this final episode—he gives in. He embraces the delusion as real in order to attain happiness, content to sit on a couch that doesn't exist on a beach that's probably in his head throwing tennis balls to a dog who died weeks before.

That's some dark stuff, man. But I wouldn't expect much else from Wilfred, the weirdest, darkest show on TV.

*I suppose an alternate interpretation of the series finale would be that Ryan actually succeeded in killing himself and was stuck in some sort of purgatory until he gave in to the idea that Wilfred was his best friend and soul mate. That's somehow even weirder than the other interpretation.