“Flowers For Charlie,” Game of Thrones, and Asking “Why?”

How were we supposed to know?

“We should have seen it coming” is a line of thought that thoroughly depresses me, especially in the context of disappointing media: the idea that having been captivated by the promise of something good - a well-cut trailer, a series with a lot of buildup - is ultimately your own damn fault once it turns out you didn’t get what you thought you were going to get.

To imply Game of Thrones’ final season was released to some criticism is akin to describing Florida as “a weird state” - there was no such thing as a non-opinion about Game of Thrones on the internet circa 2019. The vitriol was on par with the furor from a year and a half prior following the release of The Last Jedi, but unlike that particular hornet’s nest, the internet seemed to mostly be on the same page for where the problems lay with Game of Thrones: the writing had gone off the rails. This wasn’t an issue of fans being dissatisfied because the show hadn’t ended precisely the way they wanted it to - this was an issue of fans being dissatisfied because the writing had undone the character work that was revered by its fans and forcibly steered its cast into an ending-shaped hole. It wasn’t studio interference, or the demands of George R.R. Martin’s text, something the show had long since burned through by the time it ended - it was writers desperately trying to wrap this shit up and jump ship.

I feel the need to acknowledge that I have not watched Game of Thrones, something I now no longer feel I need to do given how only a year after its conclusion, it has completely lost its once unavoidable cultural staying power. I did my research before settling on this conclusion - I looked at retrospectives of the series that tried to be fair and break down the concise issues leading to the show’s deterioration (video essayist Lindsay Ellis’ two part series is a pretty good resource in terms of extensively covering what went wrong and how far back these problems went, although I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Cosmonaut Variety Hour’s retrospective purely because of how many times I can return to it and still laugh my ass off.) What I couldn’t shake, however, was people questioning their love for the series in the wake of the finale, as if they were somehow partially responsible for being let down.

There was always something charming about the scrappy inter-show friendship between Game of Thrones and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Compare this to its brand-friendly relationship with would-be successor Westworld, which recently featured showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in a cameo tailor-made for a universe where Thrones’ ending didn’t spark the collective outrage it did in this one - there’s a goofy authenticity to the idea that the guys behind the blockbuster television event of the 2010’s had a certain reverence for a show made up of episodes with titles like “Who Pooped the Bed?” Naturally, this resulted in cameos on both sides (Rob McElhenney receiving a swift GoT death, Benioff and Weiss as apathetic water park lifeguards), but the current apex of their collaboration comes to us in the form of “Flowers for Charlie”, an episode from the ninth season of It’s Always Sunny penned by Benioff and Weiss as guest writers. Most notably, it’s the only work to date outside of Game of Thrones which Benioff and Weiss (referred to casually as D&D) have co-written, prior to future projects on Netflix.

The year was 2013 - as this episode was being aired, production was underway on the fourth season of Game of Thrones, a critical darling believed by some to be the series’ high point. It’s Always Sunny was, against all odds (and despite its lack of critical recognition, a point of contention in another season nine episode, “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award”) still going strong, only counting down the seasons until it would surpass The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as tv’s longest running live action comedy. All parties involved were at the top of their game - which makes “Flowers for Charlie” a strange case study, as it reads, in hindsight, as a grim portent of things to come for one half of its creative team.

And it’s not the half that doesn’t have any Emmys.

In the spirit of fairness, I want to acknowledge that this episode, while its structure is messy, is still a fine episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Some moments, in fact, are great: Charlie’s speech at the end of the episode is a tour de force, from his ridiculous English accent (a staple, it seems, of the Gang)to his sickly affect, to the revelation of what, exactly, his “scientific breakthrough” was meant to achieve. Mac, Dennis, and Dee watching cat and mouse cartoons and postulating on the nature of their futility on the floor of Paddy’s Pub while high on petrol fumes is a great gag. Guest stars Burn Gorman and Jimmy O. Yang, as the scientists conducting the experiment on Charlie, are both hilarious, and while it is somewhat disappointing to see Gorman in so little of the episode given what vibrant chemistry (ha ha) he has with Pacific Rim co-star Charlie Day, Yang is a delightful foil as he patiently encourages Charlie’s delusions of grandeur.

Quick plot breakdown: the premise of the episode is Charlie being enlisted into an experiment designed to provide him with “intelligence pills” in the interest of making him smarter. As he pursues more academic exploits, he distances himself from the Gang while also developing a series of debilitating aches and pains. Frank tries to draw Charlie back into his slovenly lifestyle while Mac, Dennis, and Dee are forced to pick up the slack on the leftover Charlie Work, failing to catch a giant rat in the walls and instead getting high on gas fumes. The Gang reconvenes and attends Charlie’s presentation, where it is revealed that the placebo the scientists were providing him failed to increase his level of intelligence, but succeeded in giving him a massive ego boost. Charlie, free of the yoke of higher knowledge, gleefully abandons the scientists to watch Police Academy: Mission to Moscow with his buddies.

I don’t expect the character writing to be 100% on point when the script isn’t being written by the usual crew, but what makes “Flowers For Charlie” such an interesting case study is that the plot is centered around the concept of intelligence - something each member of the Gang thoroughly lacks. However, their stupidity manifests itself in very specific, consistent ways - Dennis’s megalomania prevents him from recognizing when he’s undermining himself, Frank has severe tunnel vision and acts almost exclusively out of self interest, Charlie’s grasp on logic is tenuous at best, Dee’s overconfidence and lack thereof are constantly locked in a losing battle with one another, and Mac is…well, Mac’s just kind of standard dumb.

It’s the same level of character integrity you would apply to the Looney Tunes - consider Chuck Jones’ rules for how a Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner cartoon should be structured. When the joke is that the characters are caught in a constant loop of failures, these restrictions are necessary because once you break or bend the rules too far, you change the logic of the world they inhabit. Sunny has proven this wrong on a few occasions; Mac coming out of the closet after years denying his own sexuality is the best example, as the development did not do away with Mac’s trademark cluelessness, but instead gave him something new to be clueless about. The point is, the show has always known who these people are and why they’re dumb, which has the drawback of making it easy to tell the difference between a character making a dumb decision and someone writing a character into a dumb decision.

If D&D have nailed any character out of the Gang, it’s Dennis - unsurprising, given his Lannister-esque, Machiavellian aspirations. Attempting to lure a particularly feisty rat into a glue trap with brie cheese and seductive music easily toes the line between calculating and pathetic that Dennis so often walks. Frank’s fine, and since Mac is a bit out of focus in this episode, a few strange writing choices (if you asked me which non-Charlie member of the Gang would know gasoline can dissolve glue, I would never put my money on Mac) are mildly distracting at worst. It’s when we get to Dee that things start to crumble a bit, and that concept of characters being written into dumb decisions most clearly comes into play.

Dee’s early and short-lived characterization as the “come on, you guys” No Fun Lady still exists in shades: while she is just as sloppy as the rest of the Gang, she isn’t as thoroughly divorced from society as the others. Many times, Dee is the closest thing to “functional” the Gang can possibly be, but her successes are either cut short by her own volatile insecurities or colliding with the rest of the Gang’s harebrained schemes. You can argue that many of her ideas are terrible (because they are) but Dee never makes a decision without at least the veneer of logic behind it. So, when Dee introduces a high tech device to lure the rat out of the wall in lieu of Dennis’s creepy brie trap, and subsequently gets her hand stuck in the glue, it’s a logical setup for one of Dee’s usual pratfalls: Dee’s own plans are waylaid by the Gang’s, and the guys are completely indifferent.

The problem comes at the end of the B-plot, when Mac, Dee, and Dennis need to reunite with Frank in order to see what’s become of Charlie: when Frank finds them high on gasoline fumes on the floor of Paddy’s, with Dee’s arm still in the wall, he tells her to simply let go of the glue trap. She didn’t let go of the trap.

Keep in mind that Dee gets stuck before they all get high on gasoline - her hand getting stuck on the trap is the reason they needed gasoline in the first place. I can absolutely believe that they all got high enough to completely forget about freeing Dee, but I cannot believe, knowing Dee as well as we do at this point, that her very first instinct wouldn’t have been to let go of the goddamn trap. If anything, this is the kind of oversight you would expect from Mac, whose status as the group’s resident meathead is almost a badge of pride for him (even referenced earlier in the episode, as he praises the superiority of “brain smarts” over “book smarts”) but Mac isn’t even doing anything, which makes hanging Dee out to dry this way even more baffling.

So what we ultimately have is a great setup for a plot (the Gang doing Charlie Work and Dee getting stuck) an amusing progression of the plot (Dee and the guys getting high) and a last minute solution that deflates any tension or buildup in the interest of getting the plot to where it needs to go, at the expense of its characters.

And man, oh, man, if any character gets done the dirtiest in this episode, it’s the poor Waitress.

The Waitress’s misfortune hasn’t been as volatile as drug addled pervert and former priest Rickety Cricket’s, but her circumstances have only grown more bleak as she continues to be forced into the Gang’s misanthropic bubble. When she meets Charlie at a restaurant, he quickly surmises that she was paid off by Frank in a last ditch effort to lure him back into depravity, but takes the long-awaited opportunity to have a proper date with the object of his obsession in stride.

Framing is everything, and it’s part of why the episode feels made up of so many disparate parts. If we were observing Charlie’s intellectual growth exclusively from his own bizarre perspective (something the show has mined for laughs successfully multiple times; see “The Gang Saves the Day,” “The Janitor Always Mops Twice,” and “Charlie Work,” one of the show’s high points) the joke at the end that the placebo only bolstered his ego, rather than his critical thinking skills, would probably land instead of thud. Keeping Charlie as the focus of the episode might make the Waitress’s abrupt transformation into every vapid valley girl you went to high school with who wants to open a nail salon less of a wild u-turn in her personality and more a reflection of Charlie’s growing delusion. He doesn’t even know her well enough to have remembered her actual name - of course he’d start projecting his perceived “higher intelligence” against her as well.

Instead, the Waitress has her character twisted around in a way that fits the classic setup of Charlie ruining his chances with her yet again, but doesn’t line up with the structure that makes the joke usually hit. With a little more clarity and perspective, it could work, but as-is is just kind of a “women, amirite?” that ultimately feels cheap and a little mean.

And that lack of a specific perspective is part of the reason the big reveal at the end kind of falls flat on its ass - even though, with Charlie as the episode’s focus, it should work. See, on the one hand, it’s very in character for Charlie to use something like a fake intelligence pill as the vehicle for a power trip - we’ve seen him go crazier over less. Spouting a bunch of big words to sound more smarter has also been a habit of Charlie’s in the past, specifically as it pertains to his non-existent career as a bird lawyer. (“Okay, well…filibuster.”) What “Flowers for Charlie” sets up, however, is different from both of those scenarios: up until the big reveal at the end, we observe Charlie not only making proactive choices to better himself (turning to audiobooks to compensate for his illiteracy, distancing himself from the Gang in favor of someone who treats him as an academic peer) but retaining the things he learns and applying them in ways that make logical sense. “I was just glancing at War and Peace, and let me tell you, I side with Shakespeare on brevity” is a pretty pretentious sounding thing to say, but in the context of the plot, it means that Charlie not only learned the phrase “brevity is the soul of wit,” he understood its meaning and history and later applied it to a relevant subject. This is a level of long-term comprehension unprecedented for Charlie, and evidence within the text that the placebo is giving him the impetus to learn.

So to turn around at the end and have the conclusion of the experiment be that Charlie was never getting smarter, with the justification being a bunch of stupid stuff he did offscreen, doesn’t just deflate the episode’s tension, it also makes no sense within the parameters of what the writers have already set up. Yes, Charlie smokes out of a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe and has a system of useless science-y looking tools and beakers in his apartment, and he’s been conversing with the lab assistant observing him in nonsense he believes is Mandarin, but this foreshadowing that his ego has more to do with his presumed knowledge than he thinks does not supersede the evidence that he’s actually becoming smarter - even if it’s not so much “smarter” as it is “smarter by Charlie standards.” His friends have all acknowledged this, as has the Waitress. There is no twist a la “The High School Reunion” that what we have been seeing and what is real are disconnected - we observed Charlie learn and debate the nature of a placebo, and then forget the word placebo once the plot told him he wasn’t actually smart.

(And for that matter, you can still do the Limitless plot point of the drug causing debilitating health problems without just throwing it away outright as “Charlie was imagining it” - this is a man who drinks paint and eats chalk, you can come up with pretty much any justification for his aches and pains I’ll believe that will still be funnier than what we got.)

This episode has to reset to the status quo because that’s part of the show’s joke - that their inability to become better people continually drives them back to one another in a self-destructive cycle - so nobody was expecting this episode to result in a major dynamic shift. However, to reach that ending, the plot needlessly contorts itself into a conclusion-shaped hole, regardless of whether or not that contradicts the characters’ internal logic or even that of the first two acts of the episode.

My goal, in breaking down the problems with “Flowers for Charlie” was always to approach this episode in the hopes of answering the question; viewing this contained piece, the only other collaboration between these two writers, is there reason to believe that anyone could have seen this coming?

The answer to that is no. Not because “Flowers for Charlie” reveals no glimpse into D&D’s future (it does) or because the demands of these two scripts are completely different (they are) - because this episode could have been an abject failure, and it still couldn’t have been collateral against the viewers who held out hope until the very end that Game of Thrones would take its bows as the show they fell in love with.

We can chalk the issues with “Flowers to Charlie” up to inexperience writing the material, or view it as a smaller reflection of Thrones’ failures, but ultimately, it was written because all parties involved thought it would be fun. The most importance it was ascribed was that of it being “the episode written by the Game of Thrones guys,” because they were already held to such a high standard not only in the industry, but in the public eye. These were writers who were respected for their impact on genre television and given all the room in the world to make whatever they wanted - an unprecedented level of leeway they squandered at the end of the race to go make a Star Wars movie they didn’t even wind up making.

Nobody expected too much of Game of Thrones - nobody loved it too much to see what it was becoming. It’s the writers’ job to set the parameters for themselves: if they failed within those parameters, that is not the audience’s burden.

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