Warning: This article contains major spoilers for the last ever episode of Catastrophe. Do not read on if you have not seen it
Another warning: This article may also be reading a bit too much in that closing scene for some fans, but by heaven we can not remember the last time sitcom blinded its audience like this and Catastrophe is one of the best sitcoms ever made , so we've given ourselves permission to over-analyze.
Until the last scene, it seemed that Catastrophe was following a familiar recipe. (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) visit Massachusetts for the funeral of Rob's mother, who was played by Carrie Fisher. In an atmosphere of grief and tension, Rob insists he is moving with the kids to Boston, with or without Sharon, not knowing she is pregnant with their third child. They then resolve their differences and agree to embark on a new phase of their lives, perhaps in the US, perhaps not, but without us viewers joining them. Textbook.
In his farewell moments, however, Catastrophe upends all this and, in the process, surpasses the famously brutal sitcom of the past – The Young Ones all heading over a cliff in a bus, for example, or the soldiers in Blackadder Goes Forth going over the top – to deliver an unforgettably ambiguous conclusion that is closer to the famous final moments of The Sopranos. You can choose to read it how you like, but several carefully placed shots strongly imply that … everyone's died.
After the couple's rapprochement, Sharon takes the hot weather, strips her underwear and runs into the sea. Rob does not want to join her but then, turning to look at the parked car with their two kids in it – we've seen a shot of them asleep in their car seats – he notices a sign warning of lethal rip tides. Sharon's already in deep, out of earshot. Rob joined her in the ocean. When Rob catches up, they kiss and then turn back, but they are a distance from the beach. We have seen a long shot from the land that switches them from their focus to their abandoned clothes, blurring the two distant figures into the sea; by the time the closing credits have rolled, an aerial view has pulled back far enough that Rob and Sharon have two tiny dots barely distinguishable from the water. They've almost gone.
Perhaps they make it back and the five of them live out that imagined second life that TV characters have when the show's not on anymore. Perhaps they do not. This, though, is much more than an intriguingly opaque ending – its layers of metaphor round off and a comedy that, under a lot of rude, carefree jokes, has always said wise and profoundly sad things about marriage and parenting.
Catastrophe begins with Rob and Sharon enjoying breathless sexual and romantic chemistry that is soon replaced by something far more dramatic. Discovering that Sharon is pregnant, Rob decides to join a woman he barely knows in the deep water. The story of their subsequent relationship is of two people committing each other before they get to know each other – which is actually how all marriages work, because as you well think you know someone, you do not really until you try to build a life together.
Over the four seasons of Catastrophe, Rob and Sharon constantly deal with the shit happening, from the antics of annoying friends and siblings, right up to the death of the parents. The amount of tragedy woven into Catastrophe is not by mistake. That's life: at any point something awful could sweep you away from confident safety. By becoming a spouse, you agree to cope with adversity together, and by becoming a parent, you agree to irreversibly intensify that risk.
Being a parent is the one life choice you can not undo. You never return to the shore. If Sharon lets her children relocate to the US without her, she's still their mum. If Rob rejects Sharon when she tells him she's pregnant again, he's still going to be that child's dad, for ever. And you're still your child's parent after you die. That Rob Delaney co-wrote this particular ending to his hit parenting sitcom months after he lost his two-year-old son Henry's cancer is something nobody on the outside should even try to fathom, but that knowledge is inescapably there in the audience's minds : at first it feels unimaginably dark, macabre even, but the way the last frames of Catastrophe play out, against perfect blue sky and water, can be taken as a message of light and hope.
Ultimately, as with The Sopranos and all of the properly rendered ambiguous endings, the answer to what happened next does not matter. "Did they make it?" Is not the question to ask. What is uncertainty? The most telling line in Rob and Sharon's last conversation on the beach is when Rob says: "If I met you [for the first time] right now, I would still want to marry you, and mess it all up from there. "So she goes with her, into the sea.