Catastrophe just pulled off the greatest TV ending since The Sopranos

Daring, mysterious and affecting, the conclusion to Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s sitcom will be remembered alongside the great small-screen finales

Warning: this article contains major spoilers for the last ever episode of Catastrophe. Do not read on if you haven’t seen it

Another warning: this article might also be reading a bit too much into that closing scene for some fans, but by heaven we can’t remember the last time a sitcom blindsided its audience like this, and Catastrophe is one of the best sitcoms ever made, so we’ve granted ourselves permission to overanalyse

Until its last scene, Catastrophe seems to be following a familiar recipe. The final episode leaves the Channel 4 com’s usual sit, as Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) visit Massachusetts for the funeral of Rob’s mother, who had been played by Carrie Fisher.

The story of Sharon and Rob’s relationship was of two people committing to each other before they get to know each other – which is actually how all marriages work

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 United States, perhaps not, but without us viewers joining them. Textbook.

In its farewell moments, though, Catastrophe upends all this and, in the process, surpasses famously brutal sitcom finales 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’s 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 has died.

After the couple’s rapprochement, Sharon takes advantage of the hot weather, strips to her underwear and runs into the sea. Rob doesn’t want to join her but then, turning to look at the parked car with their two kids in it – we’ve previously seen a shot of them asleep in their car seats – notices a sign warning of lethal rip tides. Sharon’s already in deep, out of earshot.

Rob joins her in the ocean. When he catches her 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 focus from them 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 are two tiny dots barely distinguishable from the water. They have 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 any more. Perhaps they don’t. This, though, is a lot more than just an intriguingly opaque ending: its layers of metaphor round off a comedy that, beneath a lot of rude, carefree jokes, has always said wise and profoundly sad things about relationships, marriage and parenting.

Catastrophe: Comedically, Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are made for each other
Catastrophe: Comedically, Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are made for each other

Catastrophe began with Rob, an American ad man, and Sharon, an Irish primary teacher, enjoying breathless sexual and romantic chemistry that was soon replaced by something far more dramatic. Discovering that Sharon was pregnant, Rob decided to join a woman he barely knew in the deep water. The story of their subsequent relationship was of two people committing to each other before they get to know each other – which is actually how all marriages work, because however well you think you know someone, you don’t really until you try to build a life together.

For the spoused-up, their journey from one-week stand to married parents of two living in domestic bli-… well, living happily together... well, living together with enough moments of happiness to make it worthwhile... probably... was like being battered for half an hour in a rough sea and emerging exhilarated at the end.

“Smug marrieds” was always the least believable trope in Bridget Jones’s Diary (most people wanting to couple up take from their friends not inspiration but lessons in what not to settle for). Horgan and Delaney’s creation gave us the truth. That marriage means long stretches of bonding mostly over problems that your children have created, and hoping that the waters of life leave you enough stepping stones – as they slowly submerge the love you have for each other – to get you to the other side and the sweet release of death.

Comedically, Delaney and Horgan are made for each other. A show this caustic – and it burned through comforting delusions as efficiently as acid through meringue – about long-term love, parenthood and fortysomething bodies needed their individual and joint charisma, warmth and chemistry. Without that, Sharon would easily have transmuted from magnificent virago to simple bitch, and Rob to henpecked husband instead of remaining an awed, unflinching admirer, happy to let her whet her blade on him but never stupid or soft enough to let her plunge it in.

By becoming a spouse you agree to cope with adversity together, and by becoming a parent you agree to irreversibly intensify that risk

It has also been perfectly paced at every level, from the movement of a whole six-episode series to every half-hour within it, right down to the exquisite escalation – and, often even more perfectly, de-escalation – of their many marital rows. It has captured the power shifts between couples and between friends, the different qualities of silence that can exist between people who love and periodically can’t stand each other, and the innumerable odd moments that can only happen between people who – though it might literally kill them (or at least Sharon) to say it – are each other’s lifeblood.

Last week Sharon threw herself into a taxi after a row on the street with Rob, slammed the door and glared at him furiously through the window before winding it down and saying: “Well, get in!” “I thought…” Rob says, baffled. “I just felt like slamming the door!” she says. He gets in. Back home they go, together.

The amount of tragedy woven into the four seasons of Catastrophe was not there by mistake. That’s life: at any point something awful might sweep you away from comfortable 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 cannot undo. You never return to the shore. If Sharon lets her children relocate to the United States 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 cowrote this particular ending to his hit parenting sitcom months after his two-year-old son, Henry, died from 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 properly rendered ambiguous endings, the answer to what happened next doesn’t matter. “Did they make it?” is not the question to ask. What matters is what the uncertainty represents. The most telling line in Rob and Sharon’s last conversation on the beach is when Rob says that, if he met her for the first time right now, “I’d still want to marry you, and mess it all up from there.” So off he goes with her, into the sea. – Guardian