Episode Title: "Service"
Writers: Reed Agnew & Eli Jorné
Director: Randall Einhorn
“Wilfred” is almost always at its best when it deals with dark comedy. And it’s hard to get much darker than the opening minutes of “Service.”
At his office, Ryan (Elijah Wood) notes that his former girlfriend, Amanda (Alison Mack) has called in sick for a week rather than face him after their painful breakup in the previous episode. Then, Ryan’s boss, Jeremy (Steve Weber) announces that another company pushing a new cancer drug has beaten them to the punch and taken away all of their investors.
Jeremy follows up this bad news with a truly inspirational speech that describes how his grandfather kept up the spirits of his fellow trapped miners until they escaped. Jeremy urges Ryan and the rest of his employees to go out and change the world… right before he excuses himself to blow out his brains in the next room.
The death of Jeremy was a textbook “Holy s***!” moment, with some added macabre humor as Wilfred (Jason Gann) suggests that someone may have eaten Jeremy’s scattered brains… even as blood drips from his teeth and lips. I think that Wilfred may have been a delusion in that scene, as only Ryan reacted to his presence. Either that, or the employees were so used to Ryan bringing the dog to the office that they simply ignored him as usual.
Naturally, the loss of his job and his girlfriend sends Ryan right back into the downward spiral he was in at the beginning of the series. That’s the problem with rebuilding your life from scratch… it gives you something to lose. Ryan is so out of it that he blows off an important session with his pregnant sister, Kristen (Dorian Brown)… who in fairness, only wanted Ryan around so she wouldn’t look like a “slut” for having a child out of wedlock.
Regardless, Ryan and Kristen are soon forcibly reunited by a call from their mother’s doctor. Visiting Catherine (Mary Steenburgen) at her relatively low security mental institution, Ryan and Kristen learn that their mother has been devastated by the loss of her cat, Mittens. But Ryan sees a way to help his mother and free himself of his obligations to Kristen by suggesting that Catherine help prepare for the arrival of her grandchild.
However, Catherine’s doctor tells the Newman siblings that their mother needs managed care at another facility and she isn’t mentally fit to leave. Viewers already know that Ryan and his mother share the same ability (or mental illness) to see animals as anthropomorphized humanoids. But when speaking to his mother, Ryan realizes that he and his mother also share a desire to simply be free. So, they take off on an impromptu road trip with Wilfred reluctantly in tow.
Despite getting off to a good start, there are several genuinely unsettling moments when Catherine’s mental state slips and she can’t even tell that her son isn’t her former husband, Henry Newman. Hilariously, even Wilfred begins calling Ryan by his father’s name when Catherine ditches Ryan and drives off with Wilfred.
By the time that Ryan and a very annoyed Kristen catch up with Catherine and Wilfred, Catherine angrily suggests that her children find a way for her to die before Kristen falls into labor. And although Ryan tries to avoid his responsibility once again, it’s Wilfred who convinces him to help deliver his nephew. Catherine stroking her daughter’s hair while calling her “Mittens” was another great gag, as was Catherine’s enthusiastic appraisal of her midwifery skills because some of Mittens’ kittens had survived.
This was another stand out episode for Jason Gann, who not only had the funny recurring gag about Wilfred eating the brains, part of Mittens' body and Kristen’s placenta; but he also got to shine during Wilfred’s best dog moments like his reaction to Ryan shaking the keys and his antics in the backseat of the car. This was also the rare occasion in which Wilfred helped Ryan make the right decision.
Elijah Wood’s performance is sometimes overlooked because he’s the straight man on the show. But this series wouldn’t work if it wasn’t taking place from Ryan’s point of view. Ryan is lost, especially in this episode. With his own troubled state of mind, Ryan could easily end up institutionalized just like his mother. That lingering fear seems to inform Ryan’s actions at every turn. Wood also had some very effective bonding scenes opposite both Brown and Steenburgen.
After convincing his mother that she needed more help for her own sake and for her children, Ryan visits Catherine as she enjoys her new living situation at the managed care facility. Amusingly, Catherine’s painting of Mittens looks just like Rhea Perlman, who briefly appeared as a humanoid Mittens last season.
But watching Catherine paint reawakens some of Ryan’s dormant love of art and they begin painting the picture together. That was a really touching emotional moment and an oddly uplifting ending.
Well done, “Wilfred.” Good boy.