The best endings are Atypical: Thoughts on the final season

(image via Pride (c) Netflix)

Figuring out who you are and what you want to do are two of the big asks when you’re edging ever closer to adulthood.

With school drawing to a close, and the grown-up world beckoning, a tremendous amount of pressure comes to bear on young adults to get life sorted, with an almost overwhelming sense that if you get it wrong, your life could be, or likely will be, forever doomed.

That’s rubbish of course as anyone who’s made it past their mid-twenties knows all too well, but for Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), a young talented artist on the autism spectrum, they feel like truisms that cannot be denied.

Season 4 finds him still enrolled in Denton University where he is pursuing an art-based degree and living with his main homie Zahid (Nik Dodani) in an apartment far enough away from his overprotective but loving mum Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and dad Doug (Michael Rapaport) that he faces the very real prospect of nightly FaceTime check-ins with his parents.

It appears on the surface at least that Sam is figuring out life just fine – love of penguins and Antarctica still in place? Tick. Uni degree on its way to completion? Tick. In a relationship with the quirky but well-meaning Paige (Jenna Boyd)? Tick! – but like all of us, Sam is not entirely sure he does have it all together.

When he is asked at one point by his ethics professor, Professor Judd (Sara Gilbert) what he wants to be when he leaves university, Sam, with characteristic blunt honesty says he doesn’t know, admitting “I didn’t expect to get this far”.

For Sam, who is easily thrown by unexpected events and who cannot fathom life’s predilection for unpredictability and the unsettlingly unexpected, getting through a day can be challenge at times, and he often feels frustrated that what he plans to do doesn’t ever get him to where he expects to go.

And in season 4, the tension between expected outcomes and actual outworkings is a recurrent theme with Sam realising over the course of the final ten episodes that it’s okay not to do what’s coming down the line, with the wannabe Antarctic explorer admitting that “in the beginning of a journey, no one knows what to expect.”

That doesn’t mean to say he embraces them without hesitation and frankly if all the ducks of life could happily and quietly line up in a nice, neat row, Sam would be forever grateful.

But not that’s the way life operates, and while he has many a setback, hiding in the bathtub when things get too tough, Sam gets back up again and again, encouraged by younger sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), to cope with the downturns, embrace the upswings and get through to the other side.

Created by Robia Rashid, Atypical explores what it means for someone on the autism spectrum to come of age and sort out life on their terms, and it’s clear that it is different to the pressures and challenges experienced by neurotypical people.

But what is refreshing too is its commitment to removing the idea of someone on the spectrum as the “other”, someone who’s so different that they don’t share the simple challenges of being human.

They do, of course, and while Sam, and his autistic college friends (all played by actors on the spectrum) may react differently to stress and pressure, their reactions are entirely normal and natural and very much in keeping with what it means to be person trying to figure out life.

This sense of commonality is reinforced by the Casey who is facing some massive hurdles of her own.

A talented track star who is on a scholarship to prestigious private school Claytons – she’s not a fan of the place but at least it meant she met girlfriend Izzie (Fivel Stewart) so it’s not all bad – Casey is struggling some fairly identity questions.

Is she gay or bi or who knows? Does it matter? Is she really track star material or is running something that should remain as an escapist pursuit, the one place she can switch off and relax when so much pressure is being applied, not just by school but by her mum, and especially her dad, who channels all his sadness over a great loss he experiences into lovingly but misguidedly helping his daughter to become everything he thinks she longs to be.

In the same way as Sam, but reacting in an entirely different way, Casey has got to sort out the difference between who she actually is and what she really wants from life, and all the expectations piled on her from a thousand different angles.

Much of her pressure is external while Sam’s is single-mindedly internal but the end result is the same – two siblings trying to make sense of life and overwhelmed by the start (and to be fair, the middle) of a journey even if, as Sam comes to realise, “beginnings can be painful but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.”

What makes Atypical season 4 such a sublime joy to watch, and what has defined the three seasons leading to this point – read reviews of season 1, season 2 and season 3 – is the quietly understated and often funny way it explores everyone’s various journeys.

While Elsa and Doug are in a far better place as people and as a couple in this final season of the show, they still have some adjusting to do as they deal with Sam moving out, some big reveals from Casey and figuring out what life is going to look like for them going forward.

While they settle on boring and uneventful as the theme of the decades to come, life isn’t always that accommodating and season 4 sees them confronting issues of mortality and the health challenges of getting older; similarly Zahid has to grapple with a health crisis of his own, which is, any way you cut it, fairly serious.

But for all the seriousness of the show, anchored primarily by Sam seeking to turn his love of penguins and Antarctica into something real and living rather simply the stuff of dreams and art, it approaches everything with a whimsical gentleness, which because of its commitment to telling emotionally authentic and deeply human stories, never feels underwhelming.

This is a show that places a muscularity of human experience and an authenticity of emotions at the heart of its nuanced and softly spun and funny narrative, making Atypical a show that may look sweetly underplayed but which is bold and fearless in its storytelling, especially when it comes to bridging that great divide between what we hope for and what we get.

So well does Atypical do what it does that farewelling it after just 38 episodes feel like too soon a transition but as season 4 unfolds itself and wraps up its stories while allowing plenty of room for the story of the Gardners to continue on offscreen, sad though you might to see it go, you realise that it’s finishing just when it needs to.

In fact, the final episode is a masterclass is saying goodbye but not, underscored by a final scene which is poetic, warm, rich and visually arresting, with Sam once again front and centre, a young man on the cusp of big things who may find new things confronting but who is learning to make his peace with them, an enormous achievement for anyone and one that presages a lot of exciting things to come.

Posted In TV

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