Jason Segel’s quirky AMC drama series Dispatches from Elsewhere has been a rare gem amid the recent TV landscape. It’s earnestly sincere and sweet, following four broken people who are thrown together to play a strange game about two warring creative factions, the Jejune Institute and the Elsewhere Society. Like its spiritual cousin Lodge 49, Dispatches was never about the mystery so much as the connections (and occasional bust-ups) among its four leads. Taking place in a warm, vibrant Philadelphia, it has been a journey that—as one character says in the final episode—has been “strange, hopeful, and a little sad.”
In this final episode, “The Boy,” Dispatches really set itself apart in a very meta hour that felt at times like an entirely different show. It tells, initially, the story of the clown-face boy, a strange figure who has occasionally appeared to Peter (Segel) throughout the season like some kind of Lynchian spectre. In the finale, we discover his story, and that he is Peter, who is actually Jason Segel … as Jason Segel. We meet Jason in recovery from alcohol addiction, where he meets Simone (Eve Lindley), who is also a different version of her character from the rest of the season. Simone gives him a postcard that will take him on a short journey to self-discovery, one that she also experienced, as part of the journey’s “pass it forward” philosophy. A truncated version of the game played throughout the season, Jason follows a whimsical set of clues and ends up talking with Janice (Sally Field), who assures him that “your pain, whatever it is, is 0% unique.”
That, of course, ties back in to the series’ first episode where Octavio (Richard E. Grant) tells us that Peter is us, and that later, Simone, Janice, and Fredwynn are also us. There are some caveats to each, but essentially, the understanding is that there are universal aspects to every character that will somehow resonate with us. When Octavio tells Peter, in a pre-recorded message, that he’s “special,” it makes him cry. Yes it’s something specific from his character’s childhood where he’s told—before all of the burnout and sadness—that he is special, but isn’t it also what each of us is desperate to hear? That we are somehow different from everyone else?
Here, and elsewhere, are flickers of inspiration that lead character-Jason to spend four months writing Dispatches from Elsewhere, which Simone reads and gives notes on—including the need for him to take responsibility. His clown-faced-boy past says the same: “You’re 40 years old, and this manchild victim shit has to end!” There is a lot of catharsis here, and so much that Segal seems to have personally poured into the character, the episode, and the series overall (“if you need to write another Muppets movie, I’ll be back,” the boy tells him—one of a number of specific references to Segal’s real life). And yet, it’s entirely relatable. It’s another view of the Lee/Clara story, one that manifests itself in the game. The series reminds us to reclaim childlike wonder, to not give up on that part of ourselves that we may have packed away. We have to grow up, we have to take responsibility and own our shit and be adults to function in the world, yes. But we also don’t have to lose that former part of ourselves, one that was perhaps more able to access joy. We are all of it.
Janice tells Jason that he’s not unique, and what makes him special is not that he’s different, but that he’s the same. “The only thing we need to know at any given time is what to do next,” Janice/the game tells Jason. It’s a variant of being in the moment, of taking things one day at a time. And it’s good advice.
Dispatches’ penultimate episode was, then, the true finale for its characters. But this, “The Boy,” is the finale for us. Segel confirms that through layers of meta dialogue, particularly at the end of the hour, when the four leads discuss the show they just watched. “I thought it was beautiful,” Simone says. “I thought it was lovely, just … way out there,” Janice opines, each character speaking a different kind of pre-selected criticism. “I felt it was well-executed, most of the time. Some moments dipped into self-indulgence, which is not to my taste. But you know,” says Fredwynn (or perhaps actually André 3000 at this point). It was all of those things. “It’s been about us, all of us making something together,” Segel says straight to the camera, as it zooms out to reveal the entire cast and crew of the series. We’re told there were spooky elements and surprise elements, because that’s what Segel likes best. And then, he tells us to “enjoy Octavio’s final, emotionally satisfying epilogue.”
This episode, and these last moments in particular, will be polarizing. Everything about the show, and the game, from the start though had this kind of meta tinge to it, so that’s not necessarily a stretch (even though it increasingly leans into it). And there’s something satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek about Segel acknowledging the tropes of TV series and finales in particular, giving everything an intimate, homespun feel inline with the series’ overall aesthetic. But then it takes another turn, showing viewer-submitted videos repeating “you are me, and I am you.” Octavio adds the lesson to be learned is that “you and only you are you.” He continues, “the answer to change lies not in a game or a missing girl or a clown-faced boy. Change comes when we find one another.” That’s followed by those same viewers saying “we” over and over again. It’s really a hat on a hat.
Dispatches has had a certain twee-ness to it throughout, which has largely been charming … but these final moments might dip too far into saccharine even for devoted viewers. Still, like all things, you are meant to take what you will from Dispatches. Its message is always sincere. It has constantly exalted quiet beauty and moments of wonder. There is an authentic desire for connection—real, live, human connection! a thing that is a rare and precious commodity these days—as well as a willingness to push oneself and step out into the personal unknown. It’s about shaking yourself up, being lifted from the doldrums, and finding joy and optimism in your surroundings. If not a message for our time, I truly don’t know what is.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.