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A Moment of Reckoning Arrives in ‘Search Party’

The Season 4 finale is a turning point for the show, as Alia Shawkat’s Dory finally discovers the virtue of self-reflection

HBO/Ringer illustration

If it weren’t for the final 30 seconds, Search Party’s fourth-season finale could’ve ended the series. Asphyxiated in a Massachusetts house fire, antihero Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) observes what appears to be her own funeral. Dory’s friends give eulogies, each their special flavor of selfish: Actress Portia (Meredith Hagner) is attention-seeking (“Are you gonna clap?”); sociopath Elliott (John Early) is defiant (“WE ARE ALL UNLIKABLE!”); ex-boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) is mopey (“I loved you no matter what”). But they also give real insight into Search Party’s main character. “I think we don’t really know what motivates us,” Portia observes. “We just kind of are the way we are. We don’t really know why we are the way we are, but we are the way that we are and that’s the way that we are.”

Dory wakes up in the back of an ambulance, but her mind lingers in the afterlife. Her subconscious (and her show) has just served up a summary judgment of its central character, whose downward spiral forms the arc of the series. As the imagined funeral unfolds, Dory is joined by other versions of herself, one for each of the show’s four seasons to date. Before she wakes up, the four Dorys merge into one woman who’s all of the things her friends accuse her of—including, as Elliott puts it, being “a lying, manipulative bitch.” Only, despite Portia’s speech, she finally seems to acknowledge the more unsavory parts of her personality. “I saw everything!” Dory gasps before a cut to black.

In 2016, Search Party began as a relatively grounded social satire of spoiled millennial Brooklynites. (Its main foursome met as undergrads at NYU.) In a post-Girls and Broad City universe, creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss added a twist: Dory becomes obsessed with the disappearance of a college acquaintance named Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) and recruits her friends as amateur sleuths in a sort of post-recession noir. In keeping with its characters, the first season’s climax took place not in some abandoned warehouse or seedy bar, but a Montreal vacation rental. There, Chantal turns out not to be missing at all; and instead, they end up killing a private investigator named Keith (Ron Livingston), with whom Dory had an affair. Having discovered her new, exciting problem was imagined, Dory created a worse one.

The shift in stakes was abrupt, to the point that it took both Search Party and its viewers some time to adjust. At the same time, the show itself got caught up in a game of intra-corporate football, switching from TBS to HBO Max and going on a nearly three-year hiatus between seasons 2 and 3. The flipside is that seasons 3 and 4 came out just a few months apart, allowing Rogers and Bliss to unfurl their long game in one extended swoop. Dory starts out a sympathetic figure, a woman desperate for a sense of purpose to draw her out of postgraduate ennui. By the time she sees her own demise, she’s revealed as a monster, both to her audience and, finally, herself.

In Season 3, Dory and Drew went on trial for Keith’s murder. That much made sense; the coddled knowledge workers were hardly savvy enough to cover their tracks. But rather than spin the evidence to her advantage by pleading self-defense or an accident, Dory took another route: complete and utter denial, a lie as much for her own conscience as the jury. After an impassioned closing argument—“I’m lost, and I’m broken, and I just want to go home!”—Dory was acquitted against the odds. (Her speech was no facts, all feelings, a poor legal argument, and a highly effective sales pitch.) But she never got to enjoy her freedom. Instead, she was kidnapped by an obsessed fan named Chip (Cole Escola), who trapped her in an uncanny foam replica of her own apartment.

As an audience, we don’t want bad things to happen to protagonists. This was what made Season 2 such an uncomfortable watch: Dory digging herself deeper into a hole, even committing a murder with her own two hands. (It was Drew who struck the killing blow on Keith in Season 1.) But it’s become increasingly clear that Dory does deserve to face consequences for her actions, and equally apparent she can’t accept her own guilt. Dory doesn’t think she’s innocent because she’s never done anything wrong; she knows she’s innocent, so anything wrong must have been done to her. She is, in TikTok speak, the main character, a self-centered mindset that happens to describe her role in the show.

But Dory isn’t alone in this delusion. “We need to start taking more responsibility for how little responsibility we’ve actually had in our lives,” Elliott urges. In Season 4, he’s sold out his beliefs to become a gun-toting Fox News type, while Portia’s sold out her friends to star as Dory in a movie. Drew tries to opt out altogether, running away to lose himself in a literal fantasy at a Disney-like theme park. Sucked back into their quest, with Dory as the new Chantal, the friends are stuck in a toxic cycle of mutual validation. “I supported you,” Elliott tells Portia when she comes dangerously close to challenging him. “Now you have to support me.

Prison could never have shaken Dory’s belief in her own well-meaning passivity. Instead, it takes Chip holding up a mirror. A mix of Norman Bates and Annie Wilkes, Chip abducts Dory in a misguided act of love, encouraging her to believe that her friends are monsters and she their victim. Obviously, that Chip sees Dory as a kindred spirit raises some alarm bells. Worse yet, Dory develops a perverse form of Stockholm syndrome. She has no illusions about who Chip is, but she still prefers the person he made her into—one without guilt: “I just want to be free. But when I’m me, I can’t escape being me. … Please, Chip, just make me someone that I’m not.” It’s a plea so nakedly selfish even Chip rejects it; Dory can’t see him as a person, only a means to an end. Even someone who completely bought Dory’s lie sees through it eventually. So does she, if only at death’s door.

Search Party is hardly the first show to skewer millennials as entitled narcissists. It is, however, the rare show to do it without sounding like a Twitter bot generated from The New York Times op-ed page. Part of that comes from specificity: the apartments filled with mid-century furniture and bright, blocky prints; the fluency in self-care, self-help, and social justice, concepts strip-mined by late capitalism into their most cynical and sellable bits. Part of Search Party’s relevance is also a matter of positioning. Ten years ago, millennials were shoved face-first into an economy in crisis, with pearl-clutching think pieces about hook-up culture and home ownership adding insult to injury. Now in their 30s, many hold positions of real power, inviting the scrutiny that comes with them. Elliott Goss made up his cancer; Madison Cawthorn made up his past as a Paralympian. The age group that popularized the idea of “receipts” has racked up more than a few of its own.

Mostly, though, Search Party works as a character study. Along with Fleabag and BoJack Horseman, Search Party belongs to a genre one might call post-antihero. Often, these series subvert the Golden Age model by making their central figures nonwhite, non-male, or, in BoJack’s case, simply nonhuman. But they also take the now-familiar arc of breaking bad in unexpected directions. With BoJack and Fleabag, this meant turning toward redemption. With Search Party, it means showing Dory as something much simpler, and yet harder to see, than an antihero: an out-and-out villain who thinks she’s an antihero, enabled by everyone from her friends to a jury of her peers.

The big twist of Search Party’s finale isn’t Dory’s epiphany. It’s the revelation that she had a chance to escape Chip, but chose not to—just as she chose to search for Chantal, cover up Keith’s death, and deny her involvement. This self-destructive impulse seems to arise from a fear of mediocrity; better to be a wrecking ball than boring. “I think I made all these things happen,” Dory says. As aha moments go, it’s laughably simple, though it’s not a shock it took four seasons for her to grasp the basics of cause and effect. In Search Party’s darkest chapter yet, the scariest thing you can be is in control.