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  • Writer's pictureIlana Davis

"Wilfred" and the Pursuit of the Self

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

I find myself talking to my dog a lot these days. I ask him why he continues to chew the grass in the backyard despite knowing he will throw it up each time. We ridicule the people passing by on our afternoon walks, how they seem so confident in their strides. 

Sometimes my dog gives me this pleading look, like he is desperate to uncover the secrets of the world but cannot find the way to do so. But then I remind myself, I can’t actually peer into the mind of my pet, these thoughts are simply projections of my own concepts actively shaping my world. 

This, in its essence, is the premise of FX’s, Wilfred. Created by Jason Gann and Adam Zwar, the show is based on an Australian series by the same name.

A brief synopsis of the show reads: 

The season began with Ryan, an ex-lawyer, trying to commit suicide by overdosing on pills. 

His sister, Kristen, knowing that giving out pills to family members is unethical, decides to give him sugar pills without him knowing. At first, he does not know and thinks that Wilfred is just a hallucination, then after a visit from his sister, he finds out about the sugar pills, therefore it is unknown exactly why only Ryan sees Wilfred the way he is.

Throughout the first season Wilfred puts Ryan in difficult situations including tricking Ryan into breaking into the neighbor's house while Wilfred steals the man's marijuana plants and defecates in his boots. Ryan confesses everything to his neighbor and is assaulted. Wilfred uses Ryan's growing crush on Jenna to convince Ryan to sabotage Jenna's relationship with her long-distance boyfriend Drew.

What follows is an allegorical exploration of Ryan’s mind, into his past regrets and trauma and anxieties over his future potential. Ryan’s pursuit for answers as to why he can communicate with Wilfred leads to his own self discovery, as he embraces the episodic circumstances he and Wilfred find themselves in. 

The show cleverly combines hyperreality with surreal occurrences involving Ryan’s fascination with his neighbor’s dog, Wilfred. The psychological themes that run deep throughout the series seem to center around the same thing: the power of a dog in the mind of a man. Aside from the fictionality of the show, this is a real psychological concept echoed by countless experts. 

According to NAMI, dogs have been found to help owners with their depression through countless activities like exercise, socialization, and actualizing self worth. 

“People with dogs have lower blood pressure and are less likely to develop heart disease—just playing with dogs has been shown to elevate oxytocin and dopamine, creating positive feelings and bonding for both the person and their pet,” a statement from the mental health organization said. 

Below are a few of my favorite instances in which Wilfred provided such support to Ryan through his struggles:

“Delusion” (Season 3, Episode 6)

In this episode, Ryan is overwhelmed by his need to give Jenna the perfect gift for her birthday. During all of this, Wilfred is grasping the truth that he, too, is aging and at a faster rate than his human companions. Later in the episode, we learn that Jenna is grappling with these same concerns about her own mortality and limited opportunities in a true existential manner. Because Wilfred has been pestering Ryan with these same questions all week, he is able to aid Jenna and show her that he cares for her. As Ryan comes to understand Wilfred’s struggles, he uses this knowledge to help the only woman he truly has feelings for.

“Shame” (Season 3, Episode 5) 

When he falls short on money, Ryan tries finding a roommate with the help of Wilfred’s guidance. A woman, Anne, ends up leasing a room in his house and the two serve as perfect literary foils of one another. Anne is messy, has limited foresight into her own desires, and enjoys the menial work she does. Ryan is organized, anal and rigid, and spends too much time thinking while avoiding actually partaking in life. When Ryan tells Anne these frustrations he has with her, Wilfred informs him that he is no better, given his current circumstances. With this, Wilfred aids Ryan’s reality check and provides external support for his inner struggles. 

“Happiness” (Season 4, Episode 10) 

In the show’s series finale, Ryan grapples with the concerns that have fueled him for the previous four seasons. Is he truly the chosen one of some obscure dog-god cult? Is he falling into the grips of some severe mental illness like his mother? Is he a product of his father’s lack of affection and understanding? Just as in the series premiere, Ryan once again looks towards suicide as a way out to escape the torture of reality. Again, Wilfred appears to him in his moment of despair, only this time Ryan can see the truth of his circumstances. If Wilfred the series is about searching for happiness when there seems to be none, then the conclusion follows that happiness can be found in the people you meet, the things you do, how one spends his time on Earth. While the dog, Wilfred is no longer physically with Ryan, their experiences amass to that greater purpose that Ryan had been searching for for so long. 

So what’s the point? What does Wilfred teach us about the power of companionship? About seeking happiness when it was there by your side all along? 

Searching endlessly for answers that become so easily subjective can lead to a loss of presence for what is true now. 

The intentions behind the pursuit of happiness are never to find such happiness, but to discover the capability of oneself to feel content when alone. Happiness derives from the ability to sit in lonely silence in the night, and still desire to wake up the next day. 

As Ryan ultimately separates himself from Wilfred’s psychological prowess, he discovers more about his past and his relationships with others. When the series began, Ryan was about to take his own life, unable to see a future for himself nor a way to cope with his past. Over the course of four seasons and relentless self discovery, Ryan uncovers his own truths and prospects. 

What he comes to recognize is that seeking happiness as an end goal only leads to disappointment, as happiness is a fleeting emotion like all the others we try to avoid throughout life. To embrace happiness, Ryan must also embrace loneliness, sadness, regret, hopefulness and every other emotion along the complicated spectrum that defines living. 

Though he doesn’t see this until Wilfred is gone, Ryan comes to learn that happiness is within these moments, within the heartbreak of a lost love with a neighbor. It comes after his father’s death, and all the mistakes he has made in this relationship. It derives from the strained relationship with his mother, who too experiences the same existential queries that Ryan has avoided for too long. Between these moments that define growth, happiness can be found to fulfill our longing. 

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