A look at the show’s best season ever.

All the characters on It’s Always Sunny are horrible, but who among them is the most despicable? Charlie is a child, and Mac is a ball of insecurity looking for love and acceptance. Dee's a victim; if she ever had a chance at being decent, it’s long been brutalized out of her.

Which leaves Dennis and Frank when it comes to characters capable of true evil. For years, the smart money here would have been on Dennis. At his very best, Dennis has been portrayed as a sociopathic manipulator whose treatment of women goes right up to the border of rape. He’s also a guy who secretly videotapes all his sexual conquests, which is a serious crime.

At his worst, Dennis might actually be a rapist. And more than that, a serial killer. The show hasn’t gotten specific enough to make these two counts stick, but jokes have swirled around the possibility for a very long time, and for many viewers it became a forgone conclusion that he really did make lamps from people’s skins and so on.

But what if Dennis was a better person than we thought? What if his overly high valuation of himself within the Gang was accurate? What if Dennis’ act as someone with no soul was just another of the Gang’s mechanisms for coping with their shitty lives?

Amazingly enough, these have been the questions focused on by It’s Always Sunny’s twelfth (and, yes, best) season. Softening Dennis started early this year, but it wasn’t until last night’s final episode that it emerged as the season’s driving theme, a long-form narrative tactic the show’s never bothered with before since things don’t really change in the world of It’s Always Sunny.

That’s not actually true. Things do change. Frank’s become more and more unhinged over time. Mac didn't used to be so gay. Dee’s gotten more aggressive and pathetic. And new pieces of Rickety Cricket are falling off each time we see him.

But these represent gradual changes over seasons. This particular season didn’t play like that. Mac came out of the closet. Charlie finally got to be with the Waitress. It turns out Frank has for real killed people.

Which brings me back to Dennis. For a show about awful people to spend ten episodes building to the revelation that its darkest character actually had more soul than anyone is a huge gamble. It should break the show’s integrity. Instead, I found it meaningful and moving.

It all started with the season’s second episode, “The Gang Goes to a Water Park” in which Dennis bonds with a little girl while teaching her how to be a better thief and con artist. This fit with the It’s Alway Sunny mold just fine because, while it did feature Dennis caring about someone other than himself, it still involves stealing from people and ends with her robbing Dennis blind.

On the outset, it seemed “Making Dennis Reynolds a Murderer” would be a perfect vehicle to explore the serial killer aspect of Dennis’ character. To an extent it did that (particularly his cold two-hour-long stare into the interrogation camera). But remember, it turns out Dennis didn’t actually kill Maureen Ponderosa. Not only that, but this whole time, they were still kind of together. He kept her cat stuff at his house and let her lick him to the point where she got hairballs from it. Granted, it was in exchange for lowered alimony, but there’s something remarkable about the discovery that he even still talked to her at all.

Then there’s “The Gang Tends Bar”, where these little changes within the season started adding up to something noticeable. The episode is kind of like Dennis’ “Charlie Work” in that it involves his efforts to actually run the bar and get the Gang to do their jobs. We (and the Gang) can’t figure out why this might be until Dennis finally admits it’s because Valentine’s Day makes him sad:

“Goddammit! I hate Valentine’s Day because you assholes never got me anything. Okay? And I have feelings! Of course I have feelings. I have big feelings, okay? And it hurts. So that’s why I hate Valentine’s Day, and that’s why I put anthrax in the box!” [It’s still It’s Always Sunny, after all.]

Normally on this show, a speech like that would only come up to get knocked down with bathos in the next moment. That’s not what happens here. Instead, Mac reveals a special gift he got Dennis, a rocket launcher. There’s no trick, no prank to it. Dennis picks up the weapon, moved by Mac’s thoughtfulness, and the episode ends there.

It’s Always Sunny has played with sincerity before. Compare this scene to the bit in the Christmas Special where Frank gives Dennis and Dee the gifts he’s been flaunting them with the whole episode. Or the look on Mac’s face as Dee carries her baby toward the gang in “Dee Gives Birth.” Probably the closest the show has come to this moment is when Mac, Dennis and Dee give Charlie birthday presents from his dream journal in “Charlie Kelly: King of Rats.”

But there was always some comedy to offset the emotion (Dee and Dennis' gifts get immediately stolen, Dee gives the baby to Mac's transexual ex-girlfriend, Charlie's dream journal creations are pretty hilarious). "The Gang Tends Bar" is unprecedented. Not only does Dennis bare his soul (asserting now that he has one), but a friend comes to the rescue at that exact moment and makes everything better. 

This should have clued me into what was coming with the season’s last episode “Dennis’ Double Life”, but at the time I viewed it merely as another interesting anomaly in a season full of them. The episode opens with Dennis introducing the Gang to his toddler son Brian Jr., who he accidentally had after getting off the plane in “The Gang Beats Boggs.” In typical It’s Always Sunny fashion, his plot revolves around getting out of his parental responsibility. But the kid grows on him. And the season ends with Dennis saying goodbye to the Gang, the bar, and Philadelphia to go be a dad.

It’s not just a narrative cliffhanger, either. Just after the episode aired last night, news broke that Glenn Howerton may not return to the show when it comes back from (extended) hiatus next season.

So we face the real possibility of the end of an era, one that I find hits me hard. With two seasons still to go, this development is a surprise, even with Glenn Howerton getting cast on a big new NBC show with Patton Oswalt.

If this truly is the end of Dennis’ run, at least you can say it was a good one. Howerton has emerged as the show’s most consistent weapon throughout its later seasons, and I just can’t picture what the show will be like without him.

But more than anything, I’m shocked the show took any of its characters down such a road. Dennis was the most egregious choice, and that makes it all the more surprising. If nothing else, how crazy is it that a show can still evolve to this extent after being on for twelve years? That alone gives me hope that I shouldn’t count its remaining two years out yet.

And Frank is the most evil member of the gang. No doubt about it.