Following a group of narcissistic Brooklyn hipsters who seem all too familiar to any liberal arts college grad, Search Party follows a similar sequence of events every season: someone goes missing and our four protagonists deal with it, either by searching for the missing person or covering up a disappearance they caused. Season four flips the script by casting the “missing person” as one of their own. The new season picks up after Dory (Alia Shawkat) and Drew (John Reynolds) are acquitted for a murder they are very much guilty of. Before finally celebrating their freedom, Dory is kidnapped by her stalker, who believes that she’s his platonic soulmate.
Search Party has embodied several genres over its four seasons – social satire, mystery, courtroom drama – but, by Chip’s (Cole Escola) hand, this season shifts to a psychological thriller, paralleling horror stories like Stephen King’s Misery. The genre shift serves as a sort of delayed wish-fulfilment for Dory, who expected a gruesome end to the search for Chantal in the first season. Dory’s expectations resulting in her own victimhood is a cruel twist of fate, but after all that she has gotten away with, could she finally be getting what she deserves? She had a great deal of blood on her hands and hadn’t yet paid the price.
Though Chip sees himself in Dory, Chip is a loner who blames his failures on being too talented to find a single direction in life, whereas Dory takes comfort in having no distinct talents and relies on her friends to feel semi-content. Without her friends or someone to rescue, Dory is nothing. Seeing her brainwashed is jarring; over the first three seasons she developed into a nuanced anti-hero who took joy in manipulation. Now she’s brainwashed into believing she’s the one being manipulated.
With Dory gone, her friends feel abandoned, and that abandonment turns to anger and denial as they put their dark pasts behind them. Elliott (John Early) continues his quest for wealth and fame, now as the liberal co-host of a Fox News–style talk show. As his show gains traction, producers approach Elliott about crossing to the other side of the aisle, promising him his own show, making him “the face of the network.” He does so without hesitation, going so far as to renounce his homosexuality. He seems to believe that he has nothing left to lose, and likely would have gone down this path even if Dory hadn’t disappeared.
Drew also “reinvents” himself, but instead of looking for the spotlight, gravitates toward anonymity. He escapes to “Merry Merry Land,” a knock-off Disney World that once brought him joy as a kid, hoping that being in an environment that cultivates childhood innocence will help him forget all of the guilt he has been carrying. While Drew’s attempts at escapism may be entertaining, Portia’s attempts to cope provide emotional resonance, electing to relive the past by starring as Dory in a dramatisation of the murder. She ends up at a crossroads, having to choose between portraying Dory honestly or furthering her career by presenting Dory as the psychotic killer everyone believes her to be. Portia has nothing to lose from sticking to the script, yet she still feels as if she owes Dory.
“Search Party reconnects with its comedic roots later in the season, particularly in episode seven, ‘The Infinite Loop’, where the gang ends up in a car chase with Chip’s Aunt Lylah (played exquisitely by Susan Sarandon), but end up going in circles round a roundabout.”
In the show’s first season, both the viewers and characters were relieved, and maybe even a little disappointed, when they discovered that Chantal was perfectly safe and just needed a vacation, far removed from the danger many believed she was in. Season four, however, runs with this danger. After leaving a forged note for Dory’s friends saying that she’s going to Europe to take some time for herself, Chip imprisons her in a dollhouse–like replica of her apartment, in turn providing some real stakes. In previous seasons, the path to truth has been littered with red herrings (most notably ‘Bellow & Hare’, the hipster sex cult from season one). I expected the same in the gang’s search for Dory, but the main bumps in the road were rather Drew, Elliott, and Portia’s personal baggage with her, causing them to wonder if Dory is even worth rescuing.
Search Party reconnects with its comedic roots later in the season, particularly in episode seven, ‘The Infinite Loop’, where the gang ends up in a car chase with Chip’s Aunt Lylah (played exquisitely by Susan Sarandon), but end up going in circles round a roundabout. With multiple hilarious cases of mistaken identity – Portia dressed as Dory prematurely announcing her casting on Instagram, Chip disguised as Lylah, and the real Lylah searching for the real Dory – ‘The Infinite Loop’ was a sharp but welcome change of tone from the intense chunk of episodes that preceded it. Similarly, the show’s over-arching story comes full-circle in episode eight (‘The Imposter’), as Dory – still brainwashed and tied up in her friends’ hotel room – hears Chantal speak on television, and all her inaccessible memories come flooding back.
Opening on Dory, dressed in black, gazing across the East River moments before being enveloped in flames, the season finale certainly came as a shock. The majority of the episode takes place during Dory’s funeral, with her three friends again trying to cope without her. As they give their eulogies, Dory’s former selves – kidnapped Dory, criminal Dory, and amateur P.I. Dory – sit together in the back of the hall. The series, and indeed numerous character arcs, appear to wrap up nicely, with the lonesome trio having a sweet moment fantasising about what Dory’s life could have been – an optimistic future that probably would only would have been possible had they never looked for Chantal in the first place. There is a feeling of closure, that this is the end of the road. But once again shockingly subverting our expectations, the final moments of the episode reveal that Dory is alive. We saw her die; we saw her funeral. We began to move on, but it seems that Dory will get yet another undeserved chance to make things right.
Search Party season four is available on HBO Max.
Words by Sam Sims