This post contains spoilers for the series finale of How To With John Wilson, which is now streaming on Max.
The HBO docu-comedy series How To With John Wilson show is so idiosyncratic and unpredictable that it could have concluded on almost any note, and the ending would have seemed right. For three seasons, filmmaker/host Wilson has begun each episode promising to solve some universal problem — the series finale was titled “How To Track Your Package” — before quickly getting distracted by the stories of the people he meets along the way, tangentially related subjects, or whatever else captures his attention at the right moment. This is how, for instance, this season’s “How To Work Out” could start with Wilson attempting to get in shape, to him interviewing a compulsive masturbator (who has to keep interrupting his explanation of gooning to field work calls), to him documenting a 9/11-themed bodybuilding competition, to him feeling like a pathetic old man while revisiting his alma mater(*), to him becoming entranced by a competition to grow giant pumpkins. Nothing ever ends in a place you could predict from the beginning, which gives him the freedom to close the entire series however he wanted to.
(*) The college trip features one of a number of instances this season of Wilson and his collaborators leaving in footage of people who do not want him filming them — in this case, a group of menacing frat bros suspicious of this old man attempting to bring a camera into their party. On the whole, it felt like Wilson wanted to be more transparent — or perhaps self-critical — about the entire process before he wrapped things up.
And yet, the final How To interview feels so unexpected, even by the standards of this wonderful series, that it’s hard to imagine the series building to anything else.
Let’s back up, because as usual, the winding journey is at least as important as the bizarre destination.
As Wilson begins pondering the best way to track packages, it occurs to him that the first kinds of packages he had delivered were pizza boxes. This leads him to interview a pizza delivery driver, which in turn puts him in the apartment of a couple who have been getting regular pizza deliveries so they don’t have to cook while tending to their premature, two-week-old baby. What follows is what How To always did best: the sort of candid, deeply emotional conversation that made all the series’ digressions and quirkiness feel like part of something more than just a silly parody of how-to videos. The dad admits his deeply complicated feelings about becoming a parent at all, much less having to care for a child who, at least at the moment, has more needs than a typical infant. Wilson in turn praises the man’s energy, and you can understand how he gets people to open up to him about such private, messy emotions and history.
From there, things inevitably get silly, as Wilson decides to study up on organ transport — but rather than kidneys and hearts, he visits a company that specializes in moving the musical instrument. It’s an easy joke, but also a fortuitous one. Continuing the bit takes him to a musical organ-themed pizzeria, and it’s there that he meets Mike, a customer who has a lot to say about the cryogenics company where he intends to have his head frozen whenever he dies. And that leads to Wilson spending a lot of time at a celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary, where he learns the ins, outs, and incredibly sketchy details of the cryonics field. No one involved seems to have any idea if technology will one day exist to successfully unfreeze and resurrect people, let alone whether a frozen head like Mike’s could be attached to a new body. It’s a way to feel like you’re doing something to put off the inevitability of death, by making your body into a package that will be delivered into a future so wonderful that no one will ever have to die again.
Yet even in this sequence, Wilson remains curious and empathetic, just as he was earlier this season when he attended a convention for middle-aged men who collect antique vacuums, and discovered that most of them got into the hobby as a way to feel connected to deceased parents. At one point, Wilson discovers that one of the cryogenics people is such an obsessive fan of The Bachelor that he has created a spreadsheet that details every single thing that is happening in every frame of every episode from every season(*).
(*) I write about television for a living, have written books about individual series, recapped every episode of some shows, and even I felt wildly inadequate — or perhaps healthier? — after seeing that spreadsheet.
Finally, he revisits Mike, still gently interrogating the very idea of suspended animation, both logistically and philosophically. Don’t people have children, Wilson asks, as a more traditional means of extending one’s life? And it’s here that How To with John Wilson takes its last and most unexpected turn. Mike explains that he has never wanted children, nor even to have sex. Since early adolescence, he has wanted to live a celibate lifestyle, and he figured out a way to make that happen: by castrating himself in his teens.
Once again demonstrating exactly how and why he is able to get people to open up to him, Wilson does not respond with palpable shock or horror, does not attempt to deflect from the subject with humor. He just lets Mike talk, and asks matter-of-fact questions about whether Mike would want his future body to have genitals. (Mike claims to have written in his unfreezing instructions: “Don’t put those things back on me, OK?”)
“Mike is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,” Wilson said. “He’s very intelligent and radically honest about his personal neuroses in a way I’ve never really encountered before. I could tell he was worth following when we met in the pizzeria, and he wasn’t bothered by my interview style, but I had no idea how far down the rabbit hole he would take me. When he revealed his story about his self-surgery I was genuinely in shock, but the way that his internal debate rose to the surface by the end really makes you empathize with him in a way I didn’t anticipate.”
The finale goes on for a few more minutes, including a bittersweet example of another way for someone to transcend death. Wilson’s aunt died 20 years ago, yet his parents improbably receive a postcard she once sent them, but that got lost behind a mail-sorting machine for decades. Wilson has always used the series as a confessional for himself as well as for the people he films: in this season alone, he talks about, among other things, making out with a close male friend throughout middle school, the terrible amateur superhero film he made shortly after 9/11, and his guilt over not spending more time with his grandmother while she was dying. But we only catch fleeting visual glimpses of him, almost always in reflected surfaces or (in an episode where he talks about the oddity of attending Hollywood awards shows in the wake of his own show’s acclaim) in footage other people filmed. He is our host, and our guide, through all these strange corners of both New York City and America at large.
But he always wants to look outward, and to meet people on their level, whether it’s the conspiracy theorist he pretended to blow up in last week’s Rehearsal-esque episode about conspiracy theories, or a deliberately solitary individual like Mike. And the thing he finds that inevitably links all of us is that we all have passions, whether something common like a love of pizza or reality TV, something more esoteric like the pumpkin growers and the vacuum collectors. The world can be a scary, unfair place, How To argues — the season premiere, “How To Find A Public Restroom,” was about how New York is increasingly being shaped by income inequality — and finding things to care deeply about is a way of coping with it all.
For John Wilson, that passion/coping mechanism has been experiencing life through the lens of a camera. Previous episodes would close with him telling the audience, “This is John Wilson. Thanks for watching.” This time around, he pauses after “for,” and changes the last bit to “watching my movies.” It’s a sweet final note, from a show that was always as kind as it was absurd. That HBO made three seasons of this feels like a miracle.