We’ve had a crazy season of ‘The Big C’ this year – everything was different to normal, and for the first time, Cathy has actually been a bit unlikeable. The show doesn’t get much press attention anyway, but any critics were left less than pleased with the series, and fans haven’t responded too warmly to the show’s new direction either. So what’s the problem?
Season Three woke up from the bombshell of Paul’s heart attack last season, and Cathy’s tumours were shrinking – she had ‘an ellipsis’ at the end of her cancer sentence, not a fullstop. Obviously this would change the entire dynamic of the show, and I think it’s clear this was intentional. In a time when you actually aren’t limited, how do you behave?
In this season, Cathy was encouraged to ‘find her Joy’ – a subplot Susan Sarandon assisted wonderfully in bringing to life. What we saw all season was a Cathy chasing the idea of happiness – babies, tattoos – without the feeling or rewards one acquires from happiness. She effectively lost her son, was distanced from both Sean and Andrea, and a wedge was driven between herself and Paul by the very thing that was meant to bring them both happiness – Joy.
What I think The Big C did this season (in keeping with the ‘stages of grief’ pattern to the seasons) was show ‘bargaining’, the third stage of grief. Cathy believed that if she had a child, if she was happy, if everything seemed, on the surface to be good, then she would somehow be allowed to live – whether that be through the Church Adam-style or through a more secular higher power.
As the series progressed (and I think we can all agree, the season improved massively around episode seven), Joy (a representation of fake, commercial and mercurial ‘Joy’) was eliminated, and Cathy’s life – Sean and Paul - began to unravel, showing that Cathy, as she admits in the season finale, has been chasing the wrong things.
The failings of the season, for a wide section of the audience, I think, were the ways in which Cathy didn’t behave, didn’t act, to make herself happy, and acted badly to the detriment of others around her. In the first few episodes, I honestly found her dislikeable. In the first episode of the season, she fell underwater through ice – she was submerged and overwhelmed and trapped – and that’s how I feel the season was attempting – in a hit and miss manner – to show: a Cathy that was absorbed in creating the image and the idea of a great life for herself, as opposed to seeking true happiness.
The show had difficulties in portraying this intention, it seems. The audience were distanced from Paul this season, Andrea’s name change seemed to go nowhere until the final episode, and Sean’s plots were quite ridiculous (I quite liked them but others didn’t – and on another note, does anyone think Sean could be gay? Answers on a postcard). Many people were left feeling discontented. A common complaint is that the season three episodes have lost the ‘feel’ or the ‘tone’ of the show, and in their concentration on doing something special and over-arching this year, I think individual episodes did fail, and despite an unbelievably strong cast, there was not much of the show’s true colours at times. We saw it when Cathy got her own back over the fake baby, we saw it when she drove Adam’s car out of the bazaar, and we saw it with Cathy’s scuba-diving and swim in the season finale. These moments have been rare, but to say the show is unrecognizable would be unfair – the show is still above-par for much other television, and the cast and crew have still shown moments of brilliance.
So anyway that’s the entire season but what did I think of the finale? I BLOODY LOVED IT. I thought it added a whole new dimension and meaning to the entire season, was an incredible piece of television in its own right, and a great way to move the show in a special direction. SEE BELOW FOR MORE.
The episode was the second of two set in Puerto Rico, the first of which saw Adam tell Cathy he prefers Paul, the marriage fall apart, and the entire season come to a head. Interestingly, this episode was one of those ‘main character stranded alone and doing monologues’ episodes which, though can seem cheap and contrived, worked excellently in this scenario. The language barrier didn’t detract from Linney’s acting at all; she could act against a wooden log and still be excellent.
The episode essentially had everybody given a foil/companion to shed light on themselves and their situation at this exact moment in time – Angel for Cathy, Brandy for Paul, Andrea for Adam, Jesus for Andrea, and the girl-from-the-bedroom-and-dive-lesson for Sean. Highlights were Andrea’s acceptance of her self rather than just hiding behind her heritage, Adam’s realization of how true Christianity could help his situation with Cathy.
The highlights of this episode were Cathy’s boat scenes – not only were they beautifully written, but the entire backdrop of the boat and the ocean, were sublime. I watched Laura Linney in Behind the Actor’s Studio last week and she spoke about how some actors operate on another plane, another higher level of focus, and she graciously did not include herself in the list; I definitely would. Her scenes on the boat – every single one, from happiness, sadness, confusion, dancing - were all superb, and it is not an understatement to say that she is a truly uniquely exceptional actress. I cannot imagine ‘The Big C’ being half as good without her.
Monologues are not easy to write or pull off convincingly, but with the writing of the show’s creator Darlene Hunt and the acting of Linney, the scenes were elevated to a high level of brilliance. Cathy spoke about missing alone-time, and seeing herself outside of herself – as playing all these different roles, and I think part of Cathy’s journey is the importance of finding just one role – yourself.
For a while (this can be extended to the entire series really) Cathy has been too focused on making others happy, and sacrificing herself for them. She didn’t tell anyone about the cancer so as to not inconvenience them, helped Lee last season, has allowed Paul to gallivant off this season. It was great to see an episode that really put the character in perspective in such a unique and interesting way.
There was a sort of carnival/party soundtrack the whole episode, which jarred with the silence and pace of the scenes, but began to show that kind of life excitement which hopefully Cathy is starting to get back. Her choice at the end of the episode, although controversial, fitted into the plot. I’m sure she’ll return to suburbia ultimately, but that rejection of the paces and stresses and painful idiosyncrasies of modern life was important, and invigorating. The production of the scene – editing, writing, acting, visuals – were outstanding. That, I feel, was a return to the true tone of ‘The Big C’. Cathy won’t just run off, I’m sure. She’ll come back ultimately, and probably tell her family before they worry that she isn’t actually dead.
In terms of a season finale, this worked excellently, and also worked brilliantly as a series finale if the unthinkable happens, and Showtime cancels the show.
If Season 4 returns, we have two options – we watch Cathy explore the world with or without Angel, finding her own happiness. Or, we skip out the travelling and the season starts back in Minneapolis, and we continue the stages of grief with ‘depression’ and ‘acceptance’ (maybe combine the two into one season – there might not be the viewing figures for a fifth). What we don’t want to happen is for Cathy to die on her travels, or stay with Angel – please let her return to her family and friends before she gets too ill to enjoy them. We also do not want a series built around ‘depression’ whilst she travels – either let her enjoy everything for a short time, or skip depression and let Cathy find her happiness whilst accepting the inevitable – that could work. Also, Cathy says ‘I think I’m going to die within the year’ – this brought the show back onto a focused path the audience feel it might have strayed from, and gives us a time-frame for the final season(s).
If this becomes the last we see of The Big C (honestly, we can’t let this happen everybody), the last scene had an important message involving a shorthand for the rest of Cathy’s life. She rejects the badness and anger in the world, she concentrates on herself, and on enjoying her life, becomes accepting of her fate, and flies. The boat could be a metaphor for Cathy’s angel taking her away, and so the final scene could be quite a clever way of finishing off the series – Cathy dies, but she comes to be happy about it, and enjoys her final months without the bad in the world.
(But we don’t want this – we want at least a Season 4 that the creators and writers can shape and build towards a proper ending for one of the most incredible and meaningful shows of recent years. Thanks in advance, Showtime).