The Big C is a tough show. It’s always been a tough show. It is a show about a woman with cancer learning to live her life through that lens. People die on this show. Not because of something supernatural or even un-natural (such as murder), but because they get sick and they die. That is heavy, heavy stuff. That the show was able to explore all of this heavy stuff with a sense of humor (gallows humor most of the time, but still) is miraculous and beautiful. But this latest installment, The Big C: Hereafter – what Showtime is calling a “limited series event” – is something else entirely. Because it’s not about a woman living with cancer, it is about a woman actively dying of cancer. And it is sad. And it is stunning. And it is compassionate. And I believe that it is some of the most revolutionary television I’ve ever seen.
There has always been a confrontational element to Cathy Jameson (played luminously by Laura Linney) and that has carried through to the way that the character is facing her inevitable death (after the chemo just stopped working and the cancer just kept spreading). It has been so fascinating to watch her go through the indignities of illness (vomiting in public and worse) while trying to retain her sense of self and dignity. She is a force to be reckoned with – advocating for the other patients in her hospice facility when an orderly disrespects them to her face, quitting her job in a blaze of glory and inspiration when her principal basically tells her that she is scaring her students, creating an online dating profile for her husband for after she’s gone – but she never loses the little bit of softness that makes her vulnerable. We never forget that she is a fully formed human being and not just her illness. She is not an inspirational poster child for people with cancer. She is a woman who is dying the best way she knows how and sometimes it’s amazing and sometimes it’s harrowing, but it never feels unearned or unreal.
The way that she has pulled her family closer to her while at the same time tried to push them forward into the future to make sure they are ok is heartbreaking. I have especially enjoyed her relationship with her brother and the way that she just accepts him and all of his quirks (he was helping her by driving her wherever she needed to go – in a pedicab so that he wouldn’t be adding to the damage to the atmosphere). There is a deep sense of love and understanding on both of their parts, but it’s not always without its friction. And her relationship with her son has really deepened as the series has gone on and he has grown up, but he is not the perfect child, nor is he acting out so much that he becomes a caricature of the child of someone who is sick. It all just feels so real. And that’s what makes it so tough.
People rarely talk about or explore death honestly in their daily lives, let alone fictionally. Death is scary and unknown and dwelling on it is morbid. I get all that. I knew all of that entering this season. And yet the sobs that rack my body every episode have shocked me all the same. I am not suggesting that watching The Big C: Hereafter is a carbon copy of what it’s like to go through this process in the real world. But it feels honest and I am a little bit grateful that I am experiencing it through a fictional character and fictional world. Maybe if, God forbid, I ever experience something like this in my real life, I will have a little more compassion and patience and grace because I once watched a show that showed me that death is a process that is harrowing and beautiful and sad and joyous and slow and frantic and so much more.