The Big C Series Finale Review: And They Lived Happily Ever After

The Big C S04E04: "The Finale"


...except for Cathy, who—as fated from the very first episode of The Big C—died from her terminal cancer in "The Finale," but met up with Marlene and Thomas the Dog in the afterlife and, we assume, lived happily ever after. Even Cathy's hapless husband and formerly dysfunctional son, based on our last sightings of them, seem destined to be okay in the wake of Cathy's death, which is all she ever wanted, even when her relationships with Paul and Adam were at their worst. 

Even though The Big C was quickly summarized as "woman diagnosed with terminal cancer goes on zany adventures," as the clock wound down on the series, it became apparent that, while Cathy Jamison was the main attraction and her death was the featured event after four seasons of buildup, much like death in the real world, the stories that seemed to matter the most were those of the family and friends Cathy left behind. While it was satisfying to see Cathy close the book on her mortal life, get the all-clear from her not-actually-a-real-therapist therapist, and enter Heaven (or whatever) of her own free will, that was the point in which we the audience couldn't really relate and the fantasy elements that The Big C has often dabbled in took over. That's not to call the idea of an afterlife—no matter what your own personal beliefs describe it as—a "fantasy." It's just to say that it's not the sort of thing anyone has ever come back from with a concrete understanding of what it is and how it works. The Big C itself seemed to try to throw up its own sort of internal disclaimer with Cathy's frank discussions with the imam, rabbi, and priest—grilling the three authorities that represented the Big 3 in world religions about how their respective creeds described the afterlife and then representing it as something completely removed from all three interpretations. 

From a practical standpoint, it was the easiest way to avoid being slammed as having an "agenda." But from a storytelling standpoint, it gracefully answered the question that Cathy spent much of her final months asking: What's next? 

It doesn't really matter what's next—what matters is how you get there. I know, I know that's one of those quaint and trite little sentiments that gets stitched onto grandma pillows and hawked at wherever grandmas buy their platitude-laden decor. When I was a wee little kid I had this red plastic Care Bears suitcase that said "Getting there is half the fun!" and you know if they're printing that sentiment on a Care Bears suitcase it's pretty freaking saccharine, but cavity-inducing or not, in a series where the main character is destined to die, the television equivalent of a Hallmark card is isn't necessarily too sweet at all. Our last image of Cathy was of a truly carefree woman who was finally, completely, unquestionably happy... now think about everyone else.


Adam, Paul, Sean, and Andrea are all noticeably better human beings as a result of their experiences with Cathy. Paul has his career, Andrea has her internship, Adam got his shit together, and Sean, for all of his tirades about his endless causes that would save the world, learned how valuable a single life can be—even if it's the life of someone you don't particularly like. He almost bailed on donating his kidney once he learned that the recipient, Ray, was a card-carrying conservative anti-Sean, and then Cathy implored him to think about the people who loved Ray, "warts and all." Cathy herself wasn't always easy to love over the course of four seasons, even knowing that we'd be saying goodbye to her eventually; sometimes she was straight-up unlikable. The growth that Cathy's family experienced alongside her will serve them well as they continue their stories without her, but the fact that they must go on without her adds that touch of sadness to Cathy's story even though, in the end, she was more than ready to go. 

One of Cathy's greatest fears was that her death would permanently screw up Adam. It was the reason she went into hospice care when everything started looking dire and it was why she was so eager to just keel over already when her insurance hit its four-month hospice-care limit and sent her back home—she didn't want to affect him or have him associate the home he grew up in with her death. She didn't want him to see the ugly side of dying—just the carpe diem, do-it-now-or-forever-wish-you-had part where you're allowed to do kooky stuff and live it up.

Adam, after spending most of the series being... well, being a teenager, busted his ass to give his mother the one thing she wanted to see before she died. The perpetual underachiever worked with his principal and managed to graduate a year early, knowing that Cathy probably wouldn't make it to his original graduation date in her fading state. It was an amazing accomplishment done with the noblest of intentions under some intense circumstances, and in addition to giving his mother one last wholly sincere gift, Adam also proved to himself that he can accomplish things that he sets his mind to; he has potential, and the possibility of a bright future that is all his own. Though let's not pretend that the kid isn't going to be devastated when he comes home to find out his mom passed away while he was out. Will Adam be screwed up? Probably not. He did a lot of growing and seemed pretty well adjusted, all things considered. But he's certainly going to be changed. 


At times, "The Finale" felt a bit like watching one of Cathy's infamous lists jump onto the screen: 

1. Go home. Check. 

2. Get the religious point of view. Check, check, and check. 

3. Pray for death. Check.

4. Consider euthanasia. Check. 

5. Decide against euthanasia. Check. 

6. Watch son graduate. Check.

7. Make nice with estranged father. Check. 

8. Obligatory happy ending shot in TV Heaven. Check

But in a way, it worked because Cathy's utilitarian approach to her death was meant to ensure that there were no loose strings left in her wake, and one of the worst things a series can do is unintentionally leave loose ends dangling when it departs. When you consider that The Big C had just barely beaten the odds to garner its final shortened season with the explicit purpose to wrap up Cathy's story, the parallels were even more pronounced—which is perfect considering Cathy's routine bucking of the odds as well. 

The key to Cathy's acceptance of her impending death and the drawn-out (to her) process of getting there was in the imam's statement that he was comforted by the notion that his life and death were no more important than anyone else's. It was a less-caustic throwback to Alan Alda snapping at Cathy, "And that makes you special how?" when she condemned him for being rude to the dying woman in the first episode of Hereafter. So many of Cathy's nastier actions throughout the seasons—but especially in the barely watchable third season—were spurned from her feelings of neglect and mistreatment by those around her, from her gruff cheapskate father to her self-absorbed teenage son to her man-child husband. Likewise, many of their actions were driven by the selfish insistence that their needs always came first. Self-esteem is great and all, but it's important to see the way you are treated and the way you treat others in the proper context. The Big C was Cathy's story, yes, but it couldn't have been told without drawing on the stories of others: Marlene, Paul, Adam, and so on. They may not have been the headliners, but they were the stars in their own stories and someday, their stories will come to a close as well—maybe it will be sudden, or maybe it will be something to dwell on, like Cathy's was.  

If The Big C's series finale, or even the entire limited-run final season, seemed just a little too infuriatingly new age-y touchy feely, don't worry, it was—but after spending most of last season hating every single character on this show, I'll take the glossy checklist, the sickly sweet moments, and the implications that 1) everyone is fine and 2) if given proper notice, death can be rendered relatively un-traumatic and maybe even beneficial to the ones who have to attend the always-awkward funeral luncheon. 

The Big C was a chore of a series at times that never really managed to figure out how to balance its dark humor with its dark subject matter, and over the course of Hereafter, seemed to sprint eagerly to the death that was four seasons in the making as though the series itself was tired of itself. It often presented great ideas, only to ruin them with subpar execution and rampant WTF-ery, but this final set of four episodes managed to work well within the confines of the show's checklist to accomplish everything it needed to accomplish. Such perfect deaths are hard to come by, even on TV.


What did you think of The Big C's big farewell?

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Jan 04, 2014
I watched the entire series except for the last episode which I am still afraid to watch because I don't want to see the finality of it. I know it will make me cry.

When I watched the show, I had to mentally switch gears from the knowledge that Cathy was dying to appreciate the humor.
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Jun 19, 2013
I was more than thankful for this show! I have lost my Mom and Moth-in-law to cancer, now my dear friend with 5 kids and a husband has stage 3c ovarian cancer. She initially reached NED ( no evidence of disease) after her first round on chemo . A year later scan revealed a sot of the bottom of her diaphragm and we chemo regiment for past many months. Friday she gets a scan....I pray for remission once again!
The talented Laura Linney was superb in this series but especially the final four episodes. To be exposed to a person with Terminal cancer final months and the openness of allowing the audience to hear and see aspects of the acceptance and readying aspect of the end nearing and eventually arriving gave me such an emotional understanding of what the person is experiencing. I certainly understood what the family was going through, but the 2 deaths from cancer I witnessed there wasn't Te open communication and dialogue which I would have loved to experience in each of their passing! Cathy reminds me so much of my friend, especially the last 4 episodes. She always tells me that my difficulties ( that pale in comparison) are just as important and she inquires and listens. When Paul broke down and said he was so pissed..... I get it! I was so caught up in the openness of Cathy's final days, that I ever considered the nurse being Cathy's final act of needing to feel control over her time of death.
I feel the openness and the understanding that Cathy allowed to be verbalized was captivating!
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May 26, 2013
My mother died from cancer almost 13 years ago, so watching the show was more personal to me. I think the show that a great job in capturing what a person and everyone him or her experiences. Experiencing someone dying will if nothing else make you are aware of morality because it's something that we don't think about daily. There was an interesting line from Alan Alda's character that death gets a bad rap as I believe that we really don't start living our lives until we realize that dying will come for everyone. We have a journey and must go through that journey knowing that it's not about the destination, but the process for it's where we learn those life lessons and gain wisdom. We saw Cathy's journey which did always go well, but her and her family become better people in the process. I think that series taught us that there is a process.

I think the finale was fine because even when Cathy dies, life still goes on. A funeral scene wasn't necessary because we know that will be a service, but more importantly her family grieve, survive, and hopefully thrive as better human being because of the experience. Death isn't always dramatic as in the case of Cathy who quietly dies without the family at her side. Life isn't perfect and the Big C did an excellent job of reminding us of it.
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May 26, 2013
This was a great show and I am going to miss it....the critics, as usual, wouldn't know a good show if it bit them in the a**
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May 24, 2013
I enjoyed every season of this show and thought it ended perfectly. Not really sure where the negativity in this review comes from.
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May 23, 2013
What can i say it was a great series am so sad to see it finished, they should have had the full 10 episodes for season 4 as they could of had more depth into the last season instead everything was rushed into 4 episodes and why didn't we see the funeral or even the the son and the rest of the family find out she had passed, did the brother pull threw the surgery after donating his kidney we may never know..but Laura As Cathy wow she is such a powerful Actress and should win a Golden Globe for the performance she did...It made me quiet upset with such raw emotion....
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May 23, 2013
Well, I hope that made you laugh, as much as it did me. My friend died 18 years ago--not 218 years ago.
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May 23, 2013
Cathy reminded me of my late best friend, Georgianne, who, nearly 218 years ago, showed me how to die with style and grace. Dressed in Mexican embroidered dresses she lived out her life on her terms, just as Cathy did. this show as true to life, as I know it. Laura Linney and the cast were magnificent. I will miss her in the same way I miss my friend, Georgie.
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May 23, 2013
This was a good, non-conventional show! I will miss it. We need shows like this to help balance all the so-called REALITY, crime/murder situational shows! Even the comedies are less than filling!.
And I like a show that has an end date--do you hear me How I met Your Mother??????? Lets see how many decades we can stretch this idea out!!!!
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May 22, 2013
I loved this last final season. The plot and the pacing was good. I think the series goes where many TV shows do not want to go especially this last season. The taboo subject of dying is truly explored from many angles. It is a subject that is difficult to watch and talk about. I did the series did well. I always thank showtime for allowing the show to have a final season. It will remained one of my favorite all time series.
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May 22, 2013
I thought there were many great and valuable messages in the finale, however, the way that hospice was depicted was for the most part, inaccurate, confusing, and off-putting on so many levels. For those of us who work day in and day out to dispel myths and misconceptions about hospice, this program was hugely disappointing and damaging. So very, very sorry the producers blew this opportunity to truly educate people about the need for and benefits of hospice, and to tell the true story about the compassionate and capable care that it provides to both patients and their families. More to come...
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May 22, 2013
When I saw the first season I thought there wouldn't be more seasons. I thought it was a great mini series kind of show. It was a solid 13-episode-ride and I really loved the first season finale when we didn't really know if she would die from cancer or not. However, the second and third season seemed to stretch the story into madness and, althought I'm a fan of the show, I started to hate it. Now, after watching the conclusion, I think they did a good job puttig everything together and giving us a well crafted series finale. I'll still recommend the show to other people, because, love it or hate it, it'll make you think a lot... and cry a lot.
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May 22, 2013
You summed it up perfectly. I thought season 1 was a perfect series about the trials and tribulations a cancer patient goes through and it left things just sticky enough to be closed. Season 2 and 3, I just started hating each character for one reason or another and I was not going to watch a Season 4 if it came. When my wife told me Season 4 would be a small 4 part mini series, I told her I would watch with her and I will not lie when I tell you each one of these 4 parts made me ball like a little girl at some point. I really did not care for the whole afterlife bit that was shown with Cathy and her "therapist", I thought that it was a perfect ending when Paul came home with the flowers and looked at his wife "knowing" she was finally at peace.
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May 22, 2013
This season wasn't very interesting to me at all, but it was still a lovely ending to the show. My favorite parts were her inspirational speech to her school and when her roommate at the home tried to kill her! I think I cried once per episode!
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May 22, 2013
Anyone else think while that was happening, that the nurse was really from that group in Portland and had spiked the pie with what Cathy wanted?
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May 24, 2013
OMG -- that didn't even cross my mind. I have no doubt that's what happened. It all makes sense now. When Kathy gave the nurse the cheque and she didn't want to accept it at first, she behaved as though she didn't want any sort of payment. I thought -- well she would get paid as a professional care worker. Not. I love the finale even more now. Although I cried my heart out the last two episodes.
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May 23, 2013
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May 23, 2013
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May 23, 2013
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May 22, 2013
I have been looking for hours to see if anyone else but me had that same thoughts. First Cathy had accomplished her last wishes.
When the nurse arrived on Friday afternoon she put down a bottle of pills & told Cathy she was in control of her pain meds. Cathy wanted to give the nurse $400. for being such a nice person,but nurse said she would only accept the money if Cathy would have some pie.(think one kind act by Dexter) When Paul came in, the pie was on the table and nurse was extremely matter of fact about the death, and had an explanation as to the cause. I don't think Cathy knew,but I think the writers thought they would through in something to talk about.
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May 23, 2013
Sorry I misspelled throw.
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May 23, 2013
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May 22, 2013
That is exactly what my wife said about the nurse and coincidentally she was shown in bed with a partially eaten piece of pie.
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May 23, 2013
Your wife was right !
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Aug 04, 2013
However, didn't Cathy also said 'only if you would eat it with me'? or something like that. So it might not have been poisoned...
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May 23, 2013
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May 22, 2013
Showing a terminal patient happy in the afterlife in a show that is not about fantasy is a cop-out. Yeah, it's a way to nicely wrap things up and put the viewer's mind at ease, closing the character's arc, but the thing is, we don't know what happens after death. We can can have faith or choose to believe whatever we want, but it's a stronger message to leave people wondering what really happens, if the end is really the end, according to each one's personal set of beliefs. What hurts, and ultimately, what makes us grow, is that there are no certainties and we have to learn to deal with the doubt.
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May 21, 2013
Such a wonderful show! Sad to see it go. But I'm glad to have take this journey with Cathy. It was a great ride.
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May 21, 2013
Although I must say I was disappointed we didn't get to see her funeral. I would've very much like to have taken part of that as well.
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May 21, 2013
I cried like a bitch. Ugh
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May 23, 2013
Me too!!! Hahahahaha!
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May 21, 2013
At my age there is a phenomenon known simply as "Dead Man's Wood". What it is, is that you have friends and occasionally one of them dies - his wife calls you up and asks what to do with her husbands wood. Most men have a supply of wood because as men we like to build things - with the exception of George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld - "We could even build a cabin!" "Well, no, but real men could." Like that.

I stopped watching this after season two, but only because I knew where it was going. When a friend or family member is dying, no matter how painful it is to watch, you cannot opt out. But since these people didn't know I was watching, I could, so I did. This was a pretty good show and I very much like Laura Linney and Oliver Platt. When Marlene died it just wasn't the same, but I kept watching. I decided to stop and just wait for the recap because it's less painful. Good show and great review, Mary Ann...

P. S. I have a lot of wood in my garage, I'm sorry to say.
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May 21, 2013
Wait, was that Brian Dennehy I saw scrolling down? Nope, still not going to watch - too real...
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