...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?