The third season of The Big C ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. (At least I think it was the show that was whimpering; it might have been me.) Although the series has never fully lived up to its potential, it was agreeable enough for much of its first season, and seemed to fumbling toward getting someplace by the end of its second season, which closed on a terrific cliffhanger. Last week’s episode had a fine closing image of Cathy, undersea diving in Puerto Rico as part of a group with her brother Sean, swimming away into the unknown as her husband Paul could be heard addressing a self-help seminar audience, talking about the light people associate with rebirth after a near-death experience. It was suggestive and haunting. Now the show is back for one more episode, and Cathy surfaces so that she can be “rescued” by a fisherman named Angel (Michael Ray Escamilla), who doesn’t speak any English.
Cathy spends most of her share of this episode babbling about her life to Angel, who can scarcely understand a word she says but seems polite and interested. “I can remember hoping every night before I go to bed that I have a flying dream. It’s just amazing how realistic they are. I can remember thinking, in my dream, ‘I have to remember when I wake up that I can fly,’” she says. That’s the kind of writing-class drivel she shovels into Escamilla’s face, who is meant to find her ever more entrancing but who actually looks a little more pained with each passing second, probably because the actor is unlucky enough to know what the words mean. Cathy also talks about how, even though she loves her husband and son and was happy to be a wife and mother, from the start of her marriage, she always fantasized about “living alone in a cabin.” (Fine with me, so long as Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are working the monitors.) And, finally, she tells Angel “something I haven’t told anyone else”—she just got word from her doctor that “my tumors are growing again.”
It figures that Cathy would prefer to share this news with a stranger, since, in the first season, she postponed telling her family that she was sick for as long as she could, even as she was behaving in ways that had to be baffling and hurtful to them. A lot of people who abandoned the series early on saw this as pure selfishness on her part and never got past that, and it’s starting to look as if they were right. Cathy doesn’t care that, while she’s chatting with Angel, her brother is back with the diving group, worried sick and blaming himself for whatever’s happened to her. The character deserved the benefit of the doubt two years ago, but her actions seem less forgivable now that they’re part of a pattern she keeps repeating.
In that first season, there was a scene in which her son, Adam, found the stash of presents she’d stockpiled for him, to cover the upcoming birthdays she figured she was going to miss—including a car. This season, Adam tried to celebrate his new religious identification by donating the car to a charity raffle, and Cathy, enraged, took it away from him, intending to gift it to the con artists who’d convinced her that they were going to give her a child. I thought the scene with the gifts was kind of touching at the time, but now, it just looks like an extreme example of a particular kind of guilt-trip fantasy. Adam, who’d been beastly to his mother, had to discover the hard way how sorry he’d be when she departed from his life, and though Cathy wasn’t there to take satisfaction in his shame and pain, we were invited to feel the schadenfreude for her. After which he went back to being beastly toward her, at which point Cathy was—as the show sees it—entitled to tell him that he didn’t even deserve her gift, if he was just going to donate it to charity, the little shit. The Big C isn’t the worst TV series I’ve ever watched from beginning to end, but I’m not sure the show itself even recognizes just how mean and self-satisfied it is at its core.
Last season featured Alan Alda—an old pro who knows how to get out when the getting is good—as Cathy’s doctor. Maybe that’s why, watching Cathy spill her heart out to Angel, I couldn’t stop thinking of “Hawkeye,” one of the last classic episodes of M*A*S*H before that series turned into TV’s longest-running encounter-group session. In that episode, Alda is the only regular who appears onscreen; Hawkeye has turned his jeep over and suffered a concussion, and to keep from falling asleep, he delivers a nonstop monologue about his life, saying anything that comes into his head, to an audience of Koreans who don’t understand a word of it. The difference is that Alda’s monologue filled in some of the details of his character’s background, while everything Cathy says just reiterates how much everything the show first claimed for her character is a lie: none of the people who are supposed to be close to her heart seem to matter to her.
The show must have come around to the view that this is only fair, because the glimpses we get of Paul (picking up a strange woman in an outdoor bar), Adam, and Andrea seem selected to show that she’s not on their minds, either. The only person who cares about her is Sean, and that’s just because, tonight, he’s the character who’s designated to hate himself for not having treated her right. (I’m all for seeing Sean tortured, and would happily buy into whatever pseudo-science can be offered in support of time travel just so that he could have a run-in with the Sean Harris character on The Borgias, but it shouldn’t be for how he treats his sister. It should be for things like his banter with the girl he was paying attention to instead of to his sister: “While you were watching the fish, I was watching you watching the fish. You were so silent and soulful and completely unaware of how perfectly formed your ass is.”) At the end, Cathy comes ashore, takes a look at all the human ugliness surrounding her—a big-bellied guy talking on a cell phone, a little boy yelling “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” at his mother—and swims back to the boat, and she and Angel sail off into uncharted seas together. If this show has the nerve to come back for another season, there had better be pirates in it.