After a steady and remorseless descent into the slime, tonight’s episode rallies and manages a slow, painful crawl back to mediocrity. Not all at first: It begins with ten minutes designed to make viewers throw down and stomp on their televisual entertainment viewing contraption of choice. And, as usual, anything that smacks of honesty, ingenuity, and genuine human feeling on the show was smuggled aboard in Oliver Platt’s shaving kit. Paul is in Puerto Rico, to headline the seminar that Joy dropped out of on account of being flattened by a bus, and of course, he’s brought Cathy, Adam, Andrea, and even Sean along with him, for the same reason that the Bradys used to take their housekeeper with them on vacation. Seeing that people are laying memorial tokens at an announcement for his appearance that’s been transformed into a shrine for Joy, Paul bleats, “These people don’t want to see me. I’m their very sloppy seconds.”
Cathy, naturally, couldn’t care less about her husband’s anxiety and distress, and she certainly has no intention of soft-pedaling how much Joy’s death has delighted her. She and Sean sign up for a deep-sea diving excursion, with the idea that they’ll be each other’s “buddies.” (The prospect of seeing these two diving together in a tropical ocean is the only thing in eight years that has ever made me feel nostalgic for Open Water.) Sean claims to be wide open to spending the time in Puerto Rico reconnecting with his sister, since, now that he’s on the rebound from his married ménage a trois partners, he’s sworn off women and is “passing on the pussy.” This, of course, is the cue for some supermodel in a bikini to saunter on and remind us that Sean is the most inexplicable surefire chick magnet on TV since George Peppard was wearing his hair in bangs. Cathy finally makes her way back to the hotel room, where she announces, “I had an anxiety attack in three feet of water. I am officially chicken of the sea.” Who knew that skin cancer attacks the funniness cells?
Paul has rescued a life-size cardboard cut-out of Joy from a dumpster and dragged it up to the hotel room, and Cathy, spotting it, gets to deliver a line that anyone who thinks that the “chicken of the sea” line is sort of amusing will probably think is rich in pathos and many-layered meaning: “Why is there a broken Joy in our room?” That;s when Paul loses it and calls her out on her on her selfish, unfeeling behavior, which has become harder and harder to chalk up to fear and desperation as Cathy has continued to look and seem as healthy as a horse. (It’s skin cancer. Laura Linney doesn’t even get to cough!) “I have let you have every irrational reaction you’ve had over the past year,” he says. “Tattoos, affairs, you name it. God forbid I shed a tear or two for a woman I cared deeply for.” Because there might still be someone somewhere who finds Cathy bearable, her response to this is to ask accusingly, “Did you sleep with her?” She’s less quick to try to turn it against him when Paul reveals that he’s been to the bar she likes to visit to play widow—“It was cute,” he says, “if you like ye olde fakey tavern.”—and that he knows that her idea of a place of escape is “a place where I was dead.” It’s a gratifyingly strong moment, especially considering that Platt is required to do his truth-telling while dressed in salmon-colored pajamas.
Platt has another triumph at the seminar itself, where Paul draws on his anger and even his awareness that the crowd he’s speaking to isn’t his crowd to deliver a heartfelt aria on taking control of one’s own life. His words are intercut with Andrea and Adam on the beach (where Andrea, who’s sick of serving as Paul’s assistant and having to navigate his panic attacks, gleefully throws her phone into the ocean) and with Cathy and Sean in the water. The last few seconds are spooky and kind of lovely, and would actually make a pretty memorable season (or, if God is good, series finale). Happily, the series has one more episode with which to screw it all up.
The “previously on The Big C” montage at the start of the episode includes a clip of Sean saying, “I’m dating a couple, which makes us a thrupple.” Think about that. It would be one thing if a line like that made it into an episode through some incredible set of circumstances, such as the director shooting it as a joke, and then including it in a rough cut, just to hold the space while waiting to come up with something good, and then the editor’s entire family died in a rock slide, and nobody wanted to bother him in his moment of grief, and the next thing anybody knew, the episode was on the air, with that line still in it. But the fact that they included it in the opening montage means that they knowingly arranged it so that people tuning into the show faithfully would have to hear it more than once. It means they’re not even ashamed of it!