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The Big C: “Killjoy”

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Tonight, the never-ending circus of horrors with extra added attractions that is The Big C kicks off the festivities with one of those scenes that you can pretty much tell isn’t a dream, but you’re praying that you’re wrong. Remember Dave and Maxine, the creepy young couple whom Cathy persisted in finding adorable, because they said they creepily wanted to give her their baby to raise, and who Cathy only just discovered have been running a scam on her, and Maxine isn’t really even pregnant at all? Cathy lures them into the car she’d bought for her son, drives them out into the woods, where you half expect to see them pass Silvio Dante by the side of the road, looking for a place to bury Adriana, and tells them that she’s giving them the car. Then, after she’s given them a chance to celebrate, she tells them, fuck no she’s not giving them no damn car, because she knows they’re a pair of lying liars who lie, and to really drive home the point, gives Maxine a playful kick in the tummy. To better help them pinpoint just how upset she is with them, she’s also waving a loaded gun. “Why would you do this!?” she bawls. “Why would you promise a baby to someone who didn’t exist?”


I hate to come across as the kind of person who gets all grammar-nanny with someone who’s been betrayed and is clearly in a high-stress situation, especially when she’s packing heat, but technically, Cathy is a fictional character with a premium-cable writing staff on her side. Surely someone, at some point in the production process, heard that line and blanched a little at how wrong it sounds. Dave and Maxine promised a baby that doesn’t exist to someone. They didn’t promise a baby to someone who doesn’t exist, because clearly, Cathy exists, at in-your-face top volume. On reflection, though, who knows? Maybe this is the show’s way of conceding that, as a character, Cathy has long since ceased to have any degree of consistency or believability, to the point that it could be argue that she doesn’t exist, not even by the most lenient standards of plausible characterization. Maybe the show is going all meta on us. Maybe it’s writing a term paper on itself. It could even all be taking place inside Dr. Westphall’s kid’s snow globe. If I had my name on this shit, I’d take any out I could get.

Trying to convey to Dave and Maxine the full cruelty of their actions, Cathy wails, “I wanted to believe that someone could see the love and the care that I could give a child, despite my diagnosis!” Her what? Oh, right, the cancer thing! It scarcely comes up anymore, really. The scariest thing about this speech is that the show is so sympathetic to Cathy’s pain that it doesn’t seem to grasp what she’s revealing about herself here: She wanted a baby for the sake of the statement it would make, to show that her imminent death was not as important to her definition of who she is as the “love and care” that she still has it in her to bestow on something small and innocent and totally dependent on her. Without intending to, the speech underlines the scene in the last episode when, talking about how badly she wants a little girl to raise, she seemed to be expressing resentment toward her ungrateful, unmanageable little bastard of a teenage son and asking for a do-over. It might be a bit much to say that Dave and Maxine have done her a favor. But would anyone who hooked her up with a real, live baby be doing her any kind of favor? Only if her cancer relapsed and she died after a year or two of celebrating her capacity for love and care by slathering it all over some little tyke who can’t yet walk or talk back, because it seems obvious that, as soon as any child became big enough to give her any problems, she’d fall out of love with it, too.

The extent to which The Big C has become a celebration of its heroine’s selfish impulses becomes clear in the final scene, when—spoiler alert, people—Susan Sarandon’s Joy checks out of the show. Cathy, alerted that Joy has been flirting with Paul, goes to chew the sassy potential home wrecker out. Joy, unrepentant and fed up with what a “downer” Cathy is, tells her that she hasn’t slept with Paul but won’t be surprised when he sleeps with someone else, gets the last word in, then steps in front of a bus on which an ad featuring her own face is prominently displayed. Phyllis Somerville, as Marlene, gets off the bus, bringing back the “she sees dead people” theme that has so far lain dormant this season, and says to Cathy, “Some people miss the bus. Some people, not so much.” Then the two of them smile at each other, a few feet from the street where Joy is now street pizza, which seems meant to be a fitting punishment for her having smugly told someone who's behaving like a pill that she's behaving like a pill.  The Big C may not have ever quite reached its full potential, but it used to be a show that had earned the right to make jokes about death, because it took the value of human life seriously .

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