‘The Big C’ Recap: Losing Patients

S2E1: It seems like The Big C is setting up for a five-season formula, with each season representing one of the five traditional stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as Cathy and her family deal with her melanoma.

Last season was a liberal interpretation of Denial. Cathy hid her cancer from her family and friends, she refused any sort of medical treatment for the bulk of the season, and she focused more on marital (and extramarital) issues, the weight of her student Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe was conspicuously absent from the Season 2 premiere; let’s hope she returns next week), and “living freely.” If my theory holds up, and this episode was any indication of a seasonal theme, then this season will represent the Anger stage.

The premiere offers Cathy one conflict with each of the main characters. Dr. Todd displays an unwillingness to support Cathy’s new “hopeful side,” which really masks his romantic feelings for his patient. Cathy’s son Adam is not dealing with the trauma of her disease in a way she deems healthy, as you can see in the clip below, and she urges him to see a therapist who he adamantly resents.

“We should skip the therapist and take him straight to the gastroenterologist.” – Paul

And, of course, there’s the simple matter that Cathy is seeing the ghost of the deceased Marlene—not to mention that she almost kills the dog Marlene asked her to look after.

All these instances, as well as Cathy’s persistent attempts to get an appointment with a renowned doctor who won’t return her calls, contribute to her eventual breaking point in the waiting room, wherein she bursts out at the staff and patients, explaining that as a Stage 4, she is entitled to medical treatment.

To the show’s credit, it seamlessly incorporates a large number of plotlines without feeling at all clumsy or cluttered, though some have yet to prove themselves entirely “relevant” to Cathy’s journey. One could argue that the near-death of Marlene’s dog, Thomas, could represent Cathy’s loss of control over her situation, equally represented by the presence of Marlene’s ghost—which could also just be an outlet for Cathy to speak earnestly, as Marlene was her confidante in Season 1. (Of course, it could just be a way to keep the actress around after having offed her. People talk to ghosts all the time on TV. Dexter. LOST. That one episode of Scrubs.)

Anger might be this season’s thematic arc, but it might not take form in Cathy herself. In this episode, Cathy, in a fit of frustration, reveals to her brother, Sean’s, girlfriend (and the mother to his unborn child) Rebecca, that she has cancer. Rebecca, displaying a new level of the selfishness that we saw hints of in Season 1, makes the news all about her. She grieves on behalf of herself and her own journey of “having to lose a friend” and, despite Cathy’s pleas to the contrary, Rebecca breaks the news to Sean (he was the final major character to be unaware). Sean, who the writers spontaneously decided to diagnose with bipolar disorder, lashes out at Cathy, accusing her of being filled with evil, lies and poison.

Sean’s was the only conflict that isn’t resolved at the end of the episode. Dr. Todd gives in and pulls some strings to get Cathy and appointment with the acclaimed doctor; Cathy submits to Adam dealing with the grief in his own way; and Thomas (the dog) survives an accidental overdose. This could lead to a season arc of Cathy vs. Sean and their relationship is my favorite in the series, so any additional focus on them — even in an antagonistic way — would be enjoyable.

The first season employed a formula that, while flawed at times (and not exactly reaching its potential) worked. Many shows will bank on a formula that works, and play it out beyond its expiration date. But Season 2 seems to be the organic next step: Cathy is trying to get better. Her family is aware of her disease. Some are helpful. Some are scornful. And there are ghosts. All in all, the Season 2 premiere lends hope for more character development, and a natural advancement of the story.