April 29, 2013 7:00am PT by Lesley Goldberg
'The Big C' Final Season: Does Cathy Have to Die?
Showtime sends The Big C off with a four-episode final season, subtitled Hereafter, that will mark somewhat of a departure for the dramedy about a woman (Laura Linney) fighting, living and potentially dying after a battle with cancer.
With Hereafter, the series from executive producers Darlene Hunt and Jenny Bicks will shift from 30-minute episodes to four hour-long installments (and compete in the miniseries Emmy category) as Cathy Jamison's final chapter unfolds.
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Hunt and Bicks as well as Emmy nominee Linney to preview the final season's format changes and what's in store for viewers of the series that hits close to home for its creators. Here are 12 things to know about The Big C: Hereafter.
Why four episodes?
"We wanted to do hourlongs this year just to shake things up and have fun," Bicks says. "Four was a good number and it allowed us to span a year again -- we start in September and we go to May." With so much time to cover, each episode will connect to the one before but there will be a significant time jump between each hour. "We are tracking certain progressions of stories for each of the characters over the course of those four episodes."
The seasons of the year are still represented.
Conceptually, each season of The Big C was designed to reflect a season of the year -- season one was the summer and so on. Hereafter begins with the first day of fall, something Bicks says allows the final run to come full circle. "We end up touching each of the seasons within those four so we kind of do a replay of all of the seasons again, which was fun to do," she says. Adds Hunt with a laugh: "It's like life because seasons keep happening."
While each season has traditionally explored one of the five stages of grief, Hereafter will explore two: depression and acceptance.
"Cathy talks about depression and being depressed and what that’s done to her, and then we head into a level of acceptance," Bicks says. "But at the same time, the truth of it is if you read anything about the stages of grief, they’re not one after the other all the time. Often they’re on top of each other or one comes back around. This season, we’re exploring everyone having different reactions to what’s happening as opposed to being so linear about it."
Tonally, the show isn't much different …
"Our tone has always been betwixt and between a bit and we sort of just rode the horse in the direction it was going a little bit in terms of it feeling a little weighty and little more like a drama than a comedy on some days," Hunt explains. "We wanted to really lean into that in the last season." So Cathy will still make her typically snarky responses and John Benjamin Hickey's Sean will still be a source of comic relief, but those moments will now have more time to breathe. Notes Bicks: "It felt good to not try to jam so much into half an hour. We would never push our comedy but I think in retrospect letting the moments breathe, both comedically and dramatically felt more right for the show."
… but it is more emotional.
Says Linney: "It certainly has a slightly different temper. People who enjoy the slightly odd and unique quality that our show has won't be disappointed, but it does tackle head-on, emotionally, the challenges of someone who’s battling cancer. But there’s still some pretty wacky decisions that Cathy makes."
Cathy quits chemo, is she giving up?
The first trailer for the final season reveals Cathy's tumors are growing and she's pondering ending treatment. But she's not giving up, producers say. "That’s going to be the perception," Bicks warns. "There have been a lot of pieces written recently about people realizing that chemo has been the thing that doctors tell you to do because either they’re in the pocket of some medical company or they want to believe that they can help you. But in the end, chemo in some cases isn't useful. I find it to be a very brave choice Cathy makes to say, 'I want to live the rest of my life as me, not as some shell of who I was. Why would I live that way?' She can still have hope but at least she can feel like herself again." Adds Hunt: "Is it a cancer show or a show about the inevitability of death? I feel like that moment is also sort of an embracing of the inevitable, which has always been part of my soapbox. So maybe as disappointing as that moment might be for someone dealing with cancer and thinking she might make a different choice, I hope that it can be a victorious moment, too."
Is it downhill for Cathy after she quits chemo?
Not necessarily. "When Cathy quits chemo she’s actually going to feel better, so you’re not going to be watching this steady, sad decline of a character," Bicks says. "In episode two, Cathy has her energy back and feels like herself. That was important for us -- we didn't want to do an entire season where you just watch someone get sick and possibly die. Our goal was to really tell the complicated choices and see where it goes."
Cathy will still make crazy decisions.
While Cathy's bold -- and some would say crazy -- decision to set back out to sea with the stranger she met in the third-season finale will be explained in the premiere, those types of life choices will continue this year. Says Linney: "Cathy feels most alive when she makes decisions, when she organizes and when she tries to control things, so I think it’s just a shift in perspective that she has and she feels like there’s a lot to do. And in some ways that’s invigorating for her."
What does Hereafter represent?
With a subtitle that seems to signify the afterlife, producers say the definition of hereafter is really up for grabs. Bicks says credit for Hereafter goes to her sister after producers had a difficult time coming up with a subtitle. "It’s more about what we’ve been saying all along -- about how you’re here and then you’re not, that it’s really about mortality in a bigger sense," Bicks says. "There’s here and then there’s after and that you have to live in both places at the same time. It's like that Buddhist thought, 'Every day you live you’re also dying at the same time.'"
Does the title give away Cathy's ultimate fate?
"I wouldn’t necessarily say that she has to die for that title to be valid," Bicks explains. "It just speaks to what we’re thematically about on the show. There’s no one answer to it, and we have a great speech that Laura gives later in the season about the words that people use around that idea of like, 'He lost his battle with cancer' and the idea that somehow if you die you’ve lost. Why are we creating a world where when you die, which is a natural thing, you’re a loser, like you didn’t do something right? You didn’t battle hard enough."
What message does series creator Hunt want to send with the final season?
"One of the messages I want to send has always been transcendent of the cancer story, which is living while dying," Hunt says. "We’re all living while dying and we’re more alike than different, and you’ll hear Cathy talk about dying, the specificities of dying and how people talk about people who are dying. That is a lot of what this season is. The fact that we’re all going there, and yet sometimes we look upon people who seem like they’re closer than we are with such sympathy and with an ability to realize that that’s a little bit of a natural path. Cancer is unique because it’s something you can fight to get more time, and sometimes horrifically that takes people what seems like too soon. But then what is the definition of too soon in a lifetime? We’re all just here for a moment and then we’re gone. So for me, I’ve always wanted to explore the universal idea and to get us talking about the realities of death and that it will take us all."
With only four episodes, there are big moments every week.
"The cool thing about only doing four is that each one of them has a lot of story going on and a lot of ups and downs -- especially with Cathy," Bicks says. "There is something rather shocking that happens to Cathy toward the end of the second episode." Adds Linney: "She makes some very big decisions about how she wants to behave and what she wants her lifestyle to be and how she wants her family to function. She makes some very big decisions that are not terribly popular, but she does step into a different place."
The Big C: Hereafter begins Monday, April 29 at 10 p.m. on Showtime. Hit the comments below with your thoughts on how Cathy's journey should conclude.