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As Cathy (Laura Linney) playfully denied her cancer prognosis during Season 1 of The Big C, the Showtime dramedy has gotten darker as it approaches Monday’s season finale. In last week’s episode, Cathy’s neighbor/sounding board Marlene (Phillis Somerville) changed the trajectory of the series when, after having a scary Alzheimer’s-related memory loss moment, she took her own life. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with executive producer Jenny Bicks to discuss how Marlene’s death impacts Cathy, if we’ll see her again and what’s ahead in Season 2.
THR: You wrote the penultimate episode, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which caught a lot of viewers by surprise. What was behind the decision to kill off a main character so soon in the series?
Jenny Bicks: We knew we were going to do it from the beginning. We wanted to be truthful about how life is. Part of what the show is about is life and death and, yes, Cathy may be dying, but other people die every day. We also felt like Marlene, to tell the story truthfully, would be a character who would probably make the decision to do what she did because she knew where she was headed and what she said to [Cathy’s husband] Paul [Oliver Platt]: that she doesn’t want to be a burden. That made a lot of sense for that character. More importantly, we also wanted something that would turn Cathy. We look at these seasons as different stages of grief and that the first stage of grief is denial. This first season in a lot of ways was all about Cathy not really facing what was ultimately happening to her.
THR: How will Marlene’s death change things for Cathy?
JB: With Marlene’s death, I think it really knocks her. In the finale, you see how that works for her and starts to turn her. We wanted to give Cathy a real reason to turn away from the denial and into the next stage. And that’s what Marlene’s death gives us.
THR: Will we see Marlene again? How will she serve Cathy going forward?
JB: We love Phyllis and we love the character of Marlene. I don’t think it’s the last time you’ll see Marlene. We’re an unconventional show and we play with the idea of fantasy a bit in the first season and we’ll continue to do that. If Cathy goes more toward her own mortality and toward her spirituality I think it gives us an opportunity to explore not just what’s happening on Earth right now but what might be happening in other places. Marlene may, going forward, play an ongoing role for Cathy in terms of how she sees her own death.
THR: Will Marlene’s death prompt Cathy and Paul to tell their son, Adam (Gabriel Brasso), about the cancer?
JB: Marlene’s death causes Cathy to become more realistic about what’s happened to her. In some ways it scares her. She does begin to think about how this will affect her child and because she makes her choices in the finale that involve medical treatment, she believes that she should start to clue Adam in to what’s happening.
THR: How will Adam respond when he eventually finds out?
JB: When Adam realizes that his mom may actually be in danger, it hits him really hard. Obviously they have a complicated relationship and I think he has grown up a bit and she has had some influence on him. I hope that the Adam you see in the finale is a lot more enlightened than the Adam that you saw at the beginning.
THR: Cathy sets out to change her husband from a man-child and her son from a selfish putz, and she’s really accomplished that this season. Will Cathy set specific goals in Season 2?
JB: Most definitely. She’s going to continue as she faces her own mortality to want to get closer to Adam and make him as much of a decent citizen and feel as comfortable as she can about leaving him, which obviously is not something any of us could feel comfortable with. Paul is going to struggle with being the perfect husband — the “cancierge” — and being Paul. We believe very strongly that with any character development that it’s two steps forward, one step back, so nobody is suddenly going to change their stripes. Paul is going to try as hard as he can but I think he’ll have some lapses. It’s going to be hard for him.
THR: Season 1 has been about Cathy’s denial. Will there be a theme for Season 2?
JB: The second stage is anger, which we consider to be fighting. I think Cathy is going to set out to more actively fight her medical condition in a variety of ways and it’s going to cause her to struggle both with what’s happening to her and with her close family. Right now Paul feels like he can be heroic but things are going to become more difficult when he realizes what he’s up against.
THR: With Cathy seeing new treatments, there’s a prime opportunity for guest stars like Liam Neeson’s bee doctor. Are you looking at any guest stars for Season 2?
JB: We have an idea of somebody but it’s somebody that we’ll have for a fairly prolonged arc on the show that Cathy may meet while seeking treatment. I think it would be interesting for her to come up against somebody else going through what she’s going through and to see what it looks like from the outside. We have an opportunity in the second season to open up her world. It’s going to be fall, so she’ll be back teaching at school, which means other teachers will be back. Andrea [Gabby Sidibe] will be back and it gives us the chance to fulfill and strengthen the world around her. It’s not just her and her nuclear family.
THR: Will Cynthia Nixon return?
JB: We hope so, yes. I know she wants to do it and we want her to do it. She now has ties to Cathy that she did not have before. And a tie to Sean that she didn’t have before. It’s going to allow for her to get really enmeshed in that family.
The Big C finale airs Monday on Showtime.
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