On-screen deaths are usually written in for shock value or for shameless ratings grabs during Sweeps Weeks. Sometimes they’re even used for laughs—in its final eight-episode season this year Fox comedy New Girl devoted an entire episode to a cat’s funeral (R.I.P Furguson Bishop). The point is, in these shows, death is a spectacle. Rarely do shows attempt to explore the largely uncharted emotional territory of what happens after a character dies, the grief. Grief is an ancillary emotion generally found lurking in the background of ghost stories. But this year, television audiences were treated to a number of moving new series and standalone episodes that tackled grief and the grieving process really well. Last month filmmaker Ava DuVernay shared a tweet about grief that quickly went viral. In it is a quote about how grief “is a passage not a place to stay.” These shows allowed us to journey through that passage with their characters. We were invited to sit with death longer, to live in the loss. Here’s to that risky decision and the beautiful storytelling that came of it.
BoJack Horseman, “Free Churro”
BoJack is no stranger to the concept episode—it’s hard to forget the brilliance of its dialogue-free underwater episode, “Fish Out of Water.” In its latest season BoJack goes for concept again with “Free Churro,” an episode-length eulogy BoJack gives to his late mother. Everyone’s favorite depressed horse has a complicated relationship with every member of his family but particularly so with his snobby, secretive, and emotionally withholding mother Beatrice Horseman. This episode allows BoJack to unload uninterrupted—by the audience in attendance or by his mother—about what his mother meant to him. At times he’s mourning, at others he roasting, and sometimes—like when he begins to address her casket with prompts like “Knock once if you’re proud of me”—he’s doing both, and it’s riveting.
This year Amy Adams joined the ranks of other top film actresses by joining the prestige mini-series club as Camille Preaker, a journalist who is sent back to her hometown to cover a series of gruesome murders of young girls. Camille decides to stay with her mother and stepfather in her childhood home which proves to be a trigger for her in more ways than one. Most powerfully, we learn that Camille is still haunted by the ghost of her dead sister. Director Jean-Marc Vallée chose to shoot the miniseries in a choppy visual style that immerses us in Camille’s hectic head space; a blur of time, memory, and trauma. Her sister’s death as a child is one of many traumas Camille is working through and Vallée’s shooting style works to put it all in perspective for us. For Camille, the loss is a past event and a present one, she is still grieving. Sharp Objects is a dizzying and haunting portrait of grief from start to finish.
Sorry For Your Loss
In this new show from Facebook Watch Elizabeth Olsen plays Leigh, a young widow attempting to put her life back together a few months after the death of her husband. Though she debuted as an indie actress (Martha Marcy May Marlene) Olsen is now most known for being the Scarlet Witch, one player in the MCU’s ensemble of superheroes. Sorry For Your Loss represents a return to form for the actress as, over its ten-episode run, it flows more like an indie movie than a television show. There’s an entire episode devoted to Leigh cleaning out the apartment she shared with her late husband that has no right to be as moving as it is. But this is where this series shines, capturing the monotony of a widow’s life; the difficulty of waking up in bed alone, the grief groups, the bills. The show also makes heavy use of flashbacks but here they aren’t annoying narrative devices, they are windows into the world that existed before the start of the first episode. They help to flesh out the world that Leigh lost, and to contextualize the world we now see her in.
Brian Tyree Henry has the episode to himself as his character Paper Boi is propelled into a series of unfortunate situations on the anniversary of his mother’s death. The episode starts with Paper Boi horizontal on his couch, his eyes closed. In the background, the figure of his late mother is cleaning up the house while chastising him about not doing it himself. Her voice then fades into a ring on his cell phone as his manager/cousin checks up on him clearly aware of what day it is. Paper Boi brushes it off, then brushes off his other friend, clearly attempting to self-isolate. After briefly spending time with the girl he’s half-heartedly seeing, he wanders off alone for a walk but is interrupted by “fans” who mug him at gunpoint after recognizing him as a rising Atlanta rapper. This leads to a surreal sequence in the woods where, while attempting to hide from his attackers, Paper Boi is confronted by his worst fears about himself; his indecision, his directionlessness, and powerlessness. At his lowest a creepy older drifter he meets in the woods begins to follow him, humming, teasing him, telling him, “Boy, you is just like your mama.” Their increasingly violent interaction jolts Paper Boi to action and when he is finally clear of the woods it’s evident something has changed in him. As the credited writer of the episode, Stefani Robinson, explained to EW, “It’s sort of within this grief that he sort of has this awakening.” Henry has been open about how close to home this storyline hit. The actor lost his own mother shortly after filming for season one of Atlanta ended and admits his rising star status didn’t really give him a chance to grieve. When talking to TV Guide about the parallels this episode had to his own grief Henry explained, “That’s what loss feels like. You’re wandering in the woods; it seems like there isn’t anyone there to help me. Stefani challenged me to confront that.”
iZombie, “Insane in the Germ Brain”
In season four of The CW’s sci-fi procedural, Seattle is on lockdown to curb the spread of the zombie virus but that doesn’t stop people from trying to enter it, largely terminally ill people who would like to be scratched so they can live on after their inevitable deaths. One of these hopefuls is Isobel (Izabela Vidovic), a young girl who is smuggled into the city to be scratched by Liv, a zombie who is also one of the city’s two primary medical examiners alongside her friend Ravi (Rahul Kohli). Only, after being scratched, Isobel learns she’s immune to the zombie virus and must, therefore, accept her fate and die of natural causes. Isobel makes peace with this and—because she has a morbid sense of humor—routinely fake dies as a prank to Liv and Ravi who are desperately trying to ignore the reality of her situation. When her death finally comes it is like a slap to the face, devastating and painful. Ravi comes over to Liv’s wearing a helmet excited to finally give Isobel the driving lesson she’d been pestering him about but then he sees Liv and Isobel’s mother crying on the couch. Liv and Ravi share wordless confirmation of their worst fear: Isobel is dead. iZombie is a show in which zombies are constantly—and comically—eating people’s brains and there’s at least one homicide per episode, but this is still the most devastating thing the show has ever done. It would have been cheap and emotionally manipulative to introduce a character that the audience is told is going to die only to save her at the end of the season. The way this decision to forgo an unrealistic happy ending forces the characters and a frankly desensitized audience to confront mortality more honestly is a remarkably powerful feat of storytelling. Ravi’s monologue after finding Isobel’s body is one of Rahul’s strongest performances in the entire series and it’s a testament to the show’s strong writing that we really feel the depths of sorrow experienced by each character Isobel impacted over her four-episode arc on the show.
In this new Showtime series, Jim Carrey stars as Mr.Pickles, a Mr.Rogers type with a children’s show on PBS called “Mr.Pickles’ Puppet Time” who starts to spin out after the death of his son and the subsequent separation from his wife. Jeff, a stubborn optimist, decides that his son’s death must have meant so he announces to his producer (who is also his father) that he’d like to do a show about death. “I don’t want to say my son is off cloud surfing or Hula-hooping with a halo,” he explains. “I want to say death.” His producer/father, thinking largely of the ratings and various corporate partnerships this departure from their usual show fare will mean, discourages the idea. “Jeff, sometimes when we think we’re opening up we’re actually falling apart.” The Pickle family all cope in different ways, Jeff’s wife (Judy Greer) distances herself from Jeff because she feels his in-character sunny demeanor is a slap in the face to her sadness, his father doubles down on work and preserving the family brand, even when doing so keeps Jeff from fully grieving his son, and Jeff’s other son begins to act out at school in response to losing his twin. Jeff’s grief manifests in spiraling emotions that impact his increasingly blurred family and work life and it all comes to a head in a truly outstanding finale that brings together all the themes the show threaded throughout its debut season: self-reflection, despair, anger, catharsis.