Grief is a cruel and strangely capricious thing.
One second you are right as rain, or as close to it as you get in the aftermath of great pain and loss, and the next? Well, the next you are lost again in all manner of deep and abiding sadness, the kind that reduces life to beige and dullness and an enervating sense of “why the hell bother?”
While it can feel intense and so big and large and all consuming that you think it should be easy to describe and talk about, the reality is that unless you’ve experienced it, really had it invade your once “normal” life, it can be hard to get anyone else to really understand what grief is really like.
Thank goodness then for Ricky Gervais and the quirkily affecting wonder that is After Life, a show that through three insightful, thoughtful and often funny seasons – read reviews of season one and season two – has shone a window on what grief actually does to a person.
Spoiler alert: it’s nowhere neat and nice as many movies and TV shows would have you believe.
In the Hollywood scheme of things, grief hits a person with all kinds of melodramatic brutality, leaving them reeling and wounded, such that they reasonably expect at that point they will never be happy again; then along comes a special new someone or a great new opportunity and, bang!, while sadness remains, a glorious good new future beckons and the person moves on.
It’s a lovely idea, and to some extent that is what happens since life is rudely insistent and keeps on going and dragging you with it whether you want to go or not, but the reality it’s an inconsistent process, two steps forward, eight back, and then a couple of stumble sideward and while the intensity may ebb, grief never ever really goes away.
Not only you imagine it will when it first strikes you; this reviewer lost both parents within three all too short years, and honestly expected at the start that while there would be pain and crying and a profound sense of excoriating loss, that eventually things would just spring back as they once were.
Naivety thy name is a first unsuspecting experience of grief.
The truth is while you do eventually claw your way back out of the very worst of grief’s tsunami of loss, nothing can go back to the way it was, and while life moves on, it can’t move to something approximating what it once was because that reality simply isn’t possible anymore.
That person you loved is gone and that means reality is forever warped and changed.
The third and final season of After Life explores with real feeling and insight what this is like as Tony Johnson (Ricky Gervais) tries to fashion some sort of life out of the ashes of the previous one he shared with his beloved wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) with whom he was so close that there isn’t just a hole in his heart, there’s a gaping bloodied crater.
While he has moved on in some ways – at least he doesn’t want to kill himself any more, conceding finally to cemetery bench pal and fellow inhabitant of grief’s dark cage, Anne (Penelope Wilton) that life is worth sticking around for – he continues to drink red wine heavily at night, his faithful dog Brandy (Anti) by his side, abuses people with a comically cathartic regularity and appears to be all but going through the motions of what remains of his life.
On the surface, it’s not a bad life with people who actually care about him in their own hilariously idiosyncratic ways.
Whether it’s the overly nosy, heart-on-his-sleeve postman Pat (Joe Wilkinson), the nurse he meets at his dad’s nursing home, Emma (Ashley Jenson), his long-suffering boss and brother-in-law (Lisa’s younger brother) Matt (Tom Basden) or colleague and close friend Lenny (Tony Way), Tony has people who give a damn about him.
And importantly for where he is in life, handle his frequent mood swings and dark cynicism about life, knowing that deep down Tony is a good guy who gives a damn about people; he may be angry at the world right now, and who can blame him, but somewhere there is the man they know and love, re-emerging at various points when an epiphanic word from Anne cuts through or he realises that maybe giving a damn about life and caring for others isn’t such a bad thing after all.
It’s because After Life is so honest about his pain and suffering, even so long after Lisa’s death from cancer, that his breakthrough moments, which aren’t at all Paul on the road to Jerusalem-like but quietly powerful and nuanced, that his small steps forward to a new life feeling all the more impactful.
The truth is that in season three, Tony does step forward.
Likely not enough for those wanting the big, soul-stirring Hollywood breakthrough but enough that he’s able to make decisions about what to do with Lisa’s life insurance payout – it’s tearjerkingly altruistic and yes, you will need tissues to hand – help people find joy in each other (the final episode sees some wonderful happy every afters take place that will warm the heart) and find some small sliver of a reason to keep putting on foot in the other, thanks to a small honest boy in a kids’ cancer ward.
Sure, it might seem mawkish to some, and tritely sentimental to others, but in amongst the quirky characters, the weirdly sweet people featured in The Tambury Gazette – there are so gems in this season including the author writing truly bad novels featuring Dr Barnaby Love M.D.. and the secret swingers club which seems happy to drop the names of members like crack cocaine shards – and the comically furious railings at life that Tony often engages in (one that includes a creatively used potted cactus), there is a real, deep emotion at work here, the kind that comes straight from the heart and up from the depths of the soul.
Grief is neat or tidy or handily exorcised and After Life doesn’t pretend for a second otherwise, and if the series achieves nothing else, it’s recasting grief as it really is so perhaps more people can understand what it is like to have your life ripped to shreds in front of you and then to struggle to put in back in any kind of workable order.
It’s a huge ask and Tony Johnson knows that, and now thanks to this perfect final season of After Life, with its incredibly poignant final scene that is both hopeful and wisely sad all at once, we know it too, all too aware that while life does eventually go on, it how it does it that takes some getting used and some wildly inconsistent and emotionally messy getting sued to.