| Arts & Culture
Grief at a Distance ‘And Just Like That’ Isn’t Perfect, But It Gets Grief Right
In the ‘Sex and the City’ reboot, Carrie Bradshaw’s arc is one of the most truthful depictions of mourning I’ve ever seen on TV.
This is Grief at a Distance, a column by Matt Ortile examining his grief over his mother’s death in the Philippines during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I don’t blame Kim Cattrall for not going back into the office, as it were. When news broke that HBO Max would be reviving the women and universe of Sex and the City , it was confirmed that Cattrall would not be reprising her signature role as Samantha Jones. She’s long been vocal about closing that chapter of her life for personal reasons, and I thought, Good for her . To use her words : I too would not want to be in a situation for even an hour where I’m not enjoying myself.
That said, I was cautiously optimistic about And Just Like That . Like many fans, I couldn’t help but wonder how the writers would subtract Samantha from the lives of Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte. For what it’s worth, I tweeted that I wanted her killed off : a “her [breast] cancer came back” storyline could work (i kind of hope for it tbh?) if it’s done with grace and respect; cancer happens to a lot of women and families, and seeing how Samantha’s family—her friends—grieve would be compelling .
I wished for a show about loss. Not unrelatedly: I was in the first year of grieving my mother who had died because her breast cancer returned. Reboots, it’s true, are worse.
Spoilers ahead: And Just Like That is not a perfect show. When I first watched the series premiere, I thought it felt a little stuck, trying too hard to catch up to the present zeitgeist, like a mom asking her kids to teach her TikTok dances. Ostensibly, that’s what it’s all about: Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda are now in their midfifties and navigating a progressive, fluid, and label-resistant world. (There are still many labels, of course; an Oscar de la Renta dress is a plot point in the first episode.) Audience reactions have ranged from mixed to negative: Critics’ reviews are largely tepid , while l ongtime fans are furious to see their favorites undergo character assassination .
As far as storylines go, they’re unsurprising paths for the girls, but I would have wanted better for them: Charlotte initially struggles to adapt to her younger child’s changing pronouns and gender expression. (Ever a good mom, she does grow to resemble #WokeCharlotte by the latter half of the season.) Meanwhile, Miranda feels trapped in her marriage and has an affair with Carrie’s boss, a nonbinary comedian and podcaster named Che Diaz. (I’ll let Charlotte’s disbelief speak for mine: “A finger made you feel ‘ alive ’?”) Simultaneously, Miranda quits her decades-long career in corporate law, attends grad school to “make a difference,” and deals with a drinking problem—she’s got a lot, maybe too much, going on. (Indeed, these two subplots are dropped cold turkey halfway through the series.)
Carrie, at least . . . well, we’ll get to Carrie in a bit.
All that to say: And Just Like That is a far cry from Sex and the City , which felt revolutionary. When it ran from 1998 to 2004, it was at the forefront of the zeitgeist , due in no small part to Kim Cattrall as the dynamic and sexually liberated Samantha Jones. The original show has its flaws, of course; it’s glaringly white, excessively materialistic, and largely stereotypical when it comes to portraying queer and nonwhite people. But few television shows are truly faultless, and I’d hesitate to throw out the Birkins with the bathwater.
Few television shows are truly faultless, and I’d hesitate to throw out the Birkins with the bathwater.
As a teenager, I used to watch Sex and the City with Mom. We got it on TBS, which scrubbed each episode to a PG-13 rating and, as a result, a seventeenish-minute runtime. It was one of the things that brought us together, different as she and I were, going through menopause and puberty, respectively. Samantha’s breast-cancer storyline hit close to home for us; almost every woman in Mom’s family faced cancer and chemo. Carrie’s ascent as a newspaper columnist and book author helped Mom understand the kind of career I wanted. Sex and the City will always be my go-to comfort show, if only because I shared it with Mom.
I’m a sentimental person; I still keep in my closet a Dolce & Gabbana shirt I bought in 2012, even though I’d get canceled if I wore it —if I could even squeeze into it—in 2022. So when And Just Like That finally dropped, I felt as giddy as I was on the eve of my college reunion. I whipped up a cosmopolitan and settled into my couch. For a moment, I imagined Mom was sitting next to me, sipping a second coupe glass, beginning a new chapter with me and our old friends.
To my surprise, And Just Like That granted my wish: It revealed itself to be a show about loss. Carrie’s husband, the notorious Mr. Big, dies of a heart attack in the first episode. Then, throughout the season, Carrie must navigate what comes next: living alone in their marital apartment, selling a home that feels haunted, deciding what to do with Big’s ashes, and reentering society (and the dating pool) as a widow. A secondary loss, though still keenly felt, is that of Samantha, who had a falling out with Carrie and moved to London for a job. Carrie gets to text Samantha, at least; she seldom receives responses and is more often left on read. But Big gives no reply at all, no sign he’s heard her calls or cries, not as a box of cremains next to her Manolos. In her closet, as ever, is where Carrie keeps what she most loves.
As I write this, we’re a few days away from And Just Like That ’s season finale. I’ve kept up with the show because I do, in fact, like it. Though I still demand a return to the acerbic ’90s Miranda , I love Charlotte as the comedy MVP, and I want to learn more about the new secondary characters, if there will be a second season. As for Carrie—our problematic fave, she who bought Vogue instead of dinner in her twenties, the queen of bad romantic decisions in her thirties—I fear I still relate to her despite myself. Though she matures physically and emotionally in And Just Like That , her storyline feels classically Sex and the City , in vogue in its timelessness: To lose the love of her life, to lose a big kind of love after years of writing about it, reflects an emotional journey that’s relevant in any age—and, as I’ve learned, at any age. What comes next? Carrie asks herself, and I want to know the answer too.
I’ve appreciated the way her mourning is written throughout the show. As a television character, Carrie has the privilege of TV time. She gets to skip months of physical therapy post–hip surgery with a convenient cut of the camera. She gets to write and finish a new book alongside a one-minute montage of the passing seasons. (Jealous!) The rest of us, on the other hand, must wade through each strange day of our lives, always carrying our grief.
Then again, so does Carrie. And Just Like That doesn’t totally cheat her or its audience out of the grieving—I don’t want to say process , because that might imply an end to the thing. Grief is, I’ve learned so far , this unleaving and somehow quotidian thing. In Carrie, I see the same, all that unexpressed love for a lost loved one woven into the new ways she moves and dresses. As ever, Carrie tells stories best with her clothes, wearing Big’s suit jackets as coats and capes, as armor. With her friends, her counsel takes on a tenor wizened by loss: When Miranda says she’d rather be alone than stay married, Carrie reminds her, “Alone in theory is very different than alone in reality.” When Charlotte, overwhelmed by change, asks, “What is wrong with people just staying who they were?” Carrie replies, “Some of us don’t have that luxury.”
There are other moments, of course, when her grief erupts as garden-variety lamentation. Carrie becomes incensed when her new friend Seema accidentally breaks a framed photograph of her and Big: “He touched that glass all the time! The glass is not replaceable!” At one point, Carrie comes across a box of Big’s records—they had a nightly ritual of playing his favorites as they cooked dinner together—and she cries, struck by a thunderbolt of agony. She leaves the storage unit that contains her life with Big, but not before taking a lamp, a sun hat, and a Le Creuset pan.
I haven’t yet sorted through Mom’s things in Manila. I wonder if I’ll be brought to my knees in the same way: Which clothes of Mom’s will send me into a tailspin of sadness? Will I clutch my heart at the sight of her favorite chair empty? Will I even be able to cross the threshold and enter the house where she died, where I was absent for her last breath? Two years in, I haven’t had many of those lamentations, have mostly imagined them in theory. I’ve yet to visit Manila, to mourn Mom while holding Dad in person, to visit the place where she now rests.
In Carrie’s grief, I see elements of mine. I experienced an intense first year of loss while apart from my family; there were days when I never left my bed. And now, my grief is moving into a mode of unobtrusive constancy. Less often am I struck by sadness like lightning, but I feel Mom’s absence in more subconscious manners, shaping what I wear ( her perfume ) and write (this). It is not that I forget she’s dead. It is that, more and more, I am no longer grasping for magical thinking, praying for her return. I am settling into the new person I am without her, searching for the word like widow , but for when one has lost a mother.
I feel Mom’s absence in more subconscious manners, shaping what I wear (her perfume) and write (this).
That said, it sometimes feels like I’ve skipped an episode, been cursed with TV time. Because Dad took care of everything—took care of her until the end—I haven’t had to touch her death, her , in any sufficiently concrete way. My days are mostly manageable; when I pray three Hail Marys every day for her, as instructed by my family’s priest, I now do so without sobbing, in the rote manner of a child before bedtime. I am settling with my loss, holding on to the knowledge that Mom and I left nothing unsaid between us, that our love lives on. I am in a good place. On bad days, to be here feels unearned.
When we face adversity, it’s easy for us to long for the linear progression of television narratives. Stories about grief are so often about overcoming it, leaving it behind entirely. They tell us that to triumph over such sadness is to prove one’s moral superiority, to possess a strength others lack. But that feels antithetical to the realities of our messy, nonlinear lives. We slip and fumble and backtrack as we march on. So, though I envy the ways Carrie gets to move cleanly forward, I’m glad to witness how loss colors her character—as in, her spirit and fortitude. She demonstrates how to live with grief, rather than defeat it. This storytelling choice in And Just Like That is one of the most truthful depictions of mourning I’ve ever seen in a television series. Sometimes grief is devastating; sometimes it’s dull. But it’s always there, paving the road ahead.
I’ve been thinking about the show a lot lately, perhaps too much. Just last week, I dreamed that Samantha returned in the final episode of And Just Like That , looking the best out of everyone, naturally. In the dream, I was in a giant amphitheater, watching along with a jubilant crowd. When I turned to look at the person seated next to me, it was—who else?—my mother.
Upon waking up, my heart was still full from seeing her, even if only for a moment. Then I got out of bed. I made coffee, prayed to and for Mom, and sat down at my desk to write. Outside my window, the seasons did not cycle; New York insisted upon winter. But by the end of the day, I had new words, new pages, another chapter before me.
And just like that . . . I carried my grief for another day.