Telling stories about life after death is a strange business. It’s possible we lean so often on the fantastical because it’s easier to talk about the lingering presence of death in those contexts. When you’re a vampire, you can go through all kinds of inane adventures (so we’ve learned from What We Do in the Shadows), and the fact of death is never forgotten. You can build a life for yourself in a zombie apocalypse (as relentlessly resurrected undead shows teach us), but only if you never forget the hard logic of the genre: no matter how safe you think you are, death will leap up and bite you out of nowhere.
Outside fantasy, it’s more difficult to keep the specter of death (and grief, and trauma) with us consistently, because it’s an internal affair. Death is often treated episodically, good for a plot point or two—or if a whole mood, a mood with theatrical elements, like Gothic set design or Goth costuming. Memento mori (remember that you will die) shows up as a color palette, but rarely as a steady fellow traveler in a character’s ongoing life.
Nevertheless, a recent HBO production, Somebody Somewhere by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, manages life after death well, precisely because it retains awareness of all the “little deaths” we’re always moving through as well. Absent the formal set pieces of death—absent even a tombstone, or witness to the death itself—it keeps grief alive by refusing to estrange the emotion from other facets of our lives.
What does it mean to live after the death of a family member?
(Well, what does it mean to live through other deaths of meaning, all the other ends to dreams of ourselves?)
And what does it mean to be present with someone grieving?
(Well, what does it mean to be present with someone in general? To be a decent friend even when the edges of another’s personality are sharp and uneven?)
Whose grief matters?
Grief is an affirmation, after all, of the fact that something in us does go on—alive in the people who wrestle with our legacy. But who are they?
As important as the above questions of meaning are, so too are the subject positions through which they’re posed. In Somebody Somewhere,our two main characters are Sam, a fat woman in her mid-40s, whose body type and style of dress resonate with those of her gentle farmer dad; and Joel, a buck-toothed, receding-hair-lined sweetheart with a catty streak. These human beings—their grief, their setbacks, their talents, their ache for love—matter. When Sam accidentally lectures her handyman neighbor in granny panties, the possibility of mutual attraction comes through effortlessly. When Joel finds a soft-spoken gentleman of a kind disposition, sparks fly cleanly. Conversely, when Sam is selfish (often), or when Joel can’t help but laugh at suffering, their faults do not diminish their underlying worth.
This centering of people with everyday appearances and average moral valences as every bit as worthy of grace is vital to this series, which normalizes the idea that grief comes in all shapes and messy sizes. Grief shows up in Sam’s attempt to sing a song at her sister’s unfinished grave that she couldn’t bring herself to share while Holly was alive. And it shows up in her mother’s failure to actually finish the grave, leaving a mediocre marker on the plot because she’s been too deep in self-loathing to accept the loss.
They’ve both avoided something important, but Sam’s desire to fix her own oversight is superseded by a desire to lash out at her mother for her own—which finally gets her mother to open up, after omitting Holly’s name entirely during counseling in the weeks prior.
It’s one step forward.
But the encounter still leaves Sam with work to do on herself.
Avoidance and presence
For Sam, grief is an open wound that hurts her and those around her every time it’s bumped against—but also, one that she avoids addressing until it’s been bumped. Grief shows up in her friendship with Joel, and also in her living arrangements. At the series outset, Sam is sleeping on the couch in her family home, where she’s been since she returned to care for her queer sister, who fell sick in this small, prudishly conservative Kansas town. After Holly’s death, Sam still can’t bring herself to sleep in the open bed. Giving some of Holly’s belongings to her niece feels more acceptable—an affirmation, not an act of erasure—but that in turn creates anxiety for her living sister, Tricia, who fears that Sam is going to “replace” Holly with her daughter. So Sam backs off.
What does Sam have, to lean into instead? Well, she has a middling job at a grading center, reading student essays under a younger employee eager to mentor her, and she has her struggle to make peace with Tricia, a judgmental “faith and family” small-businesswoman who loved Holly but couldn’t handle her queerness. Their mother struggles with alcohol addiction: a lifelong issue that the loss of a child hasn’t helped. Her father suffers his wife’s alcoholism around a failing small farm, but that hardly makes him a saint; he has plainly avoided necessary confrontation around both issues, and in so doing set a standard of denial and avoidance that runs through the family.
In other words, they all deal with grief just as they’ve dealt with everything else—Tricia’s tacit homophobia and other judgments; the drinking (in part, from the mother’s own childhood wounds); the farm’s slow decline. They are all hurt people who have lost something important to them: a family that sings together, but barely knows how to talk together.
The real question of the series, then, isn’t whether they’ll “get over it”. It’s simply whether they’ll keep trying to move through trauma alone.
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Shutting down, and closing off
Sam, unfortunately, is among the most wounded, because even after she opens up—selfishly, messily, insisting to Joel that she’s no good and not worth the trouble of befriending—she can still shut others out. This is what she does at Season 2’s end, when her grief is sharpened upon learning that Holly kept information from her.
With a third season coming, we know Sam’s not finished adjusting to life after loss—but the next steps remain unclear, because in her sense of betrayal is a reminder that there’s more than Holly’s actual death to Sam’s grief. What has hurt her this time isn’t Holly dying, per se, so much as learning more about how Holly thought of her in life. Only, Holly isn’t around anymore, to hash out this part of their relationship to one another.
If death is the act of leaving things undone, grief might be the folly of trying to finish everything left undone—or at least, of trying to end any further connection to whatever has the audacity to go on.
Queerness and grief
The arc of Somebody Somewhere is in some ways very small. Over seven episodes in the first season, Sam is graced by the generous presence of Joel, an old schoolmate who adored her singing when they were young, and who invites her into the liminal spaces for safety, sexuality, and above all friendship shaped by the queer community in this small town. There is space here for her to exist, he tries to tell her—and to shine, if she wants to. But there is so much hurt in her, framed not just around Holly’s death but also the hole it left in Sam’s life, that the plausibility of her being able to lean into joy is an open question.
In Season 2 their friendship (which is deeply enriched by the wise supporting role of Professor Fred Rococo, trans papa bear to this tiny circle of queer joy) undergoes a challenge caused by Sam’s struggle to make sense of a view others hold of her: as someone who needs to be sheltered around big moments in others’ lives. Although Sam offers direct and loving presence when Tricia needs an honest report of what’s happening in her marriage in Season 1, others treat her with kid gloves around delicate news, which deeply hurts her.
And yet… Sam does seem to need this treatment, and that’s a messy mental trap to find ourselves in: wanting to be a more “together” person, the kind of person with whom others can always be upfront—but also not being stable enough not to splinter at any sudden change in social context.
Love is not something Sam has known in many healthy ways—and now so much of it is bound up in a dead relative and confidante—so it is very difficult not to retraumatize herself around all the ways in which love does show up. Sam wants to have already arrived at a more “finished” version of herself than is possible, and her grief over that failing ironically cuts her off from the work she needs to do to get there.
A background of death, and grief as trauma
Somebody Somewhere underwent a death itself.
Before Season 2, Mike Hagerty, who played Sam and Tricia’s father, died in May 2022. In the original storyline, this father was coping with having his lifelong partner in rehab: necessary, but also a state of affairs that left him adrift, with a struggling farm he couldn’t manage on his own. In Season 2, the show gave his character a generous freedom: he wasn’t sent “to the farm” (he already lived there), but on a trip with his brother, for a long overdue vacation from which he sends a loving message to the family. It’s a delicate onscreen send-off, emotional for the cast, and attests to why the series as a whole has worked so well.
We’re haunted by a pandemic that is its own open wound. Somebody Somewhere takes place in a magical alt-present absent all concrete signs of this collective trauma—but it also speaks to the storytelling that such a real-world trauma requires.
Pandemic took most outward markers of grief from our stories of moving through death, especially when many of us couldn’t be present in hospital rooms with those dying, or have traditional burials, during many phases of this global tragedy.
What we retained, without such overt visual cues, was an acute awareness of the way that grief lives in the body, and in all our attempts to make sense of the other ends of narrative that come with such a totalizing loss.
We are all living now in a world that is in some ways much smaller than it might have been: too “small” at times to face up maturely to pandemic, climate change disaster, white nationalism, anti-trans violence… blow after blow to our sense of pride and pursuit of joy.
Do we deserve joy, and pride, in the wake of so much senseless loss?
Sam is not alone in thinking herself unworthy of it, within the strange, trapped place where her grief has found her. We’re all living through deeply demoralized times.
And yet, when stories like Somebody Somewhere—for all their seeming slightness—bump up against an open wound in our collective lives, they invite us not to close ourselves off, so much as to stay with the trouble. To see the life work in all our hidden griefs—and the chance for community in it, too.
Considering the state of our governments and social forums, we might be living with open wounds for a while—like zombies, but also like nothing nearly as comically fantastical.
Is that the only way to answer grief, though: by seeking its resolution?
We may not be able to choose when these open wounds will heal, or the shape they’ll take if they do. But we can decide—have to decide, as Sam must in Season 3—whether we’ll keep going through these all-consuming losses all alone.