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After Life: The Significance of Memories to Someone Experiencing Grief

After Life: The Significance of Memories to Someone Experiencing Grief

In this welcomed analysis of a TV series, Aisling McDonagh explores the relationship between mourning and memory in After Life (2019-2022), a show that delights in the occasional proximity of laughter and pain.

After Life, a limited series written and created by Ricky Gervais, follows a man called Tony whose grief-induced depression becomes overwhelmingly dominant throughout his everyday life. Viewers watch as Tony pushes away those around him, whilst trying to cope with the unfair realities he faces as a widower, after the loss of his soulmate, Lisa. Although the show is ultimately grounded in the story of a suicidal man forcing himself through life, the series is not nearly as dark as it sounds. It actually tackles grief quite beautifully, which is something I never expected from a comedy series on Netflix.

Each episode is an amalgamation of vulnerability, intense grief, and sadness, but these moments are quickly and harshly contrasted by the outrageous humour, which is somewhat reminiscent of Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes speech in 2020. “Shockingly outrageous”, in all honesty, that’s the first phrase which comes to mind when referencing the humour in this show. From hearing Ricky Gervais’ character call a primary school child a “tubby little ginger cunt”, to watching him argue with a waitress about whether adults can order kids meals, it really is hilarious. Ricky Gervais often utilises shock factor to his advantage with his humour in this show, so I think at first it is easy to ignore other dimensions of his characterisation, and it is hard to see past his blunt, humorous nature. However, as the show progresses, we understand Tony to be much more complex, both when he is alone, and through the progression of his friendship with Anne (played by Penelope Wilton). 

The relationship shared between Tony and Anne follows the more positive side of coping with grief. Anne, also a widow, becomes a maternal figure to Tony, guiding him in his daily life. She tries to help him understand life the way she has learned to, the way Lisa would want him to. Memory becomes a crucial part of their friendship, as they regularly reminisce together about their relationships with their deceased partners. Penelope Wilton’s character has a comforting presence to Tony and, to some extent, the viewer too. As an older, wiser character, she becomes very likeable to both the audience and Tony as the show goes on. Anne is complimented by other warm characters such as Tony’s love interest, Emma, and his colleague, Sandy, who all play vital roles in ‘persuading’ Tony to find peace in the life he has been given. However, these people are contrasted by the ludicrous presence of the characters played by the comedian’s Joe Wilkinson and Roisin Conaty. This creates an interesting dynamic throughout the show, where there is quite a divide between these characters and their ‘tropes’. And when characters like Anne step out of the expected boundaries of their characters every now and then and make an outrageous joke, they become even more of interest to the viewer. 

Each season we learn more about Tony’s late wife Lisa, through old videos depicting memories of them together. The series cleverly juxtaposes videos of Lisa, healthy and happy, with those of her in hospital giving Tony advice on how to survive life without her. I think it’s here that we understand how important that little black laptop really is to Tony, like a memory box. He grasps onto it, so tightly, almost as if it were Lisa herself, a way he can keep a hold of her and keep her close. It’s scenes like this, where you realise how important a video, a picture, and thus a memory is to someone grieving. It’s scenes like this, where you forget about the outrageous comedy prior, and start to feel empathy for Tony as a character. I think the beauty of these scenes is that they provide a break from the comedic chaos the rest of the series fulfils. The memories in these scenes are not always ‘big’ or ‘beautiful’, sometimes they are the simplest videos of Lisa lying on the sofa laughing. As you watch Tony laugh or cry, you too become emotional because it seems so real. 

However, despite such heart-warming flashbacks of Tony with his wife and the help characters like Anne attempt to offer him, Tony’s relentless negative attitude towards life can become frustrating at times. And I think that is the point: this show beautifully and realistically captures the pain of grief. The people around Tony push a narrative of “we understand, but you need to move on”. But grief just isn’t that easy. This show really encompasses that, and it is a comfort to have such experience captured in media. This is what made the show an enjoyable watch for me, because, though at times I found his character quite frustrating, I continued in the hope that we would see him progress to peace, as Lisa wanted. 

The ending of the show was something special. As expected, Tony reaches a better place but continues to fight his battles. We see this in even the smaller, or somewhat insignificant parts of the season, such as when teases Lisa about there not being an “afterlife”. Scenes like this show that memories can be both healing and comforting to someone grieving, but also wildly disconcerting. The last season, especially, encapsulates the sense that even when you get to a better place, a better place isn’t perfect, because life itself isn’t. 

If you want to laugh and cry, this is a series to watch. Though I would describe it as lighthearted, (which is ironic considering it follows a suicidal man whose wife has died of cancer), the witty narrative, the heartfelt conversations, and the memories throughout make it seem realistic and enjoyable. And though some may see it as a comedic facade to what is, ultimately, just a sad story, I think it was more than that. I think it was a different piece of comedy to the media that is often seen on Netflix today, because I certainly didn’t start watching the series thinking I would be so fond of a story about a widowed man, but to my surprise, I was.

by Aisling McDonagh



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