The night before she suffered the heart attack that would kill her, Carrie Fisher had dinner with Sharon Horgan, the creator and co-star of Amazon’s Catastrophe. Horgan later recalled to the Associated Press, “She had been at the antique market earlier that day and she was showing me all these lovely little bits and pieces that she bought for her mom to bring back.”
That small anecdote gains a little more resonance in light of the final episode of Catastrophe’s third season, in which Fisher gave one of the final performances of her storied life. Her character Mia is a homebody and kook who, throughout Catastrophe, occasionally shows up to torment her son, Rob, and his wife, Sharon. For this episode, she leaves the U.S. for the U.K. to attend Sharon’s father’s funeral. Among the quirks we’re reminded of is that Mia, who wears colorful and bejeweled plastic-frame glasses, has a jones for shopping. At the funeral she, impolitely, wonders if her son can take her shopping for “nice Irish wool sweaters.” Later, she stays up to the wee hours ordering antique tea kettles on eBay.
Catastrophe is a comedy that draws, to an unusually explicit extent, from the lives of the people who write and star in the show. Mia, in some ways, must have reflected Fisher as well. “Carrie was the only cast member Sharon and I would let improvise,” co-creator Rob Delaney wrote in a posthumous tribute to Fisher. “We’re a bit despotic and inflexible with our dialogue because we’re insane, but Carrie was more insane and would always, always make it funnier and better.”
Horgan told IndieWire there’s an example of that improvisation in Fisher’s final Catastrophe scene, during which Mia is channel surfing and hits upon her favorite show, My Children Are Schizophrenic. She natters to Sharon, “Can you imagine you have the one kid, it’s schizophrenic, and then you say, ‘Well, let’s roll the dice have another kid, like a friend for that one,’ and then that one’s schizophrenic also?” She offers a few more unasked-for details about the fictionalized reality series before finishing, “It is great TV.”
Of all the subjects Fisher might draw on for extemporaneous dialogue, it’s oddly fitting that this one would involve laughing at mental illness. In life, Fisher was Hollywood’s leading diarist of—and comedian of—internal struggle. Books like Postcards From the Edge and Wishful Drinking detailed her struggles with bipolar disorder, depression, and addiction; as many of the remembrances of her after her death noted, what was remarkable was not only her frankness but her humor and grace in these accounts. And so, it makes a certain kind of sense that for her final Catastrophe turn, Fisher’s biggest scene is a blackly comic take on a theme she knew about: substance abuse.
All season long, Rob, an alcoholic, has been secretly backsliding from sobriety. In the finale, Sharon, unaware he’s been drinking again, is unusually warm and gooey in showing appreciation toward him for being supportive through a difficult year of infidelity, financial problems, and death. She snuggles up against him in bed; the next shot we see is later in the night, with her asleep and him sitting in a chair next to the bed, staring sadly at her. Something’s wrong.
He goes to the bedroom where his mom, who’s staying with them, is up late with the aforementioned eBaying. “Oh did you have a nightmare? What’s the matter, honey?” Mia asks, seeming to blend mockery and love, when he walks in. He immediately confesses that he’s started to drink again. “Nothing terrible has happened but I feel like shit,” Rob says. “I need help, and I wanted to tell Sharon but then [her father] died so I couldn’t. And I know it would be a really bad thing to drink right now, but I want to. A lot.”
Mia pauses for a beat and removes her glasses. Then she physically thwacks her son. “Fucking drinking again?” she spits. “You can’t drink!” Rob is taken aback. He says he knows he can’t drink. “No, you don’t know,” Mia replies. “You never could drink. Why is it going to be different now? You’re just like your father.”
“What the fuck does that have to do with it?” Rob asks, angrily.
Mia has a doozy of an answer, which Fisher delivers carrying a hint of a sick smile: The reason her jaw clicks—“you know, when I eat steak”—is that Rob’s father broke it when he was drunk. She kicked him out for that. “You put a plug in the jug, mister,” Mia now counsels her son. “Because if you ever hit Sharon, I’ll fucking kill you.”
He says he’d never hit his wife. “Oh please,” she sighs as she returns to eBaying on her laptop. “Your being drunk and her being as annoying as she is, you’re going to hit her.”
Mia is explicitly a callous and irritating character, both in this scene and in Catastrophe more broadly. But she’s also, it’s now clear, a sneakily compassionate one. Earlier in the Season 3 finale, Sharon thought Mia had been annoying her newly widowed mom by sticking around—but really (or additionally) she was comforting her. Now, Mia is responding to her son’s crisis not with maternal gentleness but with scolding, threats, and a terrible cautionary tale. The story about being abused by Rob’s dad is the biggest glimpse of backstory we’ve gotten into why Mia is the way she is; Delaney and Horgan have said they were planning to further flesh her out in future seasons. Now that Fisher’s gone, those plans will surely have to be modified.
But as far as final screen appearances go, Fisher could have done a lot worse than playing Mia one last time. It would be insulting and simplistic to say that a character like this is just Fisher playing herself, of course. But Mia’s wry crotchetiness, impolitic humor, and even some of her preoccupations weren’t all that foreign to Fisher’s public persona. The scene with Rob, centering on the idea that substance abuse isn’t a victimless crime, brings to mind something she once wrote about relapsing: “The most painful thing about returning to this dark planet is seeing the look of disappointment and hurt that these forays invariably put in the eyes of your loved ones.” And the entire show’s mix of humor and struggle, especially as seen in Mia’s character, recalls another great Fisher quote: “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”