Mourning is inscrutable for those who have yet to experience it; no wonder we try to impose a linear order onto it. Both the grieving and the witnesses to grief feel the need to map a way out. — Suchandrika Chakrabarti, The Outline
As if Facebook hadn’t already given us all plenty to cry over just by existing, this week its Watch channel launches its most ambitious television project yet: Kit Steinkellner’s intense and artful half-hour drama, Sorry for Your Loss, a layered meditation on the suffocating all-ness of grief that will wring salt water from even the most emotionally jaded eye.
The intensity with which you weep, along with the reasons why, will, obviously, be personal, but I don’t think it’s possible to watch Sorry for Your Loss without making it personal. This is true of all television, of course—none of us have a purely objective view of the world, let alone of art, and while television is mostly fun and can generally be a convenient escape from daily life, it is art, and does reflect the world. With a show like Sorry for Your Loss, though, which traces the “ complex, isolating, and ongoing ” grief of those left behind after protagonist Leigh’s (Elizabeth Olsen) husband, Matt (Mamoudou Athie), dies, the personal is made explicit, and in its explicitness, is inescapable.
Are you a person who has lost even one of your capital-P People? Then the experience of watching Leigh’s undimming rage at Matt’s disappearance from the world will be personal. Are you lucky enough to still have all your People around? Great! The experience of watching Leigh’s incredulity at having the world keep turning even when Matt isn’t there—the world you still, right now, in your good, dumb luck are living in—that experience will be personal. Are you a person who has ever loved and lost a pet, or struggled to stay sober, or struggled to keep your life and livelihood afloat in a callously capitalist machine? Oof, friend, look out: Sorry for Your Loss doesn’t even let you off the devastating hook for those.
This isn’t to say that Sorry for Your Loss is a bummer. I mean, it absolutely is, but… thoughtfully so. The series doesn’t milk grief for mawkish narrative punch, but rather clears the stage to let grief be understood as the soul-mutating millstone it is. Steinkeller’s writing is rich and natural, full when the story needs noise, spare when it needs silence. Every performance is intimate and affecting, the actors all grounding their characters with exactly the right amount of weight to balance the disorienting layering of past and present that Leigh’s mind is constantly cutting together as she struggles to move into a future alone. Those bits of past and present balance each other in interesting ways visually, too, as the past pops up in shaky, ethereal snippets that find the camera of Leigh’s mind roving around the physical spaces of each memory with a restless agitation, often losing sight of the subject altogether. In the present, by contrast, the camera is locked into every key moment, Leigh often as still as a brick wall in the shot’s center.
In likely recognition of the fact that, as emotionally and artistically gratifying as Leigh’s journey may be, no part of it is easy to watch, Sorry for Your Loss also incorporates a pair of more conventional mystery elements that helps give 1) meta focus to the audience’s attention, and 2) narrative focus to Leigh’s grief.
The first mystery, which the audience will grab onto immediately after the pilot opens on Leigh’s monologue to her grief group about what the loss of a spouse feels like in the abstract (“Like losing $308,780 dollars a year,” forever), is of the specifics of Matt’s death. How, why, when, because of whom—none of these questions, at least in the first four episodes, are answered. This means that every time a snippet of the past floats to the surface of Leigh’s raging memory, the automatic instinct is to look for clues about the awful truth that Leigh already knows. In this memory, Matt doesn’t come home after going out to the bar with his brother… in this one, he discloses some deeply intimate parts of his medical history… here, Leigh is being handed a baggie of Matt’s personal effects—does any of that mean anything? Every time those memories refuse to resolve into a clear narrative of the moment Matt left the world, we become more deeply invested in making it to the one that does.
The second mystery, which bubbles up at the end of the second episode, when Leigh recharges Matt’s phone and discovers that it’s locked with a code she doesn’t have, is of the specifics of Matt’s life that Leigh, in their brief marriage, never got to know. What memories did Matt share only with his brother? What friendships did he have outside their life together? What secret rooms made up his interior world? None of these are things Leigh could easily have had access to when Matt was alive, let alone now that he’s gone, but the black box of his locked phone offers the possibility—tantalizing and torturous in equal measure—that all of Matt isn’t lost to her, and keeps her moving forward when nothing else does.
Do not get the wrong idea: Despite the way the second mystery especially plays in both the trailer and the “previously on…” segments, neither reflects the heart of the series. The second mystery is only a mystery because Leigh needs some sliver of hope to hang from as she freefalls deeper into grief. The first, meanwhile, isn’t a mystery at all—it only feels like a mystery, because we in the audience are human, and not only is it human to want to crack any puzzle we stumble across, but we have been trained by decades of procedural television to believe that when a person’s death is part of the story on our screens, we are entitled to know all the gory details. In both cases, the grieving and the witnesses to grief, as Chakrabarti describes in the quote above, are just trying to map a way out. Steinkellner and crew know this, and give us a few familiar mystery-show footholds to keep us hooked, but in reality, we don’t need to know how Matt died, because the important thing is that he died, and when he did, his vital, vibrant presence in Leigh’s and everyone else’s world vanished. That vitality is what matters, and is what Leigh, along with her sister and mom (Kelly Marie Tran and Janet McTeer) and Matt’s brother, Danny (Jovan Adepo), spend the present remembering.
It is fair to say that, even though every single person in the world will at some point lose their People, and every single person in the world will at some point feel a flavor of the grief that Leigh feels at losing Matt, Sorry for Your Loss won’t be for everyone— regardless of how captivating Olsen and Athie are together, or how guttingly mean Olsen is alone, or how compelling Olsen and Tran are as sisters constantly on the edge, or how infuriating and confounding and cathartic it is to find even one shard of your unknowable personal grief reflected in another human being’s experience. Some people don’t like to come home at the end of a long 24-hour news cycle and kick up their heels just to watch someone else’s shattered world refuse to come back together again.
But for those of you who do, Sorry for Your Loss is worth your attention. It’s more cleansing for your soul than anything else that might make you cry on Facebook, and definitely more honest.
The first four episodes of Sorry for Your Loss’ 10-episode season premiere Tuesday, Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. on Facebook Watch.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.