Honesty is more important than picnics. And loving yourself is as important as mourning the ones you’ve lost.
Ordinary Joe‘s second episode “Requiem” does an incredible job of exploring the concepts of loss, grief and survivor’s guilt as it delves into Joe Kimbreau’s (James Wolk) backstory. Audiences already knew that Joe had lost his father in the September 11 terrorist attacks, but this episode delves into the events leading up to that moment as well as the ones that come after.
This episode carries momentum from the pilot in the sense that it proves the concept of the show isn’t a gimmick. There are certain premises that are great at the beginning but fall apart as a series goes on because they’re just not built for the long run. With “Requiem” we see that this isn’t just a fun show about a guy that has three lives; the creatives are actually committed to showing the psychology and the emotional arcs of each Joe and each version is really going to be distinct.
It’s also a bold swing for the writers’ room to take; this is only episode two, and usually TV shows don’t tackle such hard subjects or even backstories until they’ve established an audience and a certain amount of trust with that audience. On top of that, it’s a huge responsibility to do a 9/11-themed episode, especially shortly after the 20th anniversary. That’s not something you do lightly or unless you can get it exactly right. Ordinary Joe gave us the best fictional perspective on the topic since Third Watch aired its “September Tenth” episode in 2001.
What I appreciated was how universal the themes are. I didn’t lose anyone in the September 11 attacks, nor do I know anyone who did. “Requiem” didn’t just do well by that specific audience, but it felt applicable to anyone who’s experienced that kind of loss of someone formative in their lives, and I know what it’s like to be there as it happened to me just over a month later.
TRIGGER WARNING: The remainder of this post contains discussion about subjects that may be upsetting to some readers.
On October 19, 2011, I lost my childhood best friend. He was killed in a car accident because of someone else’s reckless driving. The vehicle he was in rolled, his head hit the pavement in the process, and he died instantly. I should have been there when it happened, but I wasn’t.
John was an incredibly special person. He would light up a room any time he was in it, because he was always happy about everything. Nothing seemed to get to him and that energy was passed on to the rest of us who were lucky enough to know him. He was the first person who said I should write for TV and he never got to see how right he was.
We used to carpool together to school because he lived in the next development over from mine. In high school he joined the drama club, just like I had a few years earlier. So we should have been carpooling together again if I hadn’t quit a few months earlier to focus on getting into college. Instead of getting a ride home with me, John got into a car with someone else, and that ended up killing him.
I carried survivor’s guilt with me for the next ten years. I wound up being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because I used to have nightmares blaming myself for losing him. I was almost afraid to stop mourning him as if that meant I’d be forgetting him. But by continuing to focus on his passing, I was holding onto this negative moment and associating him with that, instead of all the positive memories we’d had together. Which was the exact antithesis of who he was.
Ten years later I came to a moment of realization: John wouldn’t want me to continue to carry that grief and pain with me. He would want me to be happy. The best way to honor him wasn’t to beat myself up every year but to live that day the way he lived his life—with unconditional joy. So now on October 19, instead of crying, I do something he would have loved, whether it’s something he’d have found fun or helping somebody else the way he was always there for me.
That’s the way I honor him and that’s his legacy. That’s what I responded to in “Requiem,” because it shows both sides of that emotional journey and respects that both of them are part of the path. Grieving is highly personal and also can color the way you look at the world when you lose someone who was influential to you, like Joe losing his father. Rock Star Joe and Cop Joe don’t attend the 9/11 Commemoration, even though the former has been being asked to for years, because it’s not something they’re comfortable with. Their stories show how you have to work up to that emotional readiness, and sometimes maybe you don’t get there. Sometimes maybe it takes ten years. Or twenty.
We see the other side of that with Nurse Joe’s story, where his relationship with his son and a talking-to from Jenny (Elizabeth Lail) get him to a place where he’s able to attend the Commemoration and even be a part of it. It’s not easy, but as Jenny tells him, his default is to avoid his feelings rather than be honest about them. He has to start looking forward—in this case represented by Christopher—rather than backward at the loss.
“Requiem” brings up an important point that there’s kind of two parts to grieving. There’s looking back at the person who isn’t there anymore and the memories we shared with them, and wanting to hold onto those and that place the person had in our lives. We should never let the ones we’ve lost go.
But when you’re ready, there’s also value in looking forward, because that person lives on in us and how we honor them. How we go on can be the best remembrance of all. In twenty years I still miss my best friend, but I also know that he’d be proud that I realized the potential he saw in me before even I knew it, and that I try to be as positive and helpful as he was. I can’t say I always get there, but I do my best to keep his spirit alive.
Joe Kimbreau is doing the same thing in different ways and in different phases of his process. Cop Joe is carrying on his father’s legacy by having the same badge number but still has to learn, as Uncle Frank (David Warshofsky) says, that his dad would want him to be happy. Nurse Joe named his son after his father and he’s also carrying on by being a father himself. Rock Star Joe still has to get there as he struggles with knowing that he has a son and Amy’s (Natalie Martinez) decision to move on from having a family. It’s bittersweet because she echoes Cop Joe when he asks Uncle Frank if his life is incomplete without a wife and kids. Two different Joes with the exact opposite answer to that question.
But they’re both right for where they are. As Mike Shinoda says, Sometimes you don’t say goodbye once. Sometimes you say goodbye over and over and over again. Grieving is not one action but a process, and one that’s as much about us as the person we’ve lost. While we’re mourning them, we should also spare some kindness for ourselves, and that’s what “Requiem” is a graceful reminder of.
Ordinary Joe airs Mondays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.