It would have been easy to make the final posthumous episode of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown a sentimental tribute to the late host. And in fact, CNN did air such an episode, featuring interviews with friends and admirers a few weeks ago. But instead, this Sunday night’s series finale, set in New York’s Lower East Side, is an almost entirely selfless examination of the artists who shaped Bourdain’s life during the early days of his restaurant career.
Mostly absent from the episode is food, aside from a chocolate egg cream here and a a bowl of soup at Veselka there. Instead of interviewing chefs, Bourdain visits a series of once revolutionary punk rockers, performance artists and experimental filmmakers who are trying to figure out a way to maintain relevance in the 21st century.
Debbie Harry. Fab 5 Freddy. Jim Jarmusch. These are his people.
The world of restaurants may have made Bourdain famous, but over the last few seasons of Parts Unknown, he seemed less interested in the culinary arts and more fascinated by the life of artists. He hung with Iggy Pop in Miami and toured Charleston with Bill Murray. That move away from food was a freedom afforded to him by his home on CNN, which encouraged the show’s more sociological tendencies.
“This is a show about a very special place,” Bourdain says in voiceover at the top of the hour. “A very special time. And some very special people. So much happened—so much began—on New York’s Lower East Side.”
Like the hour shot in Kenya that began Parts Unknown’s final run earlier this fall, the finale does not directly acknowledge the host’s death, but it does allude to it. At 61 years old, Bourdain’s suicide snatched him from this world far too soon. But he had often discussed publicly that he never expected to live that long to begin with.
More than once, Bourdain reflects on the friends who “didn’t make it” out of the 1970s Lower East Side, whether due to violence, drugs or the AIDS epidemic. Following his own struggle with heroin addiction during those years, Bourdain considered himself one of those lucky survivors.
“Only one in four has a chance at making it,” Bourdain wrote of addicts in his memoir Kitchen Confidential. “I knew that if one of us was getting off dope, and staying off dope, it was going to be me. I was going to live. I was the guy.”
At one point in the episode, Bourdain peruses a binder of vintage “dope bags,” putting on his reading glasses to better observe the all-too-familiar labels, from “D.O.A.” to “Poison.” Almost wistfully, he says, “I remember all of those.”
“You knew you were doing something bad when you bought a product called ‘Toilet’ and shot it in your arm,” Bourdain continues, adding, sardonically, “Memories.”
It’s a subject he had explored on Parts Unknown before, most notably in a 2014 episode that took him back to his old stomping grounds of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he got his start a dishwasher and line cook. Before visiting a support group of New Englanders struggling with the opioid epidemic, the host revealed that he bought his first bag of heroin on the Lower East Side corner of Bowery and Rivington at just 24 years old.
Over an incongruously decadent meal at Jean-Georges’ Public Kitchen restaurant inside one of the many new luxury hotels that have transformed that same neighborhood, Bourdain urges the punk singer and actress Lydia Lunch to get nostalgic. “Looking back, was it all that, was it a golden period?” he asks her.
“No,” she says outright. “Those were the bad old days, baby.” She asks him, “You want to go back to that? How were you living? I know the same, hand to mouth.”
Bourdain doesn’t say as much explicitly, but he clearly did feel a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality for what was likely a simpler time in his past, even if his present seemed objectively more charmed from the outside.
This contrast between the “bad old days” and his life as a famous, globe-trotting television star hits home in the final scene of the episode at the apartment of musician and painter John Lurie, who serves him a plate of plain old hard boiled eggs. “I am grateful and honored,” Bourdain says of what he could not have imagined would be his last meal on Parts Unknown. “Eggs, the perfect food,” he adds, smiling as he cracks one open and takes a bite.
Most of Bourdain’s shows ended with a reflective voiceover monologue about where he’s been and what it all means. That evidently wasn’t an option this time, so instead the episode ends with a frenetic montage set to the strains of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” and a hard cut to black.
His absence from this world has never felt so real.