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The Fundamental Flaw in And Just Like That …

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO Max

And Just Like That …, the HBO Max series that catches up with three of the principal figures from Sex and the City more than 15 years later, could and should have been a fun, thoughtful celebration of being a woman in the throes of her 50s. Instead, much of its comedy focused on how getting older either makes you creaky and out of touch or so impulsive that your friends barely recognize you. There have been several missteps throughout this (limited? continuing? unclear!) series, like Miranda Hobbes’s inability to form coherent sentences when let loose among the woke. But the most fundamental and dismaying way the series failed the Sex and the City faithful was by making life over 50 look unhinged and a little sad, something its predecessor specifically did not do in its depiction of life over 30.

The finale that dropped on Thursday tries to do some course-correcting on that front by leaving Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda in places that suggest they still have plenty of normal, happy life left to live. After getting extremely overdressed to dump Big’s ashes into the Seine, Carrie finds new glimmers of romance with modern society’s version of the ideal man: a podcast producer. Charlotte gets bat mitzvahed, mainly because her child, Rock, refuses to be they mitzvahed at the last minute, and Charlotte York Goldenblatt will not let fine catering go to waste. The obvious subtext to this plot development is that even a middle-aged woman can “become a woman” for the first time.

The notion of reinvention is communicated more directly via Miranda, who follows her heart and moves to L.A. to remain close to Che while Che is developing their own TV series. When Carrie, extremely correctly, expresses doubt about this plan — doubt she casts, I might add, without even knowing that Che sprung the news of the L.A. move on Miranda by singing it before a live audience at a bar! — Miranda pushes back against the suggestion that she is not acting like herself. “Am I not allowed to change a little bit?” she asks. “Or a lot? Or change back again if I feel like it? Do I have to follow my own rigid rules until the day that I die?”

These questions pop out as though they form a collective thesis statement for And Just Like That …, and they do, at least theoretically. But that statement has been essentially tossed into the final paragraph of a term paper instead of right up front where it can serve as a guide for the whole text. At its core, And Just Like That … is exploring what it means to age and change, but it handles that subject matter with a clumsiness and, prior to the finale, a grimness that often obscures any intended messages about embracing change.

Similar questions about aging were foundational to Sex and the City. When the series debuted on HBO in the late ’90s, it was notable not only for its frank talk about sex but because it depicted women in their 30s and early 40s who avoided marriage and motherhood so they could exist on their own terms and timelines. (The marriage- and motherhood-hungry Charlotte, of course, being the notable exception.) In other words, Sex and the City was the story of a group of women deliberately deciding not to follow the rigid rules traditional society was trying to impose on them until the day they died.

Existing as a post-20-something woman can be like living inside a vice: You’re still young but old enough to start sensing a mounting pressure to get serious — about a career, a relationship, a family, homeownership — before time runs out. Sex and the City captured that dichotomy frequently: In season one, when a baby shower intensifies Charlotte’s concern that she’ll never be a mom and makes the expectant mother, Lainy, wish she were a Manhattan party girl again; in season two, when Carrie realizes she’s been replaced in Big’s life by the 20-something Natasha; in season five, when the foursome celebrates Charlotte’s 36th birthday in Atlantic City even though Charlotte is trying to pretend she’s still 35. Aging was an ever-present issue, and one that was often played for broad comedy — remember when Charlotte pretended to be 26 so she could hook up with a younger guy in the Hamptons then wound up with crabs? But the ways in which it was highlighted also felt rooted in something akin to reality.

On And Just Like That …, a series built around the notion of aging and how the familiar Sex and the City characters, in particular, are handling it, events often seem to be taking place in a strange parallel universe where Carrie and Miranda (and Charlotte, to a much lesser extent) seem either stuck in the past or divorced from their former selves. While Sex and the City acknowledged the anxieties and frustrations of life in one’s 30s, it also made being a woman in her 30s, especially in New York City, look exciting, fun, even glamorous. While the costumes and environs on And Just Like That … are often stunning, the show does not make being in your 50s look fun. Most of the time, it makes you understand even more deeply why Charlotte once wanted to stay 35 forever.

Over the course of the AJLT season, here is what happens to Carrie: She becomes a widow; has hip surgery; can barely move because of said hip surgery and wets her bed (yes, the one that still has the Calvin Klein comforter on it!); starts co-hosting a podcast even though she initially seems befuddled by this newfangled form of media; considers plastic surgery; turns into that old woman who screams at the young people to keep it down; and, at one point, seems genuinely confused by the term “throwing shade,” at least when Charlotte says it. To the show’s credit, Carrie is mostly aware of and irritated by all these signs of her depleting relevancy. She’s in on the joke. But at a certain point, unintentionally, it feels like she’s the butt of it, too, because she’s confronting so many signs of aging at the same time. (Other characters, including Harry, who loudly announces he’s old and Jewish, and Steve, who greets people by discussing his hearing loss, suffer similar treatment.) All that’s missing is a copy of AARP Magazine blowing out of a Manhattan gutter and smacking Carrie in the face.

Carrie Bradshaw, while obviously flawed, was historically considered an aspirational character, one who lived a fantasy New York life that still managed to be relatable. Someone who loved Sex and the City and was around the same age as Carrie during its original run may have come to And Just Like That … hoping to find that same mix of fantasy and relatability. But aside from great-looking outfits, what they mostly got was a woman with a dead husband and a bad hip. Instead of “Wow, look how my 30s could be,” they got “Here are your 50s, and they suck.” Sarita Choudhury’s Seema provides a fabulous exception to that tendency, but, like the other supporting characters introduced for the first time in this series, we don’t see enough of her life when she’s away from Carrie and the others to feel much connection to her. More of Seema could have gone a long way toward improving this series.

While Charlotte stays pretty consistent with her original iteration, in ways that are also deflating — still perky, still privileged, but hey, at least she now has a close Black friend — Miranda seems designed to be the change-making corollary to Carrie. In the early part of the season, her life looks grim in a lot of ways. She feels trapped in a sexless, boring marriage to Steve, she has to regularly listen to her son bang his girlfriend in the adjacent bedroom, for some reason, and she has a drinking problem that is eventually solved the way all drinking problems are: by just pouring out the drink. But Miranda, who on Sex and the City was always the most pragmatic, judgmental one, is also so open to new experiences that she completely blows up her life, starting a new career, falling in love with Che, and ending her marriage to Steve.

The idea that Miranda could undergo such radical transformation is fascinating and provides exactly the “life after 50 can be a vibrant, dynamic time” vibe that the show needs. The problem is in the execution. So many story lines are thrown at Miranda — the grad school, the drinking, the dissatisfaction with Steve, the Che — that the only way to resolve all of them is to rush. Hence, the drinking is dispensed with in episode five and barely discussed again. In large part because Che won’t continue their relationship while Miranda is married, Miranda decides in episode eight to end her marriage, then does it and immediately runs off to the airport to surprise Che in Cleveland. In the finale Che blindsides her — again, I must reiterate, in song — with the L.A. move and the presumption that Miranda will come along. Miranda is not only not angry, she immediately decides to drop everything in her own life and go. And Just Like That … isn’t just a title, it’s also the guiding principle behind how everything in Miranda’s life unfolds on this show.

I can believe that Miranda is unhappy in her marriage, that she might discover she’s more sexually fluid than she thought, and that she might fall in love with Che, even though I am certain Sex and the City Miranda would have 0.0 patience for Che and, for that matter, 0.0 patience with the way And Just Like That … Miranda is centering her entire life on a self-proclaimed narcissist. But I cannot believe all of that based on the show’s depiction of how it occurred.

Miranda is absolutely right when she tells Carrie that she’s allowed to change a little or a lot. But there is a difference between evolving and becoming someone who bears little resemblance to who you used to be. Handing Miranda some significant lines in the last episode that attempt to paint her haphazard actions as bold moves can’t erase the fact that Miranda barely seems like Miranda anymore.

And Just Like That …, in name and via the jumping-off point provided by Big’s death, tells us that life can suddenly veer in unexpected directions. That’s true. Also true: And Just Like That … does not nor should try to be exactly like Sex and the City. It is right to zig and zag a bit.

But life also has through-lines in it, people, places, and, yes, television shows that provide symmetry between the early years and the later ones. And Just Like That … highlights those kinds of connections in practical terms by returning to Carrie’s old apartment, incorporating cameos from some familiar characters, and making references to Carrie’s continued shoe obsession. But sensibility-wise, it’s in a different place than Sex and the City. When the finale ends, the feeling you’re left with isn’t the warm notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same, which is basically what you want from a sequel or reboot of a beloved show. It’s the thought that after all this time, I don’t really recognize these people anymore.

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The Fundamental Flaw in And Just Like That …