Amerika and Father Ted: a eulogy for Dermot Morgan

I caught a repeat of the final episode of Father Ted last night, “Going to America”. While most laugh-track comedies of the 90’s, no matter how on-point, seem more dated than relevant, Father Ted still seems fresh – or, when dated, not in a way that’s detrimental to the laughs. Part of this could be the nostalgia I have of the show from childhood, but I think it’s mostly the quality of the acting and chemistry between the actors, the clever jokes, and the irreverent setting. All of this is on display in the finale, and it’s one of the best episodes – yet there’s a strangely elegiac note to the whole thing, an extended sense of requiem that runs beneath the episode. After all, Dermot Morgan, who played Father Ted, was dead within a day of filming: the movements on-screen are some of his last.

I found it hard no to think of Barthes: he is dead and he is about to die. He lives on, yet he is gone. Frank Kelly, too, who played Father Jack, died this year – eighteen years to the day that Morgan died. There is a feeling that ghosts linger around the episode: that past, present and future converge here.

Intonations of death haunt “Going to America”: one of the first shots is of a man on a ledge, who is last seen towards the episode’s end on a bus, the light fading, mournful music playing, as it drives into a foggy ether. Kurt Cobain is invoked. A game of Snakes and Ladders leads the suicidal father down the snakes every time.

Even the title and theme of the episode seems to speak of an ending, a loss. “America” seems to function like Kafka’s “Amerika”: not so much as the real place but as a beyond, as the edge of the world. Father Ted’s delayed goodbyes to his people recalls not only the pain of death and of leaving but of Irish migration to the New World, the unlikelihood of ever seeing loved ones again . In a more spectre-like reading, perhaps “America” serves in the same manner as Michael Haneke’s Seventh Continent: death embodied as place.

The final sequence of the episode involves the Father quitting his travel plans to return with his people to his (now empty and desolate) parish: a desperate change of mind and a return to the living. A dreamlike quality haunts these final moments: eulogy for the show and for the man. The final shot eschews laughs, or any obvious emotion at all, as the camera zooms in on Dermot Morgan’s blank face. He is dead, he lives on always, and he is about to die.