Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) has spent a lifetime caring for her alcoholic mother Tammy, who has diagnosed herself manic-depressive thanks to the help of daytime television talk shows. Tammy (Felicity Huffman) isn’t a good person, but she is a good time, whooping and gyrating away in the bar where her daughter works, at least until the end of the month when the welfare runs out. Then there’s the monthly ritual of Tammy dangling off a bridge, threatening to jump, and Catherine rushing to her aid, assuring her that she’s loved and cherished and not a bad mother. Even though she kind of is, always demanding time, attention, greasy breakfasts, and cash, without offering anything back, like motherly love or pride or approval or even thanks.
Catherine is stuck in the same town where she grew up, tethered to a mother who is tethered to the bottle. She’s still fucking the same (married) guy from high school and working a dead-end job. Her only friend is fellow bartender Doug (Clark Johnson), who whisks her away to the city occasionally to live like other problem-free people for an evening. The cycle is starting to feel inevitable and unending, Catherine’s resentment growing, and she’s starting to feel like her mother’s suicide might not be the worst thing, except for the fact that it’s always been an empty threat just to elicit Catherine’s sympathy. So when Tammy is diagnosed with terminal cancer, it has a complicated impact on both of them, not to mention their dynamic now that Catherine’s become her full-time care-taker.
Tammy’s Always Dying gets off to a slow start but a strong lead performance by Phillips eventually sucks us into her world, which feels impoverished and inescapable. The mother-daughter bond is malignant, which makes for a painful reminder that we can’t always save the ones we love, or help loving those who can’t be saved. With confident direction from Amy Jo Johnson, Tammy’s Always Dying admits there are some things worse than death.