Even if it wasn’t airing two weeks after Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, the season finale of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” would contain a whiff of sadness. While it remains unclear how the network will proceed with the footage shot for Season 12, the Bhutan-set finale of Season 11 feels like a farewell — wistful, sensitive, and rich with existential yearning, it encapsulates Bourdain’s underlying ethos while burrowing into a sense of isolation from the rest of the world.
Bourdain excelled at finding wonderful travel partners who shared his romantic passions — “Hong Kong,” the episode that aired just before his death, found him arm-in-arm with manic cinematographer Christopher Doyle — and “Bhutan” is no exception. Bourdain travels to the mountains of Himalayas with Darren Aronofsky, a close pal and an environmentalism hip to the Buddhist mentality that surrounds them. As a vegetarian, he’s also one of the few picky eaters to crop up on Bourdain’s journey, though the pair find plenty of cuisine to celebrate together while musing on big ideas — the decline of rural life in the 21st century, the fate of the natural world, empathy for other species. As usual, the food is just an excuse to go deep.
Set to gentle acoustic rhythms and a constant montage of village lives, the episode flows with a meditative quality on par with its setting, while positioning these two white guys as the ultimate contrast to a culture defined by tranquility. Sipping the traditional Bhutanese welcome drink ara, Bourdain and Aronofsky sit with environmentalist Benji Dormi as they discuss the contrast between their cultures’ relationships to happiness. Bhutanese government operates under a philosophical principle known as Gross National Happiness, and Dormi tries to compare it to the “pursuit of happiness” in the American constitution. Bourdain lets loose with a naughty grin. “We don’t actually believe that,” he says, as Aronofsky chuckles. It’s a definitive moment for the television host, whose acerbic personality was always a fascinating blend of cynicism and the sincere desire to find a better path forward.
But yes, there are also delicious shots of food: From the jarring spiciness of dumplings in a ramshackle village to the peculiar joys of yak cheese, Bourdain and Aronofsky find themselves exploring a welcome contrast to Western cooking while talking through their different ways of seeing the world. No matter what’s on the table, the focus always reverts back to other topics. Early on, Aronofsky asks Bourdain (who was never keen on the idea of vegetarianism) if he believes animals suffer. “Pain is pain,” Bourdain answers. “If you don’t respond to that, there’s something seriously wrong with you.” That line takes on devastating connotations in the wake of Bourdain’s ultimate fate, but also proves his capacity to consider views that challenge his own.
Unlike some of the more raucous “Parts Unknown” episodes, beyond a thrilling landing at the nation’s narrow airport, “Bhutan” retains a soothing, introspective quality quite different from much of Bourdain’s work. At the same time, it’s not devoid of his usual caustic insights and sensibilities. He talks about the “unjustifiably horrid” reaction to Aronofsky’s “mother!”, which Bourdain considers a masterpiece and calls “an angry and thinly veiled warning that we are destroying our planet.” Together, they wander through an outdoor market where they come across a range of wooden penises, forcing them to acknowledge the country’s century-spanning phallic obsession. It’s a welcome bit of levity, watching the men pick out their favorite painted organs, and recognizing that on some level no poker face could hide the potty humor confronting them.
The episode maintains a tight grasp of its modulating tone. At one point, the pair get drunk, and almost lose their grasp on reality. They’re on the dark side of the mountain where no buildings are built, and on the other side lies nothing but trees, dirt, and rocks. Glancing out the window of a car and gazing into profound darkness, they contemplate the void beyond their reach. It’s eerie and magical. A puff of a cloud drifts through the air as Bourdain reflects on Buddhist conceits in a voiceover that begs for a biographical reading: “It is considered therapeutic,” he says, “to think about death a few times a day.”
Yet for all that happened next, “Bhutan” leaves you with the strange and altogether wondrous perception that Bourdain wanted this finale to soothe his grieving viewers, by encouraging them to move on. In the final moments, as a solemn Bhutanese rap song plays on the soundtrack, Aronofsky and Bourdain sit by a small stream next to a stack of small golden trinkets. Bourdain turns one over in his hands. “You’re supposed to put them somewhere where they’ll last a while, and make a prayer,” Aronofsky says. They do, but the episode ends without providing the specifics. In this masterstroke of a climax, “Parts Unknown” leaves us wondering if it’s even within our right to know.
“Bhutan,” the Season 11 finale of “Parts Unknown,” airs on CNN on Sunday at 9 p.m.