There’s something resonant about the final season of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown — it’s more sustaining than depressing. It’s been a real emotional journey watching these last episodes, week after week. It’s understandable that Bourdain fans might have worried the new season of the CNN travel show would be too painful to take, since we know how the story ended. Bourdain was in the middle of filming it when he shocked everyone with his death by suicide, still only 61. The new episodes were finished after his death, without his usual voice-over narration. Yet there’s nothing macabre about it. It ends up being a tribute to his wanderlust, his curiosity, his unsentimental compassion, his punk-rock conscience, his barbed political commentary. But most of all, a tribute to his boundless appetite for other people’s food and other people’s stories. As Parts Unknown heads into the very last episode — he’s going back to the Lower East Side, the perfect place for his travels to end — the whole season has developed into a week-by-week testament.
In Sunday night’s episode, the highlight of the season so far, he went to West Texas to explore the U.S./Mexican border, feasting and drinking and talking and (his specialty) listening. The episode turns into a town meeting on the border wall, over spicy braised goat. He hears locals on both sides of the river tell their tales of how the region has been threatened by the current president’s fantasy of building a 3,000-mile wall. “I’ve been to a few places where they do have a wall,” Bourdain says, sitting beside the river. “Few things are uglier in the entire world, of all the places I’ve seen. Few things have been more of an indication of an utter failure of otherwise smart people to figure shit out.”
The moment hits hard because on one level, it wasn’t necessary for Bourdain to come right out and say it — the whole episode depicts the interwoven communities along the border, as families and friends eat and work and argue together, with hospitality and respect. He didn’t need to tell us when he’s spent an hour showing us. But it wouldn’t have been like Bourdain to leave it unsaid.
The whole season has had that same power. He goes to Kenya with comedian W. Kamau Bell, who’s never visited Africa before, to eat goat eyes. He dines his way through Indonesia and Asturias in Spain. The episodes are conspicuously unfinished — the Kenya one is the last he completed in his lifetime, with his personal voice-overs. But the rawer episodes still feel exactly like him. It’s Bourdain doing what he does best — never the expert, always the student, although the kind of student who blows off the library because he’d rather make the local rounds of cafes and bars. He knows how to listen to the stories in their food.
It’s the trip he spent 17 years on — first with No Reservations on the Travel Channel, then Parts Unknown on CNN. But of course, his death hangs over the whole season. (It can be strangely poignant to watch these episodes after seeing A Star Is Born, since Bradley Cooper was so magnetic playing Bourdain in the short-lived TV adaptation of Kitchen Confidential, strutting in his CBGB T-shirt.) His sense of humor is as acerbic as ever. In the Texas episode, he visits the artsy hipster enclave of Marfa, with a predictably cantankerous response. “I drove three hours though ghost towns and dead gas stations and nothing but nothing. Suddenly, I arrived in Marfa. It’s like, ‘Would you like some bruschetta, some salumi, some $900 ponchos?’ What’s going on?”
It doesn’t play like a farewell season — he’s in the middle of a long-running voyage. At the end of the Kenya episode, he says, “Look, I will tell you, after 17 fucking years, and as soon as the cameras turn off, and the crew will be sitting around and we’re having a cocktail, I fucking pinch myself because I cannot fucking believe that I get to see this or do this.” But as he never forgot, he’s just a visitor in these complex cultures. “I do my best. I look. I listen. But in the end I know it’s my story, not Kamau’s, not Kenya’s or Kenyans’. Those stories are yet to be heard.”
Those words are his sign-off in the Kenya trip — as it turned out, the final voice-over he did for the show in his lifetime. The final episode of Parts Unknown will be a tribute — after the season skips a week, getting interrupted by CNN’s coverage of an election. That interruption makes perfect poetic sense, since Bourdain’s life work was showing how food is part of the real world, and how food is a place where all our stories intersect. The man wasn’t finished eating. And he wasn’t finished hearing stories.