Anthony Bourdain died on June 8, 2018. At the time of his passing, he’d completed filming on five episodes of what is now the final season of Parts Unknown. This season, which encompasses those episodes and two posthumous specials, necessarily lies in the shadow of the hosts’ passing. It can be difficult to watch. But there is tremendous beauty, and the diligent work of Bourdain’s team is on near-constant display. Somehow, these episodes exist. And while not all feel truly whole, they are treasures, all the same.
The itinerary: Traveling with fellow CNN host (and fellow intelligent and funny person) W. Kamau Bell, Bourdain journeys to Kenya for the first time. “So here we are. United Shades Unknown, or Parts United. Scratch that, that doesn’t sound good. America’s Shadiest Parts. No, that doesn’t either. Unknown Shades…”
This may seem like a backhanded compliment, but there’s a certain sense of Bourdain trying to find a new way to amuse himself here. That asserts itself in two ways. The first is in watching Bell experience all this for the first time—Bourdain is new to the country, but it’s Bell’s first visit to the continent, and as with Bourdain’s travels with Ripert, you can see how much pleasure the host takes in watching friends do things that are likely to freak them out or make them sweat. The second is specificity. All episodes of Parts Unknown thrive on specificity, but even by this show’s considerable standard, this one goes deep. There’s a considerable amount of time spent on the economic impact of mitumba, secondhand clothes shipped over in massive bundles; there’s also a segment on the work of an art collective which helps kids invent superheroes, one of the most visually stunning of an accomplished season.
Looks delicious: In a Maasai village, Bell tries cow’s blood for the first time, an experience he said “wasn’t really about the taste, but the ritual. They clearly love the taste of it, but for me it was about being invited to be a part of the ritual.”
Programming note: Bell’s interview about the episode with Explore Parts Unknown is well worth your time. This is also the last episode of the series to feature the usual amount of Bourdain narration.
The itinerary: Bourdain and chef José Andrés travel to the latter’s birthplace to hike through the mountains, drink ostentatiously poured cider, wax philosophical, and talk about buying a fish. A joyful yet mournful hour in a shatteringly beautiful place.
Looks delicious: There’s much ado about the first salmon of the season, but there’s also Bourdain’s beloved sea urchins and a local blue cheese so full of penicillin that Bourdain can “feel my syphilis clearing right up.”
> Read more about “Asturias, Spain” in our list of Parts Unknown’s most essential episodes.
The itinerary: A necessarily somber episode begins with the note that the hour was filmed months before the first of two devastating 2018 earthquakes, the first of which killed more than 2,000 people. But despite the beauty of the country, “Indonesia” would be a melancholy outing even without the context of the earthquake and Bourdain’s death. He speaks with locals and foreign correspondents about the country’s bloody history, journeys to a Bali resort that makes him as miserable as any place he visits in the entire series (funny, but still depressing), talks about the literal and metaphorical nature of light and darkness with a shadowplay artist (whose work also gives the show a visual motif), and most memorably, witnesses a traditional Balinese funeral. It’s a sobering event, but the episode ends with one of the gentlest, simplest sequences in its history.
Looks delicious: A spit-roasted pig doused with Coca-Cola makes for the centerpiece of a gorgeous-looking dish Bourdain eats with enthusiasm. It’s also a scene in which his absence is keenly felt: An off-camera member of the crew asks Bourdain to talk about the food, and he demurs, saying he knows the dish very well: “I will speak incredibly knowledgeably about it in voiceover. Trust me.” The voiceover never arrives.
The itinerary: Interviews with Andy Greenwald, Andrew Friedman, Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi (both of whom were imprisoned after speaking with Bourdain in “Iran”), and others discuss the importance of the show, what made it so special, and how it’s redefined what food and travel programming can be. Most compelling, however, are interviews with Bourdain himself from throughout the years. It’s unavoidably sentimental, but never indulgent or manipulative.
Programming note: Explore Parts Unknown collected essays and interviews with people featured in the show for its supplemental section on this episode (Salehi’s is particularly affecting). There’s also a collection of responses from fans who voice their appreciation for when he did right by their hometowns.
The itinerary: Some of the most important episodes of Parts Unknown see Bourdain and crew travel to places incredibly important to the political landscape, and about which many, many assumptions are made. There, they show things as they are, dismantling what we’re told by those whose agendas, at best, blind them to complexity, and at worst, lie in pursuit of their own selfish goals. That was the case with “Iran” and “Mexico City,” among others. And it’s true here, as the team heads for the place where “the wall” might actually be built. It’s an episode which the footage makes clear was important to him, and to the team. That drive, in this circumstance, is a bit of a double-edged sword, because the absence of Bourdain’s voice is even more keenly felt as a result. It’s not an ineffective episode, by any stretch. But more so than any other episode this season, the shadow of what it might have been is hard to ignore. Still, let’s not overlook the small pleasures because of the larger aches: The man looks good on a horse.
Looks delicious: The carne asada burrito Bourdain devours at Marfa Burrito is a thing of beauty.
The itinerary: Like “Bourdain’s Impact” from this season, this episode is a posthumous remembrance, but while the earlier episode sits at a bit of a remove, centering on the importance of the show and the man on the television landscape and on the way it impacted viewers, “Under The Tarp” is a far more intimate hour. This is not about Bourdain’s friends and colleagues rending their garments and fighting through tears (there’s the occasional choked-up moment, but it’s again not indulgent.) It’s an attempt at an honest depiction of what it was like to make this show for the people who did the making. Of particular interest: A wonderful look at the solo dining scenes, just the man at a table with a bowl of spicy noodles, a crab back, or a tray covered with Jollibee’s finest fried chicken, talking to the camera and to the people behind it. This is how a team of documentarians write a love letter: Honestly, with great humor, using the footage they have to tell the story as best they can.
Looks delicious: All meals we’ve seen before, but the egg salad sandwich story is a hell of an anecdote.
The itinerary: This visually daring episode, mimicking the work of underground filmmakers and other artists of the ’70s and ’80s, sees Bourdain return home—a place for which his map was once based on where he could score (“in order of preference”). This episode is less about travel than about Bourdain tracing his memories by exploring the memories of others, trying to figure out if his memories painting that era as a “golden time” are accurate or tinged by nostalgia. It’s meditative and strange, packed with luminaries who just seem like people from the old days—Richard Hell, Jim Jarmusch, Chris Stein and Deborah Harry of Blondie, the list goes on. Most of the time when Bourdain tells stories, they’re of his experience of someone else’s life and history, and his ability to use his microphone to amplify others is one of Parts Unknown’s great strengths. This time, however, the story is his. He’s spelunking in memory, and the result is haunting, strange, obviously incomplete and still somehow perfect.
Looks delicious: Give or take an egg cream or some octopus, this episode is less about food than the average installment, but the eggs (and a brief discussion of them in a post-credits scene) make for the perfect farewell.