Nurse Jackie – “Chicken Soup”

NurseJackieTitle

“Chicken Soup”

June 22nd, 2009

Nurse Jackie is really turning into an interesting cross-section of television narratives at the moment, in a way that it wasn’t early on. There was a point in last week’s episode, when Anna Deavere Smith was high on percocet and turned into a one-note gag, where I legitimately questioned the show’s ability to inject humour into this series, but “Chicken Soup” brings that back into focus by presenting one legitimately comic storyline and a couple of human-interest patient storylines that offered some more light-hearted fare. When focused on interpersonal interactions, the show is finding plenty of humour, and capturing the desireable elements from a show like Grey’s Anatomy from a slightly darker, and therefore slightly better, perspective.

At the same time, though, there are points where the darkness of this world become a bit too overwhelming, and one can’t particularly blame young Grace for deciding that the Bubonic plague is ready to strike again. While some may argue that the very presence of this darkness is problem enough, I’d tend to argue that the concern is less in the existence of a dark side to both Jackie and the show as a whole and more in the execution. Presented in the form of one general cliche followed by a procedural medical faux pas of the worst order, Jackie’s darkness is emerging less and less through organic channels, and more through clearly identifiable insertions into every day life designed to remind us that she is addicted to drugs, or remind us that she’s an adulterer.

It’s a reminder that I don’t think we particularly need, nor one that feels particularly effective in this episode at least: sometimes a simple episode about humanity does more to speak of Jackie’s occasional lack of humanity than does outright character homicide, and on a show where humanity is sent through the wringer and complicated in so many ways a more subtle approach would certainly be in the show’s best interest moving forward.

I had heard in advance, from critics who were able to see all six episodes, that the show is perhaps most effective at being starkly human, an observation that I can confirm is quite true. However, while I think they were speaking largely of positive humanity, it really goes all around. You have Dr. O’Hara, who has no real love for humanity at all and is quite hilarious in the process; Zoe, who is innocent and naive and empathetic; Coop, who despite his frat boy demeanor is apologetic to Jackie for his comments regarding Eddie; you have Dr. Akalitis, who used to be human but had it all sucked away by her administrative position; and then you have Jackie herself, who we see operate as a sympathetic and caring nurse only to cheat on her husband and remain addicted to painkillers.

Really, “Chicken Soup” is about testing that humanity, and questioning the level to which those connections have value. The episode doesn’t quite run with this particular metaphor, but the Pixus that threatens to replace Eddie is all about whether the human presence of a pharmacist is necessary. For Jackie, of course, it is, but it raises the question of whether her relationship with Eddie is about the companionship he offers or rather the ability for her to manipulate him into giving her the drugs she desires. The show has never been black and white with the issue of her adultery, and while Dr. O’Hara’s baity question about the Titanic goes unanswered the episode nonetheless starts to make you understand how her relationship with Eddie is not without its own complexities.

For the most part, the show likes to draw this binary between Jackie’s job as a nurse and her personal life, something that’s quite common in shows that create these flawed protagonists: Mad Men, in particular, stressed early on that Don Draper was literally the coolest cat in the world on the job, and yet his life was pretty well one giant mess. For Jackie, her humanity in her work is unquestionable: she helps a nervous midwest husband pick out magazines for his wife, and she assists an elderly man (Eli Wallach) die on his own terms as his wife feeds him chicken soup instead of being subjected to more tests. That’s what one would consider to be desireable qualities in a nurse, and anyone who questions her ability to do her job well isn’t separating her employment from her normal life. The show isn’t suggesting that she’s a bad nurse, but rather that her ability to maintain the same control in her life is almost non-existent.

The problem right now is that the way in which the show is bringing out the latter is without much subtlety. One of the most common medical show tropes is the patient who is a mirror for their doctor or nurse, and here we get one big, giant mirror in the form of the young midwest wife who could be pregnant but is actually detoxing from Vicodin. The parallel just isn’t necessary at this point in the story, as it’s not like we don’t understand her addiction. Seeing a young woman struggling with the same thing, and forced to watch as googling for a Toledo clinic to help her detox results in Jackie pulling out her own pill from her scrubs and popping it, is not adding anything to our existing knowledge but rather exaggerating/dramatizing her addiction in order to offset her extremely empathetic work as a nurse. It’s as if the show was worried that we would forget she was a reprehensible woman outside of her job if it didn’t in some way invade her work, and that’s just lazy writing more than anything else.

The same goes, to an extent, with Eddie’s potential departure thanks to the Pixus: rather than confronting Eddie’s importance to her through self-awareness or self-investigation, the show makes it a potential loss, something that could fundamentally destroy her world. The show isn’t quite settled on how dark they want Jackie’s world to be, and to create these sudden obstacles to happiness and drugs feels like they’re toying too much with the show, at least initially. It’s one thing to do one of these storylines in a single episode (the Pixus metaphor goes beyond Jackie’s lovelife into the patients, into the other employees, etc.), but too many on-the-nose patients and storylines focused on reminding us of Jackie’s flaws is going to get old quickly.

I thought the rest of the episode was pretty strong, though. The story with Grace’s addiction to disaster documentaries was a bit sudden, but I think that in terms of investigating Jackie’s home life it’s a smart decision that could pay off in next week’s episode. Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that the rather great Eli Wallach would deliver when it comes to a dying man living on chicken soup and his wife’s love, and I thought that the wife’s understanding of the situation was handled beautifully (Dr. Akalitis’ stubborn ignorance wasn’t however, but that’s another story). Plus, up until the point where it turned into a parallel, the midwest couple were charmingly drawn.

The episode clicked best for me in the trifle of a storyline that was “Dr. O’Hara steals Zoe’s stethoscope.” It’s the most overtly comic the show has been without going completely broad, and relying on Eve Best’s comic timing is a smart choice for the show. The storyline works because it was comedy driven by character: Zoe is the one who was far too peppy about the stethoscope and far too nervous about approaching figures of authority, while Dr. O’Hara doesn’t actually care about the situation except for her own amusement at Zoe’s struggles to approach her. Both sides offered humour, and they even allowed for someone like Thor to work his way into the storyline briefly – it was a storyline that wouldn’t be particularly out of place on Grey’s Anatomy, but I like both characters and thought the conclusion (where O’Hara lets Zoe think she’s asleep and peel the stethoscope from her neck) was surprisingly human from the seemingly cold doctor, so there was even a bit of character development for both involved.

In the end, the show really is a study and a celebration of humanity, and I think the episode offers plenty of evidence of that. However, as long as the show seems to be going out of its way to dehumanize Jackie as opposed to allowing the viewer themselves to question her humanity, the show’s ability to really address her complicated issues will be limited.

Cultural Observations

  • Lynn Cohen, who played the wife of Eli Wallach’s dying man, is making the rounds: she played Uncle Pete’s elderly and ailing wife on Damages this past season as well.
  • I don’t mind Jackie’s husband looking quite so young (plus the actors are only six years apart in terms of age), but I wish their relationship didn’t act quite so young. It seems like any serious conversation, like his concern over Grace, turns into talk of sex and indecency. I can understand that this is Jackie’s way of avoiding conflict and real discussion, but I find it hard to believe she’s been doing this for ten years, so the lack of a timeline makes this a problematic discourse in more ways than one.
  • Note to self: learn the yiddish for “go shit in the ocean,” forgetting that any attempt at speaking yiddish is going to be a collosal failure.
  • And just to be clear, Canada has made many greater exports than Mark Messier, numerous other hockey players among them.
  • I can also confirm from my time in History of Medicine class that the Bubonic Plague could never spread as it once did thanks to, as Jackie noted, both sanitation methods as well as advances in modern medicine. Flu, though? Maybe not 40 million, but it’s definitely a legitimate concern right now.

1 Comment

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One response to “Nurse Jackie – “Chicken Soup”

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