“Health Care and Cinema”
August 24th, 2009
In its first season, Nurse Jackie has struggled to come to terms with what show, precisely, it wants to be. This is not to say that the result of this identity crisis has been an unentertaining piece of television, as in many ways the show’s tonal inconsistency is intricately linked with the central character’s struggle to live two different lives. But the show has certainly been strongest when both its comedy and its drama have felt more intricately linked with something emotional and human about these characters. The reason most viewers (that I know) have gravitated towards Zoey is not only that she’s hilarious, but also because that humour derives from clearly drawn character traits that are realistic in their neuroses, and that don’t feel forced in the context of the series structure.
Which is why I have nothing but reservations about the show’s trajectory having seen the first season finale, where it seems as if the show veers into an entirely different and fundamentally wrong direction that creates a cliffhanger which feels sensationalist to a point that robs the show of its dramatic impact. Showtime’s Weeds has been doing these types of finales for years, but in that show Nancy Botwin was over her head in early seasons running into situations that spiral out of control as a result of both her own decisions and circumstances far outside of her control. However, in that instance, the dire consequences feel like they are part of the show’s drug trade universe, both logical in terms of the show’s structure and indicative of someone who is new to this world.
However, Jackie is not new to the world of adultery, or drug addiction. Her flaws are not new or sudden, but rather longstanding questions that she has simply been ignoring or eliding for the past number of years. Her life is a web of lies, certainly, and we saw two weeks ago that she is willing to cause herself more pain in order to maintain her facade. However, the way the finale portrays the unraveling of that world makes it seem as if Jackie hasn’t thought about this moment, and that the reality of it would drive her not only to turn her back on the people around her but also to fall apart personally and professionally.
Where the finale goes wrong is that all of this takes place with either cheap dramatic shorthand or through oddly placed character emphasis, resulting in a contrived and forced cliffhanger akin to Weeds’ surreality as opposed to this show’s more grounded humanity.
That final scene is really at the heart of this episode, as Jackie takes a big old gulp of morphine and finds herself reverting back to the pilot’s dream-like world, a place we haven’t visited since that point. There’s a certain symbolism there, but it and other elements of that scene feel largely unearned in the context of the season as a whole. I certainly see what the show was going for, but in the interim period between now and then not enough changed for me to see this as the escalation they’re selling it as.
I think part of this is due to the show’s decision to largely elide the influence of her drug addiction – we can see the adultery quite clearly with Jackie, but for the most part the drug addiction is scarily normal within the context of her daily life. It’s an addiction that has been either flying under the radar or, perhaps most problematically, used for comedy (such as when Akilitis accidentally took some perkocet and ended up going insane). The show’s tonal issues have never specifically run into Jackie as a character, perhaps, but in influencing how we read individual parts of Jackie’s persona they’ve created such problematic depictions of her central vices.
The other problem has been the fact that Jackie falls so hard in this particular moment, and not any other particular moment in the past. I understand that Jackie has been using drugs as a way to avoid dealing with reality, but as the “Previously On” question points out she has been forced to face this potential event in hypothetical form before, so for her to completely fall apart feels false. That final scene, with her waking up from her dream state to see a rat in the light above her, can be read as a realization of the infestation of reality and all other such nonsense, but at the end of the day we’ve viewed Jackie as someone who is strong under pressure, and who has always been able to handle situations like this. For her to not even spend any time reasoning about this, instead choosing to fall completely and wholly into drugs without any reasoning regarding the drug removal being in the system, is reckless in a way she has never been reckless before, and that doesn’t ring true with the character for me.
I realize that this is a personal issue with how I’ve read the show thus far and not necessarily a universal sentiment, but I think we can all agree that the episode’s emphasis seemed a bit odd in terms of the ramifications of Jackie’s decision. I understand the desire to give Eve Best’s Dr. O’Hara a storyline: I love the character, as do most people who stuck with the show, so giving her something to be emotional over was a smart move. However, in the end it can’t help but feel like a contrivance, a thing for Jackie to ignore and miss because of her decision to down the morphine and escape reality. The storyline has always remained too vague, perhaps hindered by the half-hour format, for me to really understand: as far as I can tell, her boyfriend ran off with her mother, who is now dying, and refuses to allow the sisters to see their mother as she struggles for life. But the impact of that on O’Hara has been absent for too long, making it feel like a convenient way to have everything line up for the sake of a “cliffhanger.”
The same goes with Victor Garber waking up from his coma. Just to be clear, the very best part of this finale was Zoey, who puts on dark grey scrubs and sits in mourning of her unfortunate overdose of the film critic. That whole storyline in last week’s episode worked pretty well, as Garber’s a solic actor and they even finally gave Mrs. Akilitis something that didn’t feel tonally off with the rest of the series. But here Zoey was in fine form, moping around and generally not being herself, but in a way that was still very distinctive of this character and as a result familiar and hilarious. The scene where she speaks to the girl who arrives with a rather serious flat-iron burn is a fine example of how far she’s come: she knows how to deal with people in her own unique way, and despite her mistake is certainly a far better nurse (and a far better character) than when the show started. It was a good arc to kind of close out the season for her, even if him waking up liking Showgirls does seem like another pointless cliffhanger in the grand scheme of things.
And the episode unfortunately reverted Anna Deavere Smith back to an oddly broad comic role, sticking her in an elevator so as to avoid Zoey’s punishment. Her character is really the biggest problem when it comes to the show’s tonality, which is fine when she is isolated in other storylines but problematic when she goes from having an invested role in Garber’s character to babbling to herself in the elevator. I think Deavere Smith is really great as an actress, and I’ll admit that her rather adorable pretend interview with David Letterman was a sobering moment for the character and perhaps the most human we’ve seen her. However, could we have perhaps seen a bit less of the crazy before then? It just seems like the character only has two speeds, and I think the depth needs to be a bit stronger if they plan on keeping her around.
And I think that’s my problem with the finale, in that its speed feels out of sync with the best parts of the season for me. While I understand that part of Jackie’s character is how she avoids human emotion in an effort to escape reality, the show has operated best when it engages and embraces that reality. Weeds gets away with these kinds of finales because it’s always been a bit surreal, and always walks on that thin wire where danger lurks at every turn. And while Jackie has been playing with fire in her job and her personal life for a while, the show has been too lacksadaisical about it for me to see this as some final turning point: while Nancy couldn’t have known that two separate drug organizations would converge on her stash in the second season finale, Jackie’s world isn’t so large that she could realize that Eddie might follow her home, or find out she has a kid, or piece together that she’s really only using him. She has done too good a job walking her own high wire for me to believe she’d fall apart quite this much.
But, of course, I’ve never been through a similar situation. So, maybe for people who have, this all rings true, and it’s not like Edie Falco didn’t act the hell out of it. However, there’s just too much about the episode that feels contrived to provide a cliffhanger ending, and while I’m curious to know the outcome I can’t help but feel that its impact has been overblown and exaggerated for the sake of a finale that partially robs the show of its simple humanity, without question its strongest element for me.
- The real question at this point is how they balance out cast dynamics for Season Two: I think this is a show that could use some fresh blood, so I can see Eddie leaving the show in favour of introducing another character. On the other hand, Paul Schulze has been really good, but I just think the character is now too much of an outright villain that keeping him around will keep the show from feeling the least bit like a comedy, and it’s clear from some decisions that they want to be able to pretend nothing is wrong on occasion.
- It’s Coop who is most short-changed in the finale: his obsession with Jackie is cute, sure, and I think Peter Facinelli nailed this role, but he’s kind of kept out of the human side of things. He got his showcase episode when we got to meet his two mothers, I guess, but it seemed like he had more of a role to play in this episode (especially if they had brought forward the external organ donation as a cliffhanger, which felt more natural).
- Speaking of Jackie’s controversy with the donor, I’ll put it on the record now: I think Season Two will start with Jackie giving a deposition or something similar in that case. Just a feeling, is all.
- For those wondering, chances are the show would return for a second season in the Spring/Summer of 2010, perhaps earlier than the show’s 2009 premiere but likely around the same time.