SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers for last night’s Nurse Jackie coming up after the jump.
It’s been a while since we checked in on Nurse Jackie, and last night’s stellar episode, “Tiny Bubbles,” is a good point to come back to it. This was the last of the six episodes I saw months ago before first reviewing the show, and it was the one (after the pilot) that convinced me this was a first-tier show.
Nurse Jackie has drawn a lot of comparisons—to other hospital shows, to Showtime’s flawed-protagonist dramas like Weeds (and those on other networks like Breaking Bad) and even to Falco’s earlier work on The Sopranos. But when its elements of comedy and drama come together as they do in this episode, the show reminds me most of a female, medical-based Rescue Me: it has the kind of irreverent spark and sense of flipping Death the bird that Denis Leary’s uncategorizable show has at its best.
A few weeks ago I did a column on TV’s new spate of hospital dramas and how they reflect on the public debate over health care. I didn’t want to reference this episode for fear of spoiling anything, but I wish it had aired before I did the column. It’s probably the best example yet of why it’s so important, in a Zeitgeist sense, that Jackie is a show about nurses more than doctors: because they provide the kind of hands-on care that people actually experience, and they deal with the things that concern (and terrify) us most about the hospital experience.
When politicians talk about “end-of-life decisions” in health care, they’re usually either talking about runaway expenses, or trying to conjure up scary images of doctors being forced to pull the plug to save a buck. But just as frightening, if not more, is the specter (which so many of us have seen in loved ones) of the bad death, stretched out into prolonged agony by technology that can’t actually save us.
Judith Ivey’s outstanding (as in guest-actress-Emmy) performance as a feisty, foulmouthed former nurse enlisting her sister- and brotherhood to take control of her own end was a cathartic, even funny, way of dealing with that real concern. Her portrayal of facing her euthanized end—defiant, but also frightened (it is death, after all)—was moving and honest. And the tableau of friends/accomplices around her spoke to the real, simple desire so many people have of their health care: someone at their side, who actually cares.