Showtime doesn’t lack for series full of people engaging in bad, transgressive behavior. This is because Showtime is a daring, cutting-edge channel prepared to push the envelope on what’s acceptable for people on TV series to do, and also because, truth be told, it’s not hard to get attention for this kind of stuff, which can be really easy to write. Some of these shows, especially the ones about women behaving badly, started off as something a bit more nuanced, before the creative teams started getting carefree and crazy with them, as if they’d decided to throw parties to celebrate the fact that their inspiration had dried up. Every time Weeds comes back for one more season, there are interviews in which the people who work on the show talk about the challenge of topping everything they’ve done before, but then the series starts up again, and it doesn’t really look so hard. Since the characters have no moral compasses at all, and Nancy Botwin’s supernatural ability to charm herself out of any situation guarantees that she’s never in any real danger (and the show itself operates according to no known standard of reality), the only limits are set by the writers’ abilities to concoct new gross-out outrages; if they have trouble coming up with anything worse than what they’ve done before, they can just ask their kids. The story that Weeds originally set out to tell—about a widowed mother with no source of income and no clear way of getting one honestly finding out what she was prepared to do—not just to feed and clothe her kids, but to hang onto her standard of living—was much more interesting than watching Mary-Louise Parker slutty-MILF her way through a succession of suckers and lowlifes. However, it also must have been much harder to make.
For two seasons, Nurse Jackie did a lot with its original premise, which was that working a high-pressure job with people dying all around you might drive someone to live a double life. The premise was exhausted by the time the show got to the end of its third season, a bumpy ride that I—partly out of gratitude for what the show had already given by then—was probably too kind to. It had its moments, but too many new characters and plot turns were non-starters, and the enterprise as a whole was running on fumes. By simultaneously forcing Jackie to get straight and blowing up her life, the show took a much greater gamble than Weeds did when it chased Nancy out of the suburbs, only to get her mixed up with a Mexican drug cartel. In doing so, the people who shape the show—principally, the co-creators and showrunners, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem—took a big chance on whether they could hold their audience while eliminating the illicit doping and extramarital sex that gave the show much of its salable charge.
It’s a lot easier to seem hip by showing “ordinary” characters getting into criminal bloodbaths and screwing everybody over than it is to show characters who’ve been living on the edge get their act together without seeming square, preachy, and dull. One of the 8 million or so things I’ve always been grateful to The Wire for was the character arc of Bubbles, the junkie street informer who, partly to his cop handlers’ bemusement, finally made good on his commitment to get himself clean. It didn’t feel like something that was in the show because the network wanted a “Just Say No!” subplot. It felt as if it were there because David Simon and his collaborators felt that climbing out of the shit really was a possibility for people and felt it was important to include that as one of the many options included among all the character paths on the show.
There’s a scene in one episode when McNulty tells Bubbles he needs help with something—something that Bubbles would happily pitch in on for nothing—and presses money into his hand, with the shared understanding that he assumes Bubbles will use his “advance” to get high. When the two see each other again, Bubbles, with no small amount of pride and a certain amount of resentment, shows that he still has the money. A friend of mine told me that, the first time he saw that, he literally jumped up from his couch and started cheering, like a cartoon of a soccer fan reacting to a game-winning goal. This season of Nurse Jackie didn’t have any moments like that; instead, there was a slow, warming sensation as the weeks went by and the viewer gradually caught on that Jackie was going to make it, that she wasn’t going to revert. But there were sharp little jolts scattered throughout, such as the amazing scene early in the season when Jackie confessed that her boilerplate speech about how her job drove her to become an addict was bullshit, and the moment when she flirted with saying that things were better when she was a drug fiend and O’Hara told her that she’d been there and she remembered what it was like and, no, things absolutely were not.
In the season’s final episodes, Nurse Jackie indulged itself in celebrating its heroine, and making a case for her brand of (sober) medical care versus that of her corporate-monkey boss, Cruz, who was laid low by an anxiety attack last week and who comes to at the beginning of tonight’s episode to find that Jackie has taken charge of All Saints’. Cruz fires her, of course, in spite of the fact that her day spent at the helm will be remembered by all who sailed with her as the lost golden age of sane, competent, humane hospital management. I have reservations about this, but I’m basically okay with letting the show have its victory lap for its heroine. When the other doctors and nurses have their big “I am Spartacus!” moment and start clapping for Jackie, it’s corny, but it’s also believably what those people in that situation would do.
The show doesn’t make the mistake of trying to make it all about Jackie. The inevitable confusion over O’Hara going into labor provides a chance for the whole cast to shine, with Akalitus ordering her to “get your ass up there and demand the Panda Birthing Suite. I spilled a bottle of holy water in it during the renovations. It’s where you want to be,” with O’Hara still having the presence of mind to dispatch Jackie and Eddie to her home to fetch her “something ravishing but comfortable, preferably nothing that stains.” (Eddie, gazing upon the wonders of O’Hara’s closet, muses, “Her shoes are living better than I am.”) Merritt Wever, who has a fair claim to being the most invaluable yet under-appreciated supporting actress on TV, has at least one line that sums up Zoey’s worldview to a T—“You’re in my world now, and in my world, there are prizes”—and one scene that shows how much Zoey has grown in four years, and what growth in Zoey looks like. After Cruz has fired Jackie, Zoey slips him a notebook full of personal information on her co-workers that she suggests he study, so he can pretend to care about them. It’s a surprising move from someone who’s never easily separated the professional from the personal, and she doesn’t do it out of the goodness of he heart; the way Wever looks at Bobby Cannavale, it’s clear that she’d take it pretty well if he suddenly clutched his chest and fell across his desk. But so long as that isn’t going to happen, she wants to do what she can to help him succeed—because if he fails, it won’t be good for the hospital.
I have mixed feelings about the final, cruel twist reserved for Cruz; it’s one thing to suggest, as the show already has, that his generally cold manner makes him a worse parent than Jackie, even to his own son. It’s another to carry that all the way to tragedy and then leave him, friendless and isolated, alone with his grief. But Cannavale humanizes Cruz to a degree that makes it hard to glibly pass judgment; it’s not as if he’s ever hurt anyone more than he’s hurt himself. Nurse Jackie has been renewed for another season, and I kind of wish it wasn’t. Brixius and Wallem won’t be coming back next year, and this episode, which ends on a hopeful note with Jackie’s world in total flux, wouldn’t make for a bad series finale. As it is, it rounds off the original creators’ vision of the show beautifully. I don’t know what kind of new chapter is going to open out under the new showrunner, Clyde Phillips (late of Dexter), but I wish him well. I sure wouldn’t mind being surprised to see that there’s more to be done with these characters.