First, a little cinema history. There's this movie, Five Easy Pieces. It came out in 1970, helped establish Jack Nicholson as a star, and was recently included in a DVD set from the Criterion Collection that you could use to bludgeon somebody, if you were playing a film geek who commits an impulse murder on CSI. Nicholson plays this angry rebel dude who plays Chopin on the back of a moving truck when a traffic jam makes it hard for him to make it to his job at an oil rig, so he's got both the sexy intellectual-artist thing and the sexy blue-collar working-class-hero thing going, kind of like me before I sold out and discovered the easy and lucrative field of online TV criticism. In the movie's big scene, the one they always include in the montages of clips from movies that are remembered for capturing something of the spirit of the moment, Nicholson demonstrates that he's not gonna take it anymore by having a hissy fit in a roadside diner, the target of his rage being a waitress who won't give him what he wants because of some barely comprehensible, weird-ass rule. (Apparently, the proprietors of greasy spoons were a lot more anal 40 years ago.)
This is a legendary scene, but I've never felt completely comfortable with it. Pissy waitresses are really easy targets, and Nicholson's fury is so overscaled in relation to the source of his irritation that it looks like a case of misdirected anger, like those folks you see on the news who have legitimate gripes about their own employment situation and have come to the conclusion that they must have it so bad because members of the teachers' union have it so sweet. I bring all this up not to antagonize fans of Jack Nicholson or Five Easy Pieces (or bitter enemies of the teachers' union), though that ship has probably sailed already, but because I've read about other people who aren't crazy about that scene, and I'm betting that Liz Flahive, who wrote this week's Nurse Jackie, is one of them.
The episode opens a brief scene in which Jackie, responding to the challenge of continuing to pretend to be drug-free while under ever more watchful eyes at home and at work, hides her stash in a box with some old clothes that, in the closing scenes, she'll have to retrieve from the local nuns after her family has turned it over to a clothing drive. This is followed by a restaurant scene in which Jackie interrupts her lunch with O'Hara to ream out a blustery dude who's giving an inexperienced young waitress a hard time over screwing up his order. It's a fairly long scene, as self-contained and worked out as a one-act play, and it gives you that feeling you get when somebody is scratching an itch they've wanted to get at for a long time.
At some point, around the time that Jackie had the asshole thoroughly beaten but then went that extra step and got the man he was lunching with to agree that he was so appalled by his behavior that he'd never do business with him, I had the thought that maybe Liz Flahive has long been carrying around the thought, "I waitressed all through college, and Bobby Dupea can bite me." Of course, I could be projecting. But it had the burning core of something that was deeply felt, and though it did stand out a little from the rest of the episode, it also served its purpose in the overall series: It reminded O'Hara and us why O'Hara might find Jackie's company worth putting up with her bullshit and did it simply and convincingly. (Compare it to the time House and Wilson reconciled after their traumatic break-up by having them go to House's father's funeral together, where, if I remember right, things started to fall back into place after House tried to get a DNA sample from the corpse so he could be the first person to drag a dead man onto the "Who's Your Daddy?" episode of Maury Povich.)
Now, some Nurse Jackie history: A few days ago, I happened to be showing someone an episode from a previous season of Nurse Jackie, because when I'm not writing about this show, I'm trying to lure people in front of the TV so I can induct them into the cult. It happened to be an episode in which Jackie let her smug contempt for Coop get so out of hand that she committed the kind of rookie mistake that she'd normally be giving somebody else hell for: She learned that a child who was waiting to hear the results of a cystic fibrosis test from Coop had gotten a good report and so, rather than force the family to hang around any longer, she sent them home. Then Coop informed her that the results she'd heard about were from a preliminary test; he had been waiting for something more conclusive, and now that the final results were in, it turned out that the kid was indeed sick. It was a strong moment, one predicated on the idea that, while Coop is a vain idiot, he's also a competent doctor who knows what he's doing, and that, for all the reasons Jackie has for giving him a hard time, he's still deserving of professional respect. She took him for the village idiot at her own peril.
Some of the funniest workplace stuff tonight involved Coop and his dismay at learning that Akalitus had named O'Hara "Chief of ER," a meaningless title that O'Hara had no interest in until she learned that Coop was dim enough to covet it. Akalitus ended up assuring O'Hara that the title was hers no matter what but encouraged Coop in believing that it was up for grabs in a contest he might still win, because she wanted him to have a reason to try to impress her with his eagerness to put in overtime. As I said, this was funny, but I miss those moments when Coop's cluelessness used to sometimes be balanced out with a demonstration of professional mastery, and I didn't much enjoy being invited to laugh at the poor guy because his feet hurt and he doesn't enjoy receiving injections. Peter Facinelli can still manage to make the character touching but in a diminished sort of way: He's so dumb that, despite his money and good lucks (neither of which seem to get him much), you feel sorry for him.
There are reasons to worry that Nurse Jackie is succumbing to the cartoonishness that often plagues shows as they age and the supporting characters stop growing. Nothing slows down Merritt Weaver as Zoey, and Eve Best continues to fold mysterious, unknowable layers into her characterization of O'Hara, but I've lost track of what Akalitus is supposed to be. Time was she was brusque and hard but not beyond being reasoned with; now she's this woman who's sometimes grumpy-seeming but basically nice—it's been a long time since anyone seemed afraid of her—who goes off on these tangents. (The obsession with getting Michelle Obama's attention over the childhood obesity campaign was back this week.) Her personal low point this week was when she insisted on putting up a handmade poster featuring a "fund-raising thermometer" that she, alone of all who gazed upon, failed to recognize as looking like a penis. Suddenly, she was as clueless as Coop, which didn't just soften the character that Anna Deavere Smith had spent two seasons building; it canceled her out. The high points of this week's episode stood out, partly because they were pretty high, but also because the less-than-high points weren't offering them much competition.