You hear a lot about shows that were cruelly cut down in their prime, when the people working on them still seemed to have stories to tell and a receptive audience. But for every Firefly or Deadwood, there must be any number of shows that reached a logical stopping point and then just kept going, turning into a zombie version of themselves. The desire to keep watching a show that’s run its course, just to keep checking in on the characters and see how they’re doing, is a form of “shipping,” and the fifth season of Nurse Jackie—which is the first season to have no creative input from the show’s original creators—has been a real shipper’s delight. Jackie made up with everybody. She even managed to get her ex-husband, Kevin, to set aside his ugly feelings about being lied to and cuckolded, so they could end their marriage more or less amiably. And the two of them were able to come together when they discovered that their older daughter, Grace, was taking drugs and acting out. In the big dramatic moment from last week’s episode, Jackie told Kevin that the girls should live with him; given her own history, she doesn’t have the moral authority to lecture Grace about staying clean and sober.
All this chumminess has come at the loss of a great deal of energy. And many of the characters and relationships that once supplied the show with tension and prickliness and unpredictability have turned quite mushy. Eddie is now a lovelorn sad sack who dreams, hopelessly, of rekindling his one-sided romance with Jackie, even after she’s told him point-blank that, for her, it was all about trading sex for access to drugs. But he no longer does crazy stuff like befriend Kevin; on some meek level, he accepts his role as platonic friend. He’s there for her. They’re both there for Akalitus, whose frequent memory lapses have made for this season’s most tone-deaf story line; the show treated them as comic relief, nothing to get upset about, while also teasing the possibility that she might have Alzheimer’s or something equally dire. (It turned out she was just having a bad reaction to some medication.) And there’s a new man in Jackie’s life: A cop played, with tedious regular-guy sweetness, by Adam Ferrara. He’s the kind of guy who’s first in a relationship to say “I love you” and who sends bread, shaped like a horseshoe, to his sweetie at her workplace: ‘Atsa for luck!
The finale builds to the ceremony where all of Jackie’s friends, old and new—including Eve Best as O’Hara, in a cameo that amounts to nothing but a chance for her to show off her smile—gather to celebrate her first full year of sobriety. The guest star is John Cullum, who responds to Thor’s request for his “history” by saying, “I’m a gay man in New York City who managed to get old. How’s that for a history?” Now he’s bedridden, and the challenge he presents the hospital staff is to find him a place where he can die without blocking traffic. Akalitus has him moved out of the ER and shoved into a corner of the ICU, where he serves as an inspirational figure for Thor while advising Jackie on religious matters—“You leave the church,” he tells her; “it never leaves you”—and refusing pain medication because he’s been sober for years and wants to stay that way. But Thor quietly slips some morphine into his system, and when he finds out, he’s grateful. After Cullum dies, with Jackie standing over him administering last rites, she goes back home to dress for her event at AA, and as she’s sitting on the edge of her bed, she reaches into her bedside dresser, pulls out the little box she’s been using to store her wedding ring and a single pill, and pops the pill into her mouth. Then she gets up and goes to accept everyone’s congratulations on her milestone of sobriety.
In a post-game interview, Nurse Jackie’s current showrunner, Clyde Phillips, and his fellow executive producer, Tom Straw, talk about how cleverly they’d like to think this ending will snooker viewers—“We think she’s looking at it to say, ‘You know what, pill? Screw you.’ And she doesn’t.”—while also assuring us that it’s all been carefully prepared for. “We knew,” Phillips says, “at the beginning of the season where we wanted to go at the end of the season,” i.e., with Jackie using again. This is easy to believe. Phillips inherited a show that was originally about a functioning drug addict working in a specific hospital with a specific cast of supporting characters. Just because he happened to come in when the show had resolved or redefined every one of its major elements doesn’t mean that it had to either end or become a completely show. It does mean that this should have happened, but not that it had to. But why does Jackie take the pill? Phillips can’t very well say that it’s because he’s too lazy to figure out a new direction for the show, but he has a good save: Jackie starts using again because “She was confronted with something that was so foreign to her” that she had to regress to her “default” behavior to deal with it, “and the thing that was so foreign to her was joy.” She started self-medicating because she was miserable, and now she’s doing it again because she’s happy. Got that?
This makes sense: not dramatically, but in a creative-writing class kind of way. Which is to say that, although in context it feels arbitrary and desperate, the writers have a blueprint in their heads and can point out all the things that, in retrospect, can be seen as cleverly pointing toward this conclusion. For instance, Jackie’s seemingly selfless gesture of giving up her kids was really a step toward having the house to herself when she’s ready to dive head-first back into her old life. “You can take this year of shows,” says Phillips, “and watch them backward, like The Usual Suspects.” Personally, I knew who the mastermind was in The Usual Suspects after about five minutes, because I noticed that the character doing all the explaining was played by the same guy who’d played Mel Profit on Wiseguy. I enjoyed the movie anyway, because, from scene to scene, it had enough entertaining cleverness that I wasn’t just sitting there for two hours thinking, “Well, maybe the ending will really pull the rug out from under me.”
The whammy at the end of this season of Nurse Jackie puts the previous nine episodes in a different light without making them any more pleasurable to have sat through. Anyway, Nurse Jackie was never that kind of show. It depended more on character development than mind-blowing story twists, but Phillips’ big previous credit was on Dexter, where he was an executive producer for most of the first four seasons and a consultant on the fifth, so maybe his idea of a great piece of character development is revealing that Edward James Olmos has actually been dead inside the freezer all this time. Whatever else happens on any given season of Dexter, the important thing is that Dexter always hangs onto his job with the police department and that he keeps killing people the audience is happy to see die, while keeping it a secret from anyone who would lock him up for it. The really important thing about Nurse Jackie is Jackie herself, and the character might conceivably go in any number of directions, but Phillips must think that what matters most is that she take drugs while continuing to work at All Saints. After Weeds wore out its welcome, the show kept pointlessly re-inventing itself, season after season, until it made re-invention look like just another rut. Compared to that, Nurse Jackie is keeping it old school.