Nurse Jackie: “The Wall”
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Nurse Jackie: “The Wall”

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Nurse Jackie

“The Wall”

Season 4, Episode 3

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Part of what’s impressive about Bobby Cannavale’s performance on Nurse Jackie is that he never turns on the charm. It wouldn’t be hard for him to do it if he wanted to; I remember seeing him on the under-appreciated, kick-ass miniseries Kingpin and watching him murder a drugged-out old man in his band without being able to shake the feeling that I’d really like to introduce him to my sister. It’s a conscious, self-effacing, and smart choice. As the man his company has invested with the power to tell everybody at All Saint’s how they’re going to do their jobs,  Dr. Cruz has no reason to seduce people into doing what he wants. He just has to tell them what that is, with the understanding that they’re fired if they refuse. He’ll put up with an argument, because he understands that these are smart people who have their own ideas and that crushing them by robbing them of their dignity would make them useless to him. Anyway, it’s not as if they’re going to win. But he won’t insult their intelligence, or undercut his own position, by acting as if he can sweet-talk them into seeing things his way. That would be wasteful, and if there’s anything that neither he nor the bosses he answers to can tolerate, it’s waste.

At the same time, he’s not just an ogre, which would be an easy way to play a guy who’s trying to remake a “business” that deals in human lives, so that things like cost-effectiveness and efficiency always take top priority. When Chi McBride played the antagonistic hospital chairman and mouthpiece for Big Pharma on the first season of House, all humor and likeability were denied to him, and his character was just a blowhard villain whose bluntness brought out the worst in the writers and even in his co-stars. (“Thank God you were here to save all those lives!” Hugh Laurie yelled at him sarcastically, temporarily morphing into Alan Alda during his unwatchable-ass phase toward the end ofM*A*S*H.) Cruz is something more sympathetic and scarier, an intelligent, not unkind man who has drank the Kool-Aid and bought into the arguments he gets from the head office, communicating the message that a tight ship will ultimately bring more recovered patients safely into port. 

When he orders Akalitus to trade offices with the pregnant O’Hara—allowing  O’Hara more space—he presents it as a totally pragmatic decision, based on the potential legal ramifications if something goes wrong. It probably isn’t, but since there can be no arguing with the legal, ass-covering argument, why complicate things by bringing in any other reasons for the decision, just so he’ll appear human? Whether the people under him see him as human isn’t his concern; Cruz may never go that far around the bend, but there’s a little bit of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched in him. The show doesn’t drop that specific reference, but it steers the viewer in that direction by having Jackie’s rehab counsellor call her “McMurphy” after she’s sabotaged a group session. Cruz and Jackie may have more in common than she’s prepared to acknowledge; The big, gaping hole in Jackie’s life is the relationship she doesn’t have with her daughter, and tonight, she catches Cruz in his office, pensively examining his phone. “Kids,” he says, “they break your heart with a text message. 10 words. Not even.” Jackie, who could certainly relate, can’t resist twisting the knife he’s handed her. “Efficient,” she says, and stalks out.

Jackie is back at work after bringing her time in rehab to a premature end; her reason, again, is Grace, who wants nothing to do with her, and is horrified to have her mother facing her in front of her school first thing in the morning, trying to give her tips on how to apply (or, better still, not apply) makeup. Counsellor Laura, whose best advice is that she “get over” herself, tells her that she’s “looking for someone to tell you it’s okay to do the wrong thing. This is not the place.” (It’s funny, since that would totally be an ideal motto for Showtime original series in general.) There’s a suggestion that green-haired Charlie will not be shaken off the series that easily, but it would be a shame if the others in the group, such as Margaret Colin, are never to be seen again. Even Carmelo Anthony’s baseball player, stung by Jackie’s announcement that she’s leaving the group and is presumably made of sterner stuff than the rest of them, gets up and walks away from the group to stare out the window in a way that makes you wonder if he might have a spinoff series in him. 

Once back at the hospital, Jackie sets about ingratiating herself with the new regime by doing what she does best, selling out her allies. Kelly Slater, smoothly functioning druggie par excellence, slips her some stolen prescription drugs as a welcome-home present, so she rats him out to Cruz, then finds Kelly to warn him that some bastard has ratted him out and that he’d better make a run for it. Kelly, no surprise, opts to saunter toward the emergency exit instead, pausing just long enough to purr to Jackie, “You’re one of the good ones, y’know?” Laura has warned Jackie that she’s going to find out that her skin isn’t as thick as it used to be, but Jackie doesn’t come unglued until Coop, of all people, breaks her spirit (and reduces her to tears) by paying her, without a trace of malicious intent, the ultimate backhanded compliment: He tells her that the reason she’s so cool is that, “like a cat,” she doesn’t care what anybody thinks of her.

Jackie’s realization that she can now have her feelings hurt by someone she considers an idiot is the most flamboyant demonstration of just how completely she’s lost her bearings, but the most troubling moment comes when she tries to adhere to Cruz’s edict that no one should devote more than 10 minutes to a single patient, It’s exactly the kind of rule that Jackie, as Mark Twain once wrote about Fenimore Cooper, would once have torn down and danced upon, but now, she’s not sure that her way is automatically better than the boss’ way. Nurse Jackie is devoting this season to a serious examination of an idea that some of the other Showtime original series are content to pump up and dance around: Once you decide that you’re good enough at what you do that you can do more good by ignoring the rules, how sturdy does your moral compass have to be to make sure that you don’t just start breaking the rules for the hell of it, or for your own personal convenience? And if you try to make it back to safe ground, whose notion of safe can you depend on? Or, as another great survivor once put it: To live outside the law, you must be honest.

Stray observations:

  • Trouble In Paradise Dept.: Zoe tells Lenny, “It’s not your fault, but every 12 days, I go through this thing where I wish you were a completely different person for 24 hours.” “Like who?” asked Lenny. There is only one correct response to that, and Zoe knows what it is: “How,” she asks him, “do you make everything you wear look like pajamas?” 

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