“My Tormented Mentor” (season 3, episode 15; originally aired 03/02/2004)
There was never going to be an easy way to follow “My Screw Up.” While the following episode has to acknowledge the weight of Ben’s death, it also has to go on to tell its own story, and transition the show into the final act of its third season.
It’s a problem that’s nicely embedded in “My Tormented Mentor,” as Gabrielle Allan’s script balances the tricky situation of needing to talk about Ben’s death without actually talking about it. The storyline is ultimately about Dr. Cox and Jordan both dealing with Ben’s death in different ways, but their challenge is that they’re not dealing with it together. They each have their own way of dealing with it, as Jordan leans on her close friends and Cox sits on the couch in his Red Wings jersey drinking away his pain. They both struggle to see the other’s form of grieving as representative of grief, with Cox in particular unable to see that Jordan’s friends are a support system and not just a way to annoy him as often as humanly possible. When Cox finally gets triggered by Carla to put himself in Jordan’s shoes, we get the scene bubbling under the surface the whole episode: Jordan and Perry, sitting on the couch together, grieving a brother and a friend. Largely divorced from the reveal of Ben’s death in “My Screw Up,” Christa Miller sells this final moment beautifully, and John C. McGinley does some nice negotiation of emotions as Cox tries to move back to his day-to-day life.
That day-to-day life takes the form of a long-form discussion of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, which the episode handles as one would expect from an episode that suddenly turns gender into an issue after mostly eliding it in recent episodes and/or seasons. The storyline with Turk and the newly arrived Dr. Miller (Bellamy Young, best known in 2013 as Scandal’s first lady) is where the episode is on fairly solid ground, interrogating Turk’s belief that she needs his defense from chauvinists like The Todd. Young brings some spark to the role—although the character does hew mighty close to season one’s Kristen—and it forces the show to address the fact that characters like Dr. Kelso and The Todd are continually making remarks tied to issues of gender in the workplace. Although Carla’s introduction of the issue of sexual harassment is far from subtle, it’s an important issue to raise, and one that I was glad to see get a spotlight at this point in the season.
The challenge is that, even though the show presents Young as Marilyn Monroe in surgery as a fantasy from the male doctors, it’s still sexualizing the character for the benefit of the audience. The same goes for the scene where J.D. walks in on Jordan’s friends in their bras, or the scene where The Todd celebrates his substantial number of sexual harassment complaints. They’re all scenes that we could read as part of a larger critique of this kind of representation and treatment of women, but which could equally be read as more funny scenes of The Todd being a charming sexist. The show has been consistent in critiquing Todd’s behavior, and I’m not suggesting the writers are in any way endorsing his world view, but the show also tends to rely heavily on the male gaze as it does here. It’s a difficult issue to reconcile, not unlike the challenge of handling the wake of Ben’s death, and one the episode never gets a true handle on before it has to have Turk and Miller mend fences and Dr. Kelso gets to stop The Todd from grabbing a nurse’s ass.
“My Butterfly” (season 3, episode 16; originally aired 03/16/2004)
Given that sexual harassment storyline, it’s at least a bit awkward that “My Butterfly” in part revolves around J.D. and Turk becoming distracted by a butterfly landing on a woman’s cleavage. It’s also a bit awkward that “My Butterfly” is clearly airing out of order, with no mention of Ben’s death and with at least one anachronistic detail that gives it away (the initial reveal of Randall being hired to work on the janitorial staff, which places this between “My Clean Break” and “My Catalyst”).
However, the lack of continuity makes sense when you consider that “My Butterfly” is a spec script, written by Justin Spitzer (who would go on to write for The Office). I have to imagine Scrubs would have been a popular spec script choice for young writers like Spitzer around this time: It had a clear structure of a medical procedural, defined character traits to rely on, and an interest in unique episode structures that gives writers some room for originality. The measure of a great spec script is not how striking or unexpected it is, but rather whether it feels like the script could just as easily have emerged out of the writer’s room. “My Butterfly” falls into this category, registering as the kind of story that Scrubs would tell about working as a doctor, considering the balance between fate and chance as we see the same scenario play out differently based on the simplest change of events.
That structure is well-choreographed, delivering a good combination of small jokes—my favorite detail is J.D. missing the pen Kelso throws at him in both versions, and claiming in each instance that he missed it because he was using his non-dominant hand—and larger takeaways regarding the butterfly effect. Taking the lessons about mortality of “My Old Lady” to heart, Spitzer’s script doesn’t have the butterfly effect change everything: Elliot might find her patient’s pink puppy, but despite J.D. catching his patient’s heart condition earlier and Turk having his lucky do-rag, it turns out that no butterfly effect could have saved that patient. It’s a compelling short story, one that embodies Scrubs’ ethos effectively.
It’s an ethos that seems particularly relevant to ongoing storylines, which is perhaps why it was moved out of production order to sit where it does in the season’s order. The episode doesn’t even have a continuity of its own if we consider that we never see which was the “real” timeline, nor does it develop that idea to the level where we could compare the episode to something like Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory.” It’s almost like a brief side story, one that holds thematic resonance over the season more than it holds any direct relevance to particular characters or story arcs. Although no one is necessarily acting “out of character” in the episode, they’re also not necessarily expanding on their characters in any way, preserved as archetypes in ways that make “My Butterfly” both a solid representation of what Scrubs was aiming for overall if a somewhat limited representation of Scrubs’ narrative goals in its third season.
- Two flashbacks for minor characters this week: we learn the origins of the Janitor’s career choice, and we learn how The Todd came to be The Todd.
- We also get two fun Janitor/J.D. moments: first the clothesline in “My Tormented Mentor,” and second the group of Janitor look-a-likes assisting the Janitor in his plot to torment J.D.
- Spitzer really nails J.D. in “My Butterfly,” particularly the doll reenactment fantasy and his attempt at impersonating Dr. Cox—despite my issues with J.D. this season, Braff is always good in the role, and he’s particularly sharp here with an episode that really dials in on their dynamic.
- Also: I will never turn down multiple banjo-related fantasy cutaways.
- Netflix Music Rights Watch: Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You” normally ends “My Tormented Mentor,” but it’s replaced by something very different tonally on Netflix.
- The “What If?” question that drives “My Butterfly” is similar to, coincidentally given where the episode ended up landing, the first Brendan Fraser appearance in “My Occurrence.”
- We'll be taking next week off, but we'll return to finish out the third season afterwards.
Next time on Scrubs: A moment of un-truth, and the series’ second “His Story.”