Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Need for Closure

From season five, episode four, "Brand New Bag". Relying on someone else for closure is a sure way not to get it.

I had remembered this episode for the story where Elliott, in one of his most unprofessional moments, reacts with disgust to a patient who has to use a colostomy bag (Corinne Bohrer). But watching recently I was much more moved by the story that had started in the previous episode, "A Room with a View", and had its ultimate origins the previous season.

In season four, Dr. Westphall returns from Africa chock full of idealism and decides that the residents need to feel more of sense of service to humanity, so he creates the Community Outreach program, which requires the doctors to do ten hours of community service every month. The program has some disastrous results, with doctors suffering from abortion clinic bombings and prison rape.

Wayne Fiscus, on the other hand, is sent to do house calls for elderly shut-ins. Wayne is an E.R. doctor who loves the adrenaline rush of medical emergencies. He also hates being told what to do and resents authority figures, so having Westphall order him to spend time with boring old people who are running out the clock is like being handed a prison sentence. But Wayne comes around, learns a thing or two, and by "A Room with a View", he spends time with his elderly friends because he likes it. He visits one named Joe Ewell (George Petrie) and gets no answer when he rings the doorbell. Looking inside, he sees Mr. Ewell collapsed on the floor. He breaks the window with a lawn sprinkler to get inside, and calls for help.

Kathleen Lloyd
Kathleen Lloyd
Mr. Petrie has suffered a stroke, and his two grown daughters come to see him at St. Eligius. Joe Ewell has always favoured the older, bitchier daughter Lorraine, played by Kathleen Lloyd, who looked awfully familiar, so I looked her up to find I knew her from both Magnum, P.I. as A.D.A. Carol Baldwin, and from Hill Street Blues, as Howard's girlfriend, Nurse Linda Wulfawitz. The younger daughter, Katie (Christine Healy), has always longed for his approval. The stroke has rendered him unable to live on his own, but he doesn't want to spend his last days in a nursing home. Lorraine isn't willing to take him in as her hands are full with her own family, so Katie offers to care for him.

In "Brand New Bag", Mr. Ewell has moved in, and Katie is holding out hope that her bedridden father who can barely speak will show her some gratitude, and maybe even finally tell her he loves her. She was hoping they could use this time to finally have some kind of emotional connection. But it doesn't happen. Joe keeps asking for Lorraine, who couldn't be bothered to visit that day. Other than him at least recognizing her and letting slip that he thought of her as his pretty baby girl, Katie is left without any resolution when he dies.

Mr. Ewell (George Petrie) asks for Lorraine,
not Katie (Christine Healy). 
Families can really be terrible for you when the people in them aren't your kind of people. That's what happened here--even though Katie was the one who was there for him at the end, and always tried her hardest to win her father's approval, Joe Ewell liked that Lorraine didn't have to prove herself to anyone. She was hard like him. Katie wanted him to appreciate her for who she was. Sadly, that was never going to happen, least of all when the guy's on his deathbed, barely able to move, speak, or know where he was.

It's easy to resent where you came from. No one asks to be born, least of all to a group of people who suck. This episode was a reminder to me that we have to accept that we can't control people, and that they're likely not going to do what we want them to, or act like we want them to, or even give the slightest indication that we even register to them as a person who matters. Even when they're a family member; hell, especially when they're a family member. One of my favourite sources of quick reading pleasure are advice columns, and I see a lot of stories about nightmare family relationships. There are lots of people for whom abandoning their family ties is the best thing to do to preserve themselves.

It was sad that Katie Ewell had these unresolved issues with her father, but she was hoping her for a last-second miracle, and she really thought it was going to happen. She kept trying to win the place in his heart he had for her sister, and it always failed. She wanted him to change for her, but it was far too late for him to be able to do that. You've got to pick your battles in life. A lot of them aren't worth fighting. If you're relying on someone else to grow in order for you to feel better, odds are you won't end up feeling better. Not like that, anyway.

Though St. Elsewhere is often recalled for the instances where they went way outside the box, I am a fan of the show in large part because of the small dramas like this one. I especially enjoy when the characters grow from the experiences we've seen them endure, and this was a good showcase for Wayne, to show how he's actually becoming a grown-up. He comforts Katie, gently points out that the closure she wanted wasn't realistic to expect and that what mattered was that she lovingly helped her father through his last moments, and suggests she can try to work out her feelings about him by looking after her father's newly-orphaned dog, Thor.

Fun stuff from "Brand New Bag":
  • We meet Natasha, Mark and Ellen's new Russian maid, played by Elke Sommer. Mark asks her to say "moose and squirrel", a joke they did later on My Name Is Earl. "I thought so," he replies. He also shows her how to mop, one of many incidences where Mark shows someone how to do their cleaning job.
  • Mark sucks at Wheel of Fortune. Doesn't know who Priscilla Presley is.
  • This is also the one where Mark gets really, really into his toy train set. It's really funny, but damn, I feel sorry for Ellen Craig. And for Lesniak, Mark's apparently long-suffering mailman, who gets his big speech in.
  • Another mention of B.J. Hunnicutt, Mark Craig's Korean War buddy, presumably the same one who was a surgeon at the 4077th -- "I haven't had this much fun since B.J. Hunnicutt and I closed down the Kimchee Palace".
  • Wayne comments about that new kid pitcher for the Red Sox who recently struck out twenty batters in one game. Mr. Ewell mumbles, "Clemens". Wayne also mentions how Wade Boggs is a definite threat to hit .400. Boggs's best single-season batting average ended up being the .368 he put up the prior year, 1985.
  • The hood in the E.R. (credited as "Southie") who had been stabbed in the bicep was played by Sasha Mitchell, whom I knew mostly as Cody Lambert on Step By Step, and for taking over the Kickboxer martial arts movie franchise from Jean Claude Van Damne after the second one.
  • You may recognize Corinne Bohrer from various appearances on TV since the eighties. I know her mostly as an early girlfriend of Joey's on Friends ("The One Where Rachel Finds Out"), and as the star of the short-lived ABC sitcom Free Spirit, as Winnie, a witch, and matriarch of the Goodwinn family, with a daughter played by child actor Allyson Hannigan. She also had a main cast role in the 1984-85 sitcom E/R, alongside Elliott Gould, Mary McDonnell, Conchata Ferrell, Jason Alexander, Pamela Adlon, and a young George Clooney.
Sasha Mitchell as the Southie with a knife wound.
Corinne Bohrer as Suzanne McConnell,
offended "ostomite".

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