“Doctor Death” is the title for the season finale of Getting On. It’s a very special episode. Like, really special.
The episode opens on Dawn walking hand-in-hand with Dennis, the security guard. DiDi sees them kiss, but averts her gaze. When Dawn asks if she’s noticed anything different about her, DiDi says no. Dawn then shoves her hand in DiDi’s face: she’s got a ring on her finger. DiDi asks if it’s Patsy’s and Dawn says no, it’s Dennis’s ring; she’s gone off and married Dennis!
DiDi tries to cover her shock, and when Dawn invites her to get drinks after she says she can’t because she has to work at the gift shop. There are moments when this show really nails it’s critique of the healthcare system, and this is one of those moments: DiDi is not only a nurse, but she is also the hospice liaison, and moonlights as the cashier in the hospital’s gift shop. LVN’s just don’t make enough to have one job. Dawn, oblivious that her position earns her significantly more money and not appreciative of the fact that DiDi has to work nearly twice as hard, offers to bring cake to the gift shop, so they can all have a little reception.
While DiDi navigates Dawn’s romantic adventures, James attends a board meeting with the other doctors. Paul Stickley is hosting a Kenyan doctor who regales the audience with tales of her successes in combating AIDS and malaria. Dr. Anne Killigrew (Mary Kay Place) writes Dr. James a note which reads “These meetings are so boring.” James writes back “Blah blah blah”. As the Kenyan doctor describes the needs and accomplishments of her institution, the doctors write increasingly disrespectful and flirty messages. James is, of course, unaware of Killigrew’s intent.
Once James returns to her office, she discovers a video message from DiDi. DiDi says that she did some asking around and discovered that, due to her duties as hospice liaison, she’s entitled to at least $10,000 more a year than she’s been getting. She says that she’ll confront Dr. James at 11, and expects full backpay.
Before Dr. James gets a chance to deal with DiDi, she gets another call from Paul, asking her to meet him immediately. She’s summoned to the ominous-looking “Committee” room, where there is a veritable army of men and women in dark suites. Dr. James, with her ridiculous hair and inappropriately short skirt looks sad and scared. It feels very much like a trial.
Paul says that Medicaid has approached the hospital. They’ve been accused of becoming a “death mill” due to Dr. James’s aggressive hospice policy. Stickley tells James that they’re instigating a review. Stickley also tells James that the Long Beach Courier has dubbed her “Doctor Death.”
Though James insists that everything she’s done has been by the books, she’s alarmed, nonetheless. Luckily, as she returns to her office, she sees that Suzi Sasso, the hospice recruiting agent, has stopped by. Sasso questions James about her metrics and James blows up, claiming that she did everything that Sasso, asked and that she didn’t use any metrics. Sasso replies that she thought James would have built up slowly, and that she can do nothing to help her. The conversation escalates until the two women are screaming at each other, and Sasso ends it by telling James that she is a problem client, and that she’s being cut loose.
James can’t seem to catch a break; as Sasso storms out of her office, DiDi storms in, demanding the money she’s owed for her work as hospice liaison. James says that she’s on top of it, and that she has no control over how much DiDi works. James confesses that the hospice company pays DiDi’s salary, and asks DiDi to gather as much of the hospice paperwork as she can.
Underscoring the political intrigue is inter-staff romance. While James wards off DiDi and Sasso, Dawn and Dennis get physical in the break room. No sooner has DiDi left James, than Killigrew appears. Dr. Killigrew asks Dr. James if she’ll stop by her house after work, to “look at her rock garden and take a dip.” When James says she’ll have to get her suit, Killigrew tells her she doesn’t need it. Even with such a forward request, James doesn’t seem to quite get it.
In various parts of the hospital the nurses are all paged, and summoned to the “Committee” room: Dawn, Patsy, DiDi and James. Stickley reports that Medicaid has frozen all the hospitals accounts. Legal has advised that since DiDi was paid through the hospice company (and at a much lower rate than normal), her employment could be considered a “kick back.” Stickley says they are all being investigated, and could potentially be convicted as co-conspirators in a hospice fraud death ring. They are told not to destroy any records, or discuss the matter further with each other… which of course they do.
There are a few key moments that make this episode so special. Sure, there’s a lot more in-fighting and backstabbing, along with a confrontation between Dennis and Patsy, but the conclusion is perhaps one of the most beautiful season finales I’ve ever seen.
After taking refuge on the roof, Dawn, DiDi and James take a moment to share their dreams of escape. Staring out at the horizon, James suggests they jump to their deaths like in Thelma & Louise. In a previous scene, James hides in the woman’s bathroom, ripping out her hair extensions, muttering “I’m not that person, I’m not Doctor Death.” It’s safe to say that James’ suggestions that they jump is not as much of a joke as one might assume.
I half expected the episode to end here: the three women perched on a roof, the sun slowly setting over a distant ocean, defeated and alone. I mean, that’s certainly the tone of the show. But just when I expected some sort of tone appropriate theme music to start playing, Colleen Hoover (Alia Shawkat) emerges on the roof to tell them that Ruth Lee is dying.
If you don’t recall, Ruth Lee was an old patient of Dr. James’. You get the sense that Ruth was a pistol and James, it seems, not only respects her, but also sees something of herself in the woman.
When the two nurses and the doctor arrive in Lee’s room, her heart has already stopped. DiDi observes that though her heart has stopped, she’s still breathing. Dawn takes her pulse. She has none. DiDi comments again “She’s still breathing.”
James suggests that her spirit is hovering, half-dead, half-alive. “She’s deciding,” James murmurs. Like a light bulb, you see James’ decision. She pounces on Ruth, shaking her violently, “You’re deciding aren’t you—whether or not it’s worth it, whether you want to go or stay?” James shakes her again.
“She’s decided,” James says, “She’s coming back.” James, DiDi and Dawn rub Ruth’s legs, start her IV, and watch as the patient slowly comes back to life. Ruth’s daughter and granddaughter enter the room and Colleen starts to sing “Keep On The Sunny Side.” We slowly fade on this scene.
One of the things that makes Getting On so good (besides it’s technical mastery) is the show’s unabashed dedication to an unrelentingly dark world. Nice moments, like those final moments of the episode, stand out against this bleak backdrop. Just when you are on the verge of giving up on a character, they are redeemed through some small act of kindness or generosity. Patsy, DiDi, Dawn, James and the entire ward have been dragged through the mud so much this season, that it’s amazing to see them all taking comfort in the aid of another human being, if only for a moment. It’s a gentle reminder that we should all keep on the sunny side.
Leland Montgomery is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.