I had the unfortunate luck of coming down with pink eye this past Wednesday. Gross, I know, but also weirdly informative; I spent about three hours in the ER, and let me tell you—it’s shocking how much my late night visit resembled a scene from Getting On.
“Is Soap a Hazardous Substance” begins with Dawn Forchette (Alex Borstein) and Paula Pepperell (Patricia Scanlon) in the midst of a health and welfare meeting. Paula explains that Dawn’s entitled to 36 weeks of maternity leave, as well as a plethora of additional benefits. Dawn, if you all remember, discovered that she was pregnant in the last moments of the season premiere. It’s not entirely clear, however, if Dawn is pregnant with Patsy’s child.
In the midst of this conversation, Paula notices that Dawn’s hands are chapped. When she asks about Dawn’s hands, Nurse Forchette explains that Patsy’s new sanitation program has left her skin dry and cracked.
In another part of the hospital, Dr. James (Laurie Metcalf) and Susie Sasso (Jayma Mays) discuss the details of Dr. James’s new hospice program. Though James is obviously conflicted about the moral implications of pimping out empty beds to dying patients, her research funding has been cut off, and the hospice program will provide her with enough money to continue her studies.
What was fantastic about this episode was how much we learned about Dr. James and her internal chemistry. Dr. James knows the hospice program is bad. She doesn’t like Susie Sasso—she brusquely dismisses her after an off-color baby boomer death joke. Yet in James’s mind, the ends justify the means. James thinks her research will ultimately benefit people, and so she feels justified engaging in less-than-legitimate business practices.
This is one of the first times we’ve ever seen so clearly into James’s psyche. But it’s not the last in this episode. Shortly after dismissing Sasso, James is accosted by Dottie Levy (Betty Buckley). Dottie is a severe alcoholic who was brought to the ER for a concussion sustained during a drunken collapse. Upon closer inspection, James discovers that Dottie’s kidneys and liver are on the brink of collapse. When one of James’ residents suggests a particular drug, Dottie protests that she can’t take that drug because it will prevent her from drinking.
James replies that Dottie should use her time in the hospital to “make a wise decision.” While this response is fairly simple, the care she takes to deliver this message and the subtext underneath really sheds insight into James’s character. Though she comes across as angry and abrasive, there’s a reason she’s a doctor. She actually does want to help people get better.
Another moment where James demonstrates her vulnerability is with Arlene (Jean Smart). Arlene’s mother-in-law has just been diagnosed with lung tumors and dementia. Her husband is dead, though she pretends otherwise for the sake of her mother-in-law. Arlene reveals that she and her husbands mother hate one another. “She said I wasn’t worth the powder to blow me up,” Arlene says. “Mine called me an angry fucking cunt on Thanksgiving” James responds. What’s tragic is that we sort of understand why her mother-in-law might say something like that. But to see these two women wistfully bonding over the hatred of their close family members makes us sympathize with them both.
While James deals with hospice and Arlene and Dottie, Dawn and Patsy struggle to move their relationship forward. Though Dawn doesn’t want to reveal her pregnancy until she hits the 12-week mark, she does reveal to Patsy that she’s put a deposit down on an apartment for them to share. While she expects Patsy to react with joy, he instead has a heart attack. Okay, it’s not quite a heart attack—but something like it. When Dawn tries to call a cardiologist, he stops her. Patsy’s been under pressure from HR to lose weight, and he’s afraid that he may be fired due to his excessive BMI. While his attack eventually gains the attention of both DiDi and James, the three decide to cover for him by performing a physical in the ward, instead of taking him to the emergency room.
Patsy eventually recovers; he’s suffered from a panic attack, not a heart attack. “I’m living out of sync with myself” Patsy admits to Dawn. He doesn’t want to move in with her, and though she tries to persuade him that it’s the right thing to do, he rebuffs her advances.
Patsy, Dawn and DiDi are called to a Corporation Counsel to address Patsy’s hand sanitation program. Dawn protests that the sanitation gel is about 99% alcohol and bad for the skin. All parties break out into a contentious (and kind of funny) argument as to the benefits and faults of washing one’s hands, leading to the conclusion that soap may be a hazardous substance. Paula points out that Dawn may have already suffered fetal alcohol syndrome from the high levels of alcohol she’s been rubbing on her hand. Taken aback, Patsy glances at Dawn and she nods that yes, she is indeed pregnant.
In the very next scene Patsy and Dawn have an incredibly awkward conversation in which Patsy professes to respecting Dawn’s choice to keep the baby while… also…. implying that he doesn’t want it. “It’s a lot to talk about..” he says.
The episode ends with Dottie’s escape. After smuggling in a bottle of vodka and kissing Dr. James, Dottie decides to make a break for it. Knowing what a high alcohol content the soap has, she goes through the ward pulling off soap dispensers and drinking the sanitation gel. She does this about four or five times until she slips in one of the bathrooms and, apparently, dies.
What Getting On does so well is pivot from humor to sadness. It’s almost Chekovian in the way that it walks the line between comedy and tragedy. It’s a dark comedy— heavy on the dark. Yet, I think that’s appropriate given the subject matter. If I learned anything from my time in the ER it’s that pain, misery and incompetence run rampant in hospitals. The only way to process that sort of pain is through humor—which Getting On does beautifully.
Leland Montgomery is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste.