Last Sunday, I burnt through the entirety of Nurse Jackie season six in a single day. Even at a point in its run where most series would have run out of steam, the show remains excellent; however, this season felt darker than ever, and even a little painful to watch. As Jackie fell ever deeper down the rabbit hole of drug addiction I decided to thrash out my feelings in blog form.
WARNING!! Unashamed spoilerage and post-game analysis to follow
For six seasons, Nurse Jackie has followed the life of the eponymous Jackie Peyton, a nurse addicted to pain medication. Jackie is an excellent nurse who inspires great loyalty in her co-workers, but her addiction has nonetheless led her down a pretty dark path. Over the course of five prior seasons, Jackie has shamelessly lied, stolen and covered up her addiction, testing friendships to the limits, cheated on her husband for medication, gotten divorced and even given up custody of her children. By the beginning of season six, Jackie is in a stable relationship with a new man and once again secure in her job, but all is still not well. Not only is her daughter Grace now a rebellious teenager who acts out by taking drugs, but on the one year anniversary of getting sober, Jackie herself succumbs to the urge to take a pill.
Thus the stage is set is set for season six, a season-long relapse in which Jackie reaches new lows in the search of her next high. She befriends a drug dealer, only to invite him as her +1 to her ex-husband’s wedding, a move that ends, predictably, in disaster. She finds a sponsor in the form of the feisty cynic and alcoholic Antoinette, only to trick Antoinette into getting drunk and checking into rehab when she starts nagging Jackie too much. She pushes away her new man, even after he tries to help her get clean. She uses a suicidal homeless woman as a scapegoat for stealing a doctor’s prescriber number to get herself more meds. Even Jackie’s work is affected – something that never happened before – to the extent where even those who trusted her the most are forced to act to bring her to account. Finally, in a desperate escape to the airport, Jackie is caught and arrested, ironically due to her impulse to stop and save someone’s life. Season seven will be the final season for the show – but where can it go from here?
Before we speculate on that, however, I wanted to think about some of the feelings that Jackie’s increasingly reckless behaviour raised in me. Season six felt like a turning point, one in which all the things that had been slowly crumbling in the first five years suddenly started tumbling down ever more rapidly.
“Hey, I’m the victim here!”
Since Jackie is such an excellent liar, it’s hard to know which of her “how I became addicted to painkillers” stories to believe, but the most consistent theme running through the series is that, at some point, she needed them for back pain. Since chronic back pain would make her unable to work, Jackie has no choice but to rely on painkillers, right? She’s not an addict at all – she’s just a victim of circumstance.
It’s a recurring theme throughout the series, and particularly in season six, that Jackie all too often fails to see her own responsibility for a situation. She’s the victim, the wronged party, and when things go wrong, it’s because someone else cocked up. When she makes a near fatal mistake with a patient’ insulin dosage, she blames the attending physician for the mistake, even though it was clearly Jackie’s fault. When her new boyfriend Frank says he doesn’t want to have go through detox with her repeatedly, he’s at fault for not being strong enough to stand by her, no matter what.
The Little Book of Confidence has the following to say about the victim mentality: “When you play the role of the victim, you give away your power”. Now, my sensibilities aren’t quite evolved enough never to blame anyone for anything. Sometimes life sucks, or people are dicks. But there is something to be said for learning to take some responsibility for your own actions. At times, you might find yourself in situation where airing your grievances to another person leads to them getting upset and angry with you for “having a go” at them. So, instead of them acknowledging what they’d done, they just make you feel doubly bad. Similarly, when Jackie makes mistakes at work, pushes her family away or does something dodgy or downright illegal to get pills, it’s never her fault. Other people don’t get it, they don’t want to help her, and they definitely don’t understand. And it’s not just that she’s blaming others to get herself out of trouble – it’s likely that she truly believes that none of the damage caused by her drug addiction is truly down to her.
“I’m going to be good this time”
Everyone knows you can quit any time, right? As someone who has been through rehab and detox more than once, Jackie knows she can come off the drugs. She just needs to do it her way, without any of those stupid rules that other people need. And, when it comes down to it, one little pill now and again isn’t going to hurt, is it? In fact, if anything, it’ll make it easier for her to cope with life. So maybe another pill or two to take the edge off – and before you know it, relapse.
“I don’t deserve to be happy”
Let’s face it, being happy takes effort. So does change. Even if life is miserable, it’s the devil you know. Trying something new can be terrifying, a massive hurdle you’re not sure you can overcome. The world Jackie knows is one where she can counter unhappiness and the things that are wrong by taking drugs. Getting sober is a massive and amazingly difficult change, and it might be one she fails at. What if she gets sober and there’s nothing good left? What if she can’t do her job? What if she messes up all her relationships? They’re difficult enough as it is – better push them away before they go wrong.
Sometimes, there’s a massive chasm between where we are and a place where we could be happy. If we could just get there, things would be great, but the journey might just seem too difficult to us. Even if we’re unhappy, we’ve marked out a space that is ours, and anything that tries to drag us out of that space has to be kept at arm’s length. And besides, if we’re the ones rejecting people, we never have to face the fear that they might one day reject us.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is hit rock bottom
In season three, Jackie’s drug dealer says he wants to help her reach rock bottom. And there’s perhaps something in that. I’ve seen people ‘saved’ before hitting rock bottom by the intervention of friends and family, and sometimes it seems like all it does is help that person keep lying to themselves that things aren’t really that bad. You can slow their fall, but you can’t stop it. Nor can you help them back up. The only person who can save you is yourself.
As a depression sufferer, there was a time when I was at an extremely low ebb. I knew I had to get out into the world and get a job, but I couldn’t envisage how to do it. I couldn’t imagine being able to even get on the lowest rung of the ladder. Interacting with other people was difficult and painful, I didn’t have anything in the way of work experience, and everything seemed pretty hopeless. More than that, it didn’t even seem like the people I thought should be helping me were really doing anything.
Even now, I don’t know if they should or could have done more to help me. What I do know is that, with some trial and error, I managed to do it by myself (admittedly, the medication helped). I reached my rock bottom, a place bad enough that I never want to end up back there again, and I managed to crawl out of it by myself – a fact that now makes the achievement all the more meaningful to me. Jackie has been pretty low, but even after all the things she’s lost, it hasn’t quite been enough. What would make it enough? Realising that she has to take some responsibility for the things she’s done instead of always blaming circumstances, or other people? Waking up to the fact that, in the long-term, the things she’s lost and will lose are worth more than the next high? Can she find the strength to quit for good, or will she meet a tragic fate? Only next season will tell.
Coming soon: Coming up in this serious of occasional TV series analysis posts – The Deceptive Protagonist. We return to Nurse Jackie and throw Dexter and Breaking Bad’s Walter White into the mix to examine the lives of main characters who try to keep secrets from those around them. The first rule is “don’t get caught”, but in the end everyone gets tripped up by the tangled web they weave. Following on from that, Walt gets to star in his own blog post about what happens when nice guys decide they don’t want to keep finishing last.