Care Extended

HBO’s ‘Getting On ’ & the Year of Mercy

Pope Francis kicked off the Jubilee Year of Mercy on December 8 with the opening of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s. I started my own observance a week later with the series finale of HBO’s brilliant black comedy Getting On.

Not that I expected there to be any connection. I watched Getting On, which ran for three short seasons, for the fascinating mix of slapstick, satire, and sensitivity that, along with its focus on female characters over forty, made it unlike anything else on television (or at least on American TV—it was adapted from a British series by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, the team behind HBO’s Big Love). The show centers on four caregivers and their patients in the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit of a California hospital. And in the final moments of its final episode, which aired with little fanfare on December 13, it revealed itself to be a meditation on what John XXIII called “the medicine of mercy.” “Dawn, sweetie, this is what I want to say,” says Dr. Jenna James, director of medicine, to a colleague just before the screen fades to white. “There is no justice, but there is mercy, because that’s what we can give to each other.”

The relationship between the two women has not been a model of compassion up to this point. Laurie Metcalf’s Dr. James, needy and imperious, takes her insecurities out on her underlings, particularly nurse Dawn Forchette (played by Alex Borstein with a deranged glint in her eye), an unstable woman who seems in control only when making her rounds. Lowest in the hierarchy is Nurse DiDi Ortley, the only one at Billy Barnes who truly sees the people in front of her. While Dawn frets about protocol and Dr. James grasps at a promotion, DiDi, played with tremendous depth and restraint by Niecy Nash, is dedicated to the work of nursing—the daily practice of the corporal works of mercy. She bathes cranky patients, helps them use the toilet, ignores their abusive remarks. She sets her personal problems aside to speak kindly to her elderly charges. Though her contributions are disregarded by her supervisors, she treats even the most difficult patients with dignity. Her humility makes her heroic.

In that final episode, though, it isn’t DiDi who ends up a hero, but Dr. James, who is about to donate a kidney to Dawn. Her motives are not pure: she made the offer out of her desperation to be regarded as generous, then tried pathetically to back out of it without losing face. Then again, Dawn is hardly the most deserving candidate, having lied about her need for a transplant to get attention, and then having sabotaged her successful dialysis regimen with junk-food binges. (The sight of Dawn dipping half a bagel into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and then stuffing it all into her mouth may have been the single most revolting image on a series that never shied away from the realities of disease.) And yet, in the end, Dr. James went ahead with the gift anyway. The show ended with the two women side by side on their gurneys, preparing for surgery. Dr. James’s many humiliations had stripped away so much of her pretension that she was finally able to do something truly generous and say something truly wise.

“Mercy,” Pope Francis wrote in Misericordiae vultus, “open[s] our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.... Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” That is as good a description of where Getting On left its characters and its viewers as any I could hope to write. The gift of Dr. James’s kidney gives Dawn hope and frees her to look lovingly on her coworkers because she has been loved and forgiven. Dr. James, surprised by her own generosity, finds a new, more stable self-regard not based on professional prestige.

I’d recommend Getting On even without a papal tie-in—it’s a sitcom, after all, not a sermon, and though it can be sweet, it is never sentimental. It can also be bleak or silly or cold or downright disgusting, and it is as hilariously funny as it is unflinching in its portrayal of death and diminishment. For all its absurdity, Getting On stays grounded in a simple reality: Each of us could end our days in a place like Billy Barnes, at the mercy of caregivers like Dawn and Dr. James. Meanwhile, as ever, the best and the worst of us are always at the mercy of each other. 

Published in the January 29, 2016 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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