Moving Pictures April 2010

Saints on Percocet

Drug-addicted healers are elevating hospital drama to metaphysical art.

If you’re looking for gore in the culture today—and let’s face it, who isn’t looking for gore in the culture today?—you’ll find that it comes in three main flavors.

First you have your obvious horroristic gore, your gore-nography. Hostel, Jennifer’s Body, the Saw movies. Or the scene in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds where Brad Pitt, with a tiny kissing noise, sticks his finger inside somebody’s bullet wound.

Then there’s forensic, CSI-type gore, in which prodigious dismemberments and desecrations are carefully itemized by detectives with flaring nostrils. “The bones were found covered in semen.” “Human?” “The bones? Or the semen?” (Actually that’s not from CSI; it’s from Forgetting Sarah Marshall.)

And finally, and most prevalently, there’s hospital gore, of the sort pioneered back in the day by ER and Chicago Hope and now seen on Mercy, HawthoRNe, House, and so on. You know—the traumatized limb, the foreign object, the shapeless mound spouting on the gurney. Beep! goes the monitor. Beep! …Beep! …Beeeeeeeeeeeeeee … And another soul irrupts into the afterlife.

Already on Nurse Jackie—the second season of which begins this month on Showtime—we have seen a prostitute wheeled into the ER clutching the severed ear of a man from the Libyan Embassy (the ear later gets flushed down the toilet); a young man needing treatment after an attempt to launch a firework out of his ass; and a recently discharged patient who’s blown a stitch and now has a pink balloon animal of intestine protruding from his abdomen. (“My ex-wife used to bitch that I never talked,” he tells the doctors. “Look at me now. I’m spilling my guts here!”) It’s a spring shower of gore, with comedic breezes, in the middle of which we find our heroine: Jackie Peyton.

Nurse Jackie, played by Edie Falco, is the linchpin of the ER at All Saints Hospital in Manhattan, and she walks how a linchpin walks—smartly and low-centeredly, with a dancer’s turned-out instep but a certain irrefutability in the weight of the tread. Oh, and now and again a taut little hip-roll that gives away her secret trouble: back pain. Lots of hardworking nurses have back pain these days, from the effort of turning over their ever more heffalump-ish patients. But not many of them self-medicate with great lascivious snorts of crushed Percocet, or Vicodin, or Oxycodone—which is what Jackie does. Jackie is in fact an addict, very high-functioning, living from one bump to the next and maintaining her supply by banging Eddie, the hospital pharmacist. Or does she have feelings for the man? Their dealings are affectionate, if a bit on the practical side (“You in pain?” says Eddie hopefully). Her husband, the father of her two girls, a cheerful domesticated beefcake running his bar out in Queens, has no clue about any of this.

All gore is Manichaean, obsessed with the spirit’s imprisonment in the flesh, but hospital gore especially so. Over and over in these shows, we see the medical model of existence colliding with the religious model. In a 2009 episode of House called “Unfaithful,” a priest is admitted to House’s hospital complaining that he’s been seeing things. Seeing Jesus, to be precise—but this priest is burned out, and he doesn’t believe in visions. “It’s just a job now,” he says. “The fairy tale ended a long time ago.” So: Atropine toxicity? Occipital-lobe tumor? Glumly he sits there, wearing his brain-scan headgear like a crown of thorns: nothing shows up.

Then his toe falls off. (This is a gore moment: the open-mouthed doctor holding up the necrotized digit while the priest gasps, “What the hell is that? What is that?”) Then come boils, and numbness, and blindness. House is perplexed. A spleen disorder, maybe? What about ergotism, leprosy, AIDS? He lists the symptoms on his whiteboard and stares at them: the thing won’t add up. Suddenly, with an inspired swipe of his eraser, he deletes the first symptom, the one that brought the priest into the hospital: hallucinations. And now? Yes! With that removed, it all makes sense: House diagnoses a rare genetic condition called Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome, the priest’s life is saved, etc. Case closed. But then there’s that vision, that obstinate hovering Jesus, outside medicine and still unaccounted for …

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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