Scott has qualms about it every time they use the Rube Goldberg-like contraption on a new client—which is one way Kushell has given the show some moral gravitas. The people who want to die—a nursing home resident with an unspecified degenerative brain disease, a bitter woman in her forties who’s had cancer half her life—are treated with respect. All the humor, some of it quite funny, comes at the expense of the three blokes, not the people dying.
“You rarely get the opportunity in situation comedy to deal with such a dramatic hot-button issue,” said Kushell. “I really felt it was important to be able to talk about both sides of the issue throughout the course of the series, and have a really emotional struggle with the topic.”
That’s what the Scott character is for. Each time the guys get a new client, he wonders all over again whether they are doing the right thing. And when he meets and falls for the daughter of the first client, the neighbor with ALS, he can’t bring himself to tell her that he was the one who helped her father die.
Mark Pritchard, a Tory member of Parliament, blasted the show for treating a somber subject as “a matter of fun.” But objections to Way to Go were generally muted, partly because the show aired on BBC-3, the rebellious younger cousin of the BBC empire.
“We knew if you put it on primetime to a big wide audience it might have been more incendiary than on a younger-steering channel,” Jon Plowman, the series producer, told me.
That’s partly why Lena Dunham was able to introduce the topic on HBO, where she’s a known entity and a celebrated rule-breaker. It’s a reminder of an earlier golden age of American sitcoms, the 1970s, when Norman Lear mastered the art of mixing the very funny with the very, very serious. Back then, it was possible to have Edith Bunker get sexually assaulted on All in the Family, or to have the title character in Maude have an abortion. Even assisted dying made a cameo appearance, when one of the quartet on Golden Girls was asked by a friend to keep her company while she took a lethal dose of pills.
But at the time of the Golden Girls episode, American comedy had already taken a step back from the edge. The show aired in 1989, and at the end of the half-hour, the drama got tied up neatly in true sitcom style: The friend who wanted to die was convinced that she still had much to live for. Big hugs.
As taboo-busting as Girls has been over the course of its three seasons, Dunham also pulled her punches a bit the other night. The Beadie-Jessa storyline ended in a way not that different from the Golden Girls plot resolution of 25 years ago.
After Jessa helps Beadie swallow a handful of pills (telling her that if she chokes on them it’s okay, “it’s just a different route to the same thing”), she sits at the bedside holding her hand. The minutes pass. “Now I guess we just wait,” Jessa says awkwardly, twice. The camera cuts to scenes with all the other main characters—this is, after all, the season finale—and when we return to Jessa she’s still sitting at the bedside, stroking Beadie’s hair in a surprisingly maternal gesture.
Then Beadie’s eyes spring open. “Call 911,” she says. “I don’t want to die.” She repeats it, yelling now. “Call 911! I don’t want to die!”
The last we see of these two is Jessa scrambling over Beadie to get to the phone, stunned and slightly annoyed. She takes a deep breath, and starts dialing.