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 …

If the atheistic House, his face marinated in misery, now and again takes on the aspect of a man pursued by the Hound of Heaven, Nurse Jackie’s relationship with her Maker is more robust. “What are you lookin’ at?” she demands of the plaster statue of Jesus in the hospital hallway, tossing back another pill with a defiant fling of the head. Life sucks, bad things happen to good people, all of that—outside the hospital, a character the staff calls God rails at passersby from his high apartment window, offering smitings galore—but Jackie has her private economy of righteousness. She forges a donor card so that the organs of a dead bike messenger can be put to use; she robs from the rich (the Libyan diplomat) and gives to the poor (the bike messenger’s girlfriend); she talks her way through insurance messes on behalf of addled patients; and she applies compassion where there has been none.

Redistribution—she gets it done. She makes the world go round. Often glimpsed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, Nurse Jackie might easily be mistaken for one of the Holy Mother’s shock troops. True, she’s doing a lot of drugs, and fucking this other guy, and that’s not cool. But couldn’t it be that—as an almost superhuman agent of consolation—she just needs a teeny bit more love than the rest of us?

Well, so much for theology. Nurse Jackie is also a television show, a gore-ified, God-inflected sitcom/drama, and a very good one. Edie Falco is magnificent. Did I just write that? Of course she is. Edie Falco and magnificence are indivisible. The handsome head, the pouncing blue stare, the mouth like an oncoming train … Tiredness becomes her: a hint of celestial white-out in the hospital lighting gives her the look of an angel pulling a double shift. The peroxide crop she gave herself for Season One is growing out in Season Two, but the strange asceticism of her character—strange, that is, for someone who’s high as a kite all day—persists: a severe attentiveness, an acute intolerance for BS (except her own, of course).

Honorable mentions, too, to the supporting cast. Britain’s Eve Best, as the glammed-up material girl Dr. O’Hara, brings a teetering touch of Absolutely Fabulous to the proceedings: “Swear to God, Jacks, the salespeople at Bergdorf’s are so foul, they almost make me regret spending $1,200 on a scarf.” And Peter Facinelli, as Dr. Fitch “Coop” Cooper, is pioneering a whole new form of masculinity: Coop is a creep, a good-looking creep, one of those whose eyes seem like spy holes for the demiurge of creepiness to peep in on creation—and yet he’s lovable. When nervous, he indulges in “inappropriate sexual touching” (Jackie’s breast numbly grabbed), and despite his extreme amateurishness in the business of life and what it might be for, he’s rather good at preserving it—a decent doctor. In Season Two, to Jackie’s vast irritation, he takes up Twittering.

And the casualties keep coming, leaking and moaning, as if on a baggage carousel of disaster. Surely Jackie’s own crisis approaches: at some point in Season Two, this whole addiction thing must come to a head. She’ll be busted in the bathroom, hoovering up a line; or (less likely) make a horrible medical error. In the meantime, she will strut and snap and strew her rough blessings upon humanity—at the edge of ethics, at the edge of comedy, at the edge of life.