This review contains spoilers.
2.10 This Is All We Are
A surgeon has a privileged vantage point from which to look at the human form. A living body, opened up for examination with all of its squelchy mechanics still in action, is quite a thing to see. It is perhaps less compelling once you have seen your first ten, or hundred or however many Dr John Thackery opened up in the course of his prematurely terminated career. It raises the question of what such a perspective does to a person’s view of humanity or even selfhood. At least I hope that it does. Any other explanation for Thackery’s ability to attempt his own bowel resection is frankly too disturbing to contemplate. His last words, this finale’s title “this is all we are”, is a simultaneous celebration and condemnation. What do surgeons think about the body? Are we a source of wonder or are we merely meat?
Thackery’s fatal self-surgery and his unanswered statement was an effective, if gruesome microcosm of this concluding episode, which was heavy on revelation and light on resolution. As the season’s tableau of stories reached their end, several dark details emerged from beneath the skin but few of them received a conclusive response, a decision that contravened the usual laws of drama but reflected life that little bit more richly.
Take the Ballad of Harry and Cleary, a slow moving love story, long in its development and patient in its advancement. Their relationship moved ahead by steady and nervous increment, often interrupted or delayed by the demands of their difficult situations. The truth of their shared storyline was doubly disguised, firstly by Harriet’s prosecution and then by their growing prophylactic business. It hardly felt like a love story at all, and in fact, it probably wasn’t. Or at least not in the way we might expect it to be. Cleary’s exasperated confession, born of desperation rather than penitence revealed the dangerous manipulation that he had been using to get his beloved where he wanted her.
In a season that has explored racism, eugenics and gross criminal wrongdoing, that little wheeze was still one of the most morally troubling revelations. Whatever her treatment at the hands of the institution of the church and despite her circumvention of its strictures, Harriet’s vows were heartfelt and sincere. Cleary may have been ignorant of the precise penalty that she faced once brought before the law, but he was still playing with fire for his own self interest. She appeared happy to be with him by the end but it is a happiness founded on a falsehood. In a more conventional drama, Cleary’s subterfuge would have been revealed to Harriet and it would have been she who had to decide whether or not to accept him. As it is, the viewer has knowledge of that which Harriet is ignorant; we have the surgeon’s eye view of their relationship. Is it a source of wonder or something more mundane?
A reverse trick was deployed in the case of Herman Barrow, who spent most of the episode in comic flight from the law, only for it to be revealed that, contrary to all expectation, he did not set the fire in pursuit of insurance money. If Cleary retained sympathy despite the revelation of his actions, Barrow gained none in the face of his established innocence. In the end, it didn’t really matter whether or not he had made an arsonist of himself, he remained a cheat, a swindler, a philanderer and pompous buffoon and has been condemned sufficiently by the audience. However, he too has escaped censure and conviction, slipping the grasp of dramatic justice by means of a quiet word, well-placed connections and a neat way with legal documents.
Everett Gallinger, a man more historically villainous than the venal hospital administrator, also leaves the season in a state of rich reward. It’s a bitter irony that Algernon Edwards’ attempt to condemn Gallinger ended up being the very thing that catapulted the backstreet eugenicist to mainstream success and a partnership in Dr Phelps’ expedition to take eugenics to Europe. He can even bring Dorothy along with him and begin life again as a pioneer and man of great personal success.
Gallinger’s exit was freely chosen and embarked upon in a mood of excitement and great prospect. Not so Cornelia Showalter, who leaves New York more as an evacuee than emigree. Her pursuit of the truth about Speight’s murder and her family’s complicity in it was unfortunately successful and she was tormented with the discovery, following her father’s death, that her brother was the corner-cutting criminal mastermind of the family. His confession came a little too easily (a marked contrast with Cleary’s emotional admission) and was delivered in the manner of a Bond villain, desperate to impress 007 with his evil ingenuity. The gothic pantomime effect was compounded by Lucy passing Cornelia on the stairs to succeed her at Henry’s right hand, but for Cornelia, it was some horrid pantomime. A sudden drawing back of the curtains to reveal the unpleasant truth, or a surgical incision that reveals a rotten heart beneath the skin. Caught between two families she can no longer know or trust, Cornelia’s only option was to flee.
That option wasn’t really available to Algernon, whose despair at the injustice of his position was only deepened by his father’s practical acceptance of it and his own medically-enforced inability to practice surgery. That Gallinger’s punch would prove to be the final straw for his malfunctioning eye was yet another bitter reward for Algernon’s attempt to do the right thing. An inheritance in Captain Robertson’s will was more fitting and it is to be hoped that Algy’s permanent desire to exceed himself might now find a solid course in psychology.
That, like so much else, is also Thack’s legacy. His effervescent ambition left so many irons in the fire that they could inspire a hospital full of young doctors to pick up where he left off. It was his defining characteristic as a doctor and as a person, and meant that leaving a life unfinished was the most appropriate end of all. His final moments, the most cavalier, reckless and utterly lunatic of any we have seen in two seasons of white knuckle surgery, were almost unbearable to watch. Thack approached his surgery with the single minded psychosis of a madman who leaves his onlookers wondering whether the safest course of action is to intervene or to leave him to it. Surrounded by his horrified contemporaries, Thack launched into his terminal operation in a spirit of desperation, trusting no one but himself to wield the scalpel. Here was a man who had seen beneath the surface and came back for dive after dive. What did he see? If this is all we are, what are we?