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Sex and Death

I would expect a suicide note to be heartfelt and dramatic. Not this one, though. Wouldn’t be very much in keeping with me, would it? I think someone may have forgotten to fit me with a heart. I can’t even think of anything worth writing. I am summed up by three piece of paper: a birthday card from a father who never loved me, a Christmas card from a man who I foolishly thought did, and a visiting order from my brother. My family have to order me to visit them, and still I don’t. What a hate-filled person I am.

It’s not much of a legacy, is it? Maybe I can go down in history as author of the dullest suicide note ever.

I tried to be a good doctor. Really, I did. But it was too hard. It beat me, and I’m so ashamed. I never wanted anything else out of life, so there is no life. I am so sorry to the patients I caused suffering; to their families, my sincerest apologies. I don’t belong here. (Casualty 22.25, “Sex and Death”)

Casualty is now just over half way through its 22nd series, and now seems like as good an opportunity as any to examine its status, particularly given that last Saturday’s episode, the 25th of the series, entitled Sex and Death (a nickname that would be quite appropriate for the programme as a whole throughout its “dark period” of Series 16 through 21), seems destined to go down in history as a real eye-opener.

I previously wrote about how much of a turnaround the two part season premiere constituted, only to be disappointed as so many of the promises of the first two episodes turned out to be empty. By and large, my observations remain the same as they were the last time I wrote about Casualty: the first two episodes were excellent, heralding a real return to form, but, while the standard has, on the whole, been higher than it has been for a very long time, the quality is just too uneven, with every decent episode being countered with a complete dud, and a general feeling that, for all the promises of a return to socio-political issues and medical drama, the most of the current writers (many of whom are more generally associated with soap operas like Doctors and EastEnders, or even, if rumours are to be believed, writing students submitting scripts as part of their annual assessment) just don’t have sufficient skill or experience to cope with this style of writing.

Sex and Death

Above: Sex and Death.

The 24th episode, Before a Fall, brought to a head the ongoing storyline of Ruth Winters (Georgia Taylor), an F2 (a junior doctor in her second year out of medical school) and Lily Allen lookalike (seriously, the resemblance is uncanny - luckily, though, Ruth doesn’t sing). She first appeared at the beginning of Series 22 and, from the start, she was established as cold, rude, arrogant and, for all her textbook knowledge, worryingly incompetent when it came to actual patient treatment. Her actions had already led to two near fatalities, plus the paralysis of another patient, the latter leading to her passing the buck on to the nurse who had been assisting in the patient’s treatment, resulting in said nurse’s resignation (although, given that the nurse in question was one of the worst characters ever to grace the show, I doubt that many people mourned her departure). In Before a Fall, however, Ruth’s incorrect diagnosis led to a patient’s death, which seemed to be the final nail in the coffin, leading to her returning to her halls of residence and hanging herself. The episode ended with the team desperately trying to resuscitate her. (The character is currently in a coma and will presumably make a full recovery, given that the actress has recently signed an 18-month contract.)

Sex and Death

Above: Sex and Death.

Sex and Death, meanwhile, picked up the story where it left off, and, in a radical departure for the normally formulaic Casualty, went back over the previous five months in flashback, filling in many of the events which occurred off-screen and led to Ruth’s decision to attempt suicide. It really was an exceptionally well put together episode, both in terms of Ian Barnes’ direction (the blue-tinged lighting and use of Arvo Pärt’s composition Spiegel im Spiegel, in particular, were gut-wrenching) and Georgia Taylor’s performance, while the script, by Mark Catley (who also wrote the two-part series opener), did the impossible and actually made me feel somewhat sorry for Ruth. Unfortunately, feeling sorry for a character is not the same thing as liking them or excusing their behaviour, which I suspect was the episode’s key aim. Despite clearly establishing the character as a tragic figure (her father was abusive; her mother committed suicide; her brother is in prison; she was bullied at school; she was utterly exhausted from working long hours; the one colleague she allowed herself to open up to rejected her advances; a cancer patient whom she befriended ultimately died), none of this changes the fact that she was a callous bitch who endangered several lives, ruined one co-worker’s career and repeatedly rejected others’ offers of friendship and assistance.

Sex and Death

Above: Sex and Death.

Unfortunately, this seems to be par for the course in Casualty these days: introduce a character as completely unlikeable, and then, a few months later, do an about-turn and heap misery after misery upon them in an attempt to make the audience like them. (A similar technique was used, to an even greater degree, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season.) The method demonstrated in this episode, using flashbacks to establish a sort of double life for Ruth, almost enters into retcon territory, effectively telling us that what was shown for the last six months was in fact been only half the story. I don’t object to surprise revelations within reason, and, despite it being clear in retrospect that this must have been quite extensively planned from the start (at least judging by the manner in which seemingly innocuous scenes sampled from the previous 24 episodes suddenly took on a different meaning when mixed in with new material), it reminds me a lot of the sort of trick the writers of Angel used to pull all the time, suddenly announcing that an entire episode had actually been a hallucination, or that a character’s behaviour was in fact nothing but a charade, despite the viewers not being given any clues with which to work this out for themselves. Had more hints been given towards Ruth’s mental breakdown throughout the previous episodes, I would probably have looked on this episode more kindly, but as it is, it feels almost like rewriting a character with little or no foreshadowing whatsoever, and it’s hard not to feel manipulated. The Series 12 episode Love Me Tender (my second favourite of all time) did a much better job of revealing the reason for a character’s coldness in a genuinely heartbreaking manner while still having given the audience ample opportunity to work out what had happened beforehand.

It’s an achievement for Casualty if for no reason other than for successfully jettisoning the formula in a way previously only matched by the non-linear continuity of Barbara Machin’s two-parter last Christmas, but I remain undecided on how I actually feel about the end result. Certainly, it was all extremely well put together, and I suspect will remain one of the high points of the current series, but I think that, in resorting to such blatant manipulation and rewriting (or concealing) of facts, the writers have broken a certain unarticulated contract with the audience, which, in a sense, is really not playing fair.

Oh well. Right now, I’m most looking forward to the imminent departure of the pompous git known as Harry Harper (Simon MacCorkindale), whose tenure as the department’s senior consultant has been like listening to nails scraping on a blackboard non-stop for the last six years, and the impending return of Charlie Fairhead (Derek Thompson), who has been on another of his sabbaticals since Christmas. Maybe he’ll find a way to kick this sorry lot into order.

 
Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2008 at 12:12 PM
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Music | Reviews | TV

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