Lou Grant: s02 e06 – Dying

Geraldine Fitzgerald

I thought I had this episode sussed, thought I knew what it was about, and that it was a characteristic, issue-oriented episode of Lou Grant, but after some gently wool-pulling, it became just a story, one with an emotional undertone that caught me where some things are still raw.

The beginning set itself up very neatly. An elderly woman in a nursing argued furiously with the nurses over their refusal to give a painkilling shot to a man we never saw, a man in extreme pain whose shot wasn’t due for another two hours. Knowing the series as we do, this telegraphs an episode focussing on nursing homes and the way the elderly are treated. That the complaining woman was a Mrs Donovan, as in Peggy, mother of Art Donovan, was a clever hook to get the paper attracted.

That wasn’t the case at all. Geraldine Fitzgerald guested as Peggy Donovan, and hers was the performance that strung the story together and she was quite wonderful, but the story gave Jack Bannon, as Art, a rare opportunity to play a central role, insread of the usually wise-cracking supporting character he plays.

Because Peggy is ill, seriously ill, with leukaemia, but Art is blocking. He can’t see her sickness or her pain, only that, in his eyes only, that she is getting better every day: stronger, brighter, nearer going home. Art’s fighting off her death, in a way that at least one character in the story finds admirable and the only stance that can be taken. But he’s also fighting off reality, and refusing to talk or listen to anyone who in any way expresss doubts. He can’t handle the reality and is thrusting it from himself as far and as hard as he can, and he’s being a total shitbag to everyone around him whilst he’s doing it (there’s a wonderful scene where Art starts arguing with Rossi over a piece he’s filed, which rapidly escalates to a public shouting match: Lou, Billie and Charlie retreat to Lou’s office, shut the door behind them and discuss their concerns for Art, whilst the row goes on outside, Bannon and Robert Walden going hell-for-leather outside but still audible).

What made the episode was that the obvious concerns the likes of Billie and Lou have for her finally gives Peggy the strength to put her foot down, to say enough, and to allow her to go home to literally die in acceptance and peace. It gives Art the chance to adjust to what he so desperately wants not to happen, and it gives him and his mother the chance to talk over a final month. When he returns to work, it is to explain that his mother passed away on Tuesday, and he is calm and collected.

Though the story wasn’t entirely free pf polemic was only to be expected, but its essence was Peggy’s journey to a death that was on her terms and Art’s understanding of the importance of that, to himself as much as her. It was a story that struck me personally for almost thirty years ago I went through final months with my own mother, and there werethings that, because of the situation, did not get said nor could be said, and it has taken me almost all that night to accept the gap that left, that in a fiction designed to wrap up in 45 minutes can be closed without effort.

I didn’t remember a thing of this episode from before, nor would I have had reason to do so, having a living mother. Some fictions can only affect you deeply if you have the knowledge and understanding to stand inside them, and what I lacked then I have now, and it moved me deeply. I shall not forget this episode twice.

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