Lou Grant: s05 e20 – Unthinkable

The girl on the right has a significant part to play in this episode, but this is the last shot we see of her

I’m in a bit of two minds about this episode. On the one hand, it’s a reversion to the more solid stories of the past, a themed episode that, in its time, may well have been something of a revelation for its audience. On the other hand, and by the same token, it’s one of the most badly-dated episodes the series contains, locked into a history that is now dead, or at least mutated out of all recognition.

The open is misleading. A High School Choir, returning from a singing competition, all fresh faces, clear voices (singing ‘Up, Up and Away’), is in a terrible crash as their School Bus swerves to avoid a collision. One girl, Sarah Baldwin, suffers 70 % burns over all her body, and spents the rest of the episode in head-to-toe bandages. This is Billie’s story, with guest star Lane Smith as burns specialist Dr Lawrence. Sarah is our microcosmic example, the only victim of the episode, standing in for what we are asked to imagine in the macrocosm of the A story.

Which is the prospect of nuclear war.

There’s a revolution in the Middle Eastern country of Kular, prominent supplier of oil to America. This is 1982: Kular immediately becomes another proxy war between the USA and the USSR. And like all such proxy wars, the possibility of escalation into a thermonuclear exchange is right on its heels.

What the episode did, in pretty one-sided terms, was spell out, from multiple sources, what the effect of nuclear bombs would be, and it wasn’t pretty. Heavy-handed and didactic though it was in places, making clear that the most optimistic estimation of a nuclear attack on America would be 20% of the population: that’s 20 million people, Joe Rossi pointed out.

We had all sorts of sources: Charlie Hume’s sister, Clair (Bonnie Bartlet), LA’s Civil Defence chief, a retired US General (Warren Kemmerling). And we had Sarah and a lecture on the effects of burning, the long term treatment of even the most successful case, and the girl’s own desire to stop the non-stop pain by being given a shot that would just cause her to die. This from, as you can see in the image above, a pretty sixteen year old, with friends constantly wanting to know how she was, her best friend a Japanese girl, Judy (Lily Mariye), who taught their friends origami, folding a thousand paper cranes to make her wish come true. And Sarah contracting a pneumosis (spelling?) that is the classic way that burns victims die.

So it rocked out, over six days, evoking the Cuban Missile Crisis, ratchetting up the tension, then running out on one of those endless endings. The ray of light, which was meant to imply the inevitable resolution the episode couldn’t show, was a message from Dr Lawrence, taken down by Lou because Billie had gone home, about the thousand cranes, and the pneumosis brought under control. The guy reviewing this episode at imdb seemed to think this was a subtle tip that Sarah had died or would die, but to me it was the opposite, microcosm to macrocosm. Kular would not turn into World War 3 (not that it ever would anyway).

Good then, on an impersonal level, diminished by its refusal to supply a resolution, next week it will be as if nothing happened at all. That, as much as the notion of Nuclear war over a Marxist revolution in a Middle Eastern country that hasn’t even hard the word jihadist, ties it to its time, less than a decade before the Wall came down and the world became different.

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