An old nursing friend of Jackie's checks into All Saints with late stage lung cancer and one small request: for Jackie to help her check out before it's time to go to the hospice. Dr. O'Hara offers to help, but it's all nurses around her bedside at the final toast. Zoey spends the whole time trying to reconcile her ethical issues with her very real need to get as close to Jackie as possible, but pulls it together after a hardcore and very admirable speech from Big Pharma Eddie about how none of this is actually about her: It's about Paula, or as we like to call her, "BJ Poteet."
Meanwhile, Fitch Cooper's Two Mommies arrive, one with a gall bladder problem, and before you know it he's grabbing Eleanor's boob mid-surgery and discussing his Tourette's and OCD, which are apparently real, with his other mom, Swoozie Kurtz. The fact that Swoozie Kurtz is once again playing Swoozie Kurtz shouldn't surprise anybody, but it's the birth mother that's the real surprise: Swoozie's real-life BFF Blythe Danner, whose real-life daughter is the only person with more airquotes around her life than Coop himself. All in all, especially given the subject matter, it's a pretty light episode. But given that we're halfway through the season, and the last couple have been pretty intense, that's probably for the best.
The girls are sitting at the bar, drinking virgin cocktails, while Jackie works on Fiona's sunflower costume with a sewing machine right up on the bar and discusses private school opportunities with Grace. Immaculate Virgin is out, Grace says, because the nuns whack you with a ruler. Fiona offers to whack them back, and her father cautions her against whacking nuns, ever, but Jackie tells them that corporal punishment has been illegal since some date neither she nor Kevin knows. Fiona asks what purple punishment is, and Grace corrects her: it's corpal punishment, and they only do it for your own good. Sort of Jackie's whole approach. Also God's.
Kevin says they whacked him plenty, and Jackie of course curtly suggests that in his case it was necessary, and also could the girls please finish their dinner. Fiona asks to go to private school with her sister, and Jackie points out that then, there would be nobody to play the sunflower in the "What's So Great About Mother Earth" pageant. Fiona grabs her cocktail off the bar and allows as how she forgot that part. It's easy to forget how essential sunflowers are, until you leave them out.
Seems like a crazy homeless lady hanging out, smoking under a giant statue of Jesus, but by the way Jackie greets her, she's either a very special homeless lady or not a homeless lady enough. I'm no doctor, but headscarf + generally hellish looking + rampant, bloody-sounding coughs generally = lung cancer. Unless you cough blood into a napkin and it's a hundred years ago, because that's automatically TB. In this case, it's the former; Jackie cautions her friend against smoking, and she laughs. "I know! It'll kill me!" And the time it takes to finish the job, Paula says, is directly proportional to how shitty her luck is. She blows the smoke in Jackie's face, and Jackie loves it, breathing it in with a satisfied hum.
"Paula. I'm so sorry." Paula laughs at Jackie, at how she's remained so civil after all their years working together in "this crappy so-called place of healing." Jackie returns the compliment, which cracks them both up, because as Paula says, they both know she's always been a bitch on wheels. Jackie's brows knit together. "How are you doing," she asks, and Paula grunts. "That prick Singer, in Oncology?" Jackie nods. "He says I'm out of options today." It's time to move into the hospice, for palliative care. "Palliative care my ass." She turns to Jackie with almost a hint of something dark, a request outside the limits. Not because of what it is -- they're both attuned to what it is -- but because they both find asking for favors completely gross.
"Thing is, I want to go out a little sooner rather than later. With a shred of dignity." When they put her in hospice, she'll lie there until she's dead. "I'm up to my tits in tragedy! You know how the story ends." Jackie does, but you have to say the words. To cross the line, you have to say it out loud. She coughs. "So I want to go out with a little help from my friends." Line crossed. Jackie breathes.
When Jackie wheels Paula into the nurses' station, she's not even come to a full and complete stop before Paula and Mo-Mo are yelling at each other; even if she looks like shit, she says, at least she has an excuse. He tells her he's an RN now, and demands respect, and she says he'll always be an LPN to her. He's got both, actually, and what does she have? "Cancer," she says, and wins. "You big queen." He snaps gaily at her, but with a look at Zoey, who is working some things out about this situation, Jackie tells them both to chill.
"Some people are just too mean to live," he says to Zoey, to comfort her; to teach her how we do this, how we deal with this. How we smile when death comes, and how many directions that means we have to smile every day. She smiles, nervously; she is learning the rules of death, and where to stand. Paula asks her if Bed Five is still doing it's magic, and Mo-Mo clarifies: "They check in, but they don't check out." Zoey nods as Paula grins, "Sounds good to me."
Gloria enters, and life floods back into Paula for a moment; she does a little routine about how her name sounds like a disease -- "I got Akalitus," she says, shivering and palsied -- and Gloria asks WTF she's doing there. "Just passing through," Paula says, with a wink at Jackie, but Jackie keeps her head down. She tells Gloria they're waiting for a bed in hospice, and for a moment Gloria is sincere. "I'm sorry to hear that."
But Gloria doesn't have that right, and she certainly doesn't have the right to break the rules of death, so Paula rears up again, promising Gloria forgiveness for "all those years of shitty treatment." "I'm speaking personally, of course," she says, but of course she is not: she's speaking professionally. That's where Gloria belongs. And she knows it, finally returning the serve by telling Jackie to let her know if there's anything she can do to expedite matters, even insofar as pulling somebody else's plug to make room in hospice. Jackie stares, and as Gloria leaves, Paula hoots. "What a cunt!"
Jackie stands before an x-ray of Paula's lungs, exhaling in horror. It's all through there; it looks like what you find under an old tree's bark. "Friend of yours?" asks Elenor, and Jackie nods. They worked together for about fifteen years, here at All Saints, until she left about a year ago. And now Paula's at the nurses' station, giving Akalitus shit. "Nice," Elenor says approvingly, and watches Jackie's face. "Hard for you." It's a question, but she already knows the answer, she thinks. "You don't know the half of it," Jackie says meaningfully, and the temperature changes as Elenor absorbs this. "Oh," she says. "Are you going to do it?" she asks, and Jackie says she'd reciprocate. "...Do you want my help?" Elenor asks, and Jackie shakes her head, and cuts her off with thanks before she can offer anything else.
Nobody knows the rules of death. Nobody knows where to stand, who to be, what to say, how to make sure it's all about you, how to make sure it's not all about you, how to make sure everybody knows you know it's not all about you, which makes it all about you. The large things that happen, they're too big to fit into your head. It's like that dance in the doorway, when you and the person try to do the math and figure out who should stand aside. We make it up new every single time.
Elenor leaves, and Zoey arrives, dancing with her in the doorway for a moment before coming around behind Jackie and staring up at the film, mirroring her posture, desperate to help but more desperate to get closer to Jackie, to use this in some way she can't really consciously admit to herself to prove something to Jackie, that she can be of aid, that Jackie should love her specifically, because she understands Jackie, because she is the protégé.
And if you said this to her you'd wound her terribly, but you wouldn't be wrong. She's just dancing in the doorway because she doesn't know what else to do, and because her job now is to be surrounded by death, always with different meanings and different stories and different degrees of pain and accountability attaining to it, and if she can't stand like Jackie -- back arched, arms crossed, reading the x-ray like tea leaves -- she won't know how to stand at all. But this death is special, because this death, in some way, is happening to Jackie. Which means all the rules go out the window.
"Zoey," Jackie says, warningly and tenderly and exhaustedly. She scatters.
Fiona calls, tented in her bedsheets, wearing her sunflower costume, asking Jackie for permission to wear it as pajamas, to bring the sunflower with her all through the night, and to please not tell Daddy that she's still awake. Jackie laughs. In this moment she would promise her daughter anything.
"Okay bye," says Fiona, and hangs up. She never hears her mother's panicked begging, in the bright shadow of that x-ray film, to stay on the line for just a second longer.
Then it's later, and they're wheeling in B