‘Scrubs’ Meditates on Death in the Somber “My Last Words”
‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
Bill Lawrence’s Scrubs lasted for nine seasons (or eight, depending on who you ask), slowly making a name for itself, while managing to launch cast members like Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, John C. McGinley, and Neil Flynn into the mainstream. The oddball series chronicled the exploits of JD (Braff) beginning his residency at Sacred Heart Memorial Hospital, befriending the staff around him and growing into a better doctor and person in the process. While always maintaining a very outlandish, hyperbolized tone (mostly due to the fact that the series was shown through the naïve JD’s perspective), the show slowly grew into a hit on NBC by repeatedly taking chances. Scrubs even survived a migration over to ABC for its last two seasons, and a final year that contained very few of the show’s original cast members. It was a series that always seemed to have impressive guest stars filling its halls, and it’s easy to see how it could become a training ground of sorts for Bill Lawrence, who would go on to create Cougar Town, borrowing much of the DNA and casting that would come into formation here.
It was also a series that relished in doing “concept” episodes presented through the lens of JD’s wildly imaginative perspective. It wasn’t out of place for Scrubs to transform itself into a musical for an episode, or a Wizard of Oz allegory, or even a three-camera studio sitcom. It almost felt like a Community before Community existed (and while a number of parallels would arise between the two series, I doubt Community would enjoy the comparison considering their digs at the show when they went through their similar “reboot”).
Scrubs’ final seasons were a tumultuous time and brought a number of changes to the series. The show took on an interesting structure where rather than the entire cast being present for every episode, certain pairings or groups would be focused on with the other people absent. It’s a strategy that worked as much as it didn’t, but it’s this make-up of the season that helped make entries like “My Last Words” possible. Without these cast restrictions happening, the minimalistic story being presented here might not have been thought to be a worthwhile path to go down. Instead, a very strong story is told that reiterates what Scrubs’ mission statement was, and acts as a strong reminder of it as the show begins to head into its swan song. It’s no coincidence that series creator Bill Lawrence is the one in the director’s chair here considering how important an episode it is.
As “My Last Words” begins, it doesn’t feel like a bottle episode. Granted, it takes just over three minutes for JD and Turk to find themselves in George Valentine’s (the excellent Glynn Turman) room, but the rest of the episode is still within Sacred Heart’s halls. In fact, the episode still manages to cram a cutaway and a dream sequences into the beginning, yet they still remain contained within the hospital. There’s a lone cutaway later in the episode that takes place in Turk and Carla’s apartment that manages to break out of this bottle, yet its focus is still on death, which is truly the bigger “bottle” of the episode (although the sequence is pretty unnecessary, and I think the episode would’ve been stronger without it).
One of the most impressive things about Scrubs was its push towards doing more serious, emotional episodes, which not only reflected a more realistic, grounded side of a sitcom that had a tendency to become very cartoony, but also the very present, tragic aspect of medicine. Death and loss are staples of the profession, and to ignore that in the series (even if it happens to be a comedy) would be a great injustice to the subject matter. One of the smartest, bravest things the series could do would be to embrace these feelings, and whether the forays into the bleak worked for everyone, they were fundamental to this show finding its voice and cementing its legacy. This episode (and others of its ilk) felt special, and it’s easy to see how Aseem Batra’s script garnered him a Humanitas Prize for it.
“My Last Words” fully embraces the more somber side of Scrubs, and is thought to be one of the better examples of the series indulging in those sensibilities. The episode’s story is reasonably simple: JD and Turk spend time with the dying Mr. Valentine, when they already have plans for a very JD/Turk-centric evening instead. The seriousness of what JD and Turk are pulled into comes at the expense of their decade-long tradition of an evening of succulent steak and bromance. It’s a fairly thin obstacle to distract them (especially this late in the series, where these people have all become reasonably competent at their jobs), but it still manages to act as a beacon of fun and celebration of vitality for the two of them, whereas the alternative is them facing the stark opposite. Wallowing through all of this isn’t the most fun experience, but a necessary one, especially when the friendships of these characters seem to be in flux and starting to show signs of fray (JD and Turk are purposefully shown to be squabbling and at each other’s throats here as much as they have each other’s backs). Arguably JD and Turk need their steak night now more than ever, but the bonding experience that they’re forced to go through with Mr. Valentine turns out to be even more important.
To combine this sadness with a bottle episode’s structure makes the episode all the more powerful by locking JD and Turk in with these consequences, forcing them to face them, unable to run away. This isn’t some situation where JD and Turk get locked in the room with George as they’re changing his IV and as a result have this surprising bonding experience. No, the two of them even leave Mr. Valentine’s room repeatedly, yet are continually drawn back in; their own insecurities constantly pulling them back to this larger topic. It even gives their borderline ridiculous behavior early on in the episode a stark reality to be juxtaposed against. One minute their biggest concern is the final moves to a steak night dance, the next a man’s life is literally on the line.
What’s one of the most interesting things about the episode is that Valentine’s death doesn’t come as a shock to JD or Turk, or even to the man himself. There have been plenty of episodes that have focused on the unexpected, surprising nature of death — in fact this whole episode is innocuously introduced through the menial task of JD and Turk needing to change Mr. Valentine’s IV bag, whereupon they learn of how little time he has left — but this operates much more as a treaty on accepting your end and coming to terms with the inevitability of death. It’s the sort of story that’s more poignant when the series itself is also coming to a close. For a show that might have been so preoccupied with the randomness of death in the past, this new perspective makes a lot more sense as the show begins to wrap up. Mr. Valentine laments, “Honestly, I don’t know why people are so afraid of dying?” as JD and Turk reiterate that they’ve been around death so much, they too have been desensitized by it. What’s left is these people worrying about life rather than death, as accepting your end also means assessing what you’ve accomplished and if you think you’ve made the most of your time. This is of course a huge topic to get into, especially for a 22-minute sitcom, but “My Last Words” does an impressive job with the subject matter. JD and Turk’s plans for the evening are seen to be more and more empty and hollow when they’re played in comparison to everything going on with Mr. Valentine.
As Valentine’s layers begin to be peeled, JD and Turk learn that George has no family to be there for him — or really anyone at all. The episode shifts into a deeply touching journey into Mr. Valentine’s life, but really, it might as well be talking about anyone’s life. There’s nothing atypical going on here, simply a normal man who did his best at living. As JD and Turk get pulled in ever further, it acts as a helpful reminder that even if we’ve accepted death, everyone still deserves to have someone with them in their final moments, or at the least, be remembered. And as comfortable as we think we can get with the concept, it can still surprise us like a motherfucker. We tell the world that we don’t fear death because we’re in fact terrified by it and this is our way of having control. It’s a constant balancing act. Everyone’s guards are let down eventually and it’s not long until JD is talking about when his father died, or Turk discussing what it will be like when his wife, Carla, passes. The episode almost feels like a therapy session where these people are just venting and talking openly about death.
“My Last Words” doesn’t provide a lot of answers, but it’s a fascinating, humbling character story where characters pose questions to some very real issues that are plaguing them (and everyone). It starts an important conversation, and one that reminds us how frail and human we all are, but that that weakness also binds us all together.