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Critic’s Notebook: ‘Nurse Jackie’ – an addict’s addict

Tommy Gavin, Gregory House, Doug Wilson, Andy Botwin, pretty much the entire character list of " Mad Men,” Jesse Pinkman, Andy Sipowicz, Leo McGarry, a few of the " Desperate Housewives,” many of the “Real Housewives,” Chuck Bass, many of the Walkers, Admiral Adama, Richard Webber, Barney Stinson, Cliff and Norm, Homer Simpson … across the screen the addicts come and go, talking of Vicodin and Frangelico.

But none of them is as good at it as “Nurse Jackie.”

When Edie Falco followed up her star turn on “The Sopranos” last year as a pill-hoovering super-nurse, she seemed just another manifestation of Showtime’s Very Troubled Mother Syndrome. Every network has a niche and Showtime’s is damaged parenting. What with the banishments and beheadings, Henry VIII on “The Tudors” may be officially the worst, with serial killer Dexter Morgan running a close second, but it’s the moms who put the show in Showtime. Nancy Botwin on “Weeds,” Tara Gregson on “The United States of Tara” and Jackie Peyton are all compelling arguments in the network’s current thesis: Being a mother can make a woman crazy.

But while Nancy ( Mary-Louise Parker) and Tara (Toni Colette) are haloed by a fairy-tale outlandishness — Parker’s is an internal luminescence, Colette’s relies more on costume changes — Jackie is laudably, inescapably, skin-crawlingly real.

With her unblinking lemur eyes and calculating ways, Falco’s Jackie is an addict’s addict. She is smart, she is efficient and she lies to everyone. Although she is eternally self-justifying, there are times you can practically smell the chemically aided anxiety rising off her. She divides her life into neat little compartments just like she tucks her day’s meds into her pocket or handy dental floss container.

In Season 1, this multilayered creation of Liz Brixius, Evan Dunsky and Linda Wallem was presented as a pharmaceutically fueled wonder nurse, smarter than the average doctor, by turns acid-tongued and soft-hearted with patients, capable of coaxing insurance coverage where none existed and lying straight-faced to her boss to cover any mistake made by herself or her colleagues. To procure some of her drugs, she had a quiet affair with the hospital pharmacist (or did until he got fired) who was happy to hand her a few Oxy for her “back problem.” At home, she was one of those straight-talking moms, abrupt with her affection but loving and genuinely concerned about her older daughter’s anxiety and her young and handsome husband’s happiness.

As we head toward the end of Season 2, things have gotten a little messier, as they are wont to do in television and addiction. The lies began to fray at the edges and life wouldn’t stay in those little compartments no matter how many times she neatened or rearranged them. Pharmacist Eddie (Paul Schulze) did not go gently when he realized the affair did not transcend his employment status and became friends with husband Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), which was easy enough since Kevin’s a bartender. Jackie’s older daughter Grace (Ruby Jerins) has issues that can’t be explained away by the word “phase,” newly sober nurse Sam (Arjun Gupta) seemed intent on nailing Jackie to a 12-step program while even her friends Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best) and nurse Zoe (Merritt Wever) began to connect the dots.

Through it all, Falco has been riveting to watch because, unlike so many of her male TV counterparts, she is neither morose nor jovial, neither a Eugene O’Neill character nor Falstaffian. Unlike House, say, or Tommy Gavin ( “Rescue Me”), she isn’t attempting to blur the pain or find small doses of oblivion — like any good working mom, she’s a multitasking addict, juggling speed and opiates to find the fuel to take her through the day without the side-effect of making her want to rip the skin right off her face.

Any woman who’s had a third glass of Chardonnay or the second half of a Xanax to take the edge off those diet pills can certainly understand.

There have been many memorable male drunks and junkies in film and television, but very few women, and even fewer mothers. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Mommie Dearest” seemed to say it all. Men who struggle, or don’t struggle, against addiction may be fathers, but they are men first and so their stories remain for the most part, personal. Jon Hamm’s Don Draper certainly drinks too much and is one of the worst fathers on television, but that’s not the takeaway of “Mad Men.”

Women who are drunks or addicts are much more troubling. We still expect our heroines to have some measure of sexual decorum, and drunks are rarely sexually decorous, and our mothers are supposed to put their children first, which is impossible for an addict to do.

But many of us were raised by alcoholic or addicted mothers, women who held jobs, braided hair and baked birthday cakes but who also went on locked-door crying jags, or slapped us around or disappeared for days.

Because Jackie, as the star of a television show, needs to be lovable on some level, she doesn’t quite go to these extremes, or at least she hasn’t yet. She sins against her children by betraying her marriage and living in a state of almost constant emotional distance; children are quick to recognize when Mommy is there but not really there.

She is a revolutionary character all the same, proof that gray is very much the new black. And Falco is a marvel to watch, spinning lies with the sincerity that comes only with a lifetime of consistent self-deception. The same woman who can face down a manipulative hospital benefactor and comfort a man whose partner is dying can also, when caught snorting a line of Adderall, look right into a child’s face and tell her she is just taking the medicine nurses take so they won’t cry.

Monday night’s episode is a gorgeous, nerve-rattling example of the paradox of control in an addict’s life. On a much-needed road trip with her family, Jackie misplaces her stash and the subsequent portrait of a woman able to quickly and effectively manipulate the situation while suffering an internal breakdown, not to mention withdrawal, is nothing short of a masterpiece.

With dramatic economy, Falco and the writers are able to illuminate some of the simple truths of addiction. The few things that Jackie feels are, to her, as real than actual events or facts. She needs drugs to assuage her emotional pain, which is just as bad as any physical pain, so it’s just as if she had physical pain, so why is telling people she has constant back pain a lie?

It’s astonishing to watch, ontagious, too, leaving the viewer in a breathless hiccup of anxiety, a shadowy remnant of what Jackie, and the many functioning addicts among us, must be feeling every minute of every day.,

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


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