Jill Buratto is a nurse specializing in end of life issues. She’s also my wife, and would be as happy as I would be if you backed my Patreon campaign for weekly episode reviews of Season Eight of Doctor Who. Then come back here and read her being righteously and beautifully angry.
It’s November 28th, 2013. Martin Garrix’s “Animals” tops the charts only to be ousted by Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” two days later. Elsewhere in the world, mass protests are occurring in Thailand as tensions between the opposition party and the prime minister’s family (read: his exiled brother) mount and, apparently, The New York Times has shown it’s first front-page nipple. So there’s that.
On TV: in a world in which no one can die, a young woman who has suffered what would formerly have been a fatal blood clot in her lungs. She is pregnant when this happens and is currently connected to all manner of drains and tubes and medical equipment in order to allow this fetus to gestate in her essentially dead body. She and the fetus she is carrying were deprived of oxygen thanks to that blood clot and her husband and parents look on in horror at the entire ordeal. Both the young woman and her husband were paramedics and understood the limits of what modern medicine could do, neither of them wanted her preserved this way. The Miracle destroyed any autonomy in death this young woman would have and should have had.
Except it wasn’t the Miracle that caused this. It was us. Her name was Marlise Munoz and she was 33 years old when she died. Her husband did everything right, but there was nothing to be done. She was brain dead. But, the definition of death for John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas was somewhat more… flexible. They kept her heart beating for weeks because of a loophole in the law stating that life support could not be revoked from a pregnant woman despite her wishes. It was only when the hospital was sued for the “cruel and obscene mutilation of a corpse” and they admitted that the fetus was developing “abnormally” that Marlise was allowed to rest.
Miracle Day goes out of its way to make a parallel of our world, a world in which this could happen. It builds a platform for an argument about the treatment of illness, dying and death in our culture. It meticulously constructs a modest proposal indicating the natural extreme of our death-denying culture. So, after all that effort, what does Miracle Day end up saying about death? Well, it says nothing at all.
No, that is perhaps a bit harsh and untrue. Miracle Day clearly says that the way we treat the sick and the dying is bad and we should feel bad. Which is worth examining.
There is an inherent classism in healthcare on a global scale. Despite the long list of countries who have decided that healthcare is a basic human right, globally, healthcare is available only to those who have the means. Part of the reason the Ebola epidemic in Africa is gaining spreading quite this quickly is the lack of a vaccine or any available treatment for the virus. As a virus, the hope to find an effective treatment or “cure” is slim but why haven’t we found a vaccine for this virus with mortality rates up to ninety percent? Because there is “no market” for the vaccine. The virus is endemic to Africa and kills it’s victims quickly. Why should money be spent on producing a vaccine for it?
It is the same quandary faced with tuberculosis. Because the disease has been relegated to mostly third-world countries, we count on older treatments to treat and cure the incredibly infectious bacteria and avoid spending the money on new research and treatment modalities. The problem is that, as the bacteria learns and adapts to the drugs we used, multi-drug resistant strains are becoming more and more common. This is downright terrifying in a world where someone can hop on a plane and be halfway around the world, bringing the disease with them. But the infected are simply Category Ones. We can close their borders, wall them in and let them die off. Diseases are not pretty, not fun to look at so we look away. We hide them from view. We burn them out of our minds just as surely as the overflow camps burned the terminal.
In the end, that is the biggest problem with Miracle Day. It comes so close to saying something important about illness and death. I watched the way the Category Ones were treated, saw them stacked out of view in the storage closets of the overflow camps and I had hope. Hope that this show would finally, finally make other people understand why I hate closing the doors of other patients’ rooms when we wheel someone down to the morgue, why I hate the stupid morgue stretcher and the stupid cover that is supposed to make it seem like a delivery cart bringing food or supplies to the floor but is just a clumsy attempt to hide that someone died, why I hate that death and dying are bad words on a fucking oncology floor where we should be helping our patients prepare for the, probably imminent, eventuality of their own mortality. But it doesn’t. It never stands up and says “this is life and that’s okay.” It never acknowledges that death happens and never acknowledges the unnaturalness of a world in which death does not happen. It lets death stay big and scary and other.
The death of Miracle Day is a death of a thousand little blows. There isn’t one big, resounding moment that can be pointed at to explain where the death narrative went off the rails. In fact, I spent most of this second viewing of the show (this pass after I had worked at a hospice facility and had spent a significant amount of time with those who would be unequivocally Category Ones) still hoping that it would recover. Because it always could. If someone, anyone had taken a moment to examine not just the way that the Category Ones were treated but the fundamental wrongness of the world when a thing like the Miracle is true, it could have recovered. No such moment happened.
And the most properly brilliant scene is the one in which this moment almost happens. In the second episode when, in the middle of a truly well constructed triage scene, Vera calls everything to a halt because the world doesn’t work this way anymore. She realizes that the medical staff fundamentally have to change their thinking and approach to healthcare in order to deal with the fallout from this so-called Miracle. The world is different than it was yesterday and we need to adapt. It was a punch-the-air moment for me and I was so excited moving forward into a show that decided to do a ten-episode rumination on death.
Which is why Vera’s line declaring that “we don’t deserve this miracle” in “Dead of Night” is so damaging. As the one person who has been in the trenches, who has seen the worst of the miracle and what it does to people, she shouldn’t have been the one spouting that bullshit. Because this is exactly the miracle we deserve. It is the logical endpoint of the pervasive, death-pathologizing culture we live in. There is real world suffering akin to the suffering of those who were “saved” by the Miracle that is caused simply because we cannot accept death as a part of life. There are those in pain and suffering because their families cannot accept that, someday, life will go on without them. We already live in the dystopian world that the Miracle created, it’s called modern medicine. The problem isn’t, as Vera suggests, that humans are going to screw it up. It’s that the end of death isn’t a miracle in the first place, and while the series seems to eventually settle on that, Vera of all people should know that instinctively. She’s just come from a scene where she rightly declares that babies born with their “brain outside the skull, no skin, no face, suffering” are in fact mistakes, and she still thinks the problem with the Miracle is that humans will screw it up and not that it’s just screwed up to begin with?
And the blows just kept coming. From Vera, the medical professional, the medical and ethical voice of the show, wondering if she could have “saved” her mother after the stroke by keeping her alive for a while longer to Gwen’s constant worry that she is killing her father by setting the world to rights, the blows rain down. And, of course, Gwen is another moral voice for Torchwood. She always has been. And it was heartbreaking to see the two most humanitarian characters, the ones who had seen and empathized with some of the worst of human suffering, thinking that condemning someone to an eternity of pain was somehow saving them. That living life partially conscious, dependent on pain medication to make the life the Miracle had provided bearable, was somehow better than death.
No one, not one person, stops to think about what it is like to be a Category One. The actual experience of living as Category One is never once examined. Gwen’s father is nothing more than a launchpad for her angst about resolving the Miracle. The Categories are instituted for the shock factor of burning people, for the highlighting of the gray areas between categories, for the demonstration of “officialdom” run amok. The entire show focuses on “the power” to declare someone dead or alive while completely ignoring the experience of the living death of a Category One. In “Categories of Life,” words like “vivisection” and living “petri dishes” are tossed around and we are meant to be horrified and disgusted that the governments would do this to living people but even the damn story doesn’t treat them as living people, they’re more props than anything else.
Let’s take Gwen’s father specifically as he is the only named Category One that we deal with extensively. We see that he is a sweet old man. We see that he is a sick old man. After his second heart attack, we see that he is a nearly comatose old man in a significant amount of pain. He is secluded into the basement of the house, hidden away and drugged up with diamorphone (which, for those readers in the US, is in fact the chemical name for heroin which is still used as an opioid painkiller in the UK. I had no idea either) in order to keep him comfortable. What sort of quality of life is that? What sort of life is that?
I am not, to be clear, saying that the Category Ones should, in fact, be burned alive. But no one stops to think about the life that they lead now. Even when approaching the end of the Miracle, Gwen needs reassurance from Rhys that this is the right thing to do. After seeing what her father was going through, Gwen still needed assurance from someone else that death is better than this existence. And, again, Rhys spectacularly fails to address that concern. He fobs it off with a dismissive “bless the poor bugger, he’s had his time.” No “it’s better than being burnt alive,” no “it’s better than living in a rat-infested basement in horrible pain for the rest of eternity.” Just the same fucking platitudes we spew today. The Miracle didn’t change anything.
And the one person who actually recognizes the personhood of the victims of the Miracle is Oswald fucking Danes. The goddamn pedophile and child murderer. The one whose glorious end involves calling out to all “the bad little girls” that he is following to hell. He is the one goddamn person who actually speaks to the Category Ones or soon to be Category Ones with any shred of respect for their autonomy as a human being, with any sort of compassion or empathy for the pain and trauma they are going through only to end his goddamn speech exalting that they will all live forever. The only person who attempts to empathize with them is a sociopathic narcissist who is spitting out a byline to recover some modicum of popularity in a world fundamentally changed by the Miracle.
I mean, the entire fucking thing is a mess.
In the end, death is not a condition that can be cured or ignored or avoided. It is a moment and it is not wrong or unnatural or immoral, it is a part of life as much as breathing is. There is no evading it, no escaping it. Death does not have morality or mercy, it is an absolute and fundamental part of human existence. With each medical advancement we seek to outpace the eventuality but we simply can’t. Every person who takes breath will someday die. And, in that, Gwen has some redemption. Her monologue in the final episode brings death back and rights the world. She bids the dead farewell and the whole wide world takes a breath. And just this once, everybody dies.