A few weeks ago while randomly channel-surfing on a slow Saturday, I landed on SyFy and (in between showings of Piranhaconda and Lake Placid 3) saw an ad that later that evening the network would be showing a marathon of Do No Harm episodes. All I could do was laugh, because winding up in this position was the best thing that happened to the show in its short life. Do No Harm earned the dubious distinction of being the lowest-rated scripted premiere in the history of broadcast television and NBC axed the show after airing only two episodes, sticking it in the trash to be remembered only for its hilarious promotional art and the gloriously bonkers last line of the pilot. The network dusted it off a few months later for a summer Saturday burnoff they didn’t even bother to advertise, making the commercials on SyFy the most promotional material the show had received in months.
It’s certainly not like the show didn’t deserve this ignominious fate. My friend and colleague Zack Handlen enumerated the long list of reasons why Do No Harm was a misguided, silly show at the time of the premiere, and it never managed to overcome that initial impression over the course of its run. The story of neurosurgeon Jason Cole and his “evil” alter ego Ian Price was a mess from day one, its presentation of good-versus-evil coming across instead as a nice guy-versus-jackass setup because the show was never willing to commit to whether Price was merely a hedonist or a full-bore psychopath. The supporting characters were so thinly drawn I barely noticed when they weren’t present some episodes, the medical cases weren’t terribly interesting or closely connected to Jason’s struggle any particular week, and the on-again/off-again relationship between Jason/Ian and Olivia was so inconsistent that those scenes became a chore to watch on a regular basis.
And yet, I watched every episode. (Yes, I also watched part of the SyFy marathon too. It was a really slow weekend.) Part of me felt sorry for the show—its dubious honor as worst and weirdest show of the midseason eclipsed early on by Zero Hour and Cult—and part of me was curious enough to see what the hell anyone thought they were doing. The episodes managed to dole out just enough craziness and unintentional comedy that it remained entertaining to watch Jason or Ian to contort new problems for the other to solve, and it was shot competently enough that there were scenes of legitimate tension or excitement scattered amidst the jargon. (In one episode the show even managed to channel Breaking Bad when Ian drafted long-suffering chemist Ruben to use his scientific knowhow to cook up a batch of drugs for a rave.) And there were times throughout the run of Do No Harm that I could see them attempting to contort the story into something more interesting, asking the question of whether Jason’s season-long quest to eliminate Ian was tantamount to murder, and whether or not the other half of his personality should have any say in the matter.
None of that means that the show ever became good, and with “This Is How It Ends,” the unintentional series finale, any chance of that happening goes straight down the drain. From the beginning Do No Harm was a show that didn’t seem to make any sense the more you thought about it, and the ending proves nobody on the show was thinking about it too hard, they just wanted to generate conflict at the expense of previous story developments and logic as a whole. It’s a finale that offers one answer—the origin of the Jason/Ian conflict—but ultimately only serves to point out that the show was as schizophrenic as its main character from the beginning and only a little better than he was at hiding it.
Let’s start with that answer, because oh, what an answer it is. Put under deep sedation for surgery by Dr. Philip Carmelo (James Cromwell, in the latest installment of Blatant Paycheck Collection Theater) to implant a chip in his brain to cut off the “neural pathways” by which Ian took control of his body, Jason wound up having flashbacks back to his childhood. Turns out he’d repressed the memory of having a twin brother named Ian, whom he was incredibly close to despite the latter being a budding psychopath in the vein of Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son. When Ian tried to talk his brother into running away from home, the two fought and Jason wound up drowning in a river. Reliving this horrifying moment, Ian points out only one of them is actually reliving it. And the dramatic twist is revealed: Jason is the real alter, a manifestation created in Ian’s brain after corrective brain surgery.
It’s a twist that’s clearly meant to stun the viewers and turn their conception of the show upside down, and it succeeds at that for all the wrong reasons. Now, I long since gave up trying to take the science on this show seriously—once the third episode introduced the idea that Jason and Ian had entirely different biochemistry and obtaining the latter’s saliva and spinal fluid turned into Ruben’s objectives, basic logic was put on a bus and sent out of town. But even with that degree of skepticism, this twist doesn’t mesh with anything that’s happened before. As presented, Jason’s transitions were almost Hulk-like physical conversions, complete with uncontrolled tremors, pupils dilating like he was infected with The X-Files’ black oil virus and attendant orchestral sting to make sure the point came across. The reveal that it’s all literally in Jason/Ian’s head invalidates the physiological component that drove half the series, and once they throw out a premise they spent hours trying to persuade us makes sense it feels stupid instead of shocking.
Additionally, the finale wound up sabotaging some of the show’s only interesting aspects it had given to the conflict between Jason and Ian. Even though this was an episode that contrived a way for the two men to come to blows in the blue-filtered Blair Witch Project dream world, it was a fairly soulless endeavor because the viewer knew whose side they were supposed to be on. Ian’s flickers of humanity from earlier episodes were snuffed in favor of making him a purer villain, and by the end he was straight out of a horror movie, screaming and lashing at Lena, stalking the hospital hallways at night with a scalpel and sneaking up on unsuspecting doctors. (That feeling was furthered by Cromwell, who was basically channeling his American Horror Story character by the end of his appearance.) There was potential in there to discuss how complicated this relationship had become, and how much of a role Jason had played in bringing things to this point, but it’s clear no one wanted to ask those questions again, opting solely for shock and awe.
Though for all his inconsistencies Jason/Ian was at least a character, which is more than I can say for anyone else on Do No Harm. Every single person on the show existed only in relationship to the main character(s), and their backstories—Lena’s relationship with a handsome psychologist, Dr. Young’s drug-addicted daughter, Dr. Jordan’s blind son—never came across as anything other than tangential and were forgotten within an episode or two. They were so dynamic and memorable as characters that even now, having seen the whole series, I have to keep checking Wikipedia to remember what their names were. “This Is How It Ends” didn’t go any further to distinguish them, marooning Jordan in Minneapolis to track down leads on Jason’s past and marginalizing Young under Carmelo’s influence. (A particular moment of silence for how ineffectual the show made Phylicia Rashād: House often had to contort to make tolerance of House’s antics seem reasonable, but given how much Jason and Ian got away with Lisa Cuddy seems like a beacon of autocratic control in comparison.)
Of the supplemental characters, only two of them got any real development in the show. The first is Lena, who finally took some agency by abducting Jason before surgery (only the latest illustration of how deeply stupid this hospital is) and demanding an answer. The writers clearly had the intention to postpone this moment, using her ignorance of the truth on a weekly basis as an excuse for wacky/tragic misunderstandings, and that makes the ease with which she comes to terms with the truth—an encounter that ends with Ian strapped into an MRI and shot up with haloperidol—feel like she should have figured this out weeks ago. Too often on shows like this, keeping people in the dark just makes them seem foolish and limited as characters, and there’s no reason Lena couldn’t have been in the know before this point.
The other developed character was Ruben, who proved a victim of the writers’ short attention span because the show didn’t see fit to tell us whether or not he was still alive by the end. He had betrayed Ian’s trust and Ian caught up with him before he could escape, and our last glimpse of his abandoned luggage a couple episodes ago gave the assumption that his trip to Jamaica turned into a trip to Belize. All the finale manages to deliver is indication that whatever happened won’t stay buried long with Dr. Young and Josh sniffing around Jason’s belongings for evidence, and that’s not enough for this stage of the game. This is a detail that needed to be made clear immediately because it irrevocably changes perception of Ian to a cold-blooded killer. If the show wanted to commit to that approach, it needed us to see the blood on his hands, not leave an ambiguity that makes a final confrontation distracting.
Ultimately though, Do No Harm was never willing to commit to or focus on anything for an extended period of time, and that quality doomed both the finale and the show as a whole. “This Is How It Ends” leaves us on a number of cliffhangers, but did so poorly in making us care about any of them that it’s hard to see anyone sending clocks frozen at 8:25 to NBC in an effort to bring it back. It was a show that provided just enough unintentional comedy and scientific babble to remain in guilty pleasure territory, a show that I don’t regret watching but I’m certainly not going to miss.
Episode grade: C+
Season grade: C-
- In his initial review Zach cited The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but by the end this finale I was reminded more of Stephen King’s The Dark Half. That book, King’s response to having his pseudonym Richard Bachman exposed, featured a main character’s pen name physically manifesting and going on a killing spree, revealed at the end to also be an incarnation of the twin brother he consumed in utero. The more of the finale I watched the more parallels I wound up drawing between the two, and given that book ends with a flock of sparrows dragging a man to hell that should give you some indication of how scatterbrained things got.
- No sign of Olivia or her son this episode. No great loss, given that the only time Olivia was interesting was in the episode where she found herself falling in love with Jason instead of Ian. (And I’ll just say it, one of the least inspired performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen.) Guess we got all the resolution to that story we’ll ever get.
- Things we’ll never know: whether or not Ruben is still alive, what Dr. Young told the police, whether or not Jordan gets his job back, and why John Carroll Lynch’s character was even on this show in the first place.
- One question that was answered, if in an unsatisfying manner, was the question of why it had to be 8:25. When Jordan was in Minneapolis looking for clues, he tracked down the real Jason Cole Price’s tombstone and learned his date of death was in fact August 25, 1986. I wound up missing this detail thanks to the rapid rate I was shaking my head in stunned disbelief at the resolution to the Jason/Ian mystery, and because it came from a character who I kept forgetting had any depth beyond being a jerk. And once again, it makes no sense in the context of what we've learned about Jason/Ian—how does this gel with his biochemical transformations? Did Carmelo build a switch in his body when he did the initial surgery? How do we get from date to time? Gah, so confused.
- Also, when Ian wound up flying to Jamaica a few episodes back I found myself wishing he’d crossed a time zone or two so we could see what happens in that circumstance.
- Most annoying part of the finale though? No callback to that last line of the pilot about how monkeys have been known to eat their young. You cannot introduce a line like that and never call back to it. That’s original sin right there.
- “So much for ‘do no harm,’ eh?” He said it! He said it!