Episode Title: Critical Condition
Season 03, Episode 02
Episode 033 of 344
Written by Diana Gould
Directed by Nicholas Sgarro
Original Airdate: Thursday, November 19th, 1981
The Plot (Courtesy of TV.Com): Sid has a blood clot which will permanently paralyze him unless they operate, however, there's a 40% chance the operation could kill him. Karen doesn't want him to get the operation, but Sid insists and makes Karen sign his consent form. Sid tells his family how much he loves them, and after they leave he makes a private tape recording for Karen. The neighbors all keep vigil with the Fairgates during the operation, and Karen and Gary make up. In the operating room, something goes horribly wrong. The doctor finally comes out, and Karen can see by his face that Sid has died. Everyone is crying and in shock. Later, Karen listens to the tape Sid made for her, telling her how much he loves her.
Welcome back to Knots Blogging. After the television triumph that was The Vigil last week, can Critical Condition possibly carry that amazing torch and continue running with it? Let’s find out!
Okay, I must say that, on some level, I don’t know if I’m doing a disservice to the show by occasionally throwing out big spoilers in my essays about these early episodes. For instance, I think I mentioned about five thousand times that Sid Fairgate is going to die in Episode 33. If you’ve actually been watching the series through and reading my essays as you go along, and if you’re a new viewer, well, I’m sorry about that, and I've tried to always make sure those spoilers are nicely encapsulated in big black letters that warn the reader beforehand. I would hate to think I’ve ruined the magical, majestic experience of watching KL for anyone, but I’m also approaching this as a person who has seen the entire series through once before, remembers the big plot points and such, and is re-exploring it in more intimate detail. Also, and I hate to do this, but I take some comfort in the fact that this show went off the air 23 years ago, so I don’t know if the same rules of spoilers still hold for this. Is it a spoiler to tell you that Norman Bates’ mother is dead the whole movie or that Darth Vader is Luke’s father? I’m not sure; why don’t you write in and tell me?
In any case, this is it; we’ve arrived, this is where Sid dies and Don Murray leaves the show. I think this is one of the most important and significant episodes of the series up to this point, because with it we have our very first cast departure. We started our glorious Pilot with eight cast members and they were, In Alphabetical Order, James Houghton, Kim Lankford, Michele Lee, Constance McCashin, Don Murray, John Pleshette, Ted Shackelford, and Joan Van Ark. By the time we reach the fourteenth and final season, only two of those original cast members will still be on the show, Michele Lee and Ted Shackelford (and, as I’ve mentioned, Michele is the only person to appear in every single episode of KL), so I think it’s important to note that this is the first time we lose an original season one cast member. In fact, it’s the first time we lose any cast member, and KL is going to have quite a rotating cast as we go through the years, with lots of people coming and going, some people staying for a long time, and some only hanging out for a season or two. In addition to being our first loss, I also think this death sets the stage for KL being a show where you can never predict what’s going to happen; maybe the person who seems to be the strong male lead of the show will die unexpectedly two episodes into season three. Also, once he dies, he is not coming back; we do not have any Patrick-Duffy-in-the-shower nonsense over here on KL; this show exists in a real universe where people die and stay dead.
After our thirty second preview and our glorious scrolling squares opening sequence, we actually get a quick “Previously on KL” recap, rather helpful since this episode picks up mere seconds from where The Vigil left off. You’ll recall that in The Vigil, Sid slipped into a coma for awhile and also had a paralysis from the neck down (did I mention the paralysis in my essay? No? Ah, fuck it). Well, the epic misleading-of-the-audience continues nicely here, because we pick up with Sid having regained the ability to move his hands and feet around and feel sensation. I imagine the 1981 audience is breathing easier, thinking soon they’ll wrap up this suspense, heal Sid, and have him go home with Karen and be a good husband for as long as the series may run.
At the same time, I feel like the writers (not The Plesh this week, but rather Diana Gould) are dangling Sid’s death in front of us as this bit of foreshadowing the whole episode. For instance, an early scene has Gary at Knots Landing Motors on the phone with somebody, and he gets sorta angry and says, “Sid’s not dead; he’s in the hospital, for God’s sake!” I didn’t note every instance of it, but there seem to be a lot of little lines like that sprinkled throughout the episode, little hints that he ain’t gonna make it, but it would be easy for a first-time viewer to dismiss those hints as mere suspense. After all, how many times in any drama series does someone go to the hospital for some suspenseful surgery and come out fine? I think one of the earliest Dallas episodes was even about Jock going to the hospital for some heart thing, and of course that ep ended with him rolling out healthy as a horse and everyone smiling and high fiving eachother in a freeze frame ending (see picture below and note the really scary looking doctor behind Miss Ellie). It would not be unreasonable to assume the same to be true of KL at this point.
We get a few little breaks in the Sid story during the earlier portion of this episode to check in on our other characters. I’m happy to see Laura, who was missing last week, and she also looks extra pretty in this episode. We get a good scene with her and Richard in the kitchen that functions in several different capacities. First, Laura walks in while Richard is cooking and mentions how Scooter (last seen as The Second Scooter, but the next time we see him, in One of a Kind, he will have morphed back into the Allan Miller Scooter) is now divorced, how his wife up and left him (not shocking considering the storylines that unfolded with The Second Scooter back in More Than Friends). Okay, so that’s a good setup for some later-in-the-season stories involving Laura and Scooter, nicely done. Next, Abby comes walking in and is going on and on about how she needs to find her damn kids, how she can’t believe nobody will help her with this. Richard and Laura are sorta dismissive and chit-chatty in front of Abby, so Donna Mills gets a good moment of acting where she gets all frustrated and sorta screams, “Why won’t anyone help me?!” After Abs leaves the scene, Laura confesses that while she thinks what Jeff did was “Stupid and horrible,” she also thinks the kids are better off with him than with Abs. I definitely see her point.
I really appreciated this scene because of how well it dovetailed storylines together. We hear about Scooter, setting up his affair with Laura later (again, spoiler alert for a nearly 35 year old season of television), but also propels Abby’s storyline forward and gives us a little more insight into Laura’s character and feelings towards Abs. Remember that it was not that long ago that Richard and Abs were shagging in the hot tub in the middle of the day, so you can understand why Laura might still feel some animosity or resentment towards Abs, why she would not exactly be pulling out her violin for Abby’s current worries about her children.
As for our other characters, I guess Diana Gould felt like we simply must have some Kenny and Ginger in this episode, although I highly doubt the audience demanded it. Last week I praised The Plesh for being smart enough to just not include them when he writes episodes. Ah, if only the other writers could take a cue from him, but alas, James Houghton and Kim Lankford are still in the opening credits and will be until we get into season five, so I suppose we have to watch them and try to care. At least their scene is short in this episode; I’ll give it that much praise. It’s a dull and boring scene of the two of them lying in bed, Ginger all pregnant (looking more like she just shoved a big pillow down under her shirt, by the way) and Kenny being annoying and talking about like, the baby or something. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, no one cares, I wasn’t really paying attention, and let’s just move on, shall we?
Since Sid has awakened and can move his hands and feet again, everyone is starting to relax, but right before we move to a commercial break, we see Sid lying in bed, the music gets all ominous, and he just says, “Oh no,” real quietly to himself. Oh no, indeed. From here, we move to the Fairgate house where everyone seems fairly relaxed, Karen most of all. She’s reassuring the kids that everything will be okay, that their father is alive, survived the crash, came out of his coma, let’s all just eat dinner and be mellow and happy. However, it’s not long before she gets a phone call with the bad news that he’s lost sensation below the neck again, so she returns to the hospital, and from here we get the debate about risky surgery to heal him versus staying in his current condition.
Sid wants to have this surgery. The odds, according to the Asian doctor (who is, by the way, played by an actor named Clyde Kusatsu (pictured below) who was apparently in American Pie, although I haven’t watched that movie in some years and can’t recall who he played) are not great, about 60/40 with the 60 being against Sid. But Sid wants the surgery because he does not want to live his life in a wheelchair. I understand him and, for the record, if I were in his position, I would do the same thing. This is an awesome scene and, again, Michele and Don Murray both knock it out of the park here. She does not want him to risk this, she’d rather have him alive and paralyzed versus completely dead, and she keeps asking, regarding the paper to perform the surgery, “What if I don’t sign it?” Sid finally replies, “Then I’ll take the pen in my teeth and sign it myself.” Oh man, what power. Karen finally grabs the paper and signs it, but you can tell she’s not pleased about it, and nor should she be, for it is this surgery that will ultimately seal Sid’s faith.
After that, we go to commercial, but when we return, it’s just a tour-de-force. Everything kicks into high gear and my emotions run high. I’ll confess that upon this viewing, I did not cry, but damn, did I come close. Considering that this is, again, a primetime television show in 1981, this is amazingly intense as well as amazingly cinematic and, above all, realistic. I think everyone has had to deal with a death in the family, or at least the death of someone close to you, and for me, this whole final fifteen or twenty minutes rings totally true with how I’ve had to deal with death in my own life.
For me, one of the most touching parts of this entire episode is the fact that Sid does, in fact, get to say the most important things to his family before he dies. Everyone gathers around him, and he says he’s having this surgery because, “My family is the most important thing in my life.” These are beautiful and heartfelt words and I find it moving beyond belief that Sid is able to express this to Karen and his children in what will ultimately prove to be his final moments. After they leave the room, he asks the nurse if that’s a cassette recorder by his bed and she confirms that it is. He asks her to turn it on so he can speak into it, and just as he starts to speak, we cut away to a new scene. This is, for me, the biggest hint that Sid is not going to make it, but again, I can see a 1981 viewer dismissing this as suspense, like, “Ooooh, they’re even showing him recording a final message into a tape recorder; they really want us to think he’s going to die.”
Probably the part of the ep that made me come closest to crying was when Sid is getting wheeled away for his surgery and Karen is sorta chasing after him, just trying to say a few things to him. Since this is the last time she sees him alive, it’s especially heartwrenching and, of course, played brilliantly and beautifully by Michele. She just sorta keeps saying, “I love you,” over and over again, and you can sense that urgency and that fear in her voice. The really remarkable thing is that none of this comes off as corny as over-the-top or trying too hard to tug at the viewers heartstrings; it all just feels so totally real. If I had my time machine, I would go right back and give Michele her well deserved Emmy, my own personal 11/22/63-style fixing of what is wrong with American history.
From here, we do a lot of crosscutting, really amping up the suspense. We see everyone gathered out in the waiting area (except for Kenny and Ginger, since nobody cares about them), another great moment as they all trade Sid stories and remember good times with him. This rings totally true to my own personal experiences of waiting around in a hospital to see if someone is going to die. Maybe that sounds morbid, but it’s true, you sorta talk with your family or your friends about the person and tell funny stories and it’s this bittersweet way of remembering and respecting the person that we all love. In this case, they are talking about when Diana was born (when the pits of Hell opened up and spit her out, that is) and how Sid got dressed up and people assumed he was the doctor. Meanwhile, we keep cutting back and forth to the surgery, Sid lying on the table, that squiggly thing that beeps a lot beeping and beeping and beeping.
And then he dies. The most notable thing about this, for me, is the total lack of music. The surgery is going along, something goes wrong, those squiggly lines and beepy things stop beeping, and we just see him lying there, in a total Christ pose (this is probably my only small gripe with this ep, that having Sid lying with his arms out and looking just like Jesus is maybe a smidge too on-the-nose and heavy handed). Then the doctor says how he’ll go outside and tell the family, and still no music. He walks out into the hallway and everyone sees him coming out and Karen makes her way over to him, and still no music. It’s all totally quiet except for the sounds of her footsteps on the floor, but as soon as she and the doctor go through those swinging double doors, the music kicks in, and it’s ominous and scary, almost like a horror movie.
Another bold choice on the part of the creative team is that we don’t actually hear Karen receive the news, we just see the doctor telling her through the doors, and then Karen has to walk back out and tell the family. Then they all just sorta cry and walk over to the elevators together, no dialogue, the music there but quiet, and it’s very disconcerting. I have to wonder if the network gave out any notes on this episode, maybe something like, “Too much quiet,” “Too emotional,” “The viewers will be uncomfortable,” something like that. For me, of course, I love it and respect it, and it’s moments like these that elevate KL above the nighttime soap and into high art. Because, again, and I hate to be the broken record, but it’s so true. When someone dies, there is that moment where you just have to walk to the elevator and go down and start to leave the hospital, and in real life it’s not always A Big Dramatic Scene; it’s quiet and it’s more like you’re in shock.
When everyone gets into the elevator, we go into a slow closeup of Karen’s face and then we get to hear the message Sid left her on the cassette and oh fuck is it heartwrenching. He says everything to Karen that a person would want to say if they knew they were gonna die, how he has no regrets, how the time with her was the best time of his life. I wish I could be more detailed about what he says but, in truth, I was just staring at the screen in awe as this all unfolded, admiring the craft and the style of storytelling and just the sheer raw emotion of it all. We end the episode on Karen listening to the tape and crying and then we roll credits and GOD DAMN even the credits are sad.
See, at this point the show usually rolls its ending credits over an overhead view of the ocean and the California landscape, but for the case of this episode, it plays over a freeze frame image from back in Scapegoats of Sid and Michael, formed in silhouette in front of the pink sunset, standing in front of the ocean. You’ll recall that this was the moment where Michael freaked out during volleyball and went running towards the ocean and Sid came to comfort him. Well, it’s the still image here and it’s set over the credits with a positively beautiful piano version of the theme song playing and it makes me wanna weep (I only wish my bootleg didn’t have this awesomeness interrupted by a “Coming up next on SoapNet, some shitty show about teenagers!” message, but beggars can’t be choosers). So there you have it, Critical Condition is so good and so sad and so amazing that everything down to the ending credits are television perfection personified.
I liked this episode, in case you can’t tell. As I said in my last one, this is like the ending of a trilogy of greatness that started with Squeezeplay, continued with The Vigil, and concludes here with Critical Condition. You could glue these three episodes together and have an amazing three hour emotional experience. This episode is a gut punch that leaves the viewer emotionally exhausted and perhaps I sound like I’m overhyping it, but I don’t think I am; the episode just rings totally true to how it feels to lose a family member and its handled with a maturity and honesty that is completely unlike its other contemporary TV dramas of the time.
Finally, this episode truly honors the character of Sid Fairgate. Considering he’s only in 33 episodes altogether, that’s really not that much in the grand scheme of 344 episodes, it’s really notable that he left such a mark, and for the course of those 33 episodes (with the exception of the occasional bad-writing-infused-silliness like in Man of the Hour) he remained a noble and decent person who always strived to do the right thing. As someone who wants to be that kind of person, that person who always keeps themselves accountable for all their decisions and always makes sure to be making moral choices and treating my fellow humans well, I greatly admire that trait in others and I admired that trait in Sid. I know Sid is not a real person, that he was a character invented by David Jacobs and brought to life by Don Murray, but in my mind, he was real, and when he dies here, I do feel as though a real person who was good and honest and decent has died.
Oh yeah, and since I like to keep informing on My Beloved Grammy’s reactions to things, let me just say that this episode worked like a charm on her. Sid went in for his surgery, and she’s like, “Oh, I’m sure he’ll be fine,” but when we got to that “I’ll go tell the family” part, she just looked at me and goes, “Sid dies?!” She couldn’t believe it, and then she just started saying, “Oh my God, he was my favorite character, oh my God, he was the main character.” She seemed to enter a state of shock herself as the events of the ending of this episode unfolded. We watched two more KL eps and two Brief Dallas Interludes in the same visit as this episode, but for the rest of our visit, she just couldn’t get over this, kept saying, “I can’t believe they killed Sid.” So the brilliant trick from 1981 of not killing Sid inbetween seasons two and three still works today; it still can lull the audience into a feeling of complacency and comfort before delivering that extra painful punch in the gut, that “Fuck you, NOW we’re gonna kill him” stroke of dramatic genius.
Okay, so I’m gonna get bold now and say that the trilogy of Squeezeplay, The Vigil, and Critical Condition form together to be, at this point in the series, the very best episodes of the show. I believe they will always be amongst the best eps of the show, but I don’t know if, after watching all 344, they will still be the best. I am saying that, at this point, 33 episodes deep, this is as good as the series has ever been. The question now is: How will the rest of the season unfold? See, I remember a steep drop beginning immediately with our next episode and leading us through a rocky and rather schizophrenic third season, so I guess we’ll see how things look upon a second glance.
Until then, I can’t praise this episode enough, and I think Critical Condition is a highlight of KL’s run as well as an undisputed masterpiece of television. Next week we’ll see if the writers can keep this quality going or not as we deal with Aftermath.