Episode Title: The Gift of Life
Season 09, Episode 06
Episode 196 of 344
Written by Bernard Lechowick
Directed by Kate Tilley
Original Airdate: Thursday, October 29th, 1987
The Plot (Courtesy of TV.Com): Laura has an inoperable cancerous brain tumor. Greg drags her from doctor to doctor, who all say the same thing. Laura finally tells Greg he needs to accept it. Laura takes Karen shopping and buys dresses for Meg's 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th birthdays. Karen guesses Laura is dying and is very upset. Laura asks Mack and Karen to be Meg's godparents. Greg is late to the Christening, as he's outside in his car sobbing. Laura makes a schedule for Greg to follow with Meg, such as when to get her a library card. She tells him that if he's great to Meg, it'll make up for all the times Greg was rotten to her. Greg's furious that Laura wants to go to a clinic to die - he wants to be there for her. She says she doesn't want him to see her die or remember her that way. Greg is devastated as Laura packs. She leaves some video tapes in a hatbox. Meg is crying, and Laura brings her to Greg. She watches Greg feed Meg, and then gets into her car, and drives away crying.
QUICK NOTE: USUALLY I TRY TO AVOID SPOILERS FOR FUTURE EPS, BUT FOR THE PURPOSES OF DISCUSSING SEASON NINE, I WILL BE SPOILING SOME FUTURE EVENTS THAT HAPPEN AROUND THE 10TH AND 11TH EPS OF THE SEASON. IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THAT FAR, I HIGHLY SUGGEST GETTING THERE BEFORE YOU READ THESE ESSAYS ON THE SEASON’S OPENING EPS
Welcome to the start of a brand new disk, a disk that shall prove very eventful for the show and our beloved friends on the cul-de-sac. Before I begin discussing the ep in question, I should tell you that there was some awkwardness to the arrangement of eps within this particular disk. Really, the only thing that bugged me is that we watched The Gift of Life through Noises Everywhere: Part One and I do think including Part Two in our marathon would have improved the flow of things. In fact, I thought of just jumping to the next disk and watching only that one ep before departing, but I decided to stick with watching whatever’s contained within any given disk, the way we've done it since the beginning. In any case, I’m gonna spoil my thoughts right away and say that this exact ep, The Gift of Life, was easily the best and most powerful ep on our disk. It was so powerful, really, that I was relieved to get to some slightly lighter fare with the next few eps, Say Uncle and Love In, because this ep is so much about life and death and it was just really emotional to watch. Okay, let’s just dive right in.
Our last ep ended with Laura announcing to Greg that she was going to die, and that’s pretty much what this ep is gonna be all about. In fact, I was about to type, “So let’s quickly talk about the other characters before we get to Laura,” but then I read through my notes and realized that, really, Laura is the total focus. The other characters are around to respond to events, but we keep the attention on Laura for nearly the whole 48 minutes, and I think that’s appropriate. This is actually our penultimate ep to truly feature Laura in the cast. She drives off at the end of this ep and then sits out the next four eps and finally makes her very last appearance via videotaped messages in Noises Everywhere: Part Two. Being that we are so achingly close to losing Laura forever, I am glad that this ep keeps the focus squarely on her and gives her the respect she deserves.
Or does it? I’m of two minds about this particular block of eps and I have been since the first time I viewed this. On one hand, this ep is gonna prove to be chock full of hardcore emotional gut-punches, the kind of heartrending moments I associate with KL and not the other nighttime soaps. I appreciate this 48 minutes as this piece of art, nearly an art movie about the end of a person’s life, but it also feels pretty fast, right? I doubt that I need to go into the behind-the-scenes details about what was really going on with the show right now. I think most fans know that, as the series was coming into its ninth season and its 200th ep, the producers were looking to slash costs and had to evacuate two veteran characters right and quick, and they chose Lilimae and Laura to get rid of. All shows have behind-the-scenes politics and I really don’t begrudge the KL team too much for firing the two actresses. It’s not pretty, but it’s not all about art; there is a business side to the film and television world and the producers are definitely thinking about the bottom line. Even with this knowledge of them terminating Constance McCashin and Julie Harris, I still get the feeling that the KL team was overall kinder and gentler than the folks over at Dallas, who seemed to treat their cast members more like cattle. Anyway, my point is that this brain tumor of Laura’s certainly feels a bit like the producers shuffling her out the door as quickly as they can, but then I also sorta like it because, in real life, sometimes people just get brain tumors out of the blue and die. In real life, things happen suddenly and without warning or foreshadowing, where one day you’ll feel fine and then you die the next day. So I like the fast pace of this in that regard, but I also recognize it feels a little bit like the penny pinchers looking at their watches and being like, “Alright, let’s get Laura off the show, and right now now now!”
We pick up in a strange way, in my opinion. After the cheesy glory of the painting opening credits and The Constance McCashin Spin, we cut right to Laura and Greg standing on the street and arguing. Greg is looking off into the distance and says, “How long does it take to bring up one lousy car?” Immediately after that, Laura (adorned in fabulously Laura sunglasses) says, “Greg, I’ve got a brain tumor. It’s cancerous, it’s inoperable, and it’s terminal.” Then Greg says, “Just because one lousy quack says it’s terminal?” and the scene proceeds from there. The reason I find this a little strange is because we ended our last ep in Greg and Laura’s bedroom with her using pizza as the big analogy for her impending death. Now we start out on the street with her saying, “I have a brain tumor, Bob Loblaw.” Are we to infer that she’s only just now telling Greg this? I do not think so; I get the feeling that some stuff happened inbetween the “I was thinking about ordering a pizza” scene and this scene. I think Laura has explained to Greg what’s going on, and they talked about it and fought, and then they went to some sort of lunch to discuss what’s going on, and then they left the restaurant to get their car brought up and drive away, and I think that’s where we are now.
This is an ep where I have a hard time keeping a handle on the timeline. I feel like quite a lot of time passes within this ep, sorta like back in season three’s Aftermath when Sid had died and we saw a series of dissolves to indicate that time was passing. Is the same thing happening here? I ask because we have a few Rapid Cuts where we see Greg and Laura at a couple of different doctor’s offices, and then after that we have a dissolve to a scene at Lotus Point. Anytime I see a dissolve, I notice it, because I feel like they’re kinda rare on TV. Anyway, what’s going on over at Lotus Point, you ask? Well, Laura announced last ep that she wanted to step down from her job there, and so we catch up with her packing up her office while Gary shows her blueprints and tries to convince her to keep her job. The scene is going along pretty mellow and then it gets very emotional for me when Laura says, “I’ve really enjoyed working with you, Gary. You’re a good guy, you know that?” and she gives him a little kiss on the cheek. Gary sorta laughs and makes a joke about how that would make a great epithet, but I found this extremely moving. Even though we have five more seasons after this one to further explore the intricacies of Gary Ewing, I feel he’s already evolved amazingly from where he first started off. He was kinda a shit back in the first four seasons, and this Gary that we’re seeing now feels very different, like a much better and more confident and honest man. Since Laura saw him from the very first episode all the way up until this one, she has seen that growth herself. When she tells Gary he’s a good guy, she really means it and it's rather profound. Also, the little friendship of Laura and Gary that we really started to see in the early half of season five, when they were always riding horses and taking walks together, was one of my favorite little friendships on the show. It’s one of those we didn’t really hyper-focus on, but it was there and I thought it was significant. I liked how Laura would talk straight to Gary and I liked how Gary would actually listen to her and consider what she said and respect her opinion.
Things get heated in our next batch of scenes, in which Laura and Greg pay another visit to a doctor’s office, and afterwards they fight on the street. Laura says that she’s seen her last specialist, that she’s tried everything she can, that she is going to die. She wants to go out to a romantic lunch and enjoy the day, but Greg wants them to keep seeing doctors, to find someone who can help them. As with all the best of the KL stories, this one works so well for me because I understand both characters. Greg just married Laura a little over a year ago and he really, truly loves her, probably much more than he ever loved Jane, if he ever really did love Jane. He was all ready to have a life and raise a kid with Laura, and now Laura’s gonna die. I think what hurts him is that she has accepted it so quickly, that she seems almost defeatist, but I also understand Laura. She is gonna die and she knows it, so why spend her last days getting painful tests and needles stuck in her arm and Bob Loblaw? I’m sure I’ve said it before, but if I found out I was going to die, I would totally accept it and just have a good time until I died. I think this is what Laura wants, and I think that’s what she tries to do in this ep.
A big item on the agenda before Laura leaves is Meg’s baptism, which takes up a good bit of the time this ep. I always find it interesting when religion is explored on the show, and when I think back on it, it’s actually been a fairly prevalent theme throughout the series. Certainly the whole character of Joshua and everything that went on with him is one of the most memorable examples of religion being part of the story, but we’ve also had smaller moments like Mack going to church to give a thumbs up to Jesus in #14 With A Bullet and now we’ve got this business here. It’s been awhile since I’ve taken a shit all over religion, so let me take a moment to do it here. Obviously I think this whole baptism thing is super stupid and the idea that a baby would die and go to some sort of purgatory because you didn’t splash some stupid water on their head is goofy, but I still like baptisms in movies and stuff. Everyone loves the big baptism scene in The Godfather, and in some ways the baptism here is presented similarly, though minus a mass slaughter. In The Godfather, we have the baptism intercut with a bunch of mob bosses getting gunned down, and here we have the baptism of Meg intercut with Greg sitting out in the car and crying and debating whether to go in. He does finally go in, which I found very moving. Greg is a complicated character and I’m sure he has his own issues with organized religion, but he knows going to the baptism is the right thing to do and he needs to do it for Laura.
I’m going out of order, by the way, so let’s backtrack a bit. Another very significant thing about this baptism is that Laura wants Karen and Mack to be the godparents and they agree to it knowing Laura’s dying. See, Karen and Mack are the only characters besides Greg to know the truth, and the way Karen finds out is also a very powerful scene. We start with Karen and Laura out shopping, looking for outfits for Meg. Laura starts to show her hand when she also picks out outfits for her second, third, and even fourth birthdays. Karen says, “I’ve heard of planning ahead but this is really planning ahead,” and then Laura says, “I have to plan ahead because there’s a lot of things I’m not going to be able to do with Meg.” The way Karen’s eyes change as she realizes what’s going on is a good bit of acting from Michele, who doesn’t devolve into histrionics the way she is sometimes prone to do after season four. No, she keeps it subtle here and I found it very moving. Again, the reason this ep as a whole is so moving is because Laura is one of our true veterans, a character who has been around all the way since the Pilot. Even a character like Abs, as important and essential to the fabric of the show as she is, didn’t show up until the second season, but Laura was there all the way from the first. We only have four veterans of season one left on the series, and Laura’s departure will drop that number down to three. The fact that she’s been friends with Karen since the first moment we saw them makes her dying all the more significant. Another random fact that I find interesting is that the two very first characters we ever saw on the series in the very first scene were Laura and Sid, and both of those characters die. I know there was no pre-planning to any of this, much as I would like to imagine David Jacobs sitting down and writing the Pilot script and saying, “Oh yes, I’ll introduce these two characters first because I’m going to kill both of them later down the road.” No, I’m sure there’s no great serendipitous meaning to this fact, but it’s just a spooky little observation that I focused in on.
Laura telling Karen that she’s dying makes Karen feel a little awkward about the fact that she’s throwing her a big surprise going away party bash, but Laura doesn’t seem to mind. A little side story going on in the background is that Sexy Michael desperately wants to play with his band at the event, and for some reason Karen keeps saying no the whole ep, but then finally she says yes. Sexy Michael and his band stand up, all the vaginas in the room become wet and all the penises in the room become hard at the very sight of Sexy Michael playing the keyboards while adorned in a blue blazer that comes straight out of Don Johnson’s wardrobe, looking so positively delighted to be showing off his music with his band. I do have to say, however, that I kinda hate the song they play, something called When I Get To Heaven, Will There Still Be Rock and Roll? that I tried to do some research on and barely found anything about, except that the song is also in a 1988 movie called Kandyland. Just to explain my feelings, let me say that I don’t mind the song in the context of the show, and of course I see what the writers are doing here with a song like this. I’m just saying that I think it’s an annoying song and, if I lived in the universe of the show, I would tell Sexy Michael that his band needs to play better music.
Artistically, however, I like the use of the song and the way it’s all cut together. See, we crosscut between two separate events, the playing of the song and the dancing and shenanigans going on at Lotus Point and then Greg walking down the street and looking all sad. I like this because he’s wearing big dark sunglasses to hide his eyes, but as he sits down on a bench, we see a tear start to fall out from behind the glasses. It’s a pretty moving way of showing Greg’s emotional state, but doing it in a kinda arty way that also speaks to Greg’s character. When you think about it, Greg is actually a rather sensitive man who spends most of his life hiding that sensitivity behind his sarcasm and his money. Having him cry but hiding his eyes from the viewers seems kinda symbolic to the way Greg processes all of his emotions. Also, I’m just happy to hear some music on the show again; it reminds me of those glorious days of seasons four through seven when we had Ciji/Cathy just singing away with her amazing ‘80s Explosion Band all being brilliant together. Obviously this Heaven song isn’t even worth the lint from the ass-crack of any of Ciji’s/Cathy’s songs, but I still like the fact that it’s a real song being played on the show and not the generic non-music that seemed to dominate the soundtrack throughout the aural assault that was season eight.
Again, I’m jumping all over the place when it comes to describing what things happen in this ep, but I don’t give a fuck, so let’s talk about another significant scene in which we have a lovely moment between Laura and Val that takes place in the twins’ room. We start the scene off with Val saying something true, which is that she missed Laura, and then we move on to Laura saying something demonstrably false, which is, “Your hair looks great.” As I said, no sane, sentient person could truly look at Val’s Flock of Seagulls do (which I am officially renaming Flock of Val for as long as she shall sport this monstrosity upon her scalp) and tell her, “Your hair looks great.” I laugh at this line, but I also enjoy the followup, when Laura says, “You finally made it into the ‘80s, huh?” I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I always enjoy a movie or a show making some comment about the decade it is coming from. KL has only done it a few times, but I usually notice and I think I can remember a few of them right off the top of my head. The first that springs to mind was in late season two when Abby’s Transmorpher ex-husband (Dr. Kenderson) was giving her shit about being a huge slut sleeping with married men in the middle of the day and Abs said something like, “For God’s sake, it’s the 1980s.” The next reference that comes to mind is when boring block of wood Kenny (I can actually hear everyone’s brow furrowing as they try to remember who this character of Kenny was and what significance he played to the show) said of him and his wife, “We’ve got a real ‘80s marriage.” I’m sure there are other examples, but those two spring to mind right away. When we eventually cross over into the ‘90s, I will pay strict attention to see if we ever have a line from a character saying, “It’s the ‘90s!” or something similar.
Okay, anyway, the scene proceeds with Val saying how Flock of Val represents “The new me,” and then Laura says, “I kinda liked the old you,” and then she says, “The first time I saw you in the cul-de-sac, I knew there was a kindred spirit.” This is not an invention; this actually tracks with what we saw in the first season. When I think of the first season, one of the first scenes I think about is Laura and Val talking on the stairs in The Lie, when Laura confessed to how unhappy she was in her marriage and how badly Richard made her feel. I think that was a real kindred spirit moment and I think Val is responsible for giving Laura a little boost of strength that led to the much tougher and more independent Laura we have before us now. I’ll also take this moment to say I have a bit of a bone to pick with the show, and that is the fact that I wish we’d gotten more of Laura/Val. Sure, they’re friends and they are good friends, but I wish we could have further explored that dynamic that was introduced in The Lie; I wish we could have had more one-on-one Val and Laura.
As we rapidly approach the climax of the ep, we get a few more gut punching scenes. I think I’ll go in order of emotional-ness, from least to most, starting with Greg and Laura at an art gallery. Laura wants to buy this really expensive painting from this really famous artist that’s like a hundred million jillion dollars (in the show, we are actually told it is $35,000.00). Laura’s all set to buy the expensive painting, but then she comes upon a different painting from an unknown artist that is selling for only four hundred dollars. She chooses to support this artist by buying his painting and paying $35,000.00 for it, a nice bit of generosity that, as an arty fellow myself, I appreciated. Laura is thinking about how this money could greatly help some struggling young artist, and she wants to leave the earth with some good done on her part.
Next up, we have an agonizing scene of Laura holding Meg and giving a great long speech about how she’s not going to be around anymore. I would transcribe the whole speech, but that would require watching it again and it already made me cry when I watched it with MBG. In fact, it made MBG cry, as well, and I don’t think she’s cried since season six’s We Gather Together. I think the reason this scene made me cry is because, duh, Laura is gonna die and that’s sad, especially since she’s going to be leaving her brand new little baby and never getting to see her grow up and have important stories on the show later down the line, but I also cried because of the subtle way this scene creeps up on you. Laura talks quietly the whole scene, just holding Meg and talking in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness way, and the music is subtle and pretty and always there in the background to make me feel moved. We also have a cliché that I sometimes hate but which I’m okay with here, and that is Greg listening in from just offscreen, Laura unaware that he’s there. A lot of times movies pull this out when it’s convenient and when they need the audience to cry, having a character in one room being like, “I wish my father knew I loved him!” or something similar all while the father in question lurks right outside the room, listening. It works here, though, because this is KL and KL is better than anything else in this entire universe.
Next, we get something I found very artistic and daring and touching all at the same time, and that’s a very tender love scene between Greg and Laura, their final time being together as intimate lovers. The scene brings us right back from a commercial break in a very arresting way, starting out in front of the fireplace with Greg and Laura kissing. Then we get a whole love scene, lots of dissolves and a soft tender bit of music on the track, and I appreciate how loving it is. Americans in general are so frightened of sex thanks to our puritanical past and so we feel this need to make it this dirty, awful thing, but sex is a wonderful thing and should be the most beautiful thing in the world. As a very gay man, I also know that there’s a big difference between fucking and making love and both are a great thing, but there is definitely something to be said for truly making love, and that’s what Laura and Greg do here. I like that it’s presented honestly and tenderly and that we feel like we are seeing a very private and special moment.
That scene almost makes me cry again, but not quite. The next scene, however, is unforgettable and I remember it made me cry back in college, too. The scene in question involves Laura making her final phone call to Karen, saying how she couldn’t come and see her face to face for a moment like this. Ugh, both ladies are just perfect in this scene, as we see the tears well up in both of their eyes and this big long pause before Laura finally says, “Goodbye, Karen,” and then Karen says, “Goodbye, Laura, you have my love.” It’s that last bit that really gets to me, that it’s the last thing Karen says to her, and what a beautiful and perfect last thing to say. Again, the fact that these are two veterans from the very beginning and they are never going to see each other again really adds to the gut punch, as well.
The final scene of the ep approaches Terms of Endearment level tears, as Laura prepares to drive off and leave Greg alone. There’s a bit of business here that I find very significant and also gloriously subtle, and that’s the fact that Meg is quiet as a mouse when Laura is holding her but, as soon as Laura hands her over to Greg, the baby starts screaming and crying. I noticed this and I’m sure Greg notices it and I’m sure Laura notices it and I’m sure it’s on her mind. Part of her is wondering whether Greg can handle this, if he’ll be able to take care of this child the way he needs to. Then Laura grabs her suitcase and heads off, getting into her car and driving away. The music swells and Laura starts crying as she’s driving, along with the entire 1987 viewing audience, and we get our “Executive Producers” credit and conclude there.
You know what, despite some of my reservations about Laura getting evacuated from the show so quickly, I’m gonna go ahead and declare this ep a winner, an emotional powerhouse that made me cry super hard. Even if I maybe don’t love the behind-the-scenes politics of getting rid of a veteran character due to budget, I appreciate the artistic way they pulled off her departure here. The ep makes me reflect on life and death and what’s going to happen after we die and I found it to be chockfull of artistic moments, moments I associate with KL. When someone died over on Dallas, it would be soapy and melodramatic, but they would never show a long, tender love making scene between two characters who are about to part forever. That, to me, is strictly the stuff of KL and that’s why we watch KL. I’d like to take some time to reflect on the character of Laura as a whole and the way Constance brought her to life for eight solid years, but I think I’ll save that for Noises Everywhere: Part Two, her official very final appearance on the series, which still lies slightly in our future. For the time being, I will say that I thought The Gift of Life was terrific, fantastically artistic and crafted with skill, like a film. I would say it’s the best ep of season nine up to this point, a season I’ve been enjoying tremendously so far.
Coming up next, we get a blessed break from all these high emotions with Say Uncle.