A good season finale leaves the viewer hungry for more, not just because of a cliffhanger, but because of the strength of the story and the performances that bring it to life. In its first season finale, The Good Doctor delivered. “More” takes a slight step back from the ensemble work that’s been heavily featured through the back half of the season, allowing stars Freddie Highmore and Richard Schiff back onto center stage to break our hearts.
Schiff’s Dr. Aaron Glassman has a brain tumor, and has been told he has less than two years to live. He breaks the news just as Shaun says he wants to be Aaron’s friend again.
Confronted with this information, Shaun does what he always does – he goes on a hunt for a solution. We already know Shaun has a talent for finding remote and esoteric answers to medical problems. This time, the life of his mentor and father figure is on the line, so how can Shaun do anything less than pursue every possibility?
It’s not what Aaron wants. He doesn’t want a second opinion, saying, “I’ve been a neurosurgeon for 30 years. That qualifies as a second opinion.” He has already accepted his terminal diagnosis, and he only asks Shaun to keep the situation confidential.
Of course, Shaun can’t do that. And again, can he do anything less than try to enlist the aid of others who love Aaron? Particularly, the aid of hospital attorney Jessica, who was a friend to Aaron’s daughter and has known the man longer than Shaun has?
Of course he can’t, no matter what Aaron says. Shaun’s pitch to Jessica is awkward: “You’re an attorney. I’m not skilled at lying or manipulation.” It works, and her efforts to talk Aaron into a second opinion are also successful. But that second opinion takes Aaron’s diagnosis from bad to worse, and Shaun spirals even further into analyzing the situation, drawing out ideas on white boards. That distraction leads to a near-fatal mistake in surgery.
Hope is Painful
When I started reviewing this show last fall, I mentioned how personal it is to me because I have a son on the autism spectrum. “More” was also personal to me, and I wept through most of the episode. In Shaun’s desperation to find a way to let Aaron survive, I saw my own desperate search for some miracle to cure cancer in first my father, and then my mother. And I saw my mother’s own acceptance of her fate in Aaron’s declaration that, “Hope is irrelevant for me. Hope is painful. I don’t want to spend what’s left of my life chasing my tail in a circle.”
Those words don’t stop Shaun from pursuing every possibility, from holding on to hope. How can he do anything less for the man who was more a father to him than his own father ever was?
Through all of this, Shaun’s surgical colleagues slowly learn what is happening, and each reacts in his or her own way to Shaun’s surgery error. The reactions are generally what you expect: Claire defends Shaun, Resnick is critical, Park is worried about rules being followed if the patient dies. Jared is the one who volunteers to take the fall and claim the mistake was his rather than Shaun’s – an echo and yet also a reversal from early in the season, when Jared was quick to take credit for one of Shaun’s successful ideas.
Those who have known Shaun the longest are the most willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and to go to bat for him – including Melendez, who had initially been so dismissive of Shaun. Now he’s willing to trust Shaun to try to fix his own mistake – a trust that pays off with a successful surgery. Melendez has come a long, long way from when I called him “Dr. Arrogant.”
Indeed, all of the characters have.
Looking Ahead To Season 2
The Good Doctor earned both its ratings success and its season 2 renewal through careful peeling away of the layers of each character, some more so than others, and giving us more to look forward to for each:
Claire – No longer the stock female resident messing around with her fellow resident. She’s been through the wringer of losing a patient, being sexually harassed by a superior, and being dumped by Jared. In Season 2, I hope we see her continue her campaign against harassment and some kind of resolution with her mother.
Jared – He started the season as a bit of a jerk, and in some ways is still a bit of a jerk (dumping Claire was a BIG mistake. HUGE.). But there’s also an amazing heart to this poor little rich boy, and I hope he remains at St. Bonaventure in Season 2.
Resnick – She’s been unapologetically bitchy since being introduced a few episodes back, but you start to see the human underneath the mask when Melendez warns her, “At some point in your career you’re going to kill someone, and I hope for your sake there’s a doctor who still believes in you when you do.” Perhaps that message will sink in during Season 2.
Melendez – The advice he gave Resnick may well have been given to him at one point. Heartbreak and experience have humanized him, and in Season 2 we may see him develop some doubt in his boss Dr. Andrews.
Andrews – This was the other “Dr. Arrogant” of my first review. Since then, we’ve seen him humanized a bit, between dealing with his own fertility problems and the loss of a patient in what should have been a simple procedure. But the season ends with some more Machiavellian maneuvers, as he reminds the hospital’s VP of Aaron’s promise to step down if Shaun is anything less than excellent. He doesn’t know about Aaron’s tumor, but as the show closes he’s about to get everything he needs to take over St. Bonaventure.
Aaron – I’m happy to say that Shaun’s persistence paid off, and we WILL be seeing more of this beautiful father/son dynamic in Season 2. An offbeat type of examination suggested by Shaun reveals the previous terminal diagnoses to be incorrect, and Aaron says with a little luck, he and Shaun will go to the Super Bowl next year. I cannot tell you how much joy I felt at that.
At the heart of all of this is Dr. Shaun Murphy, who in the past year has learned to deal with the doubts and bigotry of others, to overcome his own discomfort around people who are on the spectrum as he is, how to cut loose and take a day off, what friendship is and what it is not… and what it is to be loved – romantically, as a friend, and as a son. As much joy as I felt when Aaron revealed his tumor was treatable, I felt even more when Shaun told him, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Aaron replies.
“I love you more,” Shaun says, expressing feelings he normally does not.
The next lesson will be in taking responsibility, as he and Aaron go to Dr. Andrews to confess the mistake made in surgery. I look forward to seeing this and much more in Season 2.
But first, I’m going back to Costco to stock up on more tissues.
The Good Doctor will return next season on ABC.