We knew all season that we would eventually see Capt. Phil Harris die on The Deadliest Catch. Last night America watched the stroke that eventually killed him. It was sad and strange and awful and tasteful. It was death reality-TV-style.
The funny thing about reality television is that it is meant to exploit dramatic moments. There is nothing more dramatic than death but, until now, we have never really seen one on a reality show (at least that I can remember). Given their reputation, you would think that reality show producers would be foaming at the mouth for such juicy footage, but when it comes to an actual death—not some silly breakdown on a Caribbean island or a vicious table flipping—there are certain standards of tact that the public will demand. The Deadliest Catch certainly lived up to the challenge.
We first know something is wrong when there is a long shot of an empty captain's chair, where we've seen Capt. Phil gristle at the camera for so many seasons. It is sad and symbolic, and we know what comes next. The crew rushes in and calls the ambulance. The paramedics arrive and cart Phil away. There is lots of rushing around. Phil's son Josh—always the practical one—who also works on the boat is worried about what is going to happen to the ship now that his father is ill. His brother Jake, also a deckhand, just stands about looking shocked, not knowing what to do. The episode ends with some lonely shots of Harris' ship, the Cornelia Marie, sitting in the dock, and then a lone seagull coasting on the wind.
Sure, it's a little bit cheesy, but its not exploitative, which is the greatest fear. Considering we have another episode with Harris laid up in the hospital, where he eventually succumbs to the stroke, there's still room for that.
Mostly, the entire episode was just heartbreaking dramatic irony, because we know the end of the story the people on the show are living through. At the onset of the episode, loser son Jake has to go to the wheelhouse and tell his father that he's an addict and needs to get to rehab. His father is tough with him, as he always is. It is strange watching this conversation knowing it is going to be one of the last that the pair have together. As they get closer and closer to the port where they offload the crab—which the audience knows is where the location of the fatal incident—Phil is going through a file of old pictures with his two sons.
This whole episode was laid out like a movie, or a great stage tragedy. The gruff captain who never spent much time at home finally works with his sons on his crab boat. It is a joy and a disappointment, and then they finally come together to share memories and look at the good times together and they laugh and smile and hug. Then the father goes into his stateroom and dies, and the sons have to carry on without him. The whole thing is awful. For a minute the scene of them sharing pictures doesn't look like something ginned up for the reality TV mill, but something that just happened organically. We hope that it is, that these final moments are real. Things are never this neat with fathers and sons.
On so many reality shows, silly little trifles are built up to be dramatic occurrences. That's what gets those eyeballs to the screen. We're used to hearing about how some circumstance will be the end of the business, relationship, friendship, or the universe as we know it. Reality TV shows are just so many molehills made into mountains for our entertainment.
This is the opposite of that. Phil's stroke is a real mountain, and it is hard to process. We know this man and his family and, as stupid as it sounds, we feel the loss too. We want so badly for this to be another molehill with some dramatic music and a few tense seconds before Phil hops back up again, lights a cigarette, and starts barking orders to the crew. But he won't. He will die. He did die. It already happened and here we are watching, crying, and mourning this man who we don't even know. It is a testament to our humanity, to the power of the genre, and the extremes that it takes to get through our jaded eyes and open us up to the reality of death.