The Deadliest Catch Navigates the Choppy Waters of a Televised Death

Weeks ago, we watched Captain Phil Harris, one of the stars of Deadliest Catch, suffer the stroke that would eventually end his life. Last night, we saw him die. It was one of the greatest moments in reality television history.

Just like used car salesmen, politicians, and members of the Lohan family, we have nothing but the absolute lowest expectations of "reality television" as a genre. We expect it to be exploitative, invasive, and always selling out real emotion for a cheap dose of drama that will get eyeballs focused on those sets (or at least get a tabloid headline or two). When I first learned that Captain Phil's death had been caught on tape, I groaned, imagining the shots of him lying in bed, the cameras hovering over the doctors as his heart monitor flatlines and gives us that long, solid beep that medical dramas love so much. I expected an entire hour dedicated to sappy and sentimental heartstring-tugging as the cameras focused only on Phil and his eventual death. Even halfway through last night's episode I was ready to be disgusted by how the subject was treated. Boy, was I wrong.

First, the producers did the right thing and gave Phil his normal slice of the show's pie, taking time to show us the more pedestrian struggles of the other ships as they got ready to sail into a giant storm. If there's one thing you can say about the Deadliest Catch it's that it is always real. They can't reshoot a fight between Heidi and Spencer or pay for a Real Housewife's party and wait for the inevitable drama. There's either crab in that pot or there isn't. There is either a freezing blizzard outside or there isn't. There is a crew that gets along or there isn't. Every factor that brings tension to the show is completely out of the control of the producers, so this is perhaps the most "pure" of all the popular reality programs. Sure, it was a little suspect that Time Bandit Captain Johnathan Hillstrand was hanging out with Harris' sons Jake and Josh at the hospital in Anchorage, but considering that he knew Harris for decades in the tight-knit crab fishing community, it seems forgivable.

The rest of the night was just a bombardment of sad scenes. Son Jake chooses his own life over watching his father's death and checks himself into rehab. The hardest for me was the one above where Phil seems like his old self again, giving older son Josh a hard time and then admitting that he wished he'd been a better father, show regret right before it was too late. Unlike so many of us, Josh had a chance to tell his father that he did a great job and thank him before confessing how hard it had been to stay strong through all this adversity.

Then it was just the crushing mundane details of life in the hospital with a dying family member. Talking about the weather, the location of his lucky jewelry, whether or not he'd make it back to work, keeping your spirits up through the fear that at any moment things will turn for the worst. You think each moment will be important, filled with the admissions and confessions like the one above, like every last second has to be fraught with some sort of existential meaning. But it's not. It's just another bad day with everyone waiting to see what happens next. Everything becomes so regular it tricks you back into you going about your normal life, just like this show tricks you into watching this episode like it's just like any other where the hero always prevails and things work out for the best.

Suddenly, the phone rings, and we're reminded that this isn't a drama or some massaged, scripted documentary. This is real life with all its messiness and phone calls out of the blue. You know the call. The one that comes when you're on your way back to the hospital from running an errand and someone says, "Something has happened. Get back here now." And that's how we learn Captain Phil had another stroke. That was the brilliant thing about this episode. We experience his death just like any other member of that family. Not only with that call, but with the second one Josh must make to his brother where he can't even make sense of what is going on. "I don't know how to say it. We lost dad."

We all dread being on the receiving end of that call, every day. Even when your loved ones are healthy, every time your phone rings unexpectedly, it's a little torture about what surprise might be hanging on the other end of the line that will change everything forever. And that's just the way we learn about Phil. Not with cameras filming his dying breath or sapping out his final moments with some horrid violin music. We get "the call" just like everyone else.

But still, life continues. As someone smarter than me said, "The sky flashes, the great sea yearns, we ourselves flash and yearn" and that is just what we see in the episode's final moments. The fleet has finally caught up with the great storm and it is pounding the boats with fury. No one at sea knows about Phil yet and the captains frantically try to stay afloat. But Phil is gone. The men try to haul their gear over the sides of the boat without being sucked into the ocean. And Phil is gone. The ocean, as angry as if it has lost something it desperately wants back, assaults each ship as everyone tries to make it through another hard day. And Phil is gone, even as the sea settles, its incessant tide not stopping for any incident. And Phil is gone, and it is horrible.