When Off the Map, the latest doctor drama from Shonda Rhimes, a.k.a. Grey’s in the jungle, premiered six weeks ago, we noted in passing that the characters on the show had more than their average share of tragic backstories. We made this observation in shorthand, so let’s elaborate: The main character (Caroline Dhavernas), a woman in her late twenties, once had a fiancé. Then he died in a cycling accident when she asked him to go buy her some cereal. As a result of working multiple doctor jobs and never sleeping, one of the other young doctors (Mamie Gummer) accidentally killed a small child. The other young doctor (Zach Gilford) is totally estranged from his parents. One of the more senior doctors (Jason George) is a recovering drug addict. And the most senior doctor (Martin Henderson) lost his wife and child six years ago, though the wife has secretly been in a vegetative state ever since. This means that, before last night, there were exactly three members of a cast of eight who did not, as far as the audience knew, have some horrible, tragic past: the wise, strong nurse, the adorable teenage translator, and the spunky doctor (Rachelle Lefevre) who is embroiled in an emotional, sometimes sexual, relationship with the senior doctor with the dead wife. Well, after last night’s episode, you can make that two!
Turns out, Lefevre’s character, the boyishly named Ryan, could drop dead at any second! While growing up in El Salvador, Ryan was bit by an “assassin bug” that infects a person with a parasite that, twenty years later, weakens their heart to the point that they can die instantly. This was revealed after Ryan begged a mother to let her daughter — who had just been bitten by an assassin bug — go get treatment at a hospital. Ryan tearfully explained that her sister had died of this same disease, a fate that could have been avoided had her parents just given her some medicine two decades earlier. Later, the recovering addict doctor (who was forced in this very episode to face his demons by going to the tropical version of a crack house. Lots of hammocks in those!) confronted Ryan with the fact that … she doesn’t have a sister! Ryan admitted she was talking about herself, but she didn’t want anyone else to know about her condition. Oh, and then at the end of the episode, the girl with the bug bite whom she was trying to help, got into a helicopter, which crashed.
Certainly Off the Map is not the only Shonda Rhimes show to stockpile tragedy. (Let’s run through Grey’s: Meredith was abandoned by her dad and left to deal with her negligent mom’s Alzheimer’s and attempted suicide; Christina’s father died in her arms when she was just a child; Derek’s father was murdered; Richard is a recovering alcoholic; Izzy gave up a baby for adoption at 16; Alex has a manic-depressive mother and brother and drug addict dad.) But these revelations were meted out over the first few seasons, not just smushed into the first six episodes. By the time we found out about Christina’s past, we already knew her character well enough to be like, “Oh! That kind of does explain why she’s an emotionally closed off over-achiever,” and, more to the point, we maybe even cared. Sure, all this backstory drama does make for, well, drama, but hold something back for later, when the characters are well-drawn enough for us to be invested in how bad they’ve had it. At this rate, in the Map season finale it’s going to turn out two of the cast members are long-lost twins, or maybe that one of them has a history with brain-tumor-induced sex ghosts.