So we come to the end of the Red Band Society. Production has been halted, and the final episodes have been moved to Saturday night to be burned off. Now, Red Band Society hasn’t been officially canceled … but come on. It’s hard to single out one reason why this show failed to take off, but “sick kids in a hospital get into antics in between chemo sessions and surgery” was always a strange, hard-to-market concept for a mainstream TV program, while at the same time this show was never able to shake off the perception that it was riding the coat tails of The Fault in Our Stars, even though it’s actually an adaptation of the Catalan series Polseres vermelles.
Creatively, the show had an appealing cast and worthwhile moments, but it just never gelled properly. As a dramedy, it could be amiable but never laugh-out-loud funny, and the producers often seemed afraid to go as far the material inherently necessitated. I mean, this is a show where two of the leads have cancer. This should have been a box-of-tissues-an-episode tear-jerking machine on the level of Parenthood; instead it often felt as slick and lifeless as a mid-period episode of The O.C.
So it’s a bit frustrating, if not surprising, that in (what all rational evidence strongly indicates will be) the last episode of the series both the drama and humor were sharper than ever before. Maybe the writers and producers were just starting to find the show right when the plug got pulled? That’s probably appropriate; the basic unfairness of life is one of the recurring themes of this show, after all.
“Waiting for Superman” told the tale of two different daughters finally reconciling with their difficult mothers. Kara’s been uncharacteristically pleasant since her heart surgery. Mostly because of the morphine. Her mom has been by her side since she woke up, but the old, snappish Kara returns after she discovers that, post-surgery, she’s lost feeling in her chest; she gets both stung by a bee and cold water spilled on her and doesn’t notice either right away. She doesn’t take very well to the change (“I’m broken for the rest of my stupid life”), and her mom doesn’t take very well to the return of the status quo ("You have to be better!”) and she also doesn’t take very well to watching Kara get stung by a bee. She passes out, and when she wakes she starts talking about getting a gimlet and also tapping out so Kara’s father can take over. But going through life-altering surgery and facing your fears can actually change a person. Kara decides to cut her mom a break; if she doesn’t bail, then Kara will try to be less-standoffish for once. To the show’s credit, no one makes a “change of heart” pun about this development.
Kara’s mom is surprised by this turnaround, as is Emma (“why do you suddenly look like the Gilmore Girls?”), who also spends this episode dealing with her estranged mother. During an intense family therapy session with Emma and her parents, we get some backstory about why Emma and her mom are estranged when they used to be best friends. We learn that Kara’s anorexia first manifested when the one friend she had in high school transferred, and she didn’t have any other friends. She began going to the library during lunch, where she wasn’t allowed to bring food, and it began spiraling out from there. “It became a project for me. Not eating was all I thought about. I didn’t care that I didn’t have any friends; all I cared about was getting through another day without eating.”
Emma’s therapist pushes her to do a trust-fall exercise with her mom, but Emma can’t bring herself to do it. Emma’s mother, who for most of the series has been painted as a villain, can’t take it anymore and is about to leave when she runs into Nurse Brittany in the elevator. In a surprisingly well-done scene that fleshes out two of the most one-dimensional characters on the show, Brittany realizes Emma’s mom is about to bail and starts laying on the compliments. When the mom starts resisting (“Emma’s not amazing, she’s anoxeric.” Cold!) Brittany just goes in, landing a knockout by telling her how excited she was to meet Emma’s mom. (“You made that person.”) Sufficiently shamed, Emma’s mom goes back to therapy and reveals that the problem isn’t that she’s embarrassed by Emma. She’d had problems with her own mother, and she was embarrassed that Emma didn’t feel comfortable telling her about her problems at school and that she had to discover Emma’s disease by accident. (She noticed it when she hugged Emma once and noticed she was using clothing pins to make her dress stay on.) “I was so obsessed with not becoming my mom, I became something so much worse. I became a mom that didn’t know her own daughter was suffering.” Like with Kara (who tells Emma to cut her mom a break), this heart-to-heart doesn’t solve everything, but it does indicate that the ice is starting to thaw a bit, and she’s starting to gain a handle on the control issues that fuel her disorder.
Not only does Nurse Brittany, who up until now has largely been painted as a likable ditz hung up on Dr. Handsome, keep Emma’s mom from bailing, but she’s remarkably cool about Dr. Handsome getting back together with Mandy Moore. (“I hate awkward.”) Elsewhere in Red Band Society love lives, just as Nurse Jackson and Dr. Naday are starting to make googly eyes at each other, and just as Charlie has recovered enough that he can go home, even if it looks doubtful if he’ll ever talk again, Dr. Naday gets a call about another patient with a traumatic brain injury. In Florida. Nurse Jackson understands that he has to go; he already has his plane ticket. Later, Nurse Jackson, in one of Octavia Spencer’s best scenes yet, laments with Dr. Handsome that the worst part of the job isn’t the low pay or getting puked on, but that “everybody leaves, one way or another. I can get used to almost anything, but I can never get used to saying good-bye.”
Elsewhere, everything is “all about the Dash right now,” as he and his lady friend Mae are so happy to see each other that they’re making out in the morgue. When Nurse Brittany and (a severely under-used throughout the run of the series) Nurse Wilson Cruz’s attempts to scare Dash and Mae with a video about the danger of infectious diseases doesn’t work, the nurses sic security guards on them to make sure they don’t swap anymore spit. Dash is displeased and wonders “why is everyone making a big deal” about the fact that they could die if they infect each other. (I think he answered his own question, plus he was just going on last episode about how dangerous it is for these two to get together. Typical fickle teenager.)
Because they’re solid bros who aren’t that worried about their friend dying of infection, Jordi and Leo arrange for a distraction so Dash and Mae can clip away. That distraction, dubbed the Spartacus, is the most joyous scene to ever air on this program, as Leo and Jordi and dozens of other unnamed sick kids engage in an unauthorized wheelchair race, soundtracked by the Ramones. It’s enough for the lovebirds to slip away, but Jordi is upset that the still-disheartened Leo didn’t even try to win. Mae, who had previously overheard Leo’s mom and Dr. Handsome lament his low spirits (“Leo is a champion. Now when I walk in that floor, everyone is a little off balance”) takes a break from smoochy time to give Leo a patented Red Band Society pep talk.
It turns out that she knows Leo from Dash’s emails, where he refers to him as Superman. “I don’t feel like a hero,” he tells Mae. “My cancer is back.” She responds, oddly but clearly meaning well, that you “don’t have to be Superman anymore. Not that cancer is any great shakes, but it proves you aren’t invincible.” Then she makes him laugh by going on about the second Superman movie. Dash, wondering what the heck is taking so long, oversees this (in classic contrived TV fashion, people are always overseeing things they weren’t meant to oversee on this show) and realizes that he can’t hook up with Mae. He’s not jealous of Leo; he’s jealous that she made his boy Leo laugh, and therefore she’s too special to risk killing via infection. (Okay.) “You are like a beautiful, magical human being. Like a unicorn,” he says, over her reasonable protests. “As bad as I want to kiss you right now, I can’t. I can’t kill a unicorn.”
Strangely, Mae’s pep talk does the trick, as Leo had been chaffing under the pressure of always having to be the one to lift everyone else’s spirits. (“I’m not Superman. I can take the disease, but I can’t take the pressure, okay?”) But things are perhaps not as dire as they seem, because at the end of the episode we learn that Leo has been accepted into a round of drug testing that might help his condition.
The episode, and series, concludes with all the kids gathering on the roof to celebrate Charlie’s departure and talk one more time about the importance of the red bands. (Leo: “”I don’t care where we end up, this is forever.”) Though Kara objects (“we’re not ruining Charlie’s final moments with some hokey old people’s music”), the kids start singing the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” even though it’s far more likely they would be singing, like, Usher or Katy Perry or Coldplay or something, and what do you know, at the end Charlie sings the “you get what you need” part, which is pretty shameless, but also pretty great. As his parents drive him away, Charlie thanks Nurse Jackson “for keeping your promise,” and Nurse Jackson’s look of gratitude breaks a thousand hearts. The last shot is of her putting a red band on a new patient, promising her that “everyone’s nervous their first day.”
So we end with Jordi and Leo potentially on the road to recovery; Dash inching toward maturity; Kara and Emma reconciling with their families; Charlie awake, alive and talking; and Nurse Jackson happily preparing to do it all over again. If you stuck around to watch all 13 episodes of this show, this is about as satisfying a conclusion to everyone’s stories as you could reasonably expect. In the end, Red Band Society died a bit better than it lived, delivering one last blast of forced but satisfying emotional catharsis, and a masterful Octavia Spencer reaction shot for the road.