Note: This article contains spoilers about the third season of Master of None.
The fourth episode of Master of None’s third season spends 53 minutes alongside one woman going through fertility treatments. That woman is Alicia (Naomi Ackie), to whom we are introduced for the first time this season. Married to Denise (Lena Waithe) when the season begins, by episode four, Alicia is on her own and aiming to become a single mother after losing a child to miscarriage when she and Denise were together.
That means Alicia has to navigate the monotonous, scary, and sometimes heartbreaking turns on the fertility road by herself. But the thing is, she’s not alone. She is emotionally buoyed by her friend and sperm donor, Darius (Anthony Welsh). More notably, she is surrounded by supportive women, particularly the staff at the IVF clinic, all of whom are women.
One of them in particular is an especially consistent, calming presence: Nurse Cordelia, played by actress Cordelia Blair. Cordelia is the ultrasound nurse who examines Alicia to make sure the hormone injections are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. She’s also the one tasked with calling Alicia to deliver news that can be devastating or hopeful. Blair, who previously worked as a nurse in palliative care, infuses the character with such natural kindness that she comes across as both the ideal nurse and a nurse so recognizable, you could swear you’ve encountered her in a hospital or doctor’s office before. After a year in which medical workers have been celebrated for their courage and care, Cordelia is another reminder of what a difference it makes to a patient, in any context, to have a compassionate advocate holding their hand.
If many of Blair’s scenes come across as real and in the moment, that’s because they were. Take the exchange in the latter half of the episode when Alicia cries inconsolably on an exam room table and Cordelia, determined to comfort her, gets up from her chair and squeezes behind an ultrasound machine so she can stand next to Alicia and stroke her forehead.
“It’s going to work,” Cordelia reassures Alicia about her attempt to produce viable eggs. “Positive thoughts — positive. We’re in this together.”
As Blair explained on a recent phone call, all of that, including Cordelia’s decision to move closer to Alicia, was improvised. A lot of her work in the episode was. In fact, a lot of it was not originally planned to be there at all.
Aziz Ansari —who co-created Master of None with Alan Yang, co-wrote this season with Waithe, and directed all five episodes — originally intended for Blair to appear in just one scene late in the episode, where a doctor implants an embryo inside Alicia’s uterus and Alicia holds Nurse Cordelia’s hand so hard that she has to be told to let go.
Ansari appreciated Blair’s energy in that little moment, so he wrote more scenes for her. What would have been a one-day shoot lasted for five or six, which was a big deal for Blair, who works as an events coordinator and acts on the side, usually as a background player. This Master of None episode marks her first major speaking role, and it’s on a show that, prior to appearing on it, “I didn’t know the name of it. I knew nothing.”
Blair’s agent offered her up for the nurse role because she knew Blair had experience working as an actual nurse from 2016 to 2018, exiting the profession two years before the coronavirus pandemic would hit. “I gave it up,” she says, “It was a little too emotional.” Having worked with patients and loved ones during difficult and vulnerable moments guided her toward hitting the appropriate empathetic notes in the episode. “Because I’ve done palliative care, sometimes you have to deliver mainly bad news, to be honest,” she says. “So it just prepares your heart and your mind, how you speak to persons, and then how you speak to the families as well. I guess for me, I put myself in the situation of being in the hospital, on my own, going on a journey, and how I would like to be treated by a nurse.”
The actor wasn’t completely working off the top of her head in the episode. The proper medical terminology was fed to her by Master of None’s IVF consultant. Ansari also suggested certain reactions for Blair, and there was a script. But there were definitely times when Ansari thought it best to put that script aside, particularly in the scenes where Cordelia speaks on the phone to Alicia, which were filmed with both actors talking to each other from different parts of the set.
“We tried it with the script and it didn’t work,” Blair says. “And [Aziz] just says, ‘Okay, forget the script, Cordelia.’ He just felt I had more emotion without the script. So he could see something in me.”
Blair could see something of herself in the episode as well. At one point in her life, she confides, she, like Alicia, had a miscarriage. She was told she might not be able to conceive and should consider IVF. She wound up not having to go that route; she eventually gave birth to two daughters and also has a stepdaughter. But she feels her performance was deepened by her own experience with fertility issues: “I was able to do that because I myself have been on that journey.”
Even without all this backstory about the woman playing Nurse Cordelia, you can still sense the authenticity in what’s onscreen, in Blair’s performance, in Ackie’s performance, and in the attention to detail Ansari and his team bring to the story. Even if you’ve never gone through IVF, if you have experience dealing with challenging medical issues, the anxiety of waiting for news to be delivered and the anguish of hopes being demolished and rebuilt again will look very familiar.
Not every nurse is as lovely as Cordelia, obviously. But there are plenty of wonderful ones out there who are happy to offer their hand and not ask for it back until their patient is ready to release it. This episode of Master of None is a reminder of many things, and one of them is what a gift it is to have caregivers who comfort us before we even have to ask.