At the same time that a ridiculously fake reality series was ending, an incredibly real storyline was coming to a close on another series. Deadliest Catch aired Phil Harris’ final episode, and it was better television and more emotionally engaging than pretty much anything else on TV this year.
During the episode, Phil’s sons, Jake and Josh, each had a final, heartbreaking goodbye with their dad. Jake said goodbye to his dad as he left for rehab, while Josh had a conversation with his dad that I dare you to watch without getting at least choked up, if not bawling your way through. Lying in a hospital bed, his head shaved, Phil first squeezes Josh’s hand (“all right, you got power!”), and then whispers to his son, “When yo’re growing up, I should’ve been a better father.” Josh replies, “You’ve taught me everything I need to know to be a man. And I’m going to take care of you as best I fucking possibly can.”
That wasn’t the last we saw of Phil, nor was that the last conversation he had with Josh, but it was the beginning of the end. Phil suffered another hemorrhage and died, and while there wasn’t footage of him being operated on, scenes from the hospital were intercut with the other boats battling a fierce storm, all set to Johnny Cash’s “Redemption Day,” which the episode was named after. It ended with Josh telling Jake on the phone, “we lost dad, dude.”
While reality TV has dealt with death before, from An American Family’s Lance Loud to Kathy Griffin’s dad, Phil’s death is the first to be covered over a long narrative arc that spans episodes and even seasons, as it folded in his earlier health problems and his relationship with his sons.
We often assume television is immune from actual consequences–no one is in danger of not surviving on Survivor–but the power of documentary-style reality TV is that it has the ability to intimately illustrate real life even through the distance created by our TV sets, and it’s commendable that Deadliest Catch is tackled the ultimate consequence head-on but with such incredible artistry and humanity.