During the fourth season, my Slate colleague June Thomas wrote that Nurse Jackie had become “surprisingly good,” in large part because of a well-crafted plot shakeup that placed a fragile Jackie in treatment for her painkiller addiction. It reinvigorated a show that had become rather predictable: Jackie gets loaded, screws up, lies, and then tries to get out of it.
In the fifth season, which wrapped up last night, Nurse Jackie made another smart change: allowing Jackie’s mentee nurse Zoey, played beautifully by Merritt Wever, to come into her own. For most of Nurse Jackie’s run, Zoey has been earnest, devoted to her job and her patients, but she lacked the gravitas and authority that are so important in an E.R. nurse—and in a woman. Her immaturity was best illustrated by her love of cutesy scrubs. But in Season 5, even though she still showed up wearing pink flowers, she demonstrated new command of her job. When a woman went into labor on the waiting-room floor, she took control of the situation and, after receiving the OK from Jackie, delivered the baby right there.
In fact, her relationship with Jackie changed a great deal, becoming more that of equals than of boss and employee—both in the hospital and outside of it. She moved out of Jackie’s house, for instance, and into her own crappy but beloved apartment. (Admittedly, she waited until Jackie gave the OK in that situation, too.) And when she found out that Jackie was holding onto a single prescription pill, Zoey confronted her and expressed her concern—in a detached but loving way. She spoke out instead of fretting quietly, and when Jackie was in the wrong in the finale last night, Zoey demanded that she apologize.
But her growth is probably best demonstrated by her relationship with the brusque new chief of the E.R., Dr. Prentiss. After an officer was shot on duty, for instance, Prentiss was overly clinical in describing his injuries to the assembled cops waiting to hear about their colleague. When she realized that he wasn’t answering their single, unspoken question, Zoey gently offered to hold Prentiss’ file for him, so he couldn’t hide behind the medical jargon. By doing so, she allowed Prentiss to retain his authority, but she also forced him to connect with people. Zoey has always been an emotional character, but now, instead of that being a liability, it’s become an asset. As she explained to Prentiss in another episode, she really likes cranky people, like her mother’s dog. And Jackie. It’s funny and honest, without being cheesy—and it establishes her as something of a feelings interpreter.
Early in the season, she seemed to be just as goofy and oblivious as ever—in Episode 4, when Jackie asked her to distract Prentiss so they can handle a difficult patient situation, Zoey agreed and said that it would be easy—“He’s naturally very drawn to me.” Jackie’s response was practically an indulgent pat on the head. But it turned out that she’s right: Over the episodes that followed, Zoey and Prentiss developed a charming chemistry and ended up sleeping together. I’m kind of a cranky person, too, which may explain why I like Zoey so much. I just hope that in real life, I’d like her—instead of being annoyed.
Correction, June 17, 2013: This post originally misspelled Merritt Wever's last name.