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'Deadliest Catch' recap: The beginning of the end

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Image Credit: Rick Gershon/Reportage by Getty ImagesWe’ve known this episode was coming ever since we found out that Capt. Phil Harris insisted the cameras keep filming after he suffered a stroke because they needed “a great finish to the story,” and it’s made season 6 — the show’s most-watched — exquisitely excruciating. You couldn’t have scripted a more moving start to Phil’s final days if you tried.

We started with a replay of the confrontation Phil and son Jake had in last week’s episode after the skipper caught his deckhand stealing some of his prescription pain medicine. Phil said he never wanted to see Jake again after they got home, but once Jake admitted he was an addict, Phil softened. He told Jake it had to end, and Jake agreed because it’s ruining his life. “Then go to treatment. That’s the only f—in’ thing that’s gonna save your ass,” Phil said. He asked Jake what he was going to do when he got home, and Jake said go to meetings. “I’ll go with ya,” Phil said. “I understand.” I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one who started sobbing at that point?

“I love you to death. It doesn’t mean I disrespect you at all,” Jake told his father, apologizing again. And they hugged. “I know, I know, I know,” Phil said, reiterating that only treatment would give him a fighting chance. Jake said he never wanted to tell his father that he was addict, and Phil said he preferred Jake’s honesty to him lying. They hugged again, and Jake said, “I love you, pops.” I think every fan breathed a sigh of relief that Jake got to tell his father that at a moment when there’s no question that Phil heard him. Phil decided to cut their trip short and head to St. Paul Island so Jake could get off the boat and into treatment. Would Phil had gotten those final days with his sons at the hospital if he’d been out at sea when he had his stroke? You don’t want to think about it, but after watching a heart attack victim being lifted off another fishing vessel in last week’s episode, how do you not?

According to narrator Mike Rowe’s voiceover, the 290-mile steam into the harbor felt like the longest of Phil’s life. Judging by the footage we saw, he spent it chain-smoking in the wheelhouse and worrying about Jake. He really did understand — there was a time when he was drinking a quart of booze a day. He chose to grow up, and hoped Jake would make the same decision. Phil knew his son had his own demons, and the fact that he’d missed most of Jake’s childhood because he was out crabbing weighed on him. He said he wasn’t sure if he’d ever get over the guilt of not being there.

The next time we saw the Cornelia Marie, she was in St. Paul Island offloading, 19 hours after Phil’s confrontation with Jake. We knew Phil had his stroke during this time, so these were the most tense moments of a season that has left us, week after week, feeling as though we needed to book a shoulder massage. Phil was in the wheelhouse looking at pictures of the boys and himself when they were young. (Seriously, you could not write this.) At first he was by himself, thinking aloud how goofy little Jake looked in his favorite photo of him and how Jake was smart enough to do whatever he wanted, which is why he hated to see him screwing up now. Then both Josh and Jake, who’d been keeping his distance from his father on the steam in, joined him. Before I knew what hit me, I was crying again. Okay, actually, it was Jake pointing out that the necklace he was wearing at that moment was the same one Phil had on in a photo taken years earlier when he had what Josh called a Billy Ray Cyrus-style mullet. (Josh: “Now it’s feathered.” Phil: “You’re a freak.”) Getting out those old photos is something you do when you know a change is coming. Even though Phil had been feeling tired and faint, I don’t think he or anyone else thought he’d be leaving the boat. Just Jake.

With the crab offloaded, the only thing that needed to be done before the Cornelia Marie headed out again was for Phil to sign off on the official count. Engineer Steve Ward phoned Phil in his stateroom, and when Phil didn’t answer, the sinking feeling in our stomachs told us the moment had arrived. I sat up in my chair and reached for the remote, ready to pause if I felt too much. (My father has been battling an illness for nearly five years, and now dementia as a result of the radiation needed to give him that time. It doesn’t take much to set me off. I’ve cried twice over the trailer for The Expendables because Stallone movies are our thing and he won’t be able to see it. I just want you to know what you’re in for as we watch the remainder of the season together.) I’m assuming Phil had asked for some privacy, either to change clothes or sleep, because if there had been a cameraman in the room with him, Steve wouldn’t have opened the door and said “Ohmygod!” We didn’t see that moment or those that immediately followed. In his voiceover, Mike Rowe said Steve found Phil face down and unresponsive. Steve yelled, and the crew came running. Josh made a calm call to 911, saying he thought his dad had just had a stroke. (That was audio-only, too.) We did see him tell the paramedics that he’d flipped his father over onto his back and that there was drool coming down the left side of his face and he couldn’t move his left arm. Phil was able to say his name to the paramedics and stayed conscious as Jake stood by silent and scared, and Josh, thinking practically, said he was going to call Cornelia, owner of the boat, so she could find another captain for Opie season if Phil’s condition was serious. (Steve told him to wait, and I wasn’t sure if that’s because he just wanted Josh to be able to think as a son — and not a son of a captain — at that moment, or if he wasn’t ready to admit that Phil, who’s needed a relief skipper before for health reasons — was in critical condition.)

The crew worked as a team, like it always does, to strap Phil into a stretcher and carry him up to the deck, where a crane lifted him off the boat to the waiting ambulance. I said it when I first saw this clip as an online preview — I don’t know if there’s a lonelier-looking image than an injured man strapped into a stretcher being lifted by a crane (or, as with the heart attack victim rescued at sea in last week’s episode, a Coast Guard helicopter). It really hammers home how small and fragile he is, and at a time when someone should be there holding him, the only thing surrounding him is the wind. The episode ended with Phil in the ambulance. Josh told him he was there with him, and Phil said something I couldn’t decipher. Since the show will caption dialogue when necessary, I guess producers couldn’t either.

As for the drama on the other boats:

• Sig was struggling with the decision of whether or not Jake Anderson’s mother needed to tell him that his missing father’s truck had been found. News of it was spreading through the Seattle media and into the fleet (Phil got on the radio to talk to Sig about it). Sig thought Jake had a right to know, but he also knew the best thing for Jake was working so he wouldn’t have the time to torture himself by speculating on his father’s fate (which still isn’t known). Working on the deck if he’s distracted, however, is dangerous for him and everyone else around him. In the end, Sig decided Jake had to phone home. That was also a scene Discovery put online as a preview. The first time I watched it and saw the phone line cut out right when his mother said, “We found the truck, and um…” and Jake was left to say, “Mom?… Mom?… Mom?”, I had to pause it. If you’ve ever gotten bad news about a loved one over the phone, you wore that look that was on his face. At that moment, every inch of you is focused on what’s being said, and yet, it’s like your brain doesn’t want to let you process it because it knows how painful it will be. It wants to keep you in this incomprehensible, time-stopping state of limbo. When my sister told me they found four spots on my dad’s MRI, I just kept saying, “What?… What?…What?” And I’d heard what she said. I can’t imagine what Jake was feeling not knowing how that sentence ended. He dialed his mother back and she said they hadn’t found his father, they were still looking, and they were going to offer a reward. She didn’t want him to give up hope yet. And then again, they were cut off. We heard Jake say he needs to get home.

• Over on the Time Bandit, the Hillstrand brothers had a decision of their own: With Johnathan taking a 20-day vacation in the middle of his 30th Opi season to fish for marlin in much warmer waters, and retirement being on both his and Andy’s radar, they needed to think about who would take over for them when they ultimately abandon ship. Johnathan said the wheel was his first born’s birthright, but Andy pointed out that only two years ago, Scotty told them he didn’t want to end up like them. (Scotty told the season 6 cameras that since his wife has left him, he’s in court fighting for time with his son, and his dog ran away, he’s a crabber whether or not he wanted to be. “I ain’t got nothing but this. This is my only home,” he said.) Knowing that they wouldn’t yet offer Scotty the job if he wasn’t blood, the brothers looked at other options, including JJ, who had bad timing and took a hard fall on deck. After Andy said, “We’re watching a 54-year-old man deteriorate right before our eyes,” made an Old Yeller reference over the speaker, and likened JJ to a dog who just figured out that he might soon be taking a ride to the vet to get put down, no one thought that promotion was happening. So Mike Fourtner, who’s the son Andy wished he’d had, got the nod. Watching Mike take that 60-pound piece of falling ice on the head in last week’s episode and keep working, I’m not gonna argue with the decision. But like Mike, I’m curious to see how the others respond when they found out he’s in line for the wheelhouse.

• On the Wizard, the stress of low crab counts in untested grounds was getting to Capt. Keith, and he succumbed to his 23-year-old addiction to chewing tobacco. Seeing the “no chew” sign his daughter made him (“It can kill you”), he phoned to confess to her and asked for a pep talk. She didn’t hold back: “You’re putting icky stuff into your mouth. It’s disgusting. You could get cancer. Lung cancer. And then you’ll have cancer everywhere.” Then, she gave him an idea that made him smile — they could put pieces of gum in his chew can. Half would be nicotine gum, half would be non-nicotine gum (she didn’t want him to get addicted to that). “And how bad do you want it?” she asked. “You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t want it. Like if I hated gymnastics, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.” Ha. She ended by telling him, “I’ll give you as much support as you need to quit,” and really, this kid could have a future as an addiction counselor. She’s good. Keith’s determined to quit for his kids.

As for the highlights of the captains’ roundtable on the Northwestern edition of After the Catch:

• Sig’s brother Edgar got passionate talking about his decision to, in my words, make sure he doesn’t suffer the same regret as Phil and instead, be present in his kids’ lives: “These kids are at an age now where if I don’t step in now and help guide them in the direction they need to go, they’re gonna be lost and so will I. And I’ll be f—in’ damned if I’m gonna let that happen,” he said. “If I have that choice between helping them and hauling a crab pot, I’ll tell you right here at this table, it’s gonna be helping them.”

• “On behalf of two, three million viewers, I’ll just throw the question out, What the hell?” host Mike Rowe said after showing a clip of Phil and Sig switching back their Jakes at sea. (The answer: There’s no bus in the Bering Sea, and if they hadn’t done the harrowing swap then, Harris wouldn’t have seen his dad until the end of the season because the boats are rarely in the same place at the same time.) Rowe then asked the Jakes, who were at the table, what their “pucker factor” was as they were being fished out of the water, on a scale of 1 to 10. Harris said 10.5; Anderson said 6 0r 7.

• Jake Anderson talked about his ambition — he’s getting a license that would open the door to him captaining other vessels — and explained why he initially kept the news that his father was missing from Sig and the crew. Because they are like family, he knew they would be affected, too, just hearing what he was dealing with. “[Sig] needs to do his job and he needs to keep me safe, he can’t worry if I’m sad and doing my job…. I had a job to do, and going home would’ve ruined my life financially and I couldn’t have been strong for my family, so I did my job, and when the captain said I could go home, I went home,” Anderson said. “It was really hard, but I knew at the same time I was doing the right thing.” Rowe asked Sig if he felt like a father to Jake, and Sig said if he had a son, Jake was what he’d want. (Cue the childlike grin that makes you want to protect Anderson yourself. And take him to see Toy Story 3.) The way Jake’s news affected the crew was crazy, Sig said. “I’ll tell you what’s crazy,” Rowe interrupted, “is in the history of roundtables, you’re not gonna find a bigger group of hardasses, and then all of the sudden, it comes down to this, and everybody’s protecting everybody’s back…” That’s why we watch: They’re equal part hardass and heart.

• Speaking of heart, they had a small photo of Phil hanging on the wall by the table, and they toasted him after showing a montage of him talking about why he loved to prank Sig. They were dear friends and competitors, “But I’ll screw him in a New York second if I can,” Phil had said. Rowe also showed a previously unaired prank by the Time Bandit on the Northwestern. They went out of their way to put an alligator skull on the back of a NW pot. When Sig raised it, deckhand Matt was convinced it was a prehistoric sea monster (and, if Johnathan is to be believed, he took it to the Smithsonian). The best part: Sig had helped the brothers Hillstrand find his gear. Johnathan told him they wanted to prank Phil, and Sig said he had pots right next to his.

• Video was shown of Johnathan and Sig fishing with a bow and arrow at night in a Louisiana marsh. Best quote on the boat from Johnathan: “We’re gonna need a bigger target.” Best quote from Johnathan at the roundtable: “I saw a shrimp so big… I should have shot it.”

• At Mike Rowe’s request, and after an initial protest, Sig danced.

Your turn. How many times did you tear up last night? Will knowing that Phil wanted us to see his final days make the next episodes any easier to watch?

More Deadliest Catch:

Descriptions of the remaining episodes

Great stories from and about Capt. Phil

Capt. Phil told Deadliest Catch cameras to keep filming in hospital

Remembering Capt. Phil Harris

25 risk-filled reality TV shows

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