By Mandi Bierly
Updated July 07, 2010 at 02:09 PM EDT

During last night’s post-show After the Catch chat, host Mike Rowe set up the clip of Cornelia Maria deckhand Freddie Maughtai telling Josh Harris he should abandon ship and be with his ailing father, Capt. Phil, by calling it one of the six-year-old series’ most honest moments. Last night’s episode added a few more to that list.

While Phil recovered from a 12-hour surgery to relieve pressure on his swelling brain, Josh, Jake, and Johnathan Hillstrand were updated on his condition. He could survive the devastating stroke, but it was going to be a long road back. Twenty-eight hours after the surgery, the neurologists told the boys and close friends that Phil had progressed nicely, was breathing on his own with minimal support, and would be able to talk later that day when they took him off the ventilator. “You guys are gonna be in for a treat,” Josh told the doctors. And everyone laughed. “So should we keep the tube back in?” one of them asked.

Knowing how this story ends made watching Josh’s relieved hugs with Jake and Johnathan painful, but it was impossible not to enjoy Phil’s reunion with his boys (which began with a wave to the camera). The doctors had one rule — one spoonful of ice chips an hour — but Phil wanted more. Josh kept deflecting his requests with humor, and Phil laughed, which was a beautiful sight. But Phil was persistent and wore Jake down. Jake went to give him one piece, and a tiff with Josh, who wanted to follow doctors’ orders, ensued. The “Really? You’re gonna do this now?” look on Phil’s face was classic. In the end, Phil made his own decision and took the spoon from Jake. All Josh could do was sit back down and shake his head at the camera. As strange as it sounds, that kind of hospital humor becomes a good memory in the end. My father has been battling an illness for nearly five years, and there are three moments my sister and I cling to: 1) When the neurosurgeon asked him for his post-surgery pain level on a scale of 1 to 10, and he answered 1.7. 2) When he mumbled, “Why would Brian Boitano take that kind of risk?” at 3 a.m. on his first night of chemo, hours after my sister and I had watched a figure skating special in his hospital room and compared the level of difficulties in routines by Boitano and Brian Orser. 3) When he flipped my sister off in front of an entire waiting room because she commented on the look on his face when he returned from a blood test. (She and I laughed so hard, we cried; dad, whose short-term memory was gone, refused to believe he’d done it.)

Three days by Phil’s side started taking its toll on the guys. Jake, who recently admitted to his father that he was an addict, headed to a bar. Johnathan held Phil’s hand and told him that he and so many people loved him and that he was taking care of his boys. Then he fought back tears waiting for the elevator and said he had to go. (I was glad to read in comments on other posts of mine that I’m not the only one who wants to hug this man right now.) Josh called Jake, who said he was “figuring something out,” and Josh was stretched too thin to care: “Jake, dad’s in the hospital dying, while you’re sittin’ there gettin’ high.” Jake was in a hotel room, and called Jake Anderson aboard the Northwestern. He told him Phil was going to be in the hospital for eight months, and Anderson told Harris he was just trying to keep it together as the search continued for his father, who at this point, had been missing for five weeks. We got a shot of Johnathan in the hospital’s chapel, and Josh leaving to go have it out with Jake.

I’m surprised the boys let the cameras film their raw verbal brawl, but again, it’s an honest moment — one that viewers who never have, nor never will, set foot on a crab boat can relate to. When a loved one is dying, people respond in different ways. Jake can’t understand how Josh hasn’t cried, and why he would have thought about staying with the boat when their dad was brought to Anchorage. Josh can’t understand why their father’s condition hasn’t sobered Jake up, and why he can’t share some of the responsibility. “I’m tryin’ to grow up, but I’m not used to…. everybody that I love and know f—in’ dying,” Jake said. The truth: Josh is staying sober so he can make decisions for his dad; Jake is so lost and overwhelmed that for him, drinking (or doing whatever he’s doing) in a hotel room instead of an alley is making an effort. Johnathan showed up and listened to the fight outside the door. He said it broke his heart and left the boys to finish it on their own. (I shouted “Get in there!” at my TV, but he must know what he’s doing.) The boys left the room talking about giving each other black eyes. I assumed they were both headed back to the hospital, but then hearing the voiceovers over the credits, I’m not so sure. Johnathan told Josh he wasn’t responsible for his younger brother and Josh would take care of his dad alone if he had to.

Over on the Northwestern, the crew did a 72-hour grind, and they were feeling the pain. After Edgar began his day with the breakfast of champions — pain killers — he helped Jake Anderson celebrate six months of sobriety with a regifted card and someone else’s 1-year candle cut in half and stuck in a cupcake. (Did they bring the cupcakes onboard or did someone make them?) You could tell by his childlike grin that this was enough for Jake, which is why we love him. He told the guys he wouldn’t be here without them. Sig, still at the wheel, spoke like an understanding second father. “There’s gonna be a couple of slips and trips along the way, that’s alright,” he said, before reverting to being his captain, “just don’t jeopardize my boat.” Does the boat mean more to Sig than his crew? That’s the question Edgar asked, repeatedly, when a low crab count and a looming deadline forced Sig to have then turn and burn. “I promised that I was not gonna beat my crew to death this season…. I don’t want my brothers to be in pain. I don’t want my crew to be in pain,” Sig said. “Bottom line, if you really want to go for crab, sometimes you gotta go barbaric. That’s just the way it is.” Edgar’s decision is becoming more and more clear: Continue to stay on the boat with his brother out of obligation or take time off/retire and be a father and a husband? His kids need a dad, not a skipper, he said.

I would love to see what Sig would do to the crew of the Kodiak. Wild Bill raised the wheelhouse roof when they started pulling crazy numbers of what one deckhand referred to as “eight-legged dollar bills.” But just as quickly, the cages started coming up near empty. Turns out, they’d been rigged incorrectly, and the crab had walked out an open back panel. Bill threatened to shoot someone of the crew’s choice in the leg. One of the deckhands is a dead man walking.

Things were just as tense on the Wizard. The stress of navigating through a 35-mile maze of ice flows to reach his gear had Capt. Keith reaching for the chewing tobacco. Cue a call from Keith’s 11-year-old ballbuster daughter, who was not happy to hear that the calendar she made him to chart his progress was full of ants (representing chew) instead of smiley faces (representing gum). He told her this time would be different, and her response: “No offense, but I hope this promise is better than the one in two thousand four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.” It was like a dagger to Keith’s heart, which he told her. On one hand, it’s sad that a little girl is so aware of cancer, but on the other, their relationship as she coaches him through kicking his 23-year habit (“Daddy, every journey has to start with a single step”) is precious. Keith got his gear back, filled with plenty of crab, so he knocked on wood, prayed to his bobbleheads, and reset his pots next to the ice in another gamble.

Over on the Time Bandit, Andy Hillstrand was fighting to stay focused while not knowing how Phil was doing. The crew was pulling pots in -30°, and when Mike Fourtner, who’d recently been crowned captain-in-training, couldn’t hook one buoy, they turned on him. It was tough to tell how much of it was harmless ribbing, and how much of it was Andy really reconsidering his choice. (I’d like to think one miss — or, okay, like 15 misses on one buoy — doesn’t erase everything Mike has done on the boat.)

What did you think of the episode? Did you make it through without a tissue? (As a reader commented below, watching a relief skipper take over the Cornelia Marie — not easy.) Are you stocking up for next week’s two-hour episode, when we say goodbye to Phil? Did you stick around for After the Catch? Highlights for me: Johnathan headbutting Josh’s shoulder after Capt. Keith and Mike Rowe said everyone asks them how Phil’s boys are doing. Freddie being too emotional to speak after watching the montage of Phil praising him, and Josh breaking the silence at the table after the clip of Freddie telling him to go be with Phil was shown to thank Freddie for the good advice. And the reveal of the prank Andy played on Wild Bill when they went crawfishing in Louisiana — he had someone empty his pots.

Deadliest Catch

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