Image Credit: Blair Bunting/Getty ImagesIn all my years watching reality TV, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a moment as real and as achingly beautiful as ailing Phil Harris kissing his hand and putting it to his son Josh’s face, then Josh leaning down to kiss his father’s forehead. That conversation is something that will stick forever with the record 8.5 million viewers who saw it. You want to know why fans have been sobbing through the episodes leading up to Phil’s death — it’s because as much as we thought we related to men who do a job that 99.9 percent of us will never do, we knew they were a breed of their own. When Phil’s story went from the Bering Sea to a hospital room, it packed the punch of a hero falling, of a comedian who suddenly starts to cry. And all at once, we really could relate to him and his boys — especially his boys. We all have, or will, watch someone we love die. We’ll have things we want to say and be afraid to, because we know that saying the words will make us cry, and seeing us as broken as we feel will only bring our loved one more pain and regret. Capt. Phil insisted the cameras keep filming as he recovered from his stroke, because he believed the story needed an ending. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for his boys to watch this episode (Josh told EW yesterday that he’d had an advance copy of it for five days and hadn’t been able to bring himself to play it), but I have to think that having their final heart-to-hearts with their father on-camera will eventually be of comfort to them. They will never need doubt if their memories of those conversations are accurate. Josh will see that he said everything Phil, a man who worried that he hadn’t been a good enough father, needed to hear; Jake will be reminded that his father was proud of him for making that decision to go to a rehab center in Seattle.
Let’s start at the beginning. We picked up with Josh and Jake’s hotel room shouting match, and Josh leaning on Johnathan who told him that he couldn’t worry about changing his brother right now, he had to focus on taking care of himself and his father. The doctors were pleased with the way Phil was recovering — he was off the curve, making a week’s worth of progress in a day, and they were ready to transport him to a facility in Seattle. (That, I imagine, had factored into Jake’s decision to risk leaving Anchorage. Josh said on The Tonight Show that Phil had died of a pulmonary embolism the day before he was scheduled to be moved). As much as it sank your stomach to watch Johnathan share the good news with his brother Andy, who then spread it to the fleet’s other relieved captains, it was tougher to watch the always impatient Phil ask the doc if he’d be ready to go crabbing in September. The only thing that stopped me from crying at that point was thinking of that line from City Slickers, “Lord, we give you Curly. Try not to piss him off.”
The next time we saw Jake, he was sitting in the hotel thinking. You probably begged him through your TV to go to the hospital, but after we flashed back to his conversation with Phil onboard the Cornelia Marie when he admitted to his father he was an addict, and his dad told him treatment was the only thing that would save him, Jake phoned that rehab center in Seattle and made arrangements to check in. He went to see his dad at the hospital (who promptly asked him for a cigarette, which unlike extra ice chips, Jake had the strength to deny him) and told him that he was keeping his promise to him to get help and that he loved him.
Phil: Hey. I’m real proud of you.
Jake: Thank you.
Phil: Thank you.
Jake: I don’t really want to leave you, but this is for the better.
Phil: Yeah it is.
Jake: So you just keep on doin’ what you’re doin’.
Phil: Seriously, it makes me happy.
Jake: That’s good, that’s what I like to hear. I’ll give you a call when I hit Seattle.
Phil (now nearly asleep): This is one here you don’t wanna miss.
Jake: Alright. I love you, pops.
The image of Jake hesitating as he left the room and turning to look back at his dad — heartbreaking. The shot of Josh driving his brother to the airport after that verbal brawl they’d had — heartwarming. Josh said Jake had chosen the right way and the right time to get help. Jake said he wasn’t sure if it was the right time. You know he’ll beat himself up about that, and that’s when he needs to rewatch that scene and hear his father say it made him happy that he was going.
The next time we saw Phil, he was with Josh, who told his dad that he was going to hold his hand, just like Phil had always grabbed his hand when something went wrong when he was a child. After Phil squeezed Josh’s hand so hard that Josh begged him to stop, the conversation turned serious.
Phil: I’m sorry.
Phil: When you were growing up, I should have been a better father.
Josh: Dad you’ve been the best father you could ever have been. You’ve taught me great skills. So don’t ever say that. Don’t ever apologize for that. You’ve taught me everything I need to know to be a man. And I’m gonna take care of you as best I f—in’ possibly can. I don’t give a s—. I ain’t lettin’ you out of my sight. The same thing you’d do for me. You know. [Wipes tear from Phil’s eye.] I love you, buddy.
Phil: I love you. I love you, too. [Josh leans down and they hug. Phil kisses his fingers and puts them to Josh’s head. Josh kisses Phil’s forehead. Phil kisses his fingers again and puts them to Josh’s cheek.]
Josh: I love you, buddy. [Phil places one more kiss on Josh’s cheek. Josh fights back tears.] I know, man. I know, man. I’m bein’ strong here.
Honestly, I don’t know how Josh was able to say those things to his father and not break down sooner. Wiping away a single tear, he told his dad that it’s been hard for him because he loves him so much and he doesn’t like to cry in front of people, let alone him. But you’re doing good, Josh quickly added, seeing that it pained Phil to know that his son was hurting. I think Josh had broken the seal, and the dam was about to break. He left the room, for the first time motioning for the camera not to follow him. (Watch the scene here.)
Phil didn’t look good the next time we saw him. He asked Josh to rub his hand and wanted to know where his good-luck necklace was. Josh said he had it at his hotel and would bring it in that night. Phil looked out the window and asked if it was snowing. Josh told him to get some sleep, they exchanged “I love you”s, and Josh left. Phil looked out the window again, and we cut to a storm on the Bering Sea with waves powerful enough to move gear and equipment on the deck of the Time Bandit, to tilt the Wizard practically sideways, and to turn a member of the Northwestern crew into a poet: “If you don’t believe in god, come out here…. You ever wonder about a power greater than yourself? That’s it right there.”
We cut back to Josh, who was driving, getting a call from Phil’s doctor, who said his dad had just had “another event.” They were doing everything they could for him, but he should get back to the hospital as soon as possible. Catch executive producer Thom Beers has handled everything about Phil’s final days so pitch-perfectly, and the montage that followed, set to Johnny Cash’s “Redemption Day,” was no exception. In fact, it was so beautifully crafted you wanted to watch it again, even though it was emotional torture. We didn’t see Phil, we just saw shots of a rushing hospital bed and a hand adjusting a light that you’d find in an operating room — images meant to symbolize that the hospital staff was working on Phil. Josh sat with one of Phil’s friends, and told him his father had asked him to go and get his good luck charm, which he’d done, which is why he hadn’t been there. The friend told Josh that Phil wouldn’t go out without a fight. “Never has, never will,” they agreed. Then we got shots of the crews fighting through the storm to keep fishing and Sig and Andy in their wheelhouses as Cash sang, “There is a train that’s heading straight to heaven’s gates, to heaven’s gates.”
After a shot of the Jesus statue outside the hospital, carrying the weight of snow on his shoulders, the doctor came to tell Josh that they’d been working on Phil for an hour, and at some point, you have to decide it’s gone on too long. The image of Josh’s head in his hands faded to a tattered America flag whipping in the wind, and then flying perfectly aboard the Time Bandit. The storm continued, but now the crews were weathering it. Sig and Andy were laughing in their wheelhouses as they rode the waves like a rollercoaster. Which to me, was a reminder that Phil had loved the life he led. We cut back to Josh, who phoned Jake. “Jake, I don’t know how to tell you this Jake, but um,” the screen went black, “we lost dad, dude.” As Cash spoke the final words of the song, “freedom, freedom, freedom,” we watched a bare Bering Sea. And then the only sound was that of the waves rising and falling. For me, that was as beautifully constructed as the final moments of Lost, and more powerful because it was real.
Josh and Jake joined the captains and Catch narrator Mike Rowe during the Phil-focused After the Catch roundtable that followed the episode (which began with a clip of Phil saying, “A fairytale starts out ‘Once upon a time.’ A fisherman’s story starts out, ‘This ain’t no bulls—.'”) Josh said they’d be spreading their father’s ashes on the Bering Sea this fall during king crab season. The boys are determined to own the Cornelia Marie, but Johnathan said if it doesn’t work out, the Hillstrands will hire Josh, and Sig will take Jake. There were a lot of laughs in that hour — much talk of Phil’s love of Harleys, loud music (INXS?!), and Meerkat Manor, and the fact that he felt most comfortable in a trailer, which he had a maid for, and built detailed bird-feeders that were homes complete with tiny satellite dishes. And it ended on a high note with the men toasting Phil with a round of his favorite “duck fart” shots before joining a brass band and fans partying in the street in the late skipper’s honor.
But man, there were some tender moments as well. Sig told the boys that when he and Phil would travel together, he always talked about wanting to set them up with everything they needed, and worried that he hadn’t. (Watch the tape back, Josh. Phil knew.) Keith said Phil wanted the boys to learn exactly what Josh had expressed at the table — being a captain isn’t about being cocky and getting to that chair, it’s about taking seriously the responsibility of keeping your crew safe and their families fed. Todd Stanley, the cameraman who spent seasons filming Phil, teared up watching a clip of Phil saying that they became real friends when Phil got sick in 2008, and crediting Todd with keeping him alive because he did more than film him, he watched over him. Todd then recounted being summoned to Phil from the hospital waiting room after his stroke, and Phil, who couldn’t yet speak, writing a note telling him they needed an ending to the story — so he should keep filming. Todd had always told Phil that you need a beginning, middle, and an end to a story, or you have nothing. Nothing wasn’t what Phil Harris was leaving us with. Johnathan leaned over, hugged Todd, and thanked him for being there those final days. And Todd thanked Johnathan for being there, too. Keith teared up. Sig teared up. We all teared up.
In next week’s episode, the captains hear the news of Phil’s passing, which takes what has been a difficult Opi season for everyone to a whole new level. Things have gotten so bad on the deck of the Kodiak that Wild Bill fired Clint when they came in to off-load because he went from belittling the deck to questioning Bill’s skills when the pots started filling with junk crab. (You have to feel bad for Clint. The crew found out someone was being let go when a stranger showed up talking about an opening on deck. Clint assumed it wasn’t him because he hadn’t already been told or seen celebratory fireworks.) On the Time Bandit, the crew went from razzing Mike, who missed another buoy, to razzing Scott, who stepped up to throw the hook like his father Johnathan and uncle Andy had wanted him to, but then snapped a line and missed three tosses (each one causing the boat to have to circle back for another attempt), to razzing Andy, who was raising empty pots. If his crew had the energy to call him a loser and make snow angels on deck, they had the energy to keep working. With morale low, Andy preferred the crew hate him instead of each other. I see that working on the Time Bandit, but not on the Northwestern. Sig continued to work his crew hard — they’d slept a total of 12 hours in four days — which pushed his brother Edgar, who wants off the boat to focus on his family, to finally start training Jake Anderson on hydros. (Can we all agree that perhaps at the start of a storm, after they’d all ready been grinding for, say, 19 hours, wasn’t the best time for a tutorial on a job that literally puts others’ lives in your hands? Even if it did momentarily get Jake to focus on something other than feeling like he abandoned his missing father because he wasn’t home searching for him.) Jake dropped a pot, and he was quickly relieved of his duties. Sig thinks it’s going to be another season or two until Jake is ready to fill Edgar’s shoes. Edgar wants to fast-track him. There’s another storm brewing…
Your turn. How do you think the show handled Phil’s passing? How many times did you tear up? Is that scene between Josh and Phil the most honest moment you’ve ever witnessed on a reality TV show? Did you rewind the “Redemption Day” montage, or was it just too painful?