This Life: Rachel Langer finds catharsis writing heartbreaking “Well Fought, My Love”

Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have seen This Life Episode 209, “Well Fought, My Love.”

Well, that was a gut punch.

We’ve spent nearly two seasons worried about Natalie’s (Torri Higginson) terminal cancer on CBC’s This Life, but it was Lawson family matriarch Janine (Janet-Laine Green) who received an unexpected curtain call on Sunday night’s episode, “Well Fought, My Love,” written by Rachel Langer.

In the heartbreaking installment—the penultimate episode of Season 2—Janine succumbs to a sudden heart attack on a quiet Montreal morning. And while the family is still reeling from that shock, Natalie suffers a potentially deadly medical complication that requires immediate surgery, forcing everyone to face two traumas at once.

“We talked a lot about whether that was the right move, but I think ultimately that’s life, right?” says Langer. “You get hit twice in a row sometimes, and things happen at really, really inopportune times.”

Langer joins us by phone from Vancouver to break down this difficult episode and tell us why the storyline hit so close to home for her.

First the big question:  When and why did the writers’ room decide that Janine was going to pass away?
Rachel Langer: It’s something we knew was coming for quite a while. It’s a show that talks about life and death in very grey terms. It’s not as black and white as it seems. So we knew very early on that we were going to build to that, but we didn’t know how or when. It just naturally came together as we built the rest of the season that those were the details of it.

And for Natalie—who is a mother who has spent the entire series worried about leaving her kids, worrying about how she spent her life the way that she wanted to, how she left the legacy she wanted to—to then lose her mother, it just really puts a fine point on the things she’s been going through. And it was so sudden for Janine, which is the exact opposite of her journey. So it was a story that we knew we wanted to tell, and I think we were all a little like, ‘Oh, do we do this?’ and ‘How do we do this?’ But you go where the story leads you, and we knew it was leading there for a while, so we just had to get there.

I know this episode was a very personal one for you.
When we were breaking the season we had three different development rooms in Toronto, and then once we got greenlit, we had a writers’ room and prep in Montreal. And I think during our second room, I got a call from my father that my grandfather underwent a massive stroke, and we weren’t sure what the prognosis was for a couple of days and then found out that he couldn’t swallow and it had shut down a couple of systems in his body, so it was just a waiting game for him to pass away. So everybody that was in the room was, ‘Go home if you need to go home. Don’t worry about us.’ They were just wildly supportive, specifically [showrunner] Joe [Kay] and Virginia [Rankin], our executive producer.

I basically was in the room breaking stories about a woman who was terminal and her friend Tia passing away and knowing where we were headed up to, while waiting for the news that my grandfather was going to eventually die. So it was quite a life imitating art imitating life sort of experience.

When I got to Montreal and was assigned this episode, it was after the funeral for my grandfather had happened and I’d had a month of two to kind of process it. I realized it was going to be mine, and I tried to trade Joe, but he said no. [Laughs.] And it was good he did, because it was a very cathartic experience for me to write about that. But it’s also hard to separate yourself and your personal experience and make sure you’re doing justice to the characters, instead of just your own journey.

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The aftermath of Janine’s death was pretty realistic, with the EMS personnel standing around and decisions having to be made about her body. Were there many discussions about how you wanted to present the uncomfortable realities of death in the episode? 
There were a lot, actually. In the breaking of the episode as well as when I was going through and outlining. It’s such a fine balance because our whole show is based around the real. We want to just keep that as our mandate at all times. This is about real life; this is about real people—well, they’re not real people, but they could be. And I think death is dramatized on TV as a lot of crying and weeping and wailing, and we all know that happens, but in the middle of those things, are quiet moments where you just have to figure out what to do next. So we had to make sure that we had enough of those to make it feel real without making it feel completely morose, while still showing the joy of families coming together.

The choice to have Natalie have a medical emergency on top of Janine’s death was bold. Why the double tragedy?
That’s a good question. We talked a lot about whether that was the right move, but I think ultimately that’s life, right? You get hit twice in a row sometimes, and things happen at really, really inopportune times. I think everybody in the room had a story of the moment where the worst thing imaginable happened, and then it was followed up by the next worst thing imaginable.

Here we are coming toward the end of the season, and Natalie’s had some really good news. She’s had to work through a lot, but she’s had a fairly smooth season, except for Episode 203, where we got to show what it’s like when she has a bad day. It’s inevitable that she’s going to have ups and downs, and it wouldn’t feel real if she didn’t, and to put these two tragedies together was a really interesting exploration of life saying, ‘OK, this is all happening, so deal with it.’ And so we were just like, ‘OK, that’s what we’re going to do.’ Also, you have to admit, it’s very high-stakes drama. [Laughs.]

We’ve spent two seasons exploring what will happen to Emma and Romy if Natalie should die, and then Natalie’s surgery forces them to make a sudden decision. 
It was interesting to us because we had dealt with this for so long, of what was going to happen to the kids. And then to throw it into relief and say, ‘Oh, actually, we have five minutes to decide, so I sure hope they’re ready.’ And in that moment have Natalie relinquish control to the girls and say, ‘You have earned the right to choose for yourself,’ was such a huge catharsis for us as a room and I’m sure for the characters as well, because they’ve been wrestling with this and then it comes down to crunch time and there’s that relief after the decision is made. And I think it’s pronounced through Romy because that’s probably not who Natalie would have chosen for her, but she has finally said, ‘You have earned the right to choose, and I’m going to respect that.’ That just felt like huge growth in a very quick moment for us.

Matthew and Nicole finally reconnected in this episode. What’s next or them?
I think they’ve entered a new zone now. I think we all know sex changes things, and I think the nature of how and why that happened for them is really interesting. Because Nicole showed up at a time of crisis and wanted to be there for Matthew, and that just sort of gets rid of every piece of baggage you had because you’re only focused on getting through the moment and the love that comes with that. And so now the question for them becomes, ‘As we heal from this crisis, what does what we just experienced mean for us?’ and ‘We can’t go back, so how do we go forward?’ I’m sure that they will both have fairly different viewpoints.

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Oliver also got the EMS guy’s number, proving life goes on even in the middle of a crisis. 
Yeah. That’s exactly it. You basically said exactly what Joseph said when we were discussing Oliver, to say that there are moments of joy and hope and happiness in the midst of tragedy, and you can choose to shut them out or you can choose to go with them. Oliver’s had a really hard time, so to give him something that he can go for in the moment, it felt really good to see him make that happen. And also I think because we’d dealt with the mood stabilizers that he’s now on, so if anybody’s in a position to see outside of the cloud of grief, it’s Oliver in this moment. So he’s well positioned to have a win there.

What were the most difficult scenes for you to write? 
The scene on the terrace where Gerald is talking about the funeral lunch. Even though it feels somewhat lighter compared the other stuff, it was a scene where I was using experiences that we had just gone through to try to inform the scene. So working through that and working through every single scene where someone had to be told or found out, those were the really difficult ones.

And, funnily enough, the scene with Emma and Romy in bed where Romy is giving the small facts on the whale. It was not a hard scene to write, because those are just things my husband and I do, but it was surprisingly emotional, because it was just a moment of, ‘How do we come together and not talk about the thing but still connect?’ And those sisters, I mean they’re so different, so that one really got me, too.

I thought the Stephanie Janusauskas and Julia Scarlett Dan were excellent in that scene.
That part about the polar bears at the end? That was all them. I wrote—and the team wrote—up until the part about the ants and, ‘Got any more,’ and then that was all the girls improvising about the polar bear, and it was perfect. Those two are so talented, and they have excellent onscreen chemistry.

What was your favourite scene of the episode?
I know it was a difficult scene, but the scene with Gerald and Maggie in the living room. They are both so good, and it was just so real, what they brought to it. Just seeing it come together like that, like the direction from Louis [Choquette] and the editing. You know, you take it so far as a group of writers and you all help each other out, and then you give it over, and these people just make it something completely different. That was just a magical one to watch. Peter [MacNeill] and Lauren [Lee Smith] are just next level in that scene.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience writing, “Well Fought, My Love”?
I get so sappy about this episode because it was so tough. But I realized how much of a team environment making television can be, and not every show has that. I felt incredibly supported going through this one, and I couldn’t claim ownership over what happened at all, over the end result, but it was just a big honour to be able to write something so personal, and then have people come in and say, ‘OK, now we’ll help you take it to where it needs to go.’ It was just a really big honour for me to do that.

There’s only one episode left! What can you say about the season finale?
People come back and things are different. I really like the way the kids’ storylines coalesce in 210. I really like where Emma’s journey of identity has gone this season, and I think it’s a really interesting kind of place for her. She’s got a lot going on in her head, and I think that’s realistic for a girl her age. And the same with Romy in making her choices. So I think it’s a really good kind of place that they get to.

This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson has been interviewing actors, writers and musicians for over 20 years. In addition to TV-Eh, her work has appeared in Curve, ROCKRGRL, Sound On Sight and Digital Journal. A native of Detroit, she grew up watching Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant on CBC, which led to a lifelong love of Canadian television. Her perpetual New Year's resolution is to become fluent in French.
A.R. Wilson
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