Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have seen This Life Episode 203, “Coping Cards.”
Over the first 12 episodes of CBC’s This Life, Natalie Lawson has had more good days than bad as she fights terminal cancer. But that changed with this week’s episode, “Coping Cards,” written by Rachel Langer. After beginning Season 2 feeling energetic and hopeful, Natalie is forced to deal with debilitating side effects from her drug trial, while trying to put on a brave face for her kids.
“What we get the chance to do with the side effects is show what a bad day is like and show what good days are like,” says Langer. “That’s just kind of realistic when it comes to medical treatment.”
Natalie isn’t the only one having a tough time in the episode. Caleb feels caught in the middle of his parents’ custody battle, Romy is crushed by Oliver’s decision not to become her guardian, and Matthew learns Nicole wants to officially separate.
Langer joins us by phone from Vancouver to tell us about writing “Coping Cards,” her role in the writers’ room and her favourite scene of the episode.
Let’s talk about your background a little bit. You’re a former TV, eh? contributor.
Rachel Langer: Yes!
And you co-wrote the web series Aeternus, then worked as a writers’ assistant on Continuum, and attended the Canadian Film Centre. How did you land on This Life after that?
When I was at the Canadian Film Centre, our showrunner in residence was named Michael MacLennan, who had done Bomb Girls … When we came out, he was the showrunner developing This Life initially, and he hired me on to this to help with some of the younger voices. It was my first actual writing job, and he thought maybe I could speak to some of the younger voices and a little bit to Maggie as a millennial, and then it just kind of became all the characters. I was really fortunate when Michael got a great gig in L.A. and Joe [Kay, This Life showrunner} took over that he still wanted to have me around.
Are you still the go-to writer for the show’s younger characters?
I think it was at first my role and then as we moved forward, I just found that there was a facet of every single character that I could identify with, and I think that’s true of all of us. We just look into each of these people and say, ‘Oh I’ve been in a situation like that,’ or ‘I felt like that before.’ So I don’t feel like that’s my niche in the room anymore, I feel like I’ve been able to expand. But I always just adore writing for Romy. It’s very cathartic to write for someone who gets to say all the stuff that you wish you were allowed to say, but you’re not because you’re 33 and she’s 13.
“Coping Cards” is one of the first times we really see Natalie feeling unwell in the series. Why was that important to show now?
This is really for us to get a chance to remind everybody that, when you’re undergoing something like Natalie is, when you’re undergoing a medical treatment, whether it’s life and death like hers is, or whether it’s just a difficult circumstance, it’s really a roller coaster of emotions . . . And for Natalie, who’s on this drug trial and really doing her best to exist within hope, this is a way to say it’s not that easy, you don’t just get to stay there all the time. So how do you pull yourself back to that even when the going gets a little tough?
Natalie has a couple of disturbing dream sequences in the episode. Tell me about writing those.
I was so excited about the ‘fever dreams,’ as we called them. And that’s such a credit to our room to come up with those and what they meant and what each of them were about. I just felt very supported writing those because it’s something that we really haven’t done before, so it’s always a bit nerve-wracking to step into that zone of trying something new.
I think each [dream speaks] to thoughts and ideas that Natalie is able to deal with and is constantly dealing with or is afraid to deal with . . . It was just really interesting to access those in a visual way without actually saying them out loud.
At the beginning of the episode, Natalie asks Caleb to testify against David in their custody battle, and he’s hesitant to do it. However, he changes his mind at the end of the episode. Why?
Throughout the episode, he’s trying to be there for his mom in a tangible way, but also he’s trying to work out his frustration. He is just such a quiet kid who wants to be supportive. He’s had responsibilities thrust upon him, and he’s equally trying to buck that and embrace it at the same time. I think that just watching Natalie go through what she goes through and deal with things and still trying to soldier on, it’s just the only way he can think of to come through for her.
I loved Romy’s coping cards. She has one dealing with her fear that her family isn’t telling her truth, but the others deal with existential issues like the Big Crunch. Sadly, all her fears come crashing down on her when Oliver tells her the truth: He doesn’t want to be her guardian. So what now?
It’s a really interesting question because Romy does kind of live in the existential space of ‘Is the world going to collapse around me?’ and ‘What will still be here and will I still be here if it does?’ So she’s always seeking truth and seeking reality, and then when it happens, it’s not maybe quite what she had hoped for. So I think between her and Oliver, there’s just a question of if this is going to irreparably break what they had. Because what they had in Season 1 was just so awesome, but is this going to be a situation where she can’t recover from this?
Nicole shocked Matthew by saying she wants to move forward with their separation. What can you tease about their relationship moving forward?
I think it’s really complicated for Nicole, who didn’t ask for any of this to happen and didn’t want her tidy life to be turned upside down. And I think that dealing with the messiness of this is challenging for Nicole in a way that maybe we haven’t seen for her before. So between her and Matthew, they’re always tied together because they have a daughter together, so the question is going to be what does that look like for her and how can she fit him into what she likes—clean lines—when that isn’t going to be a clean line?
Emma landed a job after a tough interview this week. What can viewers expect from her arc this season?
Emma is one of the best and most difficult characters to write for, because she’s a normal teenager with some really extenuating circumstances in her life. She’s at an age where she is really trying to figure out who she is, and so we try to write for her in such a way that always poses the question ‘Who am I, who do I want to be and how do I get there?’ And the answer to that question isn’t always the same for her because she’s 16, and that’s not an easy question to know the answer to or even to ask yourself at that age.
I think that we just really try to let Emma experience life in a way that is hopefully realistic and also not be afraid to be the person who doesn’t always focus on what’s happening with her mom, and the health thing that’s happening. She knows that, it affects her, but she still has to live her life.
There are some lovely scenes in the episode, particularly at the end with Natalie, Janine and Emma and then with Natalie and Caleb. Do you have a favourite scene in the episode?
I really enjoyed seeing that come together at the end, because so many people want to help Natalie and try to help Natalie and are just ineffective. But that’s normal. You can’t always be effective because it’s a unique situation, and the way you think is effective is not the way somebody else sees as helpful or beneficial. And people bring their baggage in when they try to help you out. So I think seeing that come together at the end, and seeing Emma uniquely positioned to be somebody who can sit there and say, ‘I’m OK to do this in this moment right now. I might not always, but I am right now.’ And with the support of Janine, it’s three-generation thing, so that was just a really cool moment to write.
This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC.
Images courtesy of CBC.