(Warning: This post, which was originally published July 16, contains spoilers through the finale of “Dr. Death.”)
In Peacock’s limited series “Dr. Death,” the existence and significance of the email Dr. Christopher Duntsch (portrayed by Joshua Jackson) sends to his nurse and lover Kim Morgan (Grace Gummer) the night before he performs an ill-fated spinal surgery on his friend Jerry Summers (Dominic Burgess) is revealed much earlier than the letter’s actual contents.
Due to the twisty nature of the based-on-true-events show’s dual timelines detailing Duntsch’s horrifying missteps as a neurosurgeon and his subsequent trial for the crimes against his patients, viewers get even more teases about how vital the email, which has the subject line “Occam’s Razor,” is going to be for putting Duntsch behind bars before we have enough evidence to understand why.
The reason for all of this build-up to the email’s delusions of grandeur is because “Dr. Death” showrunner Patrick Macmanus wanted you to be worrying about exactly what it said until Jackson reads it himself while Duntsch is in the courtroom.
“I love dropping something and having audiences be like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, what? Wait, come again? Why don’t I know this?’ So that — in my opinion, and it’s subjective — it becomes that much more impactful when you actually get to it, because the audience has been waiting for it and waiting for it,” Macmanus told TheWrap of the “Occam’s Razor” email, which the real-life Duntsch sent to the real-life Morgan. “And when you finally drop it, hopefully it’s a moment of revelation and relief that the audience feels for finally having it.”
Macmanus said he didn’t want the email to just be words on a screen or something read out by Morgan or prosecutor Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb) — it had to be recited by Duntsch himself. Of course, that required adding the element of a narrating Duntsch into a scene where the neurosurgeon was dead silent as his former employee and lover testified against him and detailed his disturbing medical behavior in court.
“So that moment where he comes in like a specter over Grace [Gummer’s, who portrays Kim Morgan] shoulder was very purposeful so that we could hear the words coming out of Josh’s mouth as opposed to Grace reading it or AnnaSophia reading it. I wanted him to say it.”
As for the entire idea behind the show’s two timelines — which allow for us to begin the story before we even meet Duntsch and end long after he’s said his final line — that was a very calculated choice.
See below for Macmanus’ full explanation of his timelines device:
“It was a very conscious choice. It was a choice from the beginning that we were going to tell this story in two timelines that sort of track with each other until they run into each other in Episode 7. And the reason for that was, a) mechanical, which is that if we didn’t do it that way, we wouldn’t have met Alec [Baldwin, who portrays Dr. Robert Henderson], Christian [Slater, who plays Dr. Randall Kirby] or AnnaSophia’s characters until Episodes 5 or 6 out of eight, which you just can’t do that. But the other part of it was that I just personally am a fan of dual timelines. I’m a fan of something being stated here and then watched here or dramatized here. And you’re like, ‘Oh, I remember when they talked about that over there!’ I find that to be the kind of storytelling where you’re forced to go back and re-watch it again because you pick up on new clues every single time. There are a lot of clues throughout the show that people may miss — and that’s OK.
“As it relates to starting on Henderson and Kirby and then meeting Duntsch, very conscious. That was because I liked this idea that we, the audience, were in the dark as much as our heroes were about who this guy was. They’re saying, ‘How does he have this education? How does he work at these hospitals? It can’t be that he could be this bad.’ Then we met him and we’re like, ‘This guy is charming and so handsome! And I go to be operated on by him!’ — only to watch it devolve along the way. So that was very purposeful. It was actually the very first thing that I came up with in the pilot, quite frankly.
“As it relates to the finale, he didn’t talk in trial, so we couldn’t do that. So we used all of the other scenes that are sprinkled throughout, especially his time with Carrie Preston, with Robbie McClung, his attorney and with his dad to allow him to emote and talk about the experience of going through this trial.
“Everyone who we interviewed who was in the court that day, or over the course of those couple of weeks, said that they saw a turn in Duntsch during the doctors’ testimonies, where it seemed he finally got that he was the one responsible. And that was something that we really drilled down on with Josh, was that moment of revelation for Christopher Duntsch as character, where he finally says, ‘It’s not the hospital’s fault or the patient’s fault, it’s my fault,’ which then fuels that scene with his dad at the end when he says, ‘I just want to go back to my research. I just want to go back to my research,’ which is so heartbreakingly performed by both of those actors.“
All eight episodes of “Dr. Death” are streaming now on Peacock.