Scandal’s Finale Featured One of the Most Preposterous TV Deaths Ever

From doctors doing surgery without masks on to Wolverine’s true love dying via diuretic, TV and film are full of medical errors.

04.19.14 9:45 AM ET

Oh, “Scandal,” you frothy mess of a show. Between your increasingly despicable characters and your ludicrous, often contradictory plotlines, I don’t know why I watch you. (That is not technically true. I watch you because my husband makes me.) That finale had me rolling my eyes so hard I think I pulled a muscle.

[SPOILER ALERT: I will not only be discussing the big reveal of the “Scandal” season finale, I will also be giving away plot points of an old episode of “Sherlock” and a particularly silly “X-Men” movie, as well as grousing about “ER.” Some of those things are so old in pop culture terms they’re practically Pleistocene, but if you’re touchy about such matters, consider yourself fairly warned.]

I realize that expecting realism in a show like “Scandal” is probably asking too much. After all, this is a program set largely in the White House that has yet to feature the President doing anything remotely related to running the country. But still, the big twist at the end was a medical whopper of the first order.

In the last moments of the show, we learn that the President’s son has been murdered by a nefarious agent inoculating him with meningococcal meningitis by poking him on the shoulder with an infected needle. Two minutes after that dastardly back pat, the young man is hemorrhaging from his nostrils and collapsing. He dies later that night.


Meningococcal meningitis is a nasty (vaccine preventable!) illness, to be sure. But even assuming a person could be effectively infected via the shoulder muscles (I guess injecting the germ via spinal tap would have drawn too much attention), it’s not going to do him in quite so quickly. Even Ebola needs longer than a commercial break to kill you. I realize the writers wanted something medical-sounding that would make it look like the kid had died of illness instead of being murdered, but it made no actual sense.

Medical errors in television shows and movies drive me bananas. (I’m sure computer programmers, lawyers, and engineers notice mistakes in how their fields are depicted, too.) I find them so distracting that I generally avoid medical dramas altogether.

My aversion started back in medical school, which was right when “ER” debuted. For the first season or two, I was too green to make note of much, and simply enjoyed the glamorous way my chosen profession was being depicted. And then a little detail began to get under my skin: the doctors on that show often performed surprisingly invasive procedures without bothering to put on masks. I understood on one level that they wanted to avoid covering up the cast’s pretty faces as much as possible, but it dragged me right out of the action. I kept hoping for a scene where a character was approached and told “Congratulations for removing that blood clot from the patient’s lung, doctor. Sadly, he died of massive sepsis the next day after you sneezed into his chest cavity.” Such a scene never came, and I stopped watching.

But non-medical shows often decide to sound smart by tossing medical lingo into their stories, often with results that have me yelling at my television set. “Sherlock” had an episode featuring the title character solving a murder that had been mistaken for a case of tetanus. Rather, she had been poisoned with botulism. The problem with this nifty little bit of detective work is that tetanus and botulism kill people in exactly opposite ways. A medical examiner who would confuse the two of them should be sacked.

However, my all-time favorite piece of medical malarkey is from a movie. “X-men Origins: Wolverine” featured a pharmaceutical plot twist so inane it was almost awesome. Somewhere along the way, Wolverine’s one true love dies. Except no! Her death is faked by means of a drug that slows her heart to near-death slowness.

The problem is that the writers decided to use the name of a real medication to pull off this feat, and chose the fancy sounding “hydrochlorothiazide.” As ominous as all those syllables sound when put together, hydrochlorothiazide will not slow your heart. It is a diuretic. Why they didn’t just make up a drug (Neerdethazine? Hartstoppamide?) in a movie that features mutant powers and “adamantium” is beyond me. But no, they picked a medication that would make every doctor, nurse, and pharmacist in the audience choke on their popcorn. Unless Wolverine’s paramour is supposed to have wet herself to death, hydrochlorothiazide was the wrong choice.

I guess the writers at “Scandal” couldn’t be bothered to run the script by a real doctor to see if it passed the straight-face test. (If any of you are reading this, I will do it for cheap. Heck, I’ll do it for free in exchange for having coffee with Bellamy Young. She seems like a kick.) Dealing with medical errors in popular entertainment is probably unavoidable, and if I were smart I’d find a way of getting used to them.

But in the meantime, my husband will just have to deal with my yelling at the TV.