In the opening scene of Mary Kills People, the titular Mary is offering her patient "Pentobarbital and a glass of champagne". This is how it has to work for Dr Mary Harris (Caroline Dhavernas) and her partner Des (Richard Short). The law prevents them from injecting their terminally ill patients with drugs to facilitate euthanasia – instead, the patients have to be responsible for their own deaths.
The premise for Mary Kills People sounds incredibly sombre. What could be a morbid and depressing hour of TV is actually anything but that. Mary Kills People is a darkly funny Canadian series that explores messy relationships and plans that never go entirely to plan while treating the issue of assisted dying with considered respect.
What makes the show so watchable is having such a strong protagonist. More than just a doctor assisting the terminally ill, it is the many facets of Mary that make this such a compelling drama.
Mary... breaks all of her own rules
Right from the start, we see that Mary has a very specific set of processes and rules that she adheres to when helping a person take their own life. Assisted dying is illegal in Canada, so she has to make sure that any action taken is conducted by the patient themselves.
She also has what seems to be a prepared statement to deliver to patients who have doubts.
"Troy, if you're not ready, we don't have to do this today," she tells a patient at the start of the first episode, before going on to give a speech about conquering fear of the unknown. And this is where the show becomes more interesting in its approach to the issue of assisted dying.
With every move that Mary makes, something goes wrong, or she becomes compromised in some way. These are all the result of her working as an illegal, backyard operator sneaking in and out of patients' homes, avoiding detection. She breaks her self-imposed rules routinely through necessity. Even her speech about conquering the unknown takes on a dubious tone – it is intended to offer a patient an internal strength to go through with it, but the viewer is also left with the impression that Mary offers it as a way to speed up the process to enable her to get out of there quickly and avoid being caught.
The show never says it, but the overall message is clear: If assisted dying was legal, none of Mary's dubious actions would have to take place.
Mary... is an ER doctor
Undoubtedly, working as an emergency doctor has opened up Mary's eyes to the pain and suffering experienced by terminally ill patients, resulting in her breaking the law by helping them die. But, as we quickly learn, her secret work has also impacted her day-to-day professional attitude.
This is on full display early in the first episode. After experiencing difficulty with a dose of Pentobarbital that wasn't strong enough, Mary had to manually suffocate the patient to put him out of exacerbated suffering. Wracked with guilt over this, we watch her aggressively work to save a gunshot victim who was destined to die on the operating table. Thanks to her tenacity, the victim is revived.
Mary... is a single mother
The struggle of being a single mother has taken its toll on Mary, but it's been made all the more difficult by the extra burden of her secret. Mary is already busy with a job that is not just emotionally draining, but also has considerable demands on her free time and schedule. She can't be with her kids as much as she'd like.
Her ex-husband, unemployed (but working on a house), has been looking after the kids for what he claims is 80% of the time.
Mary... doesn't work alone
There are two other people working with Mary. A nurse named Annie (Grace Lynn Kung) makes initial contact with patients, referring them to Mary who will then follow up and have an exploratory conversation with the patient to guide them through the process and their options.
Mary has a closer relationship with her partner Des, a plastic surgeon who accompanies Mary on all of her meetings with patients and is also responsible for sourcing the Pentobarbital.
Mary... needs companionship
Every aspect of Mary's life informs the choices she makes and any action she takes. She has no romantic life to speak of, with the show suggesting that she hasn't been intimate with anyone since her marriage ended. Her busy work life, the strain of being a working parent and the additional burden of her secret life have all had an impact on her.
When she meets Joel, a man her own age who is looking to terminate his own life due to cancer, Mary immediately finds herself attracted to him. With the stress building around her and the voice of Des in her head, Mary makes an ill-advised move on Joel.
Much like herself, Joel has his own secret – a secret that will impact her own life in a way she doesn't expect.
Mary Kills People is streaming anytime at SBS On Demand from 14 February.