The new local series, streaming now on TVNZ On Demand, makes a moving family drama out of an issue most of us would rather not think about, writes Catherine McGregor.
This review discusses euthanasia and suicide.
If there’s one activity I really prefer to keep to a bare minimum, it’s contemplating my own eventual demise and that of everyone I love. Death is both a super bummer and utterly unavoidable, two characteristics that make it a topic few of us choose to dwell on during our day to day lives.
All of which is to say I approached The Pact, TVNZ’s new show about assisted dying, with some trepidation. Created by actor-writers Harry McNaughton and Natalie Medlock, and based on Medlock’s 2017 short film of the same name, the six part miniseries explores the issue of euthanasia through the prism of an extended Auckland family whose matriarch, Betty (Irene Wood), is suffering from dementia.
There’s another reason I put off pressing play on my screeners: dementia is a condition I know only too well, having lost my father to Alzheimer’s disease just over a year ago. The topic of assisted dying never came up during his long illness, but watching The Pact made me think about what my reaction would have been if it had.
I hope I’d have reacted like Alice, Betty’s level headed twenty-something granddaughter, who accompanies a post-diagnosis Betty to a euthanasia support group, and then later speaks for her when the time comes to inform the family of Betty’s decision to end her own life. Not having Betty speak for herself is an unusual dramatic choice for such a pivotal scene, but one that is grounded in reality. As Alice notes, heightened emotions exacerbate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and let’s face it, there are few situations more likely to heighten emotions than telling your family you plan to die by your own hand.
That announcement is made in the second episode, and the remainder of the series deals with the impact of Betty’s decision on her extended family. Each episode focuses on a different family member as they process the news and also deal with their own issues, including a surprise pregnancy, mental illness, substance abuse and a closeted same-sex relationship. It’s a lot, as the kids say, but The Pact knits together all these strands with impressive dexterity. A terminal prognosis or, as in this case, an impending assisted death, has a way of upending lives and spurring action – whether that be a long-delayed coming out or a fall into a booze-and-pills bender.
Of these, the pregnancy storyline is perhaps the most emotionally compelling, and not just because it focuses on Alice (a standout Timmie Cameron, one of the stars of Three’s The Gulf). The right to an abortion has obvious parallels to the rights claimed by euthanasia advocates, and in an early scene Alice and Betty rehash the “my body, my choice” arguments as Alice decides what to do. Then, as the pregnancy progresses, the relationship between death and new life becomes increasingly relevant as the end of Betty’s life ticks ever closer.
As the show’s name implies, Betty’s death is only half of the story, and it’s here that one of its weaknesses reveals itself. This is a huge amount of story for six 23 minute episodes to cover, and the storylines – and the show’s timeline – can feel rushed, with huge, literal life-or-death decisions playing out in just a couple of scenes. That’s especially true of one of the titular pacts, a shocking decision that is come to in the space of one brief scene. Even odder is the subsequent dinner-table announcement to the rest of the family, who barely bat an eyelid at a choice that is far harder to comprehend than Betty’s original one.
While the creators of The Pact say they hope this series will “start conversations” about euthanasia, it seems obvious on which side of the debate they come down. The series appears to make a clear argument in favour of assisted dying, not just in cases of terminal illness, but in any case in which someone chooses to end their own life because of suffering – situations far beyond those that will become legal under the End of Life Choice Act, which comes into effect next month. Under the new law, a prognosis of death within six months will be needed to qualify for euthanasia, and the act itself may only be carried out with the assistance of a medical practitioner – neither of which conditions apply to the voluntary deaths dealt with here. It should be pointed out, too, that while The Pact airs some of the emotional arguments against euthanasia – that it’s selfish, or too painful for loved ones – no attention is paid to the even more knotty human rights arguments against it, specifically around disability and mental illness.
For all that, though, The Pact has much to recommend it, from the performances (including a twinkly-eyed Ian Mune as granddad Frank) to Eden Mulholland’s lovely score. It’s a brave and unusual piece of television, and one that I hope is widely watched, despite its tough subject matter – because try as we might to ignore it, the end of life is going to happen to us all.
The Pact explores topics that are hard to deal with alone. Links to support organisations and tools – including how to create an advanced care directive – can be found on the support page of the programme maker’s website.