Character Development: Scrubs and Vulnerability
I don’t mean to be cynical when I say: people don’t change.
Because it’s simply not true: people change and grow and evolve every single day. We constantly learn new things and explore new cultures; with globalization alone it’s impossible to not be aware of what’s going on in the world.
Rather, people don’t change from one day to the next, and that’s okay. It’s human. Our personalities we were born with can be difficult to write over, and that’s without taking into account factors such as: our education, family issues, trauma, society, and more added on top. These elements influence our being, changing the shape of our essence without a means to go back.
This is why we tell stories. Human flaws and growth take on a whole new meaning with the promise of a neatly tied ending. Positive character development — a person learning a lesson for the better by the end of the story — tends to take the forefront in most media we consume. There are examples of negative character development (which doesn’t mean the story is badly-written), but positive journeys sit better with audiences.
One of my favorite examples of a realistic character development is Doctor Percival Cox from the medical show, Scrubs. His personality is stubborn to a fault, no-nonsense, direct in his words and actions, critical of others but most of all himself, hiding most of his feelings behind sarcasm and anger. One of his main traits is self-reliance bordering on loneliness; he tends to never accept the help of those around him, pushing them away in an effort to seem strong and independant.
The series takes its time teaching Doctor Cox the lesson that: it’s okay to ask people for help. And I believe the slow pace with which this lesson is passed on reflects a growth similar to that in real life.
In the season one episode “My Day Off,” we’re introduced to Doctor Benson, former Chief of Medicine and someone who Doctor Cox considers his mentor. After being admitted as a patient in his old hospital, Benson remarks that one of his biggest disappointments is Cox himself, stating that if he played the beaurocracy game now and then, he would be able to move up the ladder in the hospital and make some changes. While Doctor Cox seems like an authority figure due to his domineering personality, the truth is he’s just one more employee in a long chain of doctors who answer to the Chief of Medicine.
This is the first dose of reality for Doctor Cox, a character who, up until this point, we’ve seen as infallible and unshakeable.
In season two, the episode “My Case Study”, Doctor Cox is critical of the interns who are desperate to find the most interesting case in order to submit a report that would earn them an all-expenses-paid trip to a conference in Reno. He claims to be impressed with J.D. when he seemingly doesn’t “jump through Kelso’s hoops like the rest of these peons.”
His patient and board member, Mrs. Warner, is similar to him. She admires and likes him for not sucking up to her like the rest of the doctors, and even offers to put in a good word for him, which Cox refuses. After finding the most interesting case in the hospital, J.D. rebuffs Cox’s criticism when he states that he wants “to be like you [Cox], but a more succesful you.” The episode ends with Doctor Cox silently asking Mrs. Warner to make a phone call that would benefit his career.
While at first it was his mentor who berated him, this time it’s resident J.D. who shakes Doctor Cox down to his core and helps him realize that asking for favors isn’t shameful, even when it brings about personal gain.
Lastly, in the season three episode “My Lucky Night,” Doctor Cox shows interest in the Residency Director position, rejecting help from his wife, Jordan, who works on the board of directors. At the same time, J.D. asks him for a letter of recommendation in order to apply for a fellowship.
“…the only way to be respected as a doctor, nay, respected as a man, is to be an island. You are born alone, you damn sure die alone.”
While he agrees to play the game and attends a meet-and-greet to shmooze up the rest of the directors, we’re shown that, once again, Cox hates asking for help.
By the end of the episode, J.D. writes his own letter of recommendation but not before reproaching Doctor Cox by insisting that he “can’t make me [J.D.] feel guilty for asking for help. That’s just the way the world works.” He then confronts Cox, stating that it’s not help he doesn’t want, but is instead too scared to put himself out there and be vulnerable. The episode ends with Cox asking Jordan for help for the position, and her smiling in return, echoing what J.D. said about people being all too happy to help those around them.
So far, in the first three seasons, the series has Doctor Cox learn over and over again that, in order to move up the ladder in his career, he must put aside his own pride and let himself be vulnerable by asking for help. The people who’ve convinced him are those who have been closest to him: his mentor, J.D., and Jordan.
By the time we reach season eight (the final season, we can all agree season nine isn’t canonical), he tackles being Chief of Medicine whilst also juggling seeing his patients, taking care of his son, etc. In the episode “My Lawyer’s in Love,” the problem isn’t that Doctor Cox refuses to be vulnerable when tackling so many issues, rather it’s about him learning to let things go in order to live a stress-free life, realizing that his new responsibilities mean he must now delegate to others.
In the end, it’s okay that Doctor Cox doesn’t change straightaway. We see throughout the course of several seasons how he tries to open up and be vulnerable whilst remaining true to himself. In essence, he never changes, but simply tweaks that prideful part of him as a way to be closer to those who care about him.
Funnily enough, there are other moments in which he asks for help but the series doesn’t make a big show of it, unlike my previous examples.
What Scrubs teaches us with Doctor Cox is that: vulnerability and growth is a process. It doesn’t happen over night, it doesn’t always stick when we take a step forward, and it’s okay if we regress to our older, more comfortable selves. What’s important it to have a strong support network of loved ones who will point out our mistakes and, most importantly, will be there by our sides when we struggle with personal improvement.
We’re no Superman.
Mika is a Mexican writer and translator, pretender, pet-lover, and a mess at 1 in the morning.