[The following contains spoilers from “The Good Doctor” episode, “Islands, Part 1.”]
Monday’s episode of “The Good Doctor” was one wild ride, literally, as Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) goes on a road trip with his neighbor Lea (Paige Spara). The impromptu journey out of town parallels his own experience of trying new things that range from driving a car and getting drunk to singing karaoke and enjoying his very first kiss.
But just as he’s riding the high from the successful, stress-relieving trip, Lea drops a bombshell: she’s going to quit her job and move so she can follow her passion of restoring old cars. The news does not sit well with Shaun, and he runs away again, but this time, he’s alone.
The character of Lea has been an intriguing one from the start. As his neighbor, Lea has been the one person who is solely in his world and not associated with his mentor Dr. Glassman (Richard Schiff). Throughout the first 11 episodes, she’s been set up to simultaneously be a possible love interest and someone who can introduce Shaun to more typical aspects of life outside of medicine and beyond his limited experiences as an individual with autism. The road trip accomplishes both goals, and it’s clear that Lea has a positive influence on him.
Although Lea plans on leaving, this doesn’t feel like goodbye. Given the friendship the show has built up between them, in addition to the fact that this is only “Part 1” of a two-parter, we’re guessing that she’s sticking around in some capacity. Even if she doesn’t, her character could be inspiration for Shaun to visit another city. And while it’s been enlightening and encouraging to see Shaun take his first steps into dating, the episode made a case against him entering into a romance… for now anyway.
For one, the strength of Lea’s influence on Shaun is at odds with his ability to deal with disappointment and disillusionment. Looking back at his history, Shaun was turned off by any whiff of romance after a disastrous teenage prank by a pretty girl left him humiliated. This is not an uncommon experience among people with autism, who have difficulty understanding other people’s motives and reading emotions.
If anything, the episode made the argument of why Shaun absolutely needs an aide. While Lea is not a trained professional, she fulfills that role for him on the road trip, translating the world, giving him a comforting and calming presence so that he feels safe to try new things, and most of all, walking him through typical interactions. If the show is somehow able to keep her character in San Jose, maybe she can fill this role in a limited capacity. Although, if she was his therapist in any way, that would require training and not getting involved with Shaun romantically.
Although the episode ends on a down note, the biggest takeaway is just how much Shaun has grown in the space of that trip. While his experiences at the hospital have also been instrumental in his growth as a professional, his personal life has been given short shrift.
Both Lea and Dr. Claire Browne (Antonia Thomas) have been instrumental in demystifying male-female interactions for Shaun, and thus, it would be good for him to build up his relationship fluency and confidence in that arena before diving straight into a romance. On the flip side, the audience can learn more about how people with autism navigate romance.
Already, the show has eliminated at least two preconceived notions about people with autism. Firstly, not all people on the spectrum are averse to touch. We’ve seen Shaun be embraced willingly on the show, and of course prompted by Lea, he kissed her. Also, “The Good Doctor” has also demonstrated that potential partners for people with autism do not have to be on the spectrum themselves, but can be neuro-typical.
Also of note is how both Lea and Claire demonstrate strength in the episode. While Lea takes charge of the road trip and makes a major life decision, on her own Claire figures out a way to deal with the man who sexually harassed her at the hospital. For while the show has been focused mainly on Shaun’s evolution, the series had made a point to represent other marginalized or underrepresented people in empowering ways, and besides a diverse cast, the women’s stories have been particularly powerful.
Meanwhile, in this episode’s case of the week, two female conjoined twins make a huge decision to take a step towards physical independence despite high risks. Their story will continue in “Part 2.”
“The Good Doctor” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.