[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Good Doctor” Season 2, Episode 9, “Empathy.”]
“The Good Doctor” tackled its thorniest storytelling challenge yet with an episode that asks its characters — and viewers — to sympathize with a pedophile. However, “Empathy” sought to make a strong distinction between a person who is suffering from the psychiatric disorder of pedophilia and those who actually molest children.
Distressed patient George Reynolds (Tyler Ritter) is reluctantly attracted to children, but he never acts on those urges and is doing everything possible to eliminate those feelings and behaviors that could endanger kids. Initially, Dr. Morgan Reznik (Fiona Gubelman) treats him as if he were a criminal, whereas Dr. Claire Browne (Antonia Thomas) sees George as having monstrous desires, but he himself is not a monster. However, he is worried the desires will someday make him become one.
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Even for “The Good Doctor,” this is a bold storyline. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders draws a distinction between those with the disorder and those who actually abuse children. Real-life support groups like Virtuous Pedophiles liken the urge of pedophilia to any sexual preference — being born straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or otherwise, with people unable to choose or change their urges. Nevertheless, they acknowledge this inborn trait is morally wrong and have no intention of acting on it. To further complicate matters, many people who actually do molest children may not even be pedophiles but have other issues – such as they were also victims of abuse.
Many psychiatrists won’t take on these cases because they are obliged to report patients they feel present a risk to others. The stigma attached to this paraphilia is so strong that most people do not get the help they need. “The Good Doctor” demonstrates what many people do instead: handle the problem in increasingly dangerous ways. George first goes on anti-androgens, which depress the sexual urge, but also cause him to have a stroke. When he’s taken off them, he mutilates himself to try to kill the urge.
“I’m not a monster. I never touched anyone, any child,” he says. “My sister and I were always best friends, but then she had children. If I can’t keep taking the drugs, I had to do this.”
When self-injury fails, he asks the doctors to castrate him, but that is itself a dilemma because it’s stated that hospitals cannot ethically remove healthy organs to prevent crimes. Dr. Neil Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez) compares it to amputating the hands of a kleptomaniac. George can only seek out psychological help, but this isn’t a clean enough solution for him because he will still have urges.
In the end, George decides to kill himself and steps in front of a moving vehicle. Even for a show that has lost patients before, it’s a shocking move because usually the deaths result from a medical failing after the doctors have done their best. But George’s death by suicide shows a failing on the part of education because he cannot imagine living happily with such deviance.
Usually, the marginalized person is a vehicle for inspiration on the show, but a simple happy ending that had George going into therapy would not have the same impact. Society’s condemnation is too great and the stakes are too high.
In George’s case, true empathy never was truly achieved. The doctors see he’s unhappy, but they underestimate his desperation even though he’s escaped from the hospital and hurt himself before. While they are not at fault for his suicide, they didn’t see the depth of his self-loathing and fear. It was simply too difficult for them to understand what he was going through because of the horrifying nature of these unwanted urges.
This might also be an insurmountable hurdle for viewers at home, and since George’s storyline is just one of three main plots in the episode, the nuances of the life and problems of a moral pedophile could only be lightly touched upon, but at least the subject has been broached to inspire further conversation and research.
And yet, the show itself demonstrates an empathy that its characters lacked. The episode makes an effort to make George as sympathetic as possible: Played by Tyler Ritter, son of the late John Ritter and brother to Jason Ritter, he has a familiar and likable face. “The Good Doctor” is known for inclusive storytelling that embraces underrepresented groups, and these virtuous pedophiles fall into one of the most invisible groups of all.
”The Good Doctor” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.