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Series / Dr. Death

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Bad. Medicine.
"He's either the most incompetent surgeon I've ever crossed paths with ... or he's a sociopath, and he's doing all of this on purpose."
Dr. Robert Henderson

Based on a 2018 Wondery podcast of the same name, Dr. Death is a 2021 eight-part true crime/medical drama hybrid Peacock mini-series, which stars Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, and AnnaSophia Robb. It tells the true story of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a former neurosurgeon who, in 2017, made history as the first surgeon to go to prison for his poor outcomes.

In 2011, Christopher Duntsch (Jackson), a confident young spinal neurosurgeon, sets up shop in Dallas-Fort Worth after training at the University of Tennessee. With glowing recommendations and an impressive list of research accolades, Duntsch wows employers, and seems to be destined for greatness. However, not everyone is impressed, as Duntsch's ego immediately irks many of his colleagues. But it soon becomes clear that Dallas has a much bigger problem than a megalomaniac physician: Duntsch's patients begin suffering devastating, nigh-unheard of complications on what should be routine surgeries, up to and including quadriplegia and death. Finally, Drs. Randall Kirby (Slater) and Robert Henderson (Baldwin)—two surgeons who have seen enough of Duntsch's carnage—join forces with the ambitious young Assistant District Attorney Michelle Shughart (Robb), hoping to stop him before he kills or cripples another patient.

The show tells its story nonlinearly, jumping between Duntsch's time playing football at the University of Colorado, his training years, his disastrous tenure operating in Dallas, Kirby's and Henderson's investigation, and finally, Duntsch's trial. All throughout, the show invites the viewer to wonder just why Duntsch did what he did, but never suggests one explanation as the "right" one: instead, it lets viewers decide for themselves what they think Duntsch's pathology most likely was.

An accompanying documentary series, Dr. Death: the Undoctored Story, is also on Peacock and features interviews with the people portrayed in this show.

Dr. Death contains examples of:

  • Abandon the Disabled: Ordinarily, when a surgery goes awry, the surgeon is expected to personally break the news to the patient. Duntsch abandons his patients as soon as they're out of the OR. He does this in an especially cruel way to Jerry, after leaving him a quadriplegic.
  • Army of Lawyers: Dr. Skadden, Duntsch's former mentor, literally surrounds himself with one when Michelle Shughart visits him in Memphis.
  • Bail Equals Freedom: Duntsch thinks so, and the prosecution is worried that he might be right: getting out on bail could buy him enough time to set up shop somewhere else and keep maiming people.
  • Being Evil Sucks: In the end, Duntsch destroys everything he's ever worked for. His girlfriend and his mistress both leave him after seeing how vile he is, he loses custody of his son, his friendships are all destroyed, his reputation is in ruins, his once-promising research is abandoned, and finally, he ends up serving a life sentence.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Duntsch is sent away for life but the damage he did can never be undone and the people he maimed or whose loved ones he caused the deaths of still have to live with the effects of his actions. And the hopelessly broken medical system which allowed him to get away with it is still in place. The final line of the epilogue outright says that what happened with Duntsch will happen again.
  • Bloody Horror: When Duntsch's patients begin hemorrhaging, the camera focuses on the blood. During Duntsch's first botched surgery at Baylor, he nicks an artery, resulting in a spray of blood soaking himself and the assisting surgeon in the face.
  • Body Horror: Lots and lots of it. The show doesn't hold back at all from showing just how horrific Duntsch's surgeries were and the gruesome effects they had.
  • Brooklyn Rage: The Chief of Surgery at Dallas Medical Center is from the Bronx and loudly and profanely berates Dunstch, who only has temporary privileges at the hospital, for trying to throw his weight around.
  • Buddy Cop Show: There's no better way to describe the dynamic between Kirby and Henderson. They're even fighting crime.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Dozens of people see firsthand what Duntsch is capable of, but nobody does anything to decisively stop the madness. Doctors refuse to work with him, his nurses quit, and hospitals oust him, but this just leaves him free to set up shop elsewhere and keep butchering patients.
  • C.A.T. Trap: Jerry is already distraught after his surgery, but he really breaks down when he goes into an MRI machine.
  • Composite Character:
    • The show's portrayal of Randall Kirby is a combination of the real Kirby and R. Mark Hoyle, another vascular surgeon who worked with Dunstch's in the operating room and later testified against him. Hoyle still has a role in the series, but it's reduced to one scene in the OR, with Kirby assuming Hoyle's entire role in the courtroom.
    • Robert Henderson in the series is a combination of the real Henderson, who tirelessly campaigned to end Dunstch's medical career, and Dr. Martin Lazar, who provided expert testimony during the trial to explain how Dunstch botched his surgical procedures.
    • Josh Baker represents multiple medical professionalsnote  who saw Duntsch's work and tried to put a stop to him.
    • Kayla Gibson was distilled from various people who knew with Duntsch during medical school and residencynote . Her relationship with Duntsch exists to foreshadow Duntsch's abuse of Wendy and Kim.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: Duntsch gets on Kirby's radar precisely because they have vastly differing specialties, orthopedics and vascular, respectively. Some spinal surgeries require access through the front of the body rather than the back. Orthopedic surgeons, however, lack the training to get to the spine through all the organs so they bring on vascular surgeons to clear the way, so to speak. Kirby came into assist Duntsch, thinking everything would be routine only to get an up-close look at Duntsch's horrifying behavior in the operating room.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Two of Duntsch's patients die after he slices their vertebral arteries, leading one to bleed out and rendering another brain-dead.
  • Determined Doctor: Kirby and Henderson are a new take on this trope: when they get tired of treating Duntsch's patients after he's already butchered them, they go to the law to protect the public from his "care."
  • Digital Deaging: Joshua Jackson is deaged to play Duntsch as a college student.
  • Dr. Feelgood: As a resident, Duntsch runs a side hustle writing prescriptions for ADHD meds.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Duntsch's drug habit starts out innocently enough—he actually conceives a novel idea for treating spinal degeneration while he's on LSD—but unfortunately he also gets high in the operating room. By the time he's practicing independently, his drug use is presented in an entirely negative light.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Henderson and Kirby each get one that highlights their differences in personality and sets them up as Foil for each other. Both are introduced performing surgery and seem similarly knowledgeable and experienced, but Henderson conducts himself very staidly and seriously, whereas Kirby is joking around with his staff and seems almost casual about the whole thing.
  • Everything Is Big in Texas: Again and again, from shoutout to Dallas, to Kirby's character, to the way in which "Big Baylor" Medical Center markets itself.
  • For Science!: Duntsch tries to rationalize his actions by saying that he needs the money that he'll make from surgery to fund his research. However, his lavish spending, and the fact that he never enters a lab once he's done with residency, might make one doubt his sincerity.
  • Freudian Excuse: Averted. The show is full of vignettes from Duntsch's youth, but it never suggests that anything in particular made Duntsch into what he became.
  • Gallows Humor: After reading one of Duntsch's poems, Kirby snarks that he may actually be a worse poet than a surgeon.
  • Gaslighting: Duntsch uses his charm to convince a patient that her operation went wonderfully, and even gets her to record a testimonial for him. He didn't fix her pain, and actually left a sponge in her incision, but he convinces her that it was a suture. At least she's more or less as healthy after the operation as she was before it; by Duntsch's standards, this was a pretty good outcome.
  • Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Averted. Chris is an asshole, but his public defender is a decent person who's just stuck with a delusional lunatic of a client. She refuses to defend Chris's indefensible actions in court, and instead argues that he was poorly trained, never should've practiced in the first place, and that the tragedy came about thanks to flaws that were Inherent in the System. She (almost) convinces him that he won't get his medical license back and will worsen his situation if he keeps trying.
  • Greed: Duntsch is the worst culprit here, but he isn't alone. Hospitals hire him because as a neurosurgeon he might bring in lots of revenue, and they let him resign instead of firing him when he threatens to sue them.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: Duntsch's behavior, both personal and professional, is actually toned down for the series,
    • As nasty as his treatment of Wendy is in the show, it was even worse in real life. The show omits the worst of it, such as a time when he beat her so badly while she was pregnant that she needed to go to the emergency room, or an incident after they'd separated when he drunkenly broke into her apartment and was found covered in blood and bruises while holding a knife and gun with a ransom note written in blood nearby.
    • The screenwriters treat Duntsch's research pursuits as legitimate, and portray his interest in biology as his sole redeeming trait. In reality, Duntsch's colleagues at Discgenicsnote  have recalled him as a lazy drunkard whose only job was wining and dining prospective investors, and in an interview with Christian Slater, the real Randall Kirby said that he reviewed Duntsch's research and found to be either plagiarized or nonsensical.
  • Hookers and Blow: At least Strippers and Blow. Jerry loves this, and he gets Duntsch to join him in Memphis. It's how Duntsch meets Wendy.
  • Imagine Spot: In "An Occurrence at Randall Kirby's", Henderson imagines how he might confront Duntsch and knock him out before deciding on a more prudent course of action.
  • Inherent in the System: Downplayed. Duntsch was doubtlessly enabled by Texas's medical-legal systemnote , by hospitals that tried to avoid scandal by letting him resign, and by a residency that let him focus on research while neglecting proper surgical training. However, as Henderson points out, Duntsch's surgeries were so catastrophic that he should have recognized his own inadequacy and stopped operating.
  • The Intern: Much of the show focuses on Duntsch's training years.
  • Loophole Abuse: A recurring theme is how big institutions bent the rules to protect their reputations, at the public's expense. Every hospital that Duntsch works at lets him resign instead of firing or suspending himnote .
  • Mad Doctor: The show is called "Dr. Death," after all.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Maybe this is a good thing." First Betts says it to Duntsch in regards to his losing his football scholarship, then many years later, Duntsch's father says it to him in regards to him losing his medical license. Both football and medicine are things Duntsch has devoted years of his life to and tried again and again to be accomplished at with no success, but while being forced out of the first one isn't too significant, losing his license will inevitably save lives.
  • Meat Grinder Surgery: Duntsch's surgeries are gruesome, his strategies and choices of equipment are bizarre, and every onlooker in his operating rooms is horrified watching him work.
    • He mistakes part of a patient's neck muscle for a tumor, cuts the muscle out for a biopsy, aborts the surgery without having even attempted the cervical repair that he'd promised the patient, and then sews the patient back up... with a sponge still inside. The patient develops a life-threatening infection. Kirby, who is called in to salvage things, likens the surgery to an "attempted murder."
    • He embeds surgical hardware, that was supposed to go into bone, in muscle. Henderson and Kirby point out that this mistake is just as unbelievable in a human body as it would be in a T-bone steak.
    • Instead of cutting a disc with a scalpel, he tries to yank it out with a surgical pliers. Kirby compares this to cutting up a pizza with a pliers instead of a pizza slicer.
    • Another disc surgery sees him amputating a nerve root, leaving the patient's left leg paralyzed.
    • When Henderson performs a revision surgery on one of Duntsch's patients, he notes (with disbelief) the mess Duntsch made, including the dura mater (protective sheath around the spinal cord) dissected, offering no protection to the nerves. Ligaments cut and just hanging loose, bone fragments piercing nerves and otherwise messily smashed into the spinal canal "like putty".
  • Medicine Show: Duntsch creates a slick infomercial for himself, complete with a testimonial from one of his less-disastrous patients.
  • Men Can't Keep House: After Wendy leaves Duntsch, his once-luxurious suburban home becomes a pigsty, reflecting his mental decline. When she later stops by to pick up their son, she's disgusted by the squalor.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Many. The Texas Medical Board refuses to act after hearing Kirby's and Henderson's testimony, and hospital executives who hired Duntsch try to cover their mistake with legal red tape.
  • Pride Before a Fall: Duntsch's entire arc.
  • Race Lift: Mostly notably Josh, but also a number of Duntsch's patients. The names are changed and the races are reshuffled.
    • One of the most memorable moments during Duntsch's trial is when one patient, a black man who is a recovering addict, remarks that he could tell that Duntsch was "high as a kite" in the clinic. These exact words were said during the real trial, but the real patient in question, Barry Morguloff, is white.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Many are delivered, mostly to Chris by virtually everyone in his life. But he isn't the only one to get these.
    • Dr. Kirby, true to form, delivers one every time he meets a person or an institution that in some way enabled Duntsch's madness.
    • Josh chews Dr. Henderson out at a fancy dinner for giving into the medical bureaucracy and abandoning the Duntsch case once things got difficult. It's just Henderson's imagination, but it persuades Henderson to stop working with the Texas Medical Board and get law enforcement involved.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Randall Kirby is hot-blooded and wants to use an emotional argument in his push to stop Duntsch. Robert Henderson is much more sedate and takes a more measured approach to the situation by collecting evidence and testimony so that a case can be built.
  • Shout-Out: "An Occurrence at Randall Kirby's" features a title sequence inspired by the one used by Dallas.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Dr. Skadden, who trains neurosurgeons at the University of Tennessee, takes such a liking to Duntsch that he lets him skip crucial parts of surgical training to focus on his research, and looks the other way when Duntsch's drug and alcohol problems start getting noticed.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Duntsch believes this to a delusional degree; even when is reputation is shot and the law is closing in, he thinks that if he can get his medical license back, he'll be able to make enough money to get out of trouble.
  • Snobs Vs Slobs: Dr. Skadden attempts to invoke this by publicly comparing credentials with Drs. Kirby and Henderson, having just boasted about having gone to Harvard. Kirby proves to be a bad target as he's a graduate of Rice and Baylor, two of the best schools in the country, but Henderson provides a slight opening by being a graduate of the University of Nebraska. However, Henderson is unaffected by the snobberynote .
    Dr. Skadden: Go Cornhuskers!
  • Take That!: There are some jabs against how the Texas state government and lobbyists watered down malpractice laws to the point that lawyers won't even take civil cases because payout caps are so low. Former Governor Rick Perry is also called out for being in the sway of big business and not knowing much about government.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Kirby's eccentricity makes for entertaining TV, but it frustrates Henderson and Shughart a lot.
  • Tranquil Fury: Dr. Henderson's testimony at Duntsch's trial is scalding, but Baldwin delivers each word in a calm, graceful manner.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Duntsch keeps getting hired and attracting patients because of his charm.
  • Wardrobe Flaw of Characterization:
    • Duntsch is shown to be wearing scrubs with a large hole at the rear and Josh Baker says he's seen Duntsch wearing them on multiple occasions, indicating that Duntsch doesn't have the fastidious attention to detail and hygiene expected of a surgeon.
    • Jerry wears a pocket square in his shirt pocket, showing that he's unfamiliar with business dress.
    • Kirby almost always dresses more casually than one normally would in a given situation, showing his disdain for rules and procedures.
    • Kim dresses for her job interview with Duntsch as if it were a first date at a dive bar, showing her gold-digging tendencies.