Able Gaze

Being a not-so-brief review of Netflix’s “End Game,” which, as a terminal cancer survivor, I found vile

Patrick Koske-McBride
6 min readFeb 25, 2020

Let’s say you wanted to make a film about parenting and raising children. Great. But, let’s say you spent the first twenty minutes showing (and discussing) labor, with the ending shot of a child’s umbilical cord getting cut. Then you fast-forward to that same child coming back from college to do the laundry, and spend the rest of the film following them around Freshman orientation. Have you made a film about parents and children, or did you just film and edit the easiest-to-make, most-obvious aspects of it?

That’s the essential break-down, in terms of time, that Netflix’s odious End Game spends with the subject matter (it’s extremely possible I’m completely in the wrong here; it was nominated for a short-subject piece, and, as someone who this topic applies to, it’s not like I’m a disinterested and subjective observer). They are, of course, hindered by the fact that death is still a somewhat taboo topic, and tickets to and from the afterlife are in somewhat short supply, so they focus on those of us in line to depart. It’s not an illogical decision. The baffling part is that it diligently spends most of the film’s run-time ignoring the subjects in favor of focusing on the destination (which is, again, unknowable). The film “follows” several terminal cancer patients, but, in doing so, somehow manages to objectify and dehumanize us in a way that Mitch McConnell could only envy (I’ve talked with a few other terminal cancer patients about this film; not surprisingly, no one’s a fan).

Warning ahead of time, because I’ll be discussing “Male Gaze,” and I might veer into man-splaining territory, because it’s a concept that’s very applicable to this film. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, “Male Gaze” is simply the visual arts practice of reducing women to a bunch of aesthetically pleasing body parts that appeal to heterosexual men’s more-prurient aspects. For the definitive visual definition, watch M. Bay’s awful Transformers movies. If the thought of spending several hours sitting through awful, unconvincing CG mayhem doesn’t appeal, you can just fast-forward to the parts where there is a woman on-screen. The camera caresses them almost as much as Bay wants to. You could go away from these films under the impression that women are made up entirely of breasts, thighs, butts, and sexy pouty lips, like some horrible, sexual version of a KFC chicken bucket.

We need to borrow this concept and apply it to the disabled. “Able gaze” is any presentation of sick, disabled, or ill people that reduces us to a diagnosis or prognosis, and minimizes who we actually are. In an extreme hypothetical scenario, it would be a documentary on the Special Olympics that opens and ends every scene with a shot of a wheelchair, and opens every interview with the question, “How does it feel not to be able to walk?”

End Game is not that bad, but it’s close. It “follows” two cancer patients; one of whom has (likely) some form of end-stage brain cancer. Hey, my tribe! I should be into this, right? Except she’s clearly in cognitive decline, and doesn’t speak English as a first language, she’s bald, suffering from cachexia, and, apart from flashing the subtitles “Secretly a lizard person” on the bottom or putting a bag on her head, it’s hard to imagine a more demonizing portrayal of cancer survivors. I get that the film-maker’s intent was to portray the dying process as a lengthy process and death not necessarily as the terrifying end that we see it as. The only problem is, that would require accurately portraying her in health, her decline, her current situation, and who she is, now. And that’s not possible in a 40 minute run-time that focuses on the more sensationalist aspects of dying.

They have a physician with only one functioning limb (If you’re asking, “Why wouldn’t they spend more time with the nurses, family members, and people who actually see this woman on a regular basis, rather than the member of the medical team who might check on her for maybe 30-ish minutes a day?” Let me just remind you, HE HAS ONE LIMB! Count ‘em! Able gaze!) who literally gets more screen-time than this poor woman and her family. Even though he has some great, fascinating insights about death, it is a 40-minute documentary, so any nuanced conversation or analysis is right out. LOOK AT HIM CLIMBING STAIRS WITH HIS PROSTHETIC LIMBS.

Instead of trying to get clear answers to important questions like, “Do you, yourself, feel as if life is worth continuing at this point,” the film-makers substitute family squabbles about whether to intubate this poor woman. That’s the red-flag in documentary-making right there. Once a person is intubated, talking is something of a difficulty, to say the least. If you’re actually interested in interviewing and humanizing your subjects, an inability to talk or communicate would normally be seen as a hindrance.

There is a uterine cancer survivor in a hospice who elects to undergo chemo… Who dies before she can undergo treatment. We know this because she has five minutes in the film, and appears as a foot-note in the epilogue (as does another woman). By dint of being a mere 40 minutes long and tackling the weightiest, most-discussed topic in human history (death and dying), the film does its subject matter an amazing disservice. I get that audiences today want 30-second TikTok videos, but this subject is just too vast to cover in an A&E Special run-time. And, as I saw, anything less than that is a disservice to terminal disease patients, because it leaves all the important, critical aspects of dying on the editing bay floor.

“…A terminal diagnosis is not a sentence, but the beginning of a process that may take years to unfold, containing love, hope, generosity and kindness, alongside the inevitable sorrow and loss” — Rachel Clarke

This film shows only three words from that quote (“inevitable,” “sorrow,” and “loss”). When discussing terminal cancer patients, we need to discuss Able Gaze as anything that minimizes our impact on the world, or treats the end as if it’s an inevitable, foregone conclusion. Treating us as if we’re already gone, BTW, is a universal, absolute no-no when interacting with cancer survivors. At a cancer support group once, Wendy said that some friends of the family referred to her in the past tense, and it really hurt her. I had the same experience during treatment where someone — probably accidentally — referred to me in the past tense, and it hurt like hell. We spend so many of our waking hours worrying about our health and living with the specter of death hovering over us — in many cases, we really do have to consciously ignore that aspect of our existence — that a documentary that minimizes portrayals of us and the (usually extended) journey into the Great Beyond in favor of funeral money shots is unnecessarily cruel. We know we’re dying, we are very much aware of that. And we lose so much agency and self-determination when our physician asks if we’re comfortable, removing what little is left by downplaying the last agency we might have — possibly choosing when and how to die (“Medically-assisted suicide and/or death with dignity laws? That would be an extra two whole minutes” I can almost hear this film’s director saying), or by not examining that precious balance of life between hearing the words “Stage 4” and “With loving memories,” it makes survivors into props, and doesn’t help us figure out how to make more of our remaining time. It just serves as suffering porn.

Hey there, sorry for randomly messaging you. It’s just that I came across the #glioblastoma, and your post appeared.

I was recently diagnosed with this condition, too, and honestly I’m afraid as I’ve been Googling so much and everything online just don’t seem to show good news.

But seeing as to how you’ve been a long term survivor, I am more optimistic. Thank you so much.



Patrick Koske-McBride

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”