My essay about Captain Elliott Nesse, personal drama, and capitalism as appeared on, April 23, 2013.

Rare Op-Ed: Lost At Sea

Last Tuesday Deadliest Catch—the addictive Discovery channel show about crab fisherman—appeared to have beached one of its skippers.  As US Weekly noted, the previews for season nine did not include Elliott Nesse, the youngest captain in the fleet, and producers kept up the mystery of his whereabouts until the last few minutes of the debut episode.

It turns out that Elliott is lagging behind in the harbor but still intending to fish the season—this time not only as captain, but also as owner of the F/V Saga.

It is unlikely that a more apt name has ever been given to a ship. It is as though the vessel gives materiality to the personal melodrama and dashed professional fortunes that have been Nesse’s trademarks.

Last season Nesse posted poor fishing numbers, having made repeated big bets on fishing grounds that did not pay out in much needed crab.

In addition to ranking at the bottom of the fleet’s crab count, Nesse scraped bottom in his personal life. Thrown out of his home (on camera) by his long-time girlfriend, forbidden to see their two children, subject to a restraining order, and forced to cut short a fishing expedition in order to attend a custody hearing, Captain Elliott Nesse has had “saga” emblazoned all over him metaphorically well before it was tattooed on his ship’s prow.

If Deadliest Catch were to stage one of those yearbook-style elections, Elliott would surely be the frontrunner for “Most Difficult to Watch.”

Let’s be clear.  Deadliest Catch is a show is full of flawed protagonists: recovered alcoholics, sibling rivals, absentee fathers, terrible terrible managers, decks full of mariners who toss out immature challenges the likes of which used to be reserved for the baddie popular kids in John Hughes movies. (Seriously: In this season’s debut, one crewman ate a live hermit crab. On another ship, a deck boss chewed the head off a raw herring.)

But none has been so hard to watch as Elliott Nesse, the captain perhaps too flawed to face Mother Nature’s fury with a boatload of his own personal baggage and yet prevail.

Still, when it seemed he wouldn’t be back this season, my heart sank.  In the end, I always find myself rooting for Elliott, perched on the edge of my couch fingers-crossed.

The fascination is not reducible to the sheer train wreck factor of Neese’s storyline. Rather, I find myself rapt by the rawness of his ambition, the tenaciousness with which he holds onto his vision for success even when the world is literally crashing down around him in swells of both personal humiliation and of the Bering Sea.

In the wheelhouse with Elliot, viewers feel a different kind of risk than we do aboard the other ships. No doubt every crew in the Deadliest Catch fleet can and will make you wince at the physical risks of being a crab fisherman. But Elliot makes us acutely feel the risks of capitalism, the risk to his reputation and to his relationships as well as to his bottom line. Without a family boat to inherit, this go-round the young ship owner shoulders his ambitions so leveraged that he will also risk bankruptcy.

This season I expect the Saga and her captain will troll the territory between the virtue of hard work and the price of workaholism, between the drive to succeed and driving loved ones away, between the confidence to bet on oneself straight down the line and the foolhardiness of youth.

In the past, viewers have watched Elliott Nesse risk and lose things that really mattered to him, all in the pursuit of the better version of himself that he refuses to give up on.

Continuing with tonight’s episode, I suspect we will watch him weigh anchor and do it again.

L. Kenna is a pop culture historian in Washington, DC.

Originally published at