I didn’t really like ER. “Goodbye,” yesterday’s Blackadder episode, almost had this spot until the very last re-order because of that fact, but I had to move this up after a final re-watch. I’m not saying the series is bad, in fact I can recognize that it’s a solid show that managed to snag some great actors, but it’s just never been my thing. I don’t know exactly why, because I have other hospital shows on here, but, there you go. It was not the show I watched while it was on. Despite the fact that I didn’t really like the show, I was told to watch this episode. I did. And then I had to watch every episode that led up to it in the series, then watch it again. This was only 19 episodes into the series, so it wasn’t particularly hard to do that. None of the episodes leading up to this one really showed the true potential of the show. This one showed it so hard that I’m almost tempted to watch the rest of the series. One day, I might. (Update: Got through 2 more seasons. Still didn’t love it. Dunno why.)
Some episodes on this list are “anti-episodes,” some are either the first or second episodes of the show that set the tone for the series, and some are gimmick episodes. This one just chooses to dive as deeply into its main character as any episode of television really can. However, that is more than enough.
ER was a medical drama about, you guessed it, the Emergency Room physicians at a Chicago hospital. It was created by ER veteran Michael Crichton and one of its writers Lance Gentile, the writer of this episode, was a former ER doctor. That gives a level of authority on medical practice that many medical shows didn’t have before ER. The fact that it was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment doesn’t hurt, either. This was 1995, so the combination of Spielberg and Crichton alone had some weight behind it.
The episode’s cold open wasn’t really much different than what ER usually started with. Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) and Dr. Doug Ross (George “I didn’t ruin Batman, Schumacher did” Clooney) are playing football in front of the hospital. A car almost hits Ross and dumps a man out before driving off. Following the man as he is brought in, the audience is shown the rest of the regular cast: Irritable Surgeon Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle); Brash but depressed Registered Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies); Young and hungry Med Student John Carter (Noah Wyle); Fellow Med Student Deb Chen (Ming-Na “I’m Mulan, b**ches” Wen); and meek but eager Resident Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield). While Greene operates on the man thrown from the car, Benton is dealing with his mother being in the ER for a fractured hip.
After getting out of the surgery, Greene is told that he’s going to be the new ER Attending Physician, a position he’s wanted for the season thus far. Benton is a nervous wreck because he is not being allowed in the surgery with his mother. He tries repeatedly to go in, but is barred by his superiors. As Greene does rounds, he meets the very pregnant Jodi O’Brien (Colleen Flynn) and her husband, Sean (Bradley Whitford). Jodi, who is almost painfully cheerful, has been frequently urinating, but gives no other symptoms. Greene quickly diagnoses a bladder infection and continues the rounds. Ross, meanwhile, is dealing with a teenager found passed out in a shed, whose father insists that his son was doing drugs. Greene and Ross quickly determine that the boy was actually poisoned by his father’s insecticides as he crashes, and Ross struggles to save him.
However, Sean returns, shouting for help, Jodi has started going into seizures in the car. Greene diagnoses pre-eclampsia, stabilizes her, and, rather than just turning her over to OB-GYN, decides he’s going to stay with her as much as possible. The couple’s obstetrician cannot make it, but Greene is confident that he can handle everything fine. He is notably almost casual about the situation. Jodi asks to deliver naturally, and Greene assents, even helping name the child at the couple’s request: Jared. As Jodi continues to have problems arise from her pregnancy, Greene continually fixes the problems with a calm detachment. However, the OB is still missing, so Greene determines that he has to deliver the baby.
Now, its emphasized in many medical shows that doctors deliver a lot of babies, and that it’s one of the more routine things done in a hospital. That doesn’t change the fact that childbearing and childbirth are two things that have killed more women than anything else in history. It’s dangerous, even now. (Especially in America, where your odds of dying from pregnancy/childbirth have been rising over the last 40-ish years. FUN!)
Greene tries to induce labor, but, after trying for a while, nothing is working, and the chief obstetrician still has not appeared. In a very graphic scene, Greene finds that the baby is stuck on the way out. They end up having to push the baby back in so they can do a C-section. Jodi’s pre-eclampsia seizure returns, and the urgency of the situation causes Deb, who is just watching, to overturn a surgical tray. Greene tells everyone to take a deep breath, but it is obvious by this time that he is unbelievably tense. Re-watching this scene as I write this, the sound effects and visuals are amplified, and despite the fast-paced music keeping the tension up, you can hear everything they’re having to do to this woman. The reaction of the observers is likely accurate.
As they manage to get the baby out, Jodi has an abruption, a very common (1 in 200 pregnancies) complication that is often exacerbated by pre-eclampsia. It causes her to start bleeding internally. When he’s finally out, the baby isn’t breathing. Greene leaves Jodi with the OR staff and focuses on bringing back the baby. He succeeds just as the OB head Dr. Coburn (Amy Aquino) finally arrives, criticizing his surgery as looking like he used a chainsaw, and telling him that he should have called for help if he knew he was in over his head. Greene attempts to talk to Sean, but he is unable to say what will happen with Jodi. Coburn lays into Greene further for his shoddy work, leading to him having a massive crisis of conscience over his errors. Jodi crashes again and dies. Greene refuses to stop trying to bring her back until everyone else in the room is just staring at him. He walks away silently, and goes up to see Sean and Baby Jared to deliver the news. When asked if he’s okay, Greene insists that he is fine, but then is shown breaking down as the episode ends.
The first key aspect of the episode is that it focuses almost exclusively on Greene. Prior to this, ER had been much more of an ensemble show, but this episode focuses only on his journey. The other plots are resolved, albeit negatively, within the first half of the show. This lets us focus upon what is happening to Greene, and why.
Hubris. The sin of Pride. Getting too big for your britches. Whatever you call it, it forms the basis of one of the oldest stories: A person being humbled. This episode is Greene being struck low by providence and his own decisions. At the beginning of the episode, he deals with the situation with supreme confidence, but as the episode goes on, we begin to see that confidence leave him, replaced with anger, confusion, guilt, and, ultimately, defeat. We are watching a man be broken by extraordinary circumstances. If you had watched the season up until now, you were aware that Greene’s confidence is completely earned. He’s an amazing doctor. When you need a physician, he would be the one you want beside you. I don’t feel like re-watching all of them, but I think that he never lost a patient in any episode leading into this.
Now, throughout the episode, you hardly ever hear Greene actually comment on how he feels about the situation. Instead, we have time-skips that show how it’s taking his toll on him. Full credit to Anthony Edwards, he absolutely conveys how much this is dragging him down. More than that, he shows us someone who hasn’t really felt what it’s like to try your hardest and fail. Throughout the episode, he is trying to make all the right decisions, but, even though a bunch of them end up being wrong, they were the best decisions he could make under pressure in a field that he doesn’t deal with much. That’s why it’s all the more horrifying when he is confronted with the decisions that lead to Jodi’s death: In retrospect, they were obviously leading down the wrong path. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jean-Luc Picard once said “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.” What’s appropriate is that the line is said to Lt. Data, someone that, like Dr. Greene, had previously bordered on infallible. Certainly, there had been things beyond both Data’s and Greene’s control that had allowed for bad things to happen, but there had never been an indication that their own decisions were the cause of a tragedy.
The thing about watching someone amazing try their hardest and fail is that it reminds us how much we fear failing like that, because we can see how it breaks these people. Assuming that you aren’t an example of the demi-god-like character that somehow never feels like they made a bad decision in their job before now, you’ve probably had to deal with this limitation before. There are usually two ways in which people cope with it: Either they endure and get back up to try again, or, more commonly, they will never try their hardest so that they can never truly fail. I already used it in another review, but it bears repeating:
The Heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King.
We all fear going through what Greene does in this episode so much that we probably are never going to be what we could be. It’s a harsh truth, but one that needs to be recognized.
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