Friday, April 3, 2009

The More Things Stay the Same

ER: And in the End...
Season 15, Episode 22

After 331 episodes, of which I watched the first 179 and the last four and absolutely no others, John Wells and company still managed to pull me back in once more. It's a testament to the enduring nature of the show: that beginnings are hazy, middles are (while sometimes exciting) just a repeating routine and endings are often little more than the next set of beginnings. That concept can be applied to the series as a whole, the various generations of casts the show managed, individual characters and the finale itself. And while my brief return is to an unfamiliar location (the place looks so different - I still don't like the stupid clear patient board), I appreciate the portions of the finale aimed at my group of fans - the old timers coming back to say goodbye to an old favorite.

"Dr. Greene, you coming?" - Carter

In more than a month of considering it, I never came close to thinking of a final line for this show that would have worked that well. And I wouldn't have since I avoided spoilers and had absolutely no idea Rachel would be returning as a prospective medical student. So right off the bat I'll address the (what I figure will be) somewhat controversial decision to include her. Given the irresponsible and terrible manner the character was portrayed while her father died (repeatedly) in season eight, I understand how reluctant some fans might be to see her return. But I will contend that it not only works, but is absolutely necessary.

Because at the end of the day, we can talk about this cast member or that, but the two main characters of the show are without doubt or conversation John Carter and Mark Greene. Carter came into the show as fresh-faced as the audience, matured before our eyes and eventually took over. Mark was our first chief, the leader and as he proved numerous times that he was the one character you could never picture anywhere except running that emergency room at County. For God's sake it took TWO battles with brain tumors to drag him away. And while Carter can always return (I mean Noah Wyle's done with those Librarian movies right?), we can't have Mark return in anything but flashback. We have to make due with Anthony Edwards showing up for the retrospective beforehand (which I wasn't aware of and only caught the last three minutes of god damn it).

But Rachel is the one big tie we have back to Mark and effected the plot in a way 7-year-old Ella couldn't have. Her appearance caught me off guard, that's for sure. As I mentioned I avoided spoilers, but it's been SO long since I watched those episodes back in seasons seven and eight that, like Frank, I didn't recognize her until she told us her name.

Since the last thing the man wanted to do before dying was - Fix Rachel, I forgive her unexplained transition to a dutiful college student trying to study her father's profession at the institution he loved. It set up that final line that brings up another great moment from those first eight years every time I think about it. If the purpose of a finale is not to have some big shock-and-awe event (even missing the last seven years I was already shock-and-awed out), but to remind us of everything we loved, than the final scene was absolutely perfect. There's no need for conclusions on this show. Since day one it has always been about one more tragedy following the next endlessly and the type of people that stand against that tide. So while the staff gathered outside (great moment), Morris whipped through triage,
the theme music kicked up and Carter, back where he belongs at last, invites the next era along with him... yeah it was both dusty in the apartment and utterly appropriate.

As for the characters I had never seen before (i.e. the entire current ER staff except for the nurses - Haleh, Lydia, Chuny, Malik - and desk clerks), the last four episodes have endeared me to only Archie Morris. He was the highlight of the penultimate episode, "I Feel Good" along with seeing Linda Cardellini shaking her groove thing. But her character, Sam, and romantic interest Uncle Jesse come off as the poor man's Abby and Luca, or the homeless man's Carol and Doug. And yes, the fact that I somewhat fell in love with Cardellini when she was playing a high school student in 1999, a full four years after Stamos wrapped up Full House kind of creeps me out with the age thing. And yes, I realize, Cardellini is just a very young-looking 33. Besides that, Angela Bassett is the poor man's Weaver and Brenner is the dead three weeks now man's Mark Greene. I'm sure there was more to each of them than that, but not from my perspective. But Scott Grimes as Archie always seemed fairly unique and always incredibly engaging. If anything he's the billionaire's Malucci, far exceeding previous ER funnymen.

That isn't to say their stories the last few weeks weren't well done, just that in many cases they came off as echoes of stories already told. And my attention in this episode and "Old Times" was definitely elsewhere. If I call the current crew to task for anything, its how blatantly they ripped off "Such Sweet Sorrow" at the conclusion of Neela's farewell episode. I half expected to hear them cue up Don Henley's "Taking You Home," which as an avid Doug-Carol shipper I think I played about 1,000 times in the spring and summer of 2000.

But those callbacks involving the old school ER gang were mostly icing on a cake for me. The finale's old school opening had me locked in from the word go. I enjoyed catching things like Lydia waking up Morris and their conversation paralleling her interaction with Mark in the pilot, Carter's last patient that reminded me of the paramedic Raul in season two's "The Healers", or Brenner's not nearly as inspiring take on Greene's Why We Do This speech to Alexis "Gilmore" Bledel, who if I watched the show more often might have known only starred in this one episode, there to remind us of Carter's first days. But the best story in our final day at County was (excluding the pitch perfect closing) the rather graphic complicated pregnancy that obviously was meant to remind us of "Love's Labour Lost" - one of the top five episodes in the history of the show.

But the moments for the old school, my school, of ER docs is what I came back for these last few weeks. To see Carol and Doug happy with their family on the west coast, to see Susan and Carrie one last time... and when the heck did Carrie become so nice?! To see Elizabeth again and have her spend a quiet moment with her former love, Peter. And above the others to see the show's ultimate bromance, Benton and Carter together just a couple more times. I was thrilled to see the former in the operating room at Northwestern a few weeks ago. Theirs was the ultimate platonic relationship of the show, a truly great friendship born out of their student-teacher history. Their time onscreen together the last few weeks meant a great deal more than Carter's last conversation his his wife, who I'd never seen before outside of a crappy Mission: Impossible movie. The final hug for those guys was a highlight of the episode and I couldn't help but thinking of them trying to get past Gant's death/suicide, yelling about Carter's decision to leave surgery and most of all the physical altercation in season six when Benton was ready to drag Carter to rehab. I got almost as choked up as Noah Wyle for a moment there.

Final score: B+

"Don't ever say you're sorry. See, there's two kinds of doctors... there's the kind that gets rid of their feelings, and the kind that keeps them. If you're gonna keep your feelings, you're gonna get sick from time to time - that's just how it works... Keep your head down... People come in here and they're sick and dying and bleeding, and they need our help. Helping them is more important than how we feel." - Dr. Mark Greene

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