And you all thought I was done with ER.
For those new to this blog and new to my stream of consciousness, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the medical drama that I used to watch with my parents as a child. I’ve spent the last year or so on a binge of old episodes for a show that went on for 15 entire seasons. Thanks to the pandemic, my efforts increased from passive enjoyment of blocks of episodes on Hulu Live channels to active consumption to get over a slump I hit around season 10. I’ve made it all the way to the episode before the series finale and I’ve learned a lot about the fate of characters I began to admire and care about even as a child.
I guess spoilers for ER? Do I still have to give spoiler warnings for a show this old?
There’s a strangeness now to watching the older episodes (they’re all old in comparison) but the channel that has been my main source of the medical drama will roll back to season 1 after finishing up the entire series which means for a lot my watch time of the show, I get to be a horrible omnipotent god who has foreseen terrible things for many of these characters. I know what happens to Lucy Knight, making her screen time all the more bittersweet. I know that Peter Benton leaves County to be a better father for his son, Reese. I know John Carter probably has the worst luck with women of any man as rich and cute as he is. I know Susan Lewis leaves to become a mother and Abby and Luka also leave to raise their child. I know Kerry leaves to be the best damn lesbian in Florida and I know Gallant, Gant, Pratt all face tragic deaths; a particularly painful loss considering these were all three black men that were truly great examples of representation for a show that has done some great work in pushing forward as diverse of a cast as possible. I know Neela didn’t deserve Ray and that Elizabeth Corday is doomed to being a widow.
Speaking of Elizabeth Corday, we need to talk about her husband, Mark. Mark Greene is probably the main character of the series for most of the show’s run. While your POV is meant to be the young and naive John Carter for early seasons most of the drama seems to always revolve around Mark. He is the one with the marriage in trouble, who is struggling to maintain his job at County and he is the one whose child is a brat (Rachel, at least; from what we know Ella is a sweet baby angel.). And he is the one who we find out has an inoperable brain tumor.
Television dramas always have an issue of disportionately dosing out trauma to their characters. Someone is always the trojan horse, meant to carry all of the weight of pain for the season or half season. Criminal Minds did it with Rossi, Reid, Morgan and Hotchner. House did it with it’s entire damn cast, mostly cycling through used griefs as a means to poke the bear when it comes to pulling sympathy out of a rapt audience. But for some reason ER took particular delight in torturing its characters. Whether it was removing Romano (who is awful) of his arm or the myriad of shootings that happened: ER seemed to really get off on really twisting the knife into some characters (RIP Lucy and I’m sorry, John.). For the first really 8 seasons of the series, that knife was firmly in Dr. Greene. Let’s go over just a few ways the show decided to ruin his life. Lost a high risk pregnant patient, lost his marriage, got an inoperable brain tumor, had what may be the worst daughter in television history, saw his other infant daughter end up drug-poisoned by worst daughter in television history, had to fight a wrongful death lawsuit, was attacked in a bathroom, married an awesome person but had to deal with that while dying, lost both of his parents, was a caregiver to his dying father.
It led up to what really ended being just an exhausted shell of a man who did his best to continue to be a father, mentor, husband, friend and doctor during his time on the show.
And that tired man is who we meet during the episode “On the Beach”.
“On the Beach” is the episode in which Mark Greene dies. Mark takes his bratty daughter, Rachel, to Hawaii so he can die in peace. He is later joined by his wife and other child and the whole episode is an emotional wreck for someone who doesn’t have dead father trauma but even more painful for someone like me. But it isn’t just the episode that’s hard to watch. It’s every episode before that one that becomes increasingly hard to stomach.
In Death Note one of the powers a shinigami has is the ability to see how long a person has left in their life span. The number floats above the head of every human and while Misa has this power, Light turns it down because…well, I’m not sure. I’ll say existential dread. In watching that, I also felt existential dread. Knowing my days are literally numbered. And every episode of ER I stacked under my belt was one closer to Dr. Greene’s death; like a time bomb I was powerless to stop. Each episode in which he deteriorated or tragedy befell him was one episode closer to when the show and thus, the audience would lose him forever. Just like my own life that as each day’s curtain closes, I’m one day closer to being lost forever.
I wanted to find comfort in it at first; the bandage of loss had already been removed. I had already shed tears over this grief and thus it should hurt so much less but each time I got to relive the pain of Dr. Greene’s final days, it all hurt the same. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I just ached, sometimes I felt nothing at all.
The ticking clock of impending doom also made me appreciate the screen time I had left with Dr. Greene. The moments where he laughed or saved a patient mattered so much more knowing that my time with him was limited; knowing that I would lose him.
And maybe that’s a worthwhile lesson to keep in mind: knowing that all of our time is brief and coming to an end to cherish the moments that are good or bad or just the ones that affirm that we indeed are mortal.