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It Happened Last Night

'ER': The series finale, but life goes on

By Rick Porter

April 02, 09:30 PM

Noahwyle-er_240 It's tempting to make some grand pronouncement about how the series finale of "ER" is a metaphor for the show's later years, for NBC's decline, for the state of network television itself. So fine: I think we can all agree that the show -- any show that lasts this long -- was not as good in its late period as it was when it new.

What the "ER" finale was, though, was two good, solid hours of television that respected its past and its audience and left viewers in a pretty satisfying place by the time the credits rolled. There's something to be said for that.

I need a CBC, Chem 7, two units of O-neg and some spoilers, stat.

There were a few moments that felt overly sentimental, sure -- even at its best, "ER" could succumb to that disease. But John Wells, who wrote the two-hour finale, struck a pretty good balance between hitting those emotional beats, allowing space for former regulars to make one last appearance and keeping the focus on both the hospital and the people who work there now.

Lindacardellini_er_240 Wells also structured the finale very much like the show's pilot. Like that first episode, it took place over the course of 24 hours, featured a dizzying number of cases -- some comical, some dead serious -- and showed us the life of the ER through eyes both inexperienced (intern Rory Gilmore Julia Wise, played by Alexis Bledel) and jaded (Gates, Carter, Sam, et al). Specific lines of dialogue even echoed ones from the pilot, notably Brenner telling Julia that "You do the best you can, you get some sleep, then you come back and help the next one." (Even the director, Rod Holcomb, was the same.)

If the finale didn't have the raw power or energy of the pilot, though, that's partly the fault of "ER's" own success. It pretty well set the template for every medical drama that came after it, and everything it did first -- the fast pace and continuously moving camera, the sometimes graphic nature of the cases, the rivers of medical jargon -- is commonplace now.

One of the things the show always did well, though, and did so again tonight, was slow down and let emotional moments breathe. The scenes with Ernest Borgnine saying goodbye to his wife; Carter having a brief, bittersweet reunion with Kem at the opening of the health-care center named after their son; and Julia checking on the mother of twins only to find out she had died in the OR all played very well.

I don't want to get into any play-by-play here, so I'm just going to share a few more thoughts from the finale and then let you have at it.

Carter. Wells has said countless times that "ER" has mostly been Carter's story as he went from barely-old-enough-to-shave intern to resident to attending and now to the head of a center that has a chance to really help people. I came back to the show for Noah Wyle's final arc, and I feel like it ended in the right place -- with him pulling on a gown and waiting to take in a trauma case.

Familiar faces. The show made the right call, I think, in doing the big, Clooney-fied cast reunion a few weeks ago and letting the returnees tonight play a somewhat smaller role. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) and Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) are all presumably still in Chicago, so it makes sense that they'd come to the opening of the Carter Center.

Having Rachel Greene (Hallee Hirsh) come back to apply for the program at the hospital her dad used to work might be one of those sentimental moments, but the fact that the show let us see her a couple of times before revealing her name helped it go down a little easier. (It was also an excuse to get Alex Kingston back one more time as Elizabeth Corday.) And the look on Frank's face when she told him who she was? Maybe one of the best moments of the entire show. I know it certainly got a little dusty in my living room right around then.

Johnstamos_er_240 The current cast. The focal points of the current cast -- especially Gates, Sam and Archie -- all got their own moments. Gates going all righteous on the parents who let the teenage girl drink herself into a coma, Sam continuing to pull off the work-family balance and Archie showing he's a leader despite being a donut-stealer and dietary nightmare all felt right.

Old-school theme music. For the final episode, the show reverted to its original, long-form version of its opening credits, including the James Newton Howard theme music and the Benton fist-pump (which I somehow missed on first viewing; thanks for the heads-up, commenters). I also liked that the former regulars were listed along with the current stars (which the show did for the Clooney episode as well).

The final scene. The series went out with a life-goes-on moment as ambulances rolled in and the staff prepared to treat the victims of an explosion at a power station. There were no big mysteries or years-old questions "ER" had to answer, so to let the doctors, nurses and other staff at County General continue doing their jobs was as good a way to go out as any.

What did you think of the "ER" finale? Did it do right by the series that came before it?


I thought it was pretty good and i was really impressed with Alexis Bledel, who did a great job on the show.

George | Apr 2, 2009 9:52:36 PM | #

I never fully processed what exactly happened with Brenner. Did the heart patient he spent the last several episodes with wind up not taking? They were kind of vague about it.

Brian | Apr 2, 2009 10:04:05 PM | #

The Peter Benton fist pump was there... in the exact spot it was in back in the original credits right in the middle (not by his name)

SomeGuy | Apr 2, 2009 10:53:27 PM | #

Love the entire show, sad that its over but it was a great finale.

P.S. I also think that Alexis Bledel did great work in this episode. She became a very good actress and i would love to see more of her in the future

Carlie | Apr 2, 2009 10:57:38 PM | #

Fabulous episode, could not stop crying at the end when the camera rolled back as the theme song played. Michael Crichton would have been proud.

Reena | Apr 3, 2009 2:30:07 AM | #

I thought it was a nice ending, even if about 2-3 seasons too late. I am very glad that Wells did get back to the Carter throughline.

I had told my wife about 7 seasons ago that since it started on his first day at County it should end at his last, and the final scene should be him walking out the door for the last time to a new job somewhere then they pan the camera through the ER one last time as life goes on.

Unfortunately Noah couldn't stick around with the show long enough to see that play out (totally understandable), but this finale had that sort of a feel still and that makes it a perfect bookend for a series that had some great characters and moments.

Robert | Apr 3, 2009 3:41:24 AM | #

What happened to Gloria Reubens character on the show (jeanie?) Did she die of AIDS? She was the only long-running character that I wished we would have seen this season. Maybe Ming-Na too) It would have been nice to see Carter name some rooms at the center after some people-- Lucy, etc. ER went out the right way though, and nothing felt forced. Hats off.

J | Apr 3, 2009 3:48:44 AM | #

Actually, the Benton fist-pump was in last night's intro.

Great ep.

ERGuies | Apr 3, 2009 3:58:45 AM | #

The old school theme music was great to hear! I probably would have kept with the show for even longer than I did, if they had kept the theme music to suck me in.

I liked that they cast Alexis Bledel in as a stand-in for Carter in the pilot, because she could naturally be one of the show's stars in the future if it wasn't going off the air.

J - I think Jeanie came back on an episode last year.

elle | Apr 3, 2009 4:04:26 AM | #

I thought that this was a beautifully crafted finale, a fitting tribute to one of the best drama series of all time. I've been a faithful viewer for the past fifteen years, and these characters have intrigued, moved, angered, and surprised me week after week. Thursday evenings will never be the same. I miss the show already!

Danyel | Apr 3, 2009 5:53:46 AM | #

Great episode, great series, a very nice send-off.

Cynic | Apr 3, 2009 5:56:41 AM | #

Gloria Reuben appeared in an earlier episode this season.

The finale was everything I hoped it would be.

Gonna be tough not having ER on Thursday nights. Leno will not be an appropriate substitute.

Mike | Apr 3, 2009 6:05:23 AM | #

Don't know how I missed the fist-pump. Sorry 'bout that, folks. Fixing the post now.

Rick | Apr 3, 2009 6:23:14 AM | #

Perfect way to end. Loved how the opening scene with Lydia and Archie was same as opening pilot scene with Lydia and Dr. Green. And wasn't Carter's last line to Rachel - "Dr. Green, are you coming"-- [although she's not a dr. or even a med student!], the last line of the pilot, said by Mark Green to Carter?

Allie2 | Apr 3, 2009 6:33:18 AM | #

I cried at the end. It was sad to me. I had actually not been watching the show for about 3 years, but I remember the "good old days" and the ending reminded me of how much that show meant to me at that time in my life that I was watching.

Terry | Apr 3, 2009 6:50:46 AM | #

Loved the ending--cried buckets at times.

It truly was 'Carter's' life. I liked that they showed someone born to money having a good conscience using it appropriately--much as Noah Wyle has done in real life.

Missed not having Ming-na and Gloria Rueben in the ending. Yes, Gloria was on last year, but she was an integral character for many years. It would've been nice to see/hear her final thoughts. They didn't have Bill Macy, Kellie Martin, or Dr. Anspach (can't remember the actor's name) either.

It was great to hear the old theme music and see the montage of actors.

It was a touching, satisfying ending to a great show. NBC truly has has some ground-breaking shows (St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, LA Law) that paved the way for today's 'upstarts'!

ER will be missed.

Barb | Apr 3, 2009 7:36:47 AM | #

I loved that about mid-way through, Haleh commented something like "It's just another typical day around here." It wasn't a "very special episode" or whatever sensational sell they usually did. It was the ER staff doing what they do everyday.

I hate that the show is done. I think that we maybe think it isn't as good as it was just because they set the standard and now there are so many imitators. The pool is diluted and it is hard to see excellence anymore. My Thursdays will no longer be the same.

rockstarmom | Apr 3, 2009 7:41:25 AM | #

A very fitting tribute to a wonderful show. Thursday's will never be the same.
God Bless ER, Michael Crichton, and the entire cast and crew!!!

stuman714 in Indy | Apr 3, 2009 7:42:04 AM | #

You only get 1 chance to make a final impression and ER closed the show just right. Viewers who returned to the show for the finale were treated to final high water mark that lifts the entire program a little higher in the final analysis. Well done.

JT Hutt | Apr 3, 2009 7:50:51 AM | #

Weaver isn't in Chicago anymore. When she left County, she moved to Miami with her son to do work as a medical correspondent for a news station I believe...

will | Apr 3, 2009 7:56:52 AM | #

the last line to green was the reversal of Dr Greene calling Dr Carter to help out from the pilot!

The World | Apr 3, 2009 8:01:57 AM | #

The ER ending was hands down one of the best in the history of television, and this last season was like a high school reunion divided through the whole year.

It was great to see EVERYONE back, I would have loved to see Clooney's character appear at the finale and be reminiscing with the rest at the bar, that would have been perfect, and as it happens life isnt.

The only complaint I have on the Finale is that I wished Maura Tierney (Abby) would have comed back for it, she was my favorite character after Carter.

And when they brought back the Theme Song, I teared, I got sad. That theme's been missed every since they stopped showing it. This theme has such strength and excitement when it plays, that it tells you all you need to know about the GREATNESS that was, is and always will be "ER"


Chris C. | Apr 3, 2009 8:27:07 AM | #

"will" is right about Weaver -- she went to Florida. We saw this year that Benton works at Northwestern in general surgery. But Susan Lewis left County to take an attending spot in Iowa City (presumably University Of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, which would've been a HUGE move); it would've been about a three-and-a-half hour drive to be there for carter's ceremony. No biggie.

If you’re going for “once appeared in opening credits,” the only ones we didn't get returns from starting late last season and into the series finale were Chen, Malucci, Del Amico and Cleo (she was mentioned, though). Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

Jeanie was back last year. This year, there was Carter, Weaver, Lewis, Barnett, Hathaway, Ross, Morgenstern, Corday and Benton.
And of course, Greene, Gallant, Lucy and Romano were all still dead (Greene and Romano had the flashback, though).

For fringe characters, Anspaugh would've been nice, and maybe Michael Ironside's "Wild" Willy Swift. But it was nice to get some of the old nurses back ... Lydia, Lily, Malik and of course Haleh. I really wanted Randi the randy desk clerk to return, though. Maybe Maggie Doyle. I'm OK with no Luka and Abby (or a Pratt flashback) ... they were regulars as part of the final season and had proper send-offs.

Sambob | Apr 3, 2009 8:29:56 AM | #

The last 10 minutes - with everyone waiting for the ambulances and the theme music playing as they pan away from the hospital - was definitely a great way to end the episode, and ultimately, the series.

AL | Apr 3, 2009 8:41:43 AM | #

Well I must admit I've watched this show for all 15 years. Its been an extremely dehydrating experience and last night was no different. Seeing Rachel all grown up. Seeing Ernie Borgnine and seeing Carter talking about his Joshua sent me looking for the towel again.

peter | Apr 3, 2009 9:11:31 AM | #
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