Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through March: some of our favorite episodes of all time.
ER, ”Love’s Labor Lost” (season one, episode 19; originally aired 3/7/1995)
In which everything goes wrong for Dr. Mark Greene…
Carrie Raisler: More than almost any other show, ER feels like it is stitched into the very fabric of my being. ER premiered my senior year of high school, and it (along with The X-Files, which debuted the year before) made me realize television storytelling was something I cared about on a much deeper, weirder level than anyone else I knew. ER was, to put it in the simplest terms, my weekly televised thrill ride, the first show I’d ever seen that choreographed all its action—even the most mundane bits—as if the whole endeavor was balancing on the thinnest of tightropes. From the first minute of the pilot, it felt like the show was somehow broadcasting itself directly into my brain and burrowing itself in there forever for safe keeping.
I obviously wasn’t the only one who was enthralled. ER was a smash hit for NBC right out of the gate, back when NBC Thursday nights ruled the television universe. It stayed creatively strong for years and eventually ended up running through 15 seasons, 331 episodes, numerous cast changes, an inevitable steep decline in ratings, and gallons upon gallons of fake blood. Yet despite this longevity, my favorite episode is one that aired in its first season, the heartbreaking “Love’s Labor Lost.”
My favorite episodes of any show usually end up being the ones that surprise the hell out of me by opening up a character in ways it hasn’t before, usually through some sort of odd or intense situation. “Love’s Labor Lost” does this in devastating fashion with Dr. Mark Greene, following him through one horrible night where, despite his best intentions, everything goes wrong, and the consequences are tragic.
The thing to know about Mark Greene going into this episode is that he’s a great doctor. He’s a little passive and insecure in his personal matters, sure, but on the emergency room floor? Dr. Greene is in his element. If your chips are down and you end up in the emergency room, he’s the guy you want saving your life. “Love’s Labor Lost” does a great job of weaving this narrative right into the first act, stressing Mark’s dedication to emergency medicine (he’s just been promoted) and showcasing his easy bedside manner and ability to make quick connections with his patients, in this case a very pregnant woman who comes in with what appears to be a bladder infection. They laugh, they smile, and he discharges her with instructions and a prescription.
The setup feels like classic horror, with everyone having a carefree time—they even make time for random denture jokes!—right until the dread sets in, and Dr. Greene, his staff, and an expectant couple go through the worst day of their lives. The episode is even shot and scored like a horror movie at times, with cameras circling the action as Dr. Greene desperately tries anything he can think of to save this woman and her baby. Throughout the ordeal, even as the situation becomes a perfect storm of everything that could possibly go wrong with no positive outcome to be anticipated, there’s still one persistent thought in the back of your mind: “Mark Greene is a great doctor. Mark Greene can save them. He can save them both.”
But he can’t. He’s a great doctor, but even great doctors are just humans, and humans aren’t perfect. This episode has many virtues, but the thing that has always resonated with me from the very first viewing is how effectively it tells Mark Greene’s story without directly commenting on the man at all. By watching his decision-making throughout the case, seeing where things went right and went wrong, then subsequently showing his reaction to his patient’s death, ER took an awful tragedy and used it to crack a character wide open. Watching the episode again floored me in exactly the same way it did the first time, and it will floor me again the next time, and the time after that.
“Love’s Labor Lost” is one of ER’s most decorated episodes, winning Emmys for both writing and directing (and various other technical achievements), but the critical acclaim was something I was only vaguely aware of at the time. All I knew was this was something unlike anything else I’d experienced before, and it opened up a new personal expectation of how television stories could be told. For that reason, it will always be tremendously important to me.
I’m curious if any of you are experiencing this episode for the first time. Does it play as well for you now as it did for 18-year-old me?
Zack Handlen: I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever seen this before. I’ve seen parts of it before at least, and while watching it, bits and pieces kept striking me even if I couldn’t be sure they added up to a full memory. Mostly what I remembered was that swirling camera move that ER was always so enamored with, and which worked well even after I got a little sick of it. I definitely saw the pilot when it aired, and the direction, along with the authentic sounding dialogue and the way the show refused to shy away from the less romantic, more practical aspects of medicine blew my mind a little. It was a bit like watching the first episode of Homicide: Life On The Street. Suddenly, concepts that seemed mundane and overworked on television—the doctor show, the cop show—had an immediacy and directness that made them completely new. I was 15 when ER debuted, and my critical faculties weren’t anywhere near as honed as they are now, but even I could see this was something special. It still feels a bit special even now, when the “realism” isn’t quite so striking.
The other part of “Love’s Labor Lost” I definitely remembered was the ending. Those last two scenes, and the way they contextualize each other, help make this episode more than just a misery fest. There’s value in a story that exists to point out that life can really, really suck sometimes and that the sucking hardly ever comes with advance warning, but that value has a certain limit to it. Watching Greene struggle and fail to save a pregnant woman who seemed perfectly fine only a day earlier is an important piece of ER’s early commitment to telling things as they are, but I’m with you, Carrie—the way it helps inform Greene’s character and develop him without straining too hard to make sure we get the point is very powerful.
So, those two scenes stuck with me: In the first, right after his patient (Colleen Flynn) dies, Greene has to inform the dead woman’s husband (a very young Bradley Whitford). In the second, Greene takes a ride home on the train, and breaks down crying. The scene with Whitford is almost entirely visual and wonderfully shot. We see Greene composing himself and walking through several doors, and then standing outside the nursery where Whitford is holding his newborn son. The only real sound you get is the baby crying and then Whitford’s own muted sobs. Greene is composed throughout, because that’s his job. And it’s a composure that’s so tightly wound that he can’t seem to let it slip around anyone, not even his fellow doctors. When an OB/GYN surgeon (I think?) comes in midway through the episode and reads him the riot act about his choices, he stands up for himself a little, but then immediately falls back to taking responsibility. When Carter tells him he was “heroic,” he can’t even respond. The word’s almost obscene; especially saying it over the dead body of the woman Greene failed to save. Then he refuses an invitation to unwind with friends, instead choosing to break when there’s no chance that anyone he knows will see him. The mixed sense of tragedy and life-goes-on, the idea that this is just the job and the next day he’ll be back in to work and he’s just going to have to deal with that is simply told and deeply moving. It stayed with me as long as it did, because the image of a doctor being calm and caring, but just a little distant set against that same doctor just utterly wrecked and with no good way to feel better about any of it, sort of sums up the whole show to me.
Really, this entire hour is very well-constructed, not giving any obvious hints about the direction its heading toward in the early stages, but slowly building the disaster step by step in a way that, like you say, Carrie, doesn’t offer judgment. There were mistakes Greene probably made, but those mistakes get mixed in with the good choices so easily that there’s no real clarity to them. Which, again, is very fitting. I liked how the episode found time for humor, even when things weren’t going so great; the bit with Carter staring avidly at the pregnant woman’s dilated cervix and her “Enjoying the show?” was hilarious. And I loved how deft the character work was. You see Greene getting a little cocky with himself earlier on, but it only seems relevant in retrospect—there’s no sense of some authorial god setting him up for a fall. Just the idea that this is a man who believes in himself today, and who we’ve come to believe in, and how sometimes, that isn’t enough.
But there are subplots here I’m not mentioning. Genevieve, did Dr. Benton’s efforts to control his mother’s surgery work alongside everything else? And do you think the “basically healthy person who suddenly dies during what should be a routine procedure” story is something that’s been overplayed on medical dramas by now?
Genevieve Koski: I suppose the Dr. Benton subplot works in the sense that it feeds into the episode’s larger themes—specifically the desire to control a situation and the inevitable realization that that’s not always possible—and is true to the character of Peter Benton, particularly his early iteration as a cocksure resident who believes he can fix anything. Dr. Benton is the kind of doctor that OB/GYN surgeon assumes Dr. Greene is when she’s reading him the riot act, a skillful healer whose talent is matched only by his ambition and arrogance. (Think how different this episode would have been if Dr. Benton was the O’Briens’ doctor.) So by placing him in a situation he can’t fix and control—not because he lacks the ability, but due to factors beyond his control—it aligns him with Dr. Greene’s much higher-stakes struggles.
But does it work in the sense that anyone would likely remember it as the main subplot of the ER episode whose mere mention still causes most viewers of the show—women who have experienced or expect to experience childbirth in particular—to shudder slightly and possibly start crying immediately? No, I don’t think so. Like Dr. Ross’ poisoned-teenager case that quickly disappears into the introductory background of this episode, Benton’s story is part of the wind-up to the gut punch this episode eventually becomes, as evidenced by the fact that it ends before the episode’s halfway point, right after the scene where Sean O’Brien runs up to Dr. Greene frantically announcing that the baby’s heart rate has dropped to 90. Once that happens, most people have probably stopped caring how Mrs. Benton’s hip-surgery recovery is going.
As for your second question, Zack, I don’t think the story of a basically healthy person suddenly and unexpectedly dying can be overplayed, at least not when it’s done as well as it is in “Love’s Labor Lost.” Can it turn manipulative in the wrong hands? Sure, but that’s true of any story. I think any reminder that we are fragile, fragile little bags of meat that can fall prey to the whims of fate, foolishness, or fatal microscopic beasties at any time continues to have resonance for most people. That’s compounded in this case by the fact that said basically healthy person is pregnant, experiencing something a large segment of the population goes through, and that 100 percent of the population has at least experienced indirectly. Pregnancy is the most mundanely dangerous act that humans experience, something that’s essential to the continuation of the species, but also takes an extreme toll on the body experiencing it, a toll that can turn fatal in the blink of an eye.
I was 11 when “Love’s Labor Lost” first aired, and I have vague memories of actually watching it at the time, but vivid memories of my mom crying during and after the episode. Subsequent viewings of the episode in syndication when I was a little older clued me in a bit to the emotions she was probably experiencing at the time, though I can still only imagine how this episode plays to someone who has actually experienced childbirth, or is planning to in the near future. (Anyone in the latter group would have to be insane to willingly watch this episode.) I’m neither of those things, but I was still gripped by terror during those last 20 minutes or so, even on this, my fourth viewing of this particular episode. In fact, I think it was even more anxiety-inducing this time than it was when I saw it as a teenager or twentysomething, when I was less aware of my body’s potential to turn on me at any moment.
Clearly I’m empathizing with the mother in this story, but there’s another side to this trauma, one that’s possibly more devastating. Even with that horrible ’90s hair, Bradley Whitford is as essential to this episode’s heart and humanity as Anthony Edwards, particularly in that scene in the nursery Zach mentions. Todd, how did you respond to Whitford’s character, Sean, and his performance thereof, given that these days we’re accustom to seeing Whitford in a comedic context?
Todd VanDerWerff: Well, as someone who thinks occasionally about having a kid with my wife, this episode terrified me. But a big part of that came from how easy the episode makes it to relate to Flynn and Whitford as the prospective parents. They’re cast as every-mom and every-dad, but that works because the episode is at its best when it becomes a tale both about Mark Greene trying to save this one specific woman and her child, yet maintains the subtext about how he wants to save everyone. I went digging around to see this episode’s Emmy history, and I was a bit surprised to see that Flynn received a guest nomination, while Whitford did not. Don’t get me wrong, Flynn is terrific, but Whitford matches this stacked ensemble cast beat for beat. This episode doesn’t work if we don’t care about Jodi and Sean, and Whitford’s slowly mounting terror and certainty that Dr. Greene is in over his head starts to seem plausible around the episode’s midpoint, even if Dr. Greene has been set up rather heroically for us by the series so far.
And now it’s time for a confession, because the first time I saw this episode (which was shortly after its many Emmy triumphs in a rerun NBC specifically set up to celebrate it; it’s still one of the most Emmy-winning episodes ever), I didn’t think much of it. I mean, I got that it was okay, but I found it a little overhyped. Of course, I was a 14-year-old little snot, and I was partial to The X-Files, Homicide, and Picket Fences when it came to the dramas of the era anyway. But I also probably wasn’t ready to experience this episode yet, still ensconced on the side of adolescence that believes itself just invincible enough not to have to worry. I watched this episode again at some point in my 20s, at the prompting of David Sims (for whom ER is one of the best shows ever), and I was much more impressed by it, particularly in terms of Lance Gentile’s script, which is relentless without ever tipping its hat to just how much it’s ratcheting up the tension until it’s time for everything to start falling apart around the characters. (Mimi Leder’s direction is impeccable—she got a feature career out of this episode for good reason—but it became so copied by the show that it didn’t succeed as readily at impressing me.)
But now, watching it at 33, with hopes and dreams of kids of my own in the future, this episode is a stark reminder that no matter how far modern medicine progresses, there’s always something just waiting to end our lives in a highly unexpected manner. What I love about this episode is that it’s Mark’s fault, sure, but it’s hard to pinpoint just where things go wrong. It’s as if something, somewhere in the universe flipped a switch, and it was time for everything to fall apart and send him hurtling toward that train at episode’s end. ER would do at least one episode per season like this, where one of the doctors confronted a case that pushed him or her to the breaking point, but “Love’s Labor Lost” remains the best because of how the show doesn’t even realize it’s inventing a new template for itself. (Compare this to the very good, but much more calculated season-two episode “Hell And High Water,” where Dr. Ross saves the boy from the storm drain.) These episodes tended to let the doctors have big, heroic moments. What’s so amazing about “Love’s Labor” is that Dr. Greene gets to be a hero, but he still loses in dramatic fashion. And when he realizes he has, he must physically will himself to stop trying to revive Jodi. It’s masterful acting from Edwards.
So in addition to shaking your head at how much of an idiot 14-year-old me was, Carrie, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this: How important is it to dramas like this that our heroes lose every now and then? (Because it’s still pretty uncommon in workplace dramas and procedurals.)
CR: Todd, I was actually just thinking about that very thing the other day. I am currently at the tail end of a Veronica Mars rewatch project, and throughout my viewing, I repeatedly noticed that most of my favorite episodes featured moments where Veronica is either wrong, or makes a huge mistake and has to scramble under pressure to fix things. Watching this episode now, and remembering how ER frequently let its characters do messy things and get things wrong—how the show let them stumble and fall down, and have them get back up again and go to work the next day to face the next insane set of circumstances—I wonder how much of my preference for this type of story comes from my longtime love for ER. You’re right that procedural-type stories rarely let their heroes be wrong; when they do, it’s often because they are “tricked” by a supervillain-type character as a setup for a longer arc. Examples of shows allowing something as devastating as Greene’s day here are far more rare. This feels like a missed opportunity, because exploring a character through failure can be such a rich way to find out what makes them tick. What does anyone even know about himself or herself, until they screw something up beyond repair? Greene certainly thought he was one kind of doctor before that horrible day began, but on the train ride home it’s clear that he isn’t quite so sure. Without allowing characters to fail, can they really grow?
I have a strange feeling I have my procedural blinders on and I’m forgetting a lot of other shows that allow their supposed heroes to fail. It’s certainly prevalent in the world of cable dramas, almost to the point of it being fetishistic. Zack, how important is a character’s success or failure to your enjoyment of a show, and was there a specific moment where you realized this value, as I did with this episode?
ZH: I’m not sure, Carrie. Watching this episode, I found myself trying to remember other medical dramas I’d seen in the past; it’s not a genre I’m big on, but I’m fairly sure I’ve seen every episode of House, and I know at least one or two of those episodes had House failing to make the right call. But that show struggled desperately in its final seasons, because it had created a situation in which it was basically impossible for the protagonist to fail and the show’s status quo to continue. He was such an ass that he had to be right by the end, or else there was no reason to give a damn about his supposed inner turmoil.
Greene is a very different case; he’s the most trustworthy of the show’s cast, I think (and the show is not made up of untrustworthy people), the kind of doctor you really hope you’ll get if you ever find yourself in an emergency room. He can’t fail too often, because that would change the narrative of the character, but he can fail from time to time without it threatening the entire show. As you say, he should screw up occasionally, especially in a context like this where the point isn’t to punish him, but to remind us of the fragility of life and give us a clearer understanding of the value of what great doctors actually do. Carter’s line is ill-timed, but a story like this shows that Greene is heroic; not because he usually succeeds, but because sometimes he fails, and he keeps trying anyway.
I’m not sure there was a specific moment when I realized I wanted my heroes fallible, but I agree that it’s crucial. Stories about people who never lose can be fun in a wish-fulfillment fantasy kind of way, but it gets old fast, and there’s only so much you can do with it. It’s static. At the same time, too much failure can be stultifying. What do you think, Genevieve, and how do you think great episodes like this find the balance?
GK: At the risk of generalizing, I think it’s fair to say that failure is much less common in procedural dramas than in heavily serialized ones, which is by design: Serialized shows need to keep knocking their heroes (or antiheroes) down so that they can get back up, get knocked down a few more times, and then eventually, usually, succeed by the end of the arc/season/series. Procedurals—again, in general—follow this arc over the course of a single episode; the failure usually comes in Act Two, followed by a rally that sets things back at or near the status quo. (If I had to guess, I’d say legal dramas do this more than any other genre.) But the thing is, at a hospital, failure is built into the status quo—people die in hospitals all the time, despite the best efforts of their caregivers—so a medical show with any degree of verisimilitude has to acknowledge that failure from time to time. Hell, even the bubbly Scrubs kicked its doctors in the teeth once in a while. Death is failure, and death is inevitable when you work at a hospital; therefore failure is inevitable when you work at a hospital.
I think what makes Dr. Greene’s failure sting so hard, though, is how hard he tries. For the entire second half of the episode, that’s the only thing we see: him trying everything he can think of to save this woman and her baby. There are no cutaways to a B-story, no montage glossing over things, just in-the-moment panic for 20 straight minutes. (I wonder if part of the reason this episode struck me harder this time is because I was watching those 20 minutes uninterrupted, without the luxury of commercials to let me catch my breath.) The closest thing we get to relief is that wonderful moment when the intern, Deb, knocks over the tray of medical instruments and Greene tells everyone to stop and take a breath, as the camera pans over the operating theater, taking in every single anxious face before diving once more into the breach. The promise of failure is always there at the edge of every scene, threatening to overtake these people and their efforts, and when it finally does, it’s sad, yes, but more than that, it’s cathartic. More cathartic than success would be, I’d wager. (And really, it’s not a complete failure: The baby does survive, albeit with a terrible tragedy hanging over its tiny head.)
Todd, do you think this episode would have been as effective if Dr. Greene’s desperate attempts at resuscitation had worked, and Colleen Flynn had gasped back to consciousness at the last moment? ER had its share of improbable rescues over the years; what’s the time and place for such last-minute victories?
TV: Honestly, I don’t know. There’s probably a version of this episode where Flynn’s character lives, and it’s still really good TV. But I doubt “Love’s Labor Lost” becomes a historic episode of TV without that final gut punch. I like an out-of-nowhere victory as much as anybody else, but it’s hard on TV to make you care when those out-of-nowhere victories keep piling up. (Remember how ridiculous it got on Friday Night Lights when the Dillon Panthers kept winning all those improbable games?) The improbable feels more precious and valuable when it’s balanced by the inevitable, and that gets at one of the great underpinnings of the medical genre, one of the things that keeps this type of show humming along: The only thing that’s inevitable in this life is death, and that makes every day we get to walk around on this planet a beautiful improbability.
Put another way: Jodi O’Brien dies, yes, but her son gets to live. It’s not really fair, but there’s still a miracle buried in there somewhere. It just might be that much harder to find it.
Next week: Molly Eichel and her group find out what happens when the family on Roseanne discovers “A Stash From The Past.”