Another ER Good-Bye
"One of the few good things about modern times: If you die on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us." Kurt Vonnegut
The world is on fire. Killing continues unabated in Iraq. Iran and North Korea are going nuclear. Gas prices are up. Morgan Stanley is down. And Congress is playing kickball with the Constitution.
If you peruse these pages, you know I have a lot to say about all of it. Just not today.
Today I'm deliberately averting my eyes from the global pile up. And tonight I'll be curled up in my comfy leather chair to say good-bye to Carter.
C'mon ER junkies, you know who Carter is ... and you know who you are. To tell the truth, all the hoopla around the new Star Wars movie and its legions of tweaky fans has me feeling a little self-conscious about declaring my allegiance to any entertainment offering. But I'll say it loud and proud: I've been a loyal ER fan since Carter was a pup.
And in fact, it's not really Carter (Noah Wyle) who's on my mind today. It's the ER's late Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards). His swan song was an Emmy winner. To my mind, arguably the best episodic TV death ever. I've been thinking about it and wondering how John Wells and team are going to top it. My conclusion: they can't.
Back in the day, Mark Greene was the Carter of today's ER. Yeah, yeah, George Clooney's Doug Ross was the Heartthrob, but Dr. Greene was the Heart and Soul. He was Everyman, struggling with everyday problems: stress, strained friendships, workplace politics, aging and dying parents, divorce, remarriage, parenting, and finally, his own mortality.
The show allowed him to handle it all with insight, sensitivity, sensibility and essential humanness. And they handled his character's death the same way. A doctor, remarried with a young child, struggling to keep his life, his marriage and his difficult teenage daughter afloat. Then, bam! Brain tumor. But not your mother's soap opera, ER gave us a brutal and honest look at the whole painful, messy process.
They did it cleverly too. They made it a voyage. Misery. Discovery. Anger. Hope. Acceptance. Death. They gave him time, perspective, awareness, dignity. And they gave us a hell of a ride. The seemingly final episode was in fact prologue to the end. Greene says good-bye to the staff, and to us. He walks away from the ER forever, having handed the ball, and his mantle to Carter. The hour moves forward with other characters, other plots. Then a letter from Greene to the staff arrives by fax and Carter reads it aloud. At the end of the letter is a postscript from Greene's wife. He has died. Greene's letter, and the note are tacked to a communal bulletin board. We watch as the various characters read the it, and the news of his death.
It isn't until the next-and truly final-Greene episode that we are shown his last days. Certain scenes resonate. His wife finds him in the kitchen in the middle of the night, writing a list of things he never got around to doing ... and now, never will. Some, predictable male fantasies: hit a home run to win the World Series for the Cubs. Jump out of a plane. Others, poignant fatherhood dreams: walk his daughters down the aisle. "Fix Rachel."
And that's the one that shapes the last show. Trying to reconnect with his estranged, rebellious teenage daughter, he takes her to Hawaii, where he grew up. He wants her to know him as a person and as her father. He wants them to share the past and the present ... if not the future.
In one scene he reminds her that as a child she loved The Wizard of Oz and would beg him to sing "Over the Rainbow" whenever he put her to sleep. She shrugs him off, denies the memory, and him, seems not to hear, or care.
She doesn't want his generational backwash, sees no value in groking his life or comparing it to her own. And of course she's so very angry. But as he deteriorates, and moves closer to death, she begins to understand what was, and what never will be.
She comes to him early one morning. He's lying on his bed, facing the sun as it rises over the ocean. He struggles to synthesize all he wants to say to guide her, save her. "Generosity," he tells her. "Be generous. With yourself, with your time, with your love."
Gently she places earphones on him, kisses him good-bye, and turns on the CD player. First we hear a 4-string ukulele and humming -- then a soft, haunting refrain, "Over the Rainbow" sung by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole ... and Greene's final smile is beatific, a man at peace.
Schmaltzy? A little. Moving? Absolutely. Will Carter's swan song top it? Not a chance. But for a little while tonight, I'll wallow in whatever they give us.
Anything is better than watching the world on fine.
Learn about, listen to and enjoy "Over the Rainbow" here Head Butler - Music.