"God, it's amazing how little has changed around here." -Rachel GreeneWhat she said.
"And in the End..." was written by John Wells, who ran the show in its formative years after Michael Crichton provided the initial pilot script, and directed by Rod Holcomb, who directed that pilot, and it worked as hard as it could bring as many elements from that pilot full circle as they could, while showing that the circle of life (and death) at County General goes on. It wasn't an all-time great finale, but it did what it set out to do, had some nice moments both with the current cast and all the returning veterans, and it felt like there could be an episode on in a month's time if NBC were to order more, and the beat would go on and on.
Now, despite my two recent trips down "ER" memory lane, it's been a while since I actually watched the pilot, so I may be missing a few things, and/or misremembering when earlier events took place, but here are some of the callbacks (to both pilot and other episodes) I caught:
• Lydia (who hasn't appeared on the show in years), wakes Archie up as he tries to nap in an exam room, just as she did for Mark Greene in the opening scene of the pilot. (I suspect, but can't remember for sure, that the dialogue they share about night shifts is pretty close to whatever Mark and Lydia talked about 15 years ago.)
• Susan makes reference to Grandma Carter, that formidable old bird.
• Julia, the new med student (or was she an intern? she seemed to have more responsibility than Carter did back in the day), got to deliver a cancer diagnosis to a patient, just like Susan did to Miguel Ferrer back in the pilot, though Julia's patient (who had survived 20 years with HIV/AIDS), took the news far better.
• Carter delivers a baby (which he did many times whenever he was having an emotional crisis; can't remember if that happened in the pilot), and the fact that the mother winds up dying could be read as a tip of the cap to "Love's Labor Lost," the series' high point.
• Julia had to ride up with the mom to surgery because her arm was still controlling the bleed, as Benton often did in the early traumas.
• The story with Ernest Borgnine saying goodbye to his love of 72 years was a callback to a story from either the pilot or the first regular episode where Mark and Doug helped an elderly man come to grips with his own wife's impending demise.
• Brenner gives Julia a pep talk that's similar in spirit, if not in content, to what Mark tells Carter when Carter goes out to the ambulance bay to puke late in the pilot.
• We see that Carter has worked on his jump shot, as Mark told him to do in their very last conversation together.
• Kerry Weaver chats with Kem about Africa, a callback to a long-forgotten bit of Kerry backstory.
• We see not only a grown-up Rachel (back to her in a minute) applying for a spot at County's affiliated med school, but a teenage Reese Benton, doing just fine in life without the Cochlear implant Peter decided against giving him. (As a longtime Benton fan, I found Peter signing the explanation to a joke about Carter to be maybe the most heartwarming moment in the whole episode.)
There were probably others, but the point is, Wells was bound and determined to pay homage to the series' long history, and for the most part he did it well.
I'm not sure, though, how I feel about the use of Rachel in this circumstance. When I first stumbled across the spoiler about her role in the finale last week, I was really irked. The Rachel we last saw on a regular basis was a trainwreck who hated her dad and sure as hell wouldn't have wanted to follow his career path, let alone work in the same hospital where he was so miserable. And even the last time she appeared, near the end of season 10, she was still written in fairly reckless mode, taking advantage of Elizabeth to get a scrip for the morning-after pill.
But I surprisingly didn't hate her scenes in the finale. For one thing, it felt like the best way to somehow incorporate Mark into the last episode, though the flashback episode earlier this year with him and Banfield did a fine job of reminding everyone what a good doctor Mark was. And her presence elicited a number of great reactions from the staff as they recognized her, most memorably Frank. (In about a half-second, Troy Evans took me back to Frank learning of Mark's death in "The Letter.") I just wish there'd been some kind of comment, even a throwaway from Elizabeth, about how far Rachel had come since we'd last seen her, or even Carter or someone else talking about the burden of following in her dad's footsteps at a place where he was so revered. There just seemed to be pieces missing that would have made the gimmick work better.
I also am ambivalent about Julia. I see what Wells was trying to do with her: by focusing on a character we haven't met before, it's theoretically easier to drive home the Life Goes On theme than it is with one of the regulars, or even with a relatively new character like Tracy or Ryan. The problem is that they Nikki & Paolo'ed her, acting like she'd been there a while, and this was just the first time we were seeing her. Obviously, there are lots of hospital staff we never catch a glimpse of, but it just felt awkward. Still, Alexis Bledel was better than I was expecting; she was often the weak link on "Gilmore Girls," but I thought she handled most of the emotional beats well, particularly Julia finding out that the mom had died.
(That trauma, by the way, was a reminder that, even in its creaky old age, "ER" could still bust out the memorable, horrific action sequences when needed. I may not get to sleep right away tonight thinking about all that blood and placenta and more gushing around Julia's feet.)
If they couldn't contrive an excuse to get any of the vets beyond Carter to handle a trauma, I thought "And in the End..." did a solid job of balancing old with new. And if it's not a classic finale, it was still better than I think many of us had a right to expect in some of the series' rough later years. I just would've liked a little more Archie and a little less Sam-and-Tony, but Morris got his happy ending last week, which meant they had to get theirs tonight.
What I may have liked most of all was just watching different characters, some major, some minor, take their final leave of the show without fanfare. For all the issues I had with "ER" as it entered middle age, I've been watching it for what feels like half my life (and isn't that far off), and I'm going to miss it now that I don't have the falling helicopter to kick around anymore.
What did everybody else think?