Madeleine Robins

Doing the Smart Thing

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Over at the Book View Cafe last week, Alma Alexander wrote about characters doing, as she put it, “eye-wateringly dumb” things in order to advance a story, and she isn’t wrong. Watching characters do dumb things for no reason is painful, exasperating, infuriating. But what about characters who do the smart thing, the thing that their knowledge, training, experience leads them to do… and it goes sour?

A few months back I was asked, as part of promoting my part in Whitehall, the serialized drama about the court of Charles II, to write about my favorite episode of TV, “the one where…”. And I wrote about 90s doctor drama ER, and an episode called “Love’s Labors Lost,” the one where every decision seems to be the right one…until it all goes to hell.

I love medical history, medical drama, Untold Stories of the ER. The more medical the better–and the first few seasons of ER, before they jumped the shark, are my jam. But even among those seasons, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is indelible. I remember watching it and thinking “I didn’t know you could do that on TV.”

It starts out on an ER-average late winter day: suspected drug overdoses, a guy who tried to remove a tattoo with a bench sander; a very pregnant woman with a UTI; and Doctor Benton’s mother with a broken hip. If you asked me at the beginning, I’d have said they were setting up Benton’s as the A storyline, as he tries make himself part of his mother’s care team. Meanwhile, Doctor Greene (I call him Mark because we’re like that) handles the cases that come to him with calm and smarts. He’s the doctor you want when you’re feeling crappy and a little scared: he humors the tattooed man; sends the pregnant woman home with antibiotics; figures out that the boy whose father thinks is on drugs is actually a victim of insecticide poisoning.

Just another day.

And then Sean (husband of very-pregnant Jody) comes running in yelling that his wife has passed out in the car.

The team runs out, gets Jody back in the ER, gets her stabilized, and she and Sean crack wise and are adorable together. We invest a little love in the couple. Mark realizes that what looks like a UTI was actually eclampsia. He calls Jody’s OB, who says she’ll be there in an hour, and to start an induction of labor, since they don’t want to risk mother or child by continuing a pregnancy so close to term.

Over the next half-hour, with each development, Mark makes what seems like the smart, right call. He’s also on his own–when he calls up to OB they tell him they’re slammed: no one can come help. The house OB keeps getting held up across town. The baby’s heart rate keeps dropping, until Mark decides he’d better deliver that baby right now. Only there’s a complication. And then another complication. Mark winds up doing an emergency C-section while poor Sean, all alone in the hallway, watches the backs of the team working on his wife, helpless.

The baby is saved. Just as the OB who hadn’t come all this time finally shows up. She has choice words for what she finds (“I’ve never seen such a chain of errors!”), but the baby is sent up to the NICU and they get Jody stabilized. Until. Until Jody goes sour again. They work feverishly to save her, until everyone in the room realizes it’s no use. Except for Mark, who is doing chest compressions until they pull him away.

As Mark heads for the NICU to tell Sean that his wife is dead, no one says a word–they just watch him as though he was a hero–or a monster. The camera follows him up to the door of the NICU, where Sean, gowned, seated in a rocking chair, is holding his new son. Then–wisely–we watch the conversation from outside the room, in silence: Sean’s disbelief and grief, and Mark trying to tell him what went wrong.

Later, a medical student stops Mark to tell him “What you did was an heroic thing.” Mark walks away. He tells everyone he’s fine–until he gets on the el to go home, looking out the window at the gray snowy roofs of Chicago, and begins to weep.

It’s one of the best pieces of episodic writing I’ve ever seen. Full of neatly drawn characters, and full of misdirection–but more, full of people dealing with what gets thrown at them, doing what they believe is the best thing to do, and dealing with the consequences. Sometimes life just goes wrong.

No monsters. No battles, no guns or empire-changing events. You want to create unbearable tension in a story? Make me like the characters, especially the guy doing his job, making what seems like the absolutely right call at each junction, to the worst possible effect.

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