ER funeral

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Twenty-One Guns (s12 ep 22)

A less than regular series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics & other TV obsessives.

ER gurney

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a doctor. Not in any real sense, you understand. But in the same way that The Good Wife made me believe I would legitimately succeed as a lawyer, fifteen years of ER provided me with a pretty comprehensive medical education.

Ask someone to name their favourite episode of the County General drama, and they’ll more than likely mention George Clooney in a storm drain. Stalwarts may also reference helicopter crashes, road trips, or a certain hand written letter. Season 12 doesn’t feature highly (or at all) in many of the great episode lists.

By season 12, many people had given up on ER. If not during the first episode (an hour dedicated to the disappearance of Nurse Sam’s annoying, diabetes-ridden kid) then definitely midway, when some disillusioned writer, still mourning the loss of Carter, would scrape the bottom of his high school creative writing level barrel and come up with The Monkey Episode. Later weeks spent a significant amount of time in Darfur which, while enlightening, were not particularly escapist TV. In short, season 12 was disjointed, and watching it was all a bit of a chore. Until Twenty-One Guns.

Twenty-One Guns takes us back to basics. A typical day for the ER staff: religious groups spouting premonitions, hapless trainees, disgusting irrigations and board level bureaucracy. Alongside this, the funeral of one of their own, unexpectedly killed off in the previous episode. Oh, and the O.K. Corral.

The season finale drama is provided by Nurse Sam’s dysfunctional family members. Again. Only this time it’s her convict ex-husband, come to stage a prison break via the suture room. So that’s actually pretty cool. And, for those of us only just recovered from the security breach which led to the fatal stabbing of a medical student back in season 6, pretty fucking tense. Cue guns, lots of guns. Possibly over twenty.

As ever, the heart of the show lies in a crisis, as the nurses and doctors step up and do their thing. Morris, a slacker from the moment he arrived on the job, finally seems to know what he’s doing and, on his last day in the ER, might actually save a life. Possibly his first! And who knew you cared so much about desk clerk Jerry until he nearly died, huh? When Weaver, the matriarch, finally arrives in the aftermath of the bloodbath, there is a palpable sense of relief. These guys really are a family. And not just because Kovac got Abby knocked up.

Few characters could pull off ‘interesting subplot’ when your main storyline features guns, hostages and vending machines. Neela is the little English doctor that could. Parminder Nagra (from Leicester, don’t you know?!) is brilliant generally, but particularly strong when burying her dead husband. Yet even in the midst of her grief, she and Pratt, her funeral wing man, find themselves inexplicably drawn to the hospital. That Emergency Room has a weird hold over them all. You generally have to die to leave County. Or land a big screen casino heist franchise.

I’m a sucker for dramatic American set pieces soundtracked by British alternative rock bands (which is totally a spoiler for my choice for greatest episode of The Newsroom). Nonetheless, the final minutes, from the opening bars of Open Your Eyes, give me goose bumps every time. This entire sequence is wonderfully done and, after humble (shit) beginnings, closes season 12 with an almighty cliff-hanger.

ER is an ensemble drama which is almost entirely famous for a single character, who left less than a third of the way through. However, as anyone who stuck with the show to the bitter end will tell you, the real star isn’t that Kentucky born, pig-keeping, silver fox at all, but the admit desk, the board, and the gurneys. They set the tone.

“I think there’s something going on at the hospital.”

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