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ER: Season 14 - Atonement (Review)

Mekhi Phifer in ER

Review by Jack Foley

INDIELONDON singles out notable episodes from our favourite television series for stand-alone reviews. On this occasion we take a look at the season 14 episode of ER entitled Atonement.

What’s the story? As the ortho docs face off in a hockey game against the trauma docs, who have enlisted the aid of a ringer (Scott Grimes’ Archie Morris), Bettina wants to take her relationship with Pratt (Mekhi Phifer) to the next level, but he proves hesitant. The main dramatic thrust of the episode, however, relates to Gates (John Stamos) and Sam (Linda Cardellini) as they disagree over how to treat a young patient, while ER pastor Julia (Reiko Aylesworth) attempts to provide spiritual guidance to the man who rescue the boy – an ex-prison doctor (played by Jonathan Banks) struggling to atone for his past sins.

Why so good? ER‘s ability to mix humour and tragedy whilst confronting difficult issues was at its most pronounced during Atonement, an utterly engrossing episode that posed some difficult questions – relating to faith, morality and forgiveness – without presuming to easy judgements or pat conclusions.

Veteran actor Jonathan Banks’ portrayal of tormented prison doc Dr Robert Truman was another guest appearance to rival the likes of Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta and James Woods in past seasons.

As ever, however, the episode’s creators mixed the harder hitting elements with some deft comedy, this time featuring Morris and Neela (Parminder Nagra) in an ice hockey face/off…

Digging a little deeper: Capital punishment continues to be one of the issues at the forefront of American culture, along with foreign policy and gun controls. ER has touched on all three in its time, but placed capital punishment as the focus of attention in Atonement.

Thankfully, it didn’t seek to pick a side, instead opting to look at the issue from an intriguing moral dilemma. Jonathan Banks’ Dr Truman was a cancer ravaged patient, and ex-prison doctor, who was responsible for administering lethal injections to 17 men. One of those, it turned out, was later proved to be an innocent man, framed for the murder of a cop. To make matters worse, the first injection he had administered had failed to do the job, so Truman did it again.

The boy he saved from a freezing lake was the son of one of the men he had executed. But, as he told the ER staff, since leaving his job he had attempted to locate the families of his “victims” and make some kind of amends. With the boy in question, he had been in the right place at the right time, although his mother refused to give him the forgiveness or gratitude he craved.

Banks was heartbreaking as Truman, his torment, guilt and crisis of faith providing plenty of food for thought. His encounter with Reiko Aylesworth’s pastor was particularly devastating, as he sought answers and assurances about God that her character, Julia, could not provide (prompting her own crisis of confidence).

But so, too, was the resolution of his story, as the boy’s mother delivered her equally shocking verdict on his role in saving her son’s life.

But just as the issue itself provides no easy answers (for every point in favour of capital punishment, there’s always a counter argument against), so Atonement refused to provide any for Truman and his exasperation continued, with only Mekhi Phifer’s Dr Pratt able to provide any comfort.

Credit deserves to go to Phifer, too, for his sensitive portrayal of Pratt, whose character continues to grow in stature as the various seasons progress.

His personal life also came into focus throughout the episode, as he attempted to cope with potentially moving to the next stage in his relationship with Bettina, but – like the episode as a whole – it offered no easy answers or resolutions.

No matter where you stand on the capital punishment debate, what Atonement clearly illustrated is that it has consequences and cannot be considered in black and white terms.

As for the ice hockey match, well, that was great fun. Scott Grimes continued to display some fine comic timing as Morris and his on-ice trash talk to Neela was funny as hell. It provided a perfect counter-balance to the more dramatic material, to ensure that the episode never weighed too heavily on its key issues.

With just one season remaining in this excellent medical series, it’s sure to be a very sad day when the ER closes for good. Drama this rich is a treat that ought to be savoured, even as it approaches its final days…

ER airs on More4 on Thursday nights at 10pm and on Channel 4 on Saturday nights at 8pm

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