ER: Motherhood (11 May 1995, Quentin Tarantino)


Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this penultimate episode of ER’s first season, Dr Susan Lewis’s sister gives birth to a baby…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino was a fan of ER (1994-2009) right from the start so jumped at the chance to direct an episode. Unless you count one scene in 2005 movie Sin City, this is the only time in his career he’s directed someone else’s script. (It was written by ER’s supervising producer Lydia Woodward.)

Notable characters:
* Dr Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) is woken early by her flighty sister, Chloe, who’s gone into labour but waited until the contractions are two minutes apart before doing anything about it.
* Chloe Lewis (Kathleen Wilhoite) gives birth to Little Susie in this episode – a plotline that had major implications for the next season or more. While in labour she insists on hearing the Beatles song Blackbird.
* John Carter (Noah Wyle) is a medical student who ends up helping with the delivery. He struggles to find the Beatles cassette, so Susan and Chloe have to sing Blackbird themselves. (Presumably this was done to avoid paying for the use of the original recording?)
* Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) is the ER’s head nurse.
* Dr Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) is the chief resident.
* Dr Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) is a surgical resident and Carter’s mentor. During his shift, he gets a call to go and see his elderly mother. By the time he arrives, though, she’s died.
* Dr Doug Ross (George Clooney) is a womanising ER doctor who ruins a fledging relationship by messing around with an ex.
* Dr Angela Hicks (CCH Pounder) is everyone’s boss. She tells Carter he’s missed out on the surgical placement he wanted.
* Cookie Lewis (Valerie Perrine from Superman: The Movie) is Susan and Chloe’s ditzy mother. We first see her holding an enormous bunch of flowers, which mask her face.
* The episode has a flurry of one-off patients and other characters, including… A 15-year-old boy who’s been impaled on a metal bar (his mother is played by Tarantino’s old drama teacher, Brenda Hillhouse)…  Boy Scouts with diarrhoea (their adult supervisor is played by Kathy Griffin)… A man found unconscious after mixing ammonia and bleach (his concerned wife is played by Amanda Jones)… A young girl with a fever… A girl who’s been bitted by a bee… A guy with an obstruction in his throat… An elderly woman who dies before she can be examined… A drug overdose… And two warring gang chicks, one of whom has had her ear bitten off.

Returning actors: Amanda Jones, Kathy Griffin and Brenda Hillhouse all had small roles in Pulp Fiction. (Although not in this episode, Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames was a semi-regular in ER around this time.)

Music: The incidental music – tense but unshowy – is by ER’s in-house composer, Marty Davich.

Time shifts and chapters: The episode is presented in chronological order.

Connections: A character losing an ear a la Reservoir Dogs is a coincidence, apparently. It was in the script before Tarantino was assigned to the episode.

Review: The episode title is bang on the money. This story is set on Mother’s Day, Chloe gives birth, Cookie refuses to help her daughter, Susan’s thrust into a surrogate mother’s role, and the mums of patients recur throughout. The episode actually begins with a labour and ends with the death of Benton’s mother. The early birth comes in a pre-titles sequence that’s quite astonishing. It’s a fast, funny, five-minute prologue that tells the story of Chloe’s labour; like a little mini-episode in itself. As the episode progresses, as well as ER’s standard well-written drama, we get a lot of comedy: pratfalls, fart gags, projectile vomiting and people running around in the background of a serious drama scene. There are also a couple of brilliantly playful scenes where, bored of their respective families, Susan and Carol sneak up on the roof and sunbathe. Tarantino, ever the arbiter of cool, insisted on the characters wearing all-black sunglasses. (He also has them barefooted: another example of the director’s fascination with women’s feet.) In fact, given that this is the 24th episode of a TV show with its own storytelling conventions, Tarantino is able to bring a lot of himself to the party. Motherhood is a fascinating mixture of ER’s house style (Steadicam shots arcing around characters, long takes, frenetic medical jargon, lots of extras rushing around a huge, four-walled set) and Tarantino’s obsessions (fetishist close-ups, flashes of violence, self-conscious coolness). Of course, a visual technique that both ER and Tarantino have excelled at is the long take. The show used them routinely, especially in high-energy scenes to build tension and a sense of real-time, and Motherhood contains Quentin’s most elaborate example yet. Just shy of two minutes and featuring dozens of characters and huge reams of dialogue, it’s a rather spectacular piece of work. Check it out here:

Nine blackbirds singing in the dead of night out of 10

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