Warning: spoilers for ER, Buffy , The 100, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Downton Abbey, The West Wing, Vikings & How I Met Your Mother.
ER ran for 15 years and focused on the staff at an Emergency Room in Chicago – so unsurprisingly, there were a lot of deaths over the course of the series. Like many a genre show, episodes where everybody lives were fairly rare. The regular cast were also subjected to a series of traumatic incidents from which their fellow medical staff were required to save them, including but not limited to car accidents, heart attacks, suicide attempts, stabbings, sexual assault, getting kidnapped, being held hostage, getting beaten up, getting shot, and accidentally stepping on broken glass. That last one wasn’t quite so dramatic.
Although they usually pulled through, ER was not afraid to kill off regular or recurring characters. Mark Greene died of a brain tumour, Dennis Gant was killed by a train (possibly by suicide), and Michael Gallant was killed while on active duty in Iraq. As we’ve seen, County General in Chicago was a dangerous place to work; Lucy Knight was stabbed to death while on shift and Greg Pratt was killed by an exploding ambulance. And that’s without even mentioning all the friends and family members who die from various causes over the course of the show (Carter’s grandmother, Carter’s son, Weaver’s wife, Greene’s father, both Jing-Mei’s parents, Benton’s nephew, Benton’s ex-girlfriend, Benton’s mother… the list goes on).
Most of these deaths were dramatic, emotional gut-punches that tugged on the audience’s heartstrings and resulted in some truly acclaimed television, all heightened by the fact every character’s job was to save lives and they were frequently trying desperately to save each other in the ER itself. ‘All in the Family’ (Lucy Knight’s death) and ‘On the Beach’ (Mark Greene’s death) regularly appear on ER ‘Best Episodes’ lists.
There’s one main character death on ER, though, that is notoriously strange – ridiculous, ironic, feeling long overdue to many, probably aiming for dramatic irony but instead landing in the territory of just plain daft: the death of Robert “Rocket” Romano.
Helicopter Me Once, Shame On You…
The year before Romano (Paul McCrane) died in Season 10, Episode 8, ‘Freefall’, County General’s top surgeon lost his arm, and his career with it, in a helicopter accident. That itself was an odd scene. All the characters were under a lot of strain while evacuating the hospital due to an outbreak of monkeypox, and Romano was trying to retrieve a patient’s chart, which had blown away, so you can see how it was written to be an unfortunate accident. In the execution, though, he seemed to just kind of stand up into a helicopter blade, even though he must have worked on the roof around helicopters many times before, and while patient’s charts are of course very important, forgetting to keep an eye on the rotating helicopter blade above you just seems odd for someone usually so in control of himself.
And then came his death the following year – crushed to death by a falling (and exploding) helicopter. Yes, really. It’s clear that the writers intended this death to be deeply ironic, especially as Romano had gone outside to recover from traumatic flashbacks to his earlier accident, sparked off by going up to the helipad while this very helicopter was sitting there. But to audiences, it just came off as so ludicrous that it was more silly than dramatic.
To top it all, as if the shot of Romano screaming as the helicopter rushed downwards wasn’t blackly comedic enough thanks to a combination of acting and staging, there was a further element of black comedy added. Romano had caught Archie Morris smoking pot and told him to stay at the entrance desk a few minutes earlier, saying, “do not move until I come get you!” As the episode moves into the by-now familiar rhythm of an ER disaster episode and everyone bursts into action, Morris refuses to budge, since Romano told him to stay put, and since no one knew where Romano was and he’s been pretty comprehensively squashed by the falling helicopter, no one even misses him or realises he’s gone for ages and Morris just stands there, presumably still high. It all injects an awkward, blackly comedic feel to what should be a serious episode.
Granted, Romano was one of the least sympathetic doctors on the show, especially early on. His first line is a racist comment aimed at Benton, Maggie Doyle accused him of sexual harassment, Kerry Weaver pointed out his derogatory attitude towards gay colleagues, he fires Haleh at one point, and he’s generally unpleasant to most people. If any main character was going to die such an undignified death, it was going to be him.
But Romano had many humanising moments that meant he was never an outright villain. Flipping the table in frustration when Lucy dies, smiling and signing to Benton’s deaf son to take care of his father, telling Elizabeth to go back to Mark even though he was in love with her himself – all these showed that was a real, feeling human being underneath all the bluster. The day he brought his dog in for surgery was a total misuse of the hospital resources and probably should have got him fired, but it was also sort of adorable in its own way. Not all viewers felt he was redeemable, but it’s fair to say he did have a few potentially redeeming qualities.
So seeing him subjected to death-by-squishing and then seeing only Alex Kingston’s Elizabeth Corday even care was a bit harsh. Perhaps, without his arm and therefore unable to portray him as a surgeon, the writers had run out of ideas for him. In this 2003 TV Guide interview, McCrane said he was disappointed to go but that the production team felt the character had run his course and didn’t want him to overstay his welcome. It’s fair to say that Romano wasn’t a likeable enough character for a multi-episode death like those granted to Lucy Knight or Mark Greene to work for him. The audience simply wouldn’t be upset enough for a long, drawn-out goodbye. But other options were available. He could have simply left, like the dozens of other regular and recurring characters who, for various reasons, simple moved on to other things, as real people do. If he had to die, he could at least have died heroically, giving his character some kind of redemption for his jerkassery over the years. If they wanted something ironic, even dying saving a dog would have been better than this.
Tara, Dax, Cousin Matthew et al.
There are other TV character deaths that could be considered more frustrating for other reasons. Both Tara McClay (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Lexa (The 100) were LGBTQ+ characters who were shot to death by stray bullets straight after a romantic scene with their same-sex love interest. This was immensely frustrating for LGBTQ+ viewers, who were sick of seeing characters like them get killed off, and pretty frustrating for everyone else as well, since these were relationships most viewers were rooting for and they had just turned a romantic corner (getting back together and having sex for the first time, respectively).
Sometimes, a character death is brought about because the actor wants to leave the show, but how this is done matters. When a possessed Guk Dukat killed Jadzia Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for example, the fact that actor Terry Farrell only wanted to reduce her screentime and didn’t even want to leave all together just makes the rather spiteful character death even more frustrating.
On the other hand, the death of Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey was frustrating in the execution rather than the fact of him being killed off. Dan Stevens had decided to leave the show and no one wanted Matthew and Lady Mary to break up after rooting for them for so long, so having the character die and make room for yet more romantic shenanigans for Lady Mary made sense. But Matthew was killed in a sudden car accident (at a time when fatal car accidents were fairly rare) right at the very end of the Christmas special (so viewers spent the whole episode, watching on Christmas Day in a fug of brandy and pudding, just waiting for him to cark it), immediately after meeting his newborn son (after Lady Sybil had died in childbirth only a few episodes before).
Matthew Crawley’s death was obviously supposed to be heart-wrenching and dramatic, but unlike Lady Sybil’s, it wasn’t rooted in issues of the period – in her case, her doctor didn’t recognise pre-ecclampsia (though oddly enough that was a problem for ER’s Dr Greene in the 1990s as well). It also wasn’t sign-posted in any way and there was no dramatic build-up and no immediate aftermath either, to allow the audience to say a proper goodbye to the character. Just ‘hey, he’s dead, enjoy your mince pies!’
Even more frustrating than deaths brought about by off-screen necessity, sometimes showrunners decide a character’s story arc is done when audiences don’t entirely agree. Aethelstan and Floki’s respective endings on Vikings ruined one of the most fun and likeable characters in the show’s first season. Other times, secondary characters are killed off to, like a redshirt, make the situation seem serious, like Jenny Calendar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Admiral Fitzwallace on The West Wing.
Even in series finales, no character is safe from a frustrating death, as many fans have made clear in their respective responses to the Supernatural to Star Trek: Enterprise series endings. But those are nothing to the fury of How I Met Your Mother fans, who spent nine years waiting for Ted and The Mother to get together, only to see The Mother killed off from a disease that isn’t even named partway through the finale so that Ted can get together with the one woman we knew for sure wasn’t The Mother from the beginning.
A Blip in an Otherwise Great Track Record
Honestly, though, for me, none of those are quite as purely frustrating to watch as poor old Rocket Romano. Perhaps it’s because ER dealt with death so often, and 99% of the time, dealt with it really well. Whether a character was liked or not, whether the actor chose to leave or they were written out of the show, ER had a great track record in producing really satisfying character deaths. It was just in the nature of the series to be good at killing characters off.
And that’s ultimately what makes this particular character death so frustrating. Everything about it is just slightly off. The dramatic irony is laid on too thick, the direction of the scene makes it look ridiculous, as does the face poor Romano pulls as the thing comes down (not entirely the fault of Paul McCrane, as it’s quite a hard thing to get right, and direction and editing have a role here too). The weird story-telling around Morris and the fact no one notices Romano is gone for so long is probably supposed to be dramatic too, but just becomes unintentionally funny (and doesn’t do Morris any favours as a character either). It’s supposed to be tragic that only Elizabeth mourns Romano, but it just makes everyone else looks heartless – sure, he wasn’t a nice guy, but he was no King Joffrey, they should at least offer up an attempt at a goodbye.
ER is available to stream in full on All4 in the UK and on Hulu and HBO Max in the US.