Code Black Season 1 Episode 5 Review: “Doctors With Borders”

Code Black

Code Black Season 1 Episode 5 put the show back on its stellar track.  Code Black “Doctor Without Borders” is a tightly written script with all the great things I’ve already come to expect from this series: character development and revelation, a look at our human foibles and strengths, scenes that truly touch the heart, and intense medical emergency action.  The reveals show that Code Black is a show with a lot of different stories to tell – and not just about the patients!

This is the first episode of Code Black that doesn’t have at least six different medical cases going on. Even though I do love when things are that busy, last week’s episode had seven different cases – four individual ones and then three which were interconnected – and the writing suffered a bit because of it.   In “Doctors With Borders” Angel Memorial actually doesn’t go into code black. Every week the opening says a code black happens 300 times a year – which leaves 65 days where it doesn’t. It’s good to know the has this breathing space because the lower case count this week allowed for more character building and I found the medical intensity of the situations didn’t drop.

The Setup

In a rare moment of downtime Dr. Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey) is asking at the nurse’s station about a good restaurant to take his parents to dinner.   Resident Dr. Malaya Pineda (Melanie Chandra) suggests two Indian restaurants that she always takes her parents to.  She’s jumped to a conclusion again (see last week’s review of “Sometimes It’s a Zebra” to see what I mean) as Neal let’s her know that his mother moved to England when she was two and hates Indian food.

Only time will tell just how far Code Black is going to go with melting pot idea but it does seem like a theme is emerging around not judging a person based on appearances.  Now I’m super curious about what Malaya’s background is.  Malaya could be name expected by someone of Indian descent, but Pineda is decidedly Latino.  We do know she’s super smart and has a girlfriend.  I’m sure her turn will come in terms of getting more of her story.  After all, this is only Episode 5.

The Cases

The Contagion

The conversation between Malaya and Neal is cut short by entrance of a white-haired older couple.  The woman is Dr. Susan Evansburg is struggling to breath and being held up by her husband, Lawrence Egan (The brilliant H. Richard Greene from Mad Men)  He tells them the problem had started that afternoon with some coughing.  By the time they were going to dinner she was having trouble breathing.  Things deteriorate rapidly and Susan dies on the table.

Greene is amazing as the first bewildered and then heart-broken husband.  The whole “eyes are the windows to the soul” thing is applicable because the shock, hurt and to-the-bone devastation is all in his quietly tearing blue eyes.  I felt guilty watching such a personal moment – that’s how real it was.

Susan’s death turns out to be the beginning of a series of emergency patients with similar symptoms – all from the same hotel that Susan and Lawrence were at.   Neal realizes the connection before anyone else and orders those patients all be isolated – as well as the doctors and nurses who have been dealing with them.  If this is a contagious airborne illness it has the makings of a deadly epidemic!  Adding to the stressful situation?  One of the victims brought in is Neal’s mother, Asra Hudson (Roma Chugani)!  She and her husband Dr. Peter Hudson (Daniel Gerroll) were at the same medical convention Dr. Egan was at!

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Neal and his father don’t see eye to eye on things.  At one point his father even tries to override Neal’s orders then later he tries to have Mrs. Hudson moved to a better hospital!  Apparently Neal trained under his famous neurosurgeon father back in England, but then moved to Los Angeles to “learn from the best” in emergency medicine.  He never went back to England.  There’s definitely some father-son tension – to the point that I found myself wondering if Peter Hudson is father or stepfather to Neal because his relationship to his mother is a good one. There is love, understanding and humor that they share. We never hear Neal call Peter dad or father, but it’s always “mum” when he’s speaking to his mother.   Likewise, when Neal saves his mother’s life, Peter thanks him for “giving him back his wife.”  In fact this is the only time Neal actually says Peter is his father.

Dr. Taylor:  “Who’s that jackass ordering the nurses around?

Neal:             “That’d be my father.”

Whether Peter is Neal’s actual father, or the man who raised him it feels like there is more to this story than father-son tension.

One big difference these two have is in their medical philosophies.  It’s similar to the issue Dr. Rollie Guthrie (William Allen Young) had with his son – new surgical attending Dr. Cole Guthrie (Cress Williams).  Last week it was the son we saw with the belief that modern is better.  This week Neal’s father is the one who likes his doctoring to be pristine and sterile and he can’t understand why his son has chosen to work under conditions and with methods that – in Peter’s eyes – are primitive.

There are so many instances in Code Black where there is no time for machines to take measurements or where the medications that may help one thing can hurt in another area. Just as fighting stereotypes is one theme of the show the importance of  not becoming too dependant on modern methods and technology is another.  Not that modern medicine is ever completely pushed aside, but the point about being able to handle medical emergencies without them is on that made – often graphically – every week.

E.R. manager Dr. Taylor (Kevin Dunn) is also used more in this episode than usual, and it helps cement what his role is – aside from being a dry wit midwestern wiseass.   In the case of the possible epidemic Dr. Taylor is the one on the phone with the CDC trying to figure out what this outbreak could be and taking heat about proper protocols being followed.  In the other big case of the evening we see him being most concerned about safety measures being taken so that no accidentally stabs themselves. (More on that later.)  He also at one point tells Neal that he’s aware that one of the victims from the hotel is Neal’s mother.  Dr. Taylor isn’t great with sentiment and emotion, but you can tell he really cares about Neal as he awkwardly tells Neal that all of the hospital’s resources , are “available” to him in order to save his mother.

Within this issue of a possible contagion and Neal dealing with his father there are a couple of subplots.

 1.  Leanne and Neal

We got a sense of a bond between the head of E.R. resident training Dr. Leanne “Daddy” Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden) and Neal last week, and we get more of that in this episode.  You can see real love in how they look at each other when the plastic is being zipped up to separate those exposed from those who haven’t been.

There is obviously some deep history between these two.  We know now that he came to study with Leanne, then chose to stay – and that he’s very concerned about the ways Leanne has changed as a doctor since her family was killed.

Leanne is the one Neal turns to when he is desperate and at his wit’s end about what could be killing these people.  He’s just lost a second patient, this time it’s a young woman who was the caterer at the event.  Malaya had spoken to the woman when first brought in.  The scenes dealing with her as the team tries to save her are a fast and furious ride and when she dies there’s a moment where you can see the feeling of absolute helpless that everyone involved has – especially Neal.  She gives him a kind of pep talk that starts with her talking about being in med school, “back in the dark ages.”  It addresses the audience question about the ethics of Neal treating his mother.  While yes, that’s considered a “rule” it’s one that eventually gets broken, especially around small stuff.  However, under the circumstances Neal has no choice.  He’s the only full staff doctor that was exposed.  She then makes a truly poignant statement:

The tragedy is when you’re absolutely the finest most skilled doctor there is, and you have to turn them over to people less skilled than you.  So your lucky, your mother is lucky, because there is no one anywhere better equip to save her, than you.  You have the opportunity to do what I couldn’t do with my own family.  I envy you that.  So don’t waste it questioning yourself.  You know what to do.

One of the things I truly enjoy about Code Black is the richness in the writing.  I’ve often thought that at it’s best a good television show is hybrid of film and theatre and Code Black is just that.  The fast action medical components would never work on an open stage, but the more structured required for a scripted television show (especially a non-cable show) has just enough artifice that scenes which are all talk and no action can work.

Not to say that in the faster paced visual medium that television is pulling off monologues like this is easy.  It takes an actor that can be in that moment so deeply that you can’t look away and the layers of meaning in the words can wash over you.  Luckily the show has that kind of talent in spades – especially with Harden who makes Leanne simultaneously strong, vulnerable, sad, loving and wise.

It’s after this talk with Leanne that Neal is able to buckle down and focus in on the medical evidence that he has.  The problem is nothing that’s contagious and the solution turns out to be something very hands on but relatively simple to have administered to the remaining group of victims – including Neal’s mother.

2.  Neal and Christa

So far resident Dr. Christa Lorenson (Bonnie Somerville) and Neal is the romance component of Code Black and the journey continues in “Doctors with Borders.”  When Dr. Taylor asks for volunteers to go help out in the quarantine area, she’s the first one who volunteers. (if others later do we don’t see it.)  The move gets her major respect from Head Nurse Jesse “Mama” Sallander (Luis Guzmán) who is helping her suit up to enter the quarantine area.

Jesse:   “The sign to the entrance to the hospital said that no person who is suffering would be without care.   You walk the walk, doctor.  I salute you.”

Christa: “Does it count that I’m half-scared out of my mind?”

Jesse:    “Counts double.”

All that wrapping up and masking turns out to be a waste of time because the first patience she tries to help is in a panic (because they can’t breath) and in thrashing about rips the mask off her face.  Everyone is horrified – and she and Neal have a moment of intense eye-gazing as Christa says she doesn’t need another mask and tries to make Neal feel okay about the fact that she’s been exposed.  She’s definitely scored more points with him!

It goes like this for the rest of case.  Christa is his shadow and backup on many occasion – even as she is his student.  At one point he calls on Christa to explain to his father why the medication suggestion he made to stabilize his wife’s heart is a problem.  It’s Christa’s eyes he’s looking into as he desperately tries to save the catering woman.  She sees all the issues Neal is having.  Having his father around has Neal defensive about how he practices medicine. Will this woman dying mean his father is right and if he can’t save this one will he be able to save mom?  Christa is hurting for Neal and what he’s going through – even as she slightly shakes her head to let him know the patient is dead.  He needs to call it.

That’s not all that happens between Christa and Neal.  She’s the one who sees Neal’s father crying about his wife and alerts Neal so he can go comfort his father.  Christa also notices that Lawrence,  seems to be having chest pains and brings Neal to check him out.  Neal let’s him know it’s not a heart attack – just a “temporary condition brought on by stress.”  The demeanor Neal has with Lawrence is sweet and gentle.  He then confides in Christa what’s really going on.  Lawrence has “a disease where emotional stress causes the heart to become enlarged” – also known as “broken-heart syndrome.”  There’s no cure, only supportive care, which under the circumstances is impossible.  They’re short-staffed in the quarantine area as it is.

Last week I saw Dr. Leanne Rorish as the featured character.  Although it’s more evenly divided in this episode I would have to say that in “Doctors With Borders” Dr. Neal Hudson is the most featured.  We get to see just how much this man cares about other people and the passion he has for his work.  Jaffrey shines in all his scenes, but I particularly love this one because it’s so subtle.  Neal can barely look Christa in the eye when he tells her what’s wrong.  There’s no tears, but the sense that Neal feels guilty and responsible for Lawrence’s pain radiates strongly from him.  Likewise, he knows that he needs to be pragmatic. Doctors can’t save every patient, but losing a patient still affects Neal deeply.

Wide-eyed Christa once again intuitively sees what’s going on for Neal and manages to solve two problems with one move.   When she realizes that Lawrence’s wife wasn’t just “a doctor” but one famous in the same field as Neil’s father she brings him to met Lawrence.  Peter actually worked with now deceased doctor when she had a fellowship at Oxford.  Peter is able to comfort Lawrence by just sitting with him and talking about how wonderful the doctor was.  This allows Peter to take his mind off the fact that his own wife might not make it.  Neal sees what Christa has done and from across the room whispers, “thank you.”

So, the Christa and Neal thing is chugging along.  Since both of these people have a lot of emotional baggage, I don’t expect it to go too fast though.  At least that’s my hope.  I like how these relationships are evolving amidst the chaos of the E.R. and don’t want to suddenly find myself watching them out at candle-lit restaurants.  Besides, there’s the whole issue of where Leanne fits into Neal’s story, and this is only Episode 5.

The Impalement

This and the contagion case two are intercut so there is almost always some kind of intense blood/guts/pain action going on.  53-year-old Nick Gabler (Wade Williams) arrives by ambulance at the same time we saw Lawrence and the doctor walked into the emergency room where Neal and Malaya were.   Dr. Taylor and Dr. Rorish are the ones set to meet the ambulance and Leanne grabs resident doctors Mario Savetti (Benjamin Hollingsworth) and Angus Leighton (Harry Ford) to come along and assist.  Mama is right along with them and translates Dr. Taylor’s description of the situation to Angus.  Nick is a construction worker who fell 20 feet and impaled himself through his groin and butt on a steel rebar (used in reinforcing concrete) – like he was a piece on a shish kebab.

Like the contagion storyline there’s a lot of relationship and emotional drama swirling around this case.  The last thing Nick remembers before waking up in the ambulance is that he’d had a horrible fight on the phone with his daughter that morning.  This immediately makes Leanne suspect there’s more going on because the level of amnesia is too high for a mild con concussion.  At the moment the moment though the biggest problem with the case is getting that piece of steel cut so that they can fit Nick into the CT scan machine to check for any organ or head damage.  The man is in a lot of pain despite the morphine but he begs Leanne not to put him under before talking to his daughter.  He’s terrified that he could die and that fight would be the last thing they ever said to each other. The problem is his daughter is on a plane to New York and won’t land before midnight L.A. time.  Leanne clearly connects to Nick’s story in some way.  Did she and her husband fight right before the crash?

The obvious relationship problem that is swirling around while all this is going on is that Mario and Angus can’t stand working together.  Things between them have been bad ever since Mario didn’t add his own part in a medical mistake Angus made.  Angus wants nothing to do with him, but Mario is still a damn show-off and trying to tell Angus how to do things.  The good news is Angus has gained a bit more confidence.  I gave a silent cheer when he actually stood up to Mario and told him he had his own order of how he checked the body and that the last time he took Mario’s advice all it did was get him into trouble.  As such:

Angus: “I will work with you, if I have to, but don’t tell me what to do.”

Mario:  “Whatever, man.  Get over it.”

Things do not go well with these two…for a while.  Leanne has to reprimand them both when she finds them arguing over Angus needing to goto the gym vs. Mario needing to go to therapy (that bit is really funny)!  What they are supposed to be doing is trimming the long metal spike going through Nick’s body so that Nick can fit into the CT scanner.

However, it’s hard to stay mad at someone when you’re working side-by-side under intense circumstances – like when you walk in to take your patient up to surgery and find they’ve gone into cardiac arrest!  There’s a little back-n-forth as they work to get Nick’s heart started.  Once they do Angus realizes that falling and being impaled on the rebar was the second thing that happened.  The first was that Nick, who was an electrician working on a construction site, had been electrocuted.  That would cause the heavier amnesia and other atypical problems that Nick had been presenting in the ER.  However, Angus doesn’t get to celebrate much because Mario sees that in resuscitating Nick the steel bar has shifted.  It’s now dangerously close to a main artery! As Nick starts to wake up Angus and Mario simultaneously tell him not to move.

They manage to get the CT scan, but Angus comes back with Leanne to find Mario trying to stop Nick’s leg from spurting blood.  It’s no one’s fault.  Leanne, using very medical language, says that the rebar couldn’t have kept the hole in Nick’s leg sealed forever and it was just a matter of time before the wound widened and Nick started bleeding out.  I guess she just hoping he’d have been up with the vascular team in surgery before that happened.

Leanne tells Nick he’s got “an hour and half” before his daughter’s plane lands and he’s got to hold on that long so that he can talk to her.  He’s then rushed to center stage because there’s no time to wait for the vascular team.  They need to try to stop the bleeding.  When the blood loss makes Nick’s blood pressure drop, Leanne says there’s no choice.  The rebar has to come out so that they can try to temporarily close up the wound to prevent even more blood loss.  Leanne’s the lead on this, but everyone gets some major blood splatter!

I think that may be the goriest scene to date….

After the praise from Leanne the next time we see Angus and Mario they pretending to sword-fight with the pieces of rebar from Nick’s leg! They are both on a high from working that case and admit if could they’d do it all over again.  They are really bonding….which is why in the locker room Angus has to ask Mario why he abandoned Angus and let him take the full blame.  It’s a vulnerable moment.  Mario gets to see that more than anger about the fact that Angus could have been let go Angus is really hurt by the basic betrayal.  He sucks it up and reluctantly, but honestly begins to explain himself.

The talk that occurs is interesting.  Mario’s reason was that he thought then they’d both get kicked out of the program.  That doesn’t make Angus feel better, but then Mario keeps talking.  He sees Angus, Malaya, Christa as the respectable ones, but he’ll never be that…

… if you weren’t here I could see any of you with a practice in internal medicine, or pediatrics or psych – whatever you wanted.  Doesn’t work for me.  I’m never gonna be that guy with the white coat, you know.  The office in the medical arts building…you know, half the time when I tell people I’m a doctor they don’t even believe me?  If I fail at this? If I can’t do emergency medicine? I’ve got no place else to go. …I just got scared.

This is a good scene for explaining more about Mario and Ford and Hollingsworth do it well.  One of the things that’s a little hard for me is that I have a hard time buying the whole “poor guy from the wrong part of town” story from Hollingsworth.  Does he work as a bad boy former drug-addict? Yes, absolutely!  He just doesn’t read as having come from “the hood” and supposedly that’s the kind of place he grew up it.  Scenes like this serve to tell the audience Mario’s background because his vibe, regardless of the words, feels middle class.  When he says half the time people don’t believe he’s a doctor, I wanted to say to him it was because he’s too darn handsome, not because he doesn’t seem smart and educated.

Once Angus hears Mario out, he forgives him, because he can relate to being scared.  He lets Mario know that he’s “scared all the time.”  When Malaya and Christa stop by to invite Angus out with them after shift, Angus declines and says he’s taking Mario out for drinks to “let him tell me how great I am.”  The women are surprised, but see that it’s the start of a new chapter.  Mario is no longer the outcast.

The Wrap Up

There are two things that really bring Code Black Season 1 Episode 5 to a close.  The first is a talk Neal and his father have after the crisis has been averted and everyone can breathe (literally). Peter tells Neal that he now understands and respects why Neal chose emergency medicine and to be where he is.  More than just respect Neal’s decision he also tells Neal that believes Neal is the best in his chosen field and apologizes to Neal for not being supportive of him before.  Both father and son are teary-eyed through this, and at the end Neal gives Peter an emotional “American” hug.

The final closing scenes are around the impaled victim Nick.  Jesse is talking to Leanne about how amazing it is that Nick actually made it through everything.

Leanne: “He had unfinished business with his daughter.  Sometimes, that’s what gets you through”

Right on cue, the cell phone in Jesse’s pocket rings.  It’s Nick’s, and it’s his daughter calling. Leanne watches as Jesse wakes up Nick and gives him the phone.  Nick immediately starts sobbing and apologizing to his daughter.   When Jesse comes back to Leanne she says just one thing.

Leanne: “Do you know how many times I have dreamed of that call?”

Does this mean when Leanne’s family’s car was hit there was some unfinished business between Leanne and someone in the car?  Or is it just that she wishes she had another chance to tell the people she loved how much she loved them and that they were the “most important thing in the world” to her – which is what we hear Nick tell his daughter.   There’s a lot more mystery to be unraveled from Leanne’s past.  I’m looking forward to learning more!

Are you loving Code Black?  If so, let me know in the comments.  I love it, but apparently it’s “on the bubble” for CBS.  I’m hoping there’s a bigger audience than they think!

Want more news and reviews on Code Black and other television shows? You can follow me on Twitter.

[Photo credit: Neil Jacobs/CBS]


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