Abby Lockhart: The Driving Force of ER


Maura Tierney, who played Abby Lockhart on ER from November 25, 1999 until October 16, 2008, got the role without an audition; it was the stuff of Hollywood legends. “Hi. I’m Abby, I’ll be your OB nurse” (“Great Expectations”): the first words uttered by what was assumed to be a single episode guest character not the character who would eventually become the driving force of NBC’s number one medical show. ER aired from September 1994 until April 2009 and followed the medical personnel and patients in the emergency room of Chicago’s fictional County General Hospital. The ER staff confronted the daily challenges of a busy and overcrowded urban hospital, the impact of life-and-death decisions, and were forced to tackle the demands and demons of their personal lives. ER’s protagonist Abby Lockhart is a tragic hero. Her alcoholism, emotional withdrawal, and dramatic events in her life progressed throughout the series and served to construct the narrative and demonstrates the importance of character development in the drama.

Narrative theory is the process of telling a story or a series of events. The television narrative should be arranged in a logical manner, draw the audience in, and make them care about the events and especially the characters (O’Donnell 73-74).  Narrative theory can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, specifically Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics is an explanation of how to write drama. While he believed that character, thought, dialogue, song and spectacle were important features of a drama he saw the plot as having the utmost importance (O’Donnell 74). Television stories follow Aristotle’s view of a narrative quite well; the plot takes importance and is introduced immediately and the rest of the story develops logically. Vladimir Propp added to narrative theory with his idea that a story starts at a status quo, something disrupts the status quo, the narrative tracks the path of the disruption and the narrative is over when the status quo is restored (O’Donnell 75).  Roland Barthes’ view of narrative theory has more to do with interpretation or hermeneutics. He believed that narratives contained stages of a hermeneutic code that allowed the audience to both be along for the ride of the narrative but also interpret for themselves what was going to happen. Every narrative begins, and has many other enigmas or questions about the general plot direction. Then there is a delay that drives the plot forward and finally a resolution that satisfies the viewers’ curiosity over the enigma (O’Donnell 76).

There are several different pieces that make up narrative theory. The combination of these ideas creates the definition of narrative: the status quo of a situation is interrupted creating the drama of the story that can be interpreted by the audience due to its structure. Most modern television dramas adhere to this combination of what narrative theory is but there is one area were it has changed: character development. Aristotle saw plot as being the most important part of a narrative but today’s serial dramas tend to focus more on character development. Porter discusses this at great length and asserts that sometimes it is impossible to separate the character from the plot. Porter also says, “continuing storylines work to resist closure, which de-emphasizes the plot and brings the characters to the forefront of the narrative” (7). Continuing storylines are a major part of ER’s structure and are what constructed the character of Abby Lockhart from the very beginning. She had several major backstories that came into play over the course of her time on the show and even though we never saw them happen they still served to construct the narrative.

Abby’s alcoholism became a staple in her narrative arc and was the first major flaw revealed about her. She developed a problem with alcohol partly because of her damaging relationship with her mother and because of an unhappy marriage but she had been sober for five years when she joined ER in season six. She falls back on it several times throughout the series when she gets overwhelmed. We first find out that Abby is an alcoholic in “Sand and Water” when Carter, who has just returned from rehab for a drug addiction, sees her in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. This was quite a shock to him and the audience because up until this point she had just been an unassuming, bland, background character but this changed everything. She was actually Carter’s sponsor for a few months until he had a slight relapse and did not handle it the way Abby advised him to. She falls back into drinking again for the first time in “Beyond Repair” after a particularly bad birthday. Carter finds out that she has been drinking several episodes later and confronts her about. It is an interesting role reversal between Carter and Abby since Abby used to be his sponsor and now Carter is the one harping on her about drinking. In “Brothers and Sisters” he tries to tell her that she’s just going to start drinking more until it is out of control but she fails to see the light. In “The Letter” the ER finds out that Mark Greene, their leader and show mainstay, has died and they go out for drinks in his memory. Carter finds Abby outside the bar drunk and tries to physically drag her to an AA meeting. She says that she just can’t bring herself to go and to stop nagging her because she’s heard it all before. She does go to a meeting the next day, however, and tells Carter that she went for him. We do not see her drink again but several episodes later in “Chaos Theory,” Carter, Abby, Pratt and Chen are quarantined in the ER for two weeks after a smallpox scare along with a frequent ER patient Stan, an alcoholic. Stan tells the staff about his alcoholism and that he killed his daughter in a DUI. There is an awkward moment between Carter and Abby after this; Carter says that it’s a sad thing that happened to Stan’s daughter and that it could have been prevented and Abby says that those things happen. Carter thinks that they don’t have to happen which leads to an argument between them about her drinking,

Carter: I want to help you, not because I’m a nice guy, or because I’m worried about you, but because I want to be with you.

Abby: You want to fix me.

Carter: I want to help you.

Abby: You want to fix me so I’m good enough.

Carter: No, I want it to work.

Abby: Well, I’m not broken (“Chaos Theory”).

This argument displays Abby’s primary qualm about her relationship with Carter: he tries to fix her. Her drinking is under control after this point and in “Insurrection” she goes out with Susan and Chen after a particularly stressful day at work. They are seen at a club and Abby has a drink in front of her but she declines an offer for another one. These ‘girls nights’ continue for awhile and in “Walk Like a Man” Carter mistakenly tells Susan about Abby’s alcoholism and tells her that he is concerned about Abby drinking. This leads to Abby having to tell Susan that her drinking is just something she does not talk about and also to a fight between Abby and Carter,

Carter: I agreed not to rescue you or help you or fix you so I’m just gonna shut up and wait for the car wreck…we both know where this is going.

Abby: No I don’t, and you know everything would’ve been fine if you had just come to me in the first place…I’m not drinking to get drunk, I’m hardly drinking at all. Do you wanna know how much I’ve been drinking? Last night I had two beers, Wednesday I had a Cosmo, last week I had nothing, the week before that I had a beer and a pink drink, I don’t know what it was.

Carter: You’re keeping very close track.

Abby: Yeah because it’s under control.

Carter: Well I just don’t understand why you’d want to go back to that.

Abby: I was drinking last year you knew that.

Carter: Well it was a little different then.

Abby: Yeah now it’s not about being scared and alone.

Carter: It’s still drinking.

Abby: Look, wait, I used to drink because I was miserable, I was in a lousy marriage, I had a life I didn’t want, and now I’m happy. With you. Things are good. And being able to have a casual drink with my friends just makes me feel like I’m past the bad part (“Walk Like a Man”).
This argument sums up Carter’s stance on Abby’s drinking and the main reasons why Abby drinks throughout the series. She is either scared and alone, which is usually the case, or she just wants to have a casual drink with her friends. Abby’s drinking became something that viewers watched out for. If her mood shifted or something bad happened to her the audience would always wonder if she had started or would start drinking again. It kept the audience on their toes and added another level to the show that only long time viewers could participate in.
Her final alcohol related arc is not until season fourteen. At this time Abby is married to, and has a child with, Luka. Her alcoholism had not been mentioned for several seasons and it was assumed that she had everything under control; she finally had a happy life. Luka has to go to Croatia for an extended period of time to take care of his ailing father, leaving Abby to lead the life of a single working mother. Abby’s alcoholism arc in season fourteen is the climax of her series long alcoholism arc. In “Gravity” their two-year-old son, Joe, is brought into the ER with a head injury after falling off of a jungle gym. Abby is unable to reach Luka throughout the day while Joe has to undergo many different tests before they find out that he is alright. She is still trying to get a hold of Luka on her way home from the hospital with Joe and crashes her car into a mailbox. She cracks under the stress of the day and drinks a bottle of wine. She continues drinking for several more episodes, and the climax of this storyline is in the aptly named “Blackout.” The episode opens with her sitting at O’Hare airport rocking her crying son in her lap with tears streaming down her face. It then jumps back eighteen hours and shows what happened to get her to that ending. A blackout is brewing in the city of Chicago and the entire ER staff, including Abby who is already slightly intoxicated when she arrives, goes out for drinks to celebrate Pratt and Morris passing their medical board exams. The new ER chief Moretti, who has developed a particularly hostile relationship with Abby, is also there. Abby is a mess from the time she arrives; her hair is strewn, she gets into an argument with Pratt over a patient who she does not fully remember, and she is trying to be the life of the party.  This was incredibly hard to watch because not only had the audience never seen her this drunk, but it was also painfully obvious that something truly bad was going to happen. Moretti buys her a drink and she obligingly joins him at the bar.  They banter about Moretti being a tyrant and a flirt. He asks her where Luka is and talks about the difficulties of balancing work, family and relationships. Abby responds to him with, “If you want to hear about a complicated life I will make you cry” (“Blackout”); that line leapt through the television screen and brought up memories from Abby’s past for longtime viewers: we knew that all was not well. There is obvious sexual tension between them and the power goes out. It cuts to Abby waking up in Moretti’s bed hours later. She sees how late it is and realizes what she has done and that she has a babysitter waiting for her at home. She is frantic, and still a little drunk; by the time she gets home she finds the babysitter on the phone with the police because she still had not come home at three in the morning.  She quickly gets rid of the babysitter and impulsively decides to go and see Luka in Croatia. She frantically gets herself and little Joe into the car and attempts to drive, while still intoxicated, to the airport. She almost hits a truck and realizes that she is too drunk to drive. She arrives at the airport in a cab and attempts to get a flight out. And so we arrived back at the beginning; she was not allowed on a flight because she was intoxicated so she was forced to sit and calm down. As she is rocking her crying son in her lap tears stream down her face as she flashes back to what she did with Moretti during her blackout. The car wreck that Carter predicted five seasons earlier finally happened, except this time there was no one around to help her. She managed to jeopardize her career, her marriage, her life and her son’s life in one episode.  No one who knew about her alcoholism was present in season fourteen, besides Luka who was away in Croatia, so she actually hit rock bottom. She continues to drink; it is even revealed that she drank at work, for several more episodes. Luka comes back and notices, along with the rest of the staff, that all is not right with Abby. Finally in “300 Patients” she breaks down to Luka:

Abby: I started drinking again.

Luka: When?

Abby: The night Joe got hurt. And I…can’t stop.

Luka: I thought when I came back, we just had to get used to being married again. But then things didn’t get better and I thought… So what do we do?

Abby: I need to fix it. I need to go somewhere, a facility, with professionals, and get better. And I need to believe it this time, and I need you to believe it. And I need you to help me. So… so, take Joe… go to Croatia, for your father, while I do that.

Luka: You want us to go without you? But you’re his mother!

Abby: I know that! I know that! But I haven’t been a very good one. And I honestly don’t think I can be until I deal with this.

Luka: Can’t we do this together?

Abby: This is how we do it together! You have to help me do it… alone.

Luka: It’s my fault, isn’t it?

Abby: No, don’t. (both of them begin to cry) Please don’t…

Luka: I should have come home earlier, I shouldn’t have left you…

Abby: No! I should have been able to handle this!

Luka: I broke my promise!

Abby: Don’t do that, okay?! Don’t! I screwed up! I screwed up because I couldn’t keep it together!

Luka: (at the same time) I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so…

Abby: This is my fault! It’s my fault, it’s me! And please, don’t, don’t. Just don’t… (Abby places her hand on his back, and pauses for a long, long moment) I’m sorry. (they sit quietly together, in so much pain)    (“300 Patients”)
This was one of the most dramatic and heartrending dialogues of the entire series. It was also a considerably long scene with lots of silence, which illustrates the important of emotion and character on ER. The viewers were heavily invested in Abby’s personal life and to see this long, uninterrupted scene made us feel as if we were there with them; we felt the tension in the air right along with the characters. Abby actually says that she needs help (which is pretty much an unprecedented event for her) and checks herself into rehab. This also shows how much she matured throughout the series. Now that she has a family she realizes that it is not just her own life she is damaging. The resolution of Abby’s alcoholism arc occurs in subsequent episodes when she returns from rehab and tells everyone that she is an alcoholic. The staff is stunned, as many have known her for years, and she receives both support and judgment from them, which she graciously accepts and deals with.
Abby’s alcoholism arc was a huge part of the overall narrative of the show. When she would start drinking it would be at a particularly overwhelming point in her life, which was very dramatic and constructed the narrative. It always made her life more complicated and dramatic instead of easing her anxieties.
Abby’s life is also complicated by her bipolar mother, Maggie. Abby’s emotional withdrawal and lack of self-confidence is due to her tumultuous relationship with Maggie both as a child and as an adult. This affects her romantic and personal relationships because she can never open up and is afraid to depend on anyone except herself. Maggie’s appearances on ER were always the focal point of the episode; everyone wondered what kind of mayhem Maggie was going to cause. Her mother often drops into her life and causes her emotional turmoil. We first get introduced to Maggie, played by Sally Field, in the episode “The Visit.”  She drops by the ER and when the desk clerk tells Abby that her mother is there Abby denies knowing her. Maggie, off her medication, becomes irate when Dr. Weaver informs her that Abby said that she did not know her. She goes on a rampage through the hospital screaming for her while Abby leans against a wall watching her, the pain evident in her face. Later, when Dr. Weaver asks her why she said she did not know her and how long she has been bipolar, we learn that she has been like this since Abby was a child and often does not take her medication. Maggie ends up staying with Abby and a few episodes later in “The Dance We Do” it seems like Maggie is doing better and is on her medication. Abby has her suspicions but lets them go and tries to be optimistic, which is a big stretch for her. Maggie claims to have a job interview at a clothing boutique but Abby gets a call later that Maggie has run through a plate glass window at said boutique. When she gets there she is informed that Maggie freaked out, demanded a job, stole a scarf and ran through the window. Back at the hospital Maggie becomes enraged with Abby for suggesting that she be given a sedative. Maggie wildly runs around the ER screaming and trying to escape, calling Abby a “little bitch” and yelling that she can’t do this to her because she is her mother. When she has calmed down, Maggie agrees to check herself into the hospital, but she later disappears. When Carter finds Abby to tell her that Maggie is gone she is not at all surprised:

Abby: This is the end of a cycle. Our cycle. She disappears, and then for months I don’t know where she is, what she’s doing or if she’s alive. Then eventually she’ll turn up somewhere and I’ll have to deal with it.

Carter: I’m sorry.

Abby: Don’t be. I knew how it would be when she showed up. It’s the dance we do. You get lost in it for a little while, but it always ends the same (“The Dance We Do”).
In “Sailing Away” Abby’s prediction of her mother turning up somewhere comes true. Abby’s ex-husband comes to the hospital to tell Abby that her mother has locked herself in a hotel room in Oklahoma and the hotel manager found his number in her stuff. Abby is dating Luka at this point and he tells her to call the local psychiatric hospital in Oklahoma and have her committed. Abby cannot let her mother be committed to a psychiatric ward in another state so she decides to go get Maggie herself. Carter comes across her trying to get a plane ticket to Oklahoma and she reluctantly tells him what happened. Carter books them both tickets to Oklahoma and goes with Abby to get Maggie. They find her completely out of it in a dirty motel room and have to drive her back to Chicago because she cannot fly, which brings up yet another traumatic story from Abby’s childhood, including the fact that Maggie has seriously attempted suicide twice. Abby also tells Carter that she should not have let him come with; he should not have to deal with this and she is used to doing these things alone. When they stop at a convenience store on the way back to Chicago, Maggie steals a box of sleeping pills. By the time they get back to Abby’s apartment Maggie is unconscious in the back seat of the car and barely has a pulse. They rush her to the hospital. She “comes as close to death as [Abby] sees people get” (“Fear of Commitment”) and is admitted to the psychiatric ward. She stays there for her required amount of time and in “Where the Heart Is” Maggie reveals her plans to move back to her birthplace of Minneapolis which shocks Abby who is very pessimistic about her mother’s ability to survive on her own. This leads to a heartfelt moment between them about Abby living her own life and not holding back anymore because of Maggie:

Maggie: You can’t put your life on hold anymore.

Abby: It’s not on hold.

Maggie: Stop sitting things out Abby.

Abby: I don’t.

Maggie: Yes you do. You can’t use me as the reason for not doing the things you want to do in life. Go to medical school.

Abby: That’s not so easy.

Maggie: Get married.

Abby: I was married.

Maggie: Get pregnant.

Abby: I was pregnant!

Maggie: (pause) What happened?

Abby: What happened? I had an abortion. Some people aren’t meant to be mothers.

Maggie: Abby, I was a lot younger than you are now when I had my first manic episode. I’ve watched you since you were a little girl, you’re not bipolar.

Abby: No, but my kids could be.

Maggie: But they might not be. They could be anything and you would just love them that’s all. You never even told Richard did you?

Abby: No, I-I think that was the beginning of the end us, because we just stopped talking about everything. I just was too scared. I cou- I couldn’t risk it, I just, I didn’t want to…

Maggie: Turn into me?

Abby: Yeah.

Maggie: Or have to end up taking care of another me?

[Abby nods-crying]

Maggie: That’s all there is is risk, you just have to take a chance and leap into life. Otherwise sweetheart you’re going to miss out on all the great things. Abby, you deserve all the great things. Do you hear me? (“Where the Heart Is”)

Maggie stays on her medication throughout the rest of the series and we see her a few more times when Abby’s brother Eric is diagnosed as bipolar, another emotional blow for Abby. She felt that she was responsible for him, since she was more like his mother than Maggie was, and felt like she let him down when he was diagnosed as bipolar. The last time we see Maggie is when Abby has her son, Joe, prematurely and he is in the NICU in grave condition. In “Graduation Day” Maggie has a slightly more pleasant time than usual with Abby and relates to her more since now they are both mothers. Luka and Abby clash about an experimental treatment for Joe and eventually Abby caves and allows him to undergo the treatment, which leads to complications that require surgery.

Abby (while her baby was in emergency surgery): I can’t do this. I can’t pretend everything’s gonna be ok. Premies don’t make it out of the OR.

Maggie: Let it go. All the bad things you’ve seen, let it go.

Abby: And I can’t believe I let myself get talked into this.

Maggie: Stop it!

Abby: I spent a month in the NICU, I know how this ends.

Maggie: Abby! You have a lot of great qualities, but optimism is not one of them.

Abby: [Abby laughs] Whose fault is that?

Maggie: Yeah. Alright. I did not create a good environment for a child to grow up believing things would work out. But you’re not a child any longer. You’re the mother now. And that baby down there needs you to believe he’s gonna be okay.

Abby: I’m trying! I am really, really trying! (“Graduation Day”)
In an interview during the ER Retrospective, Maura Tierney said,

“Sally’s character [Maggie] is what made my character possible. Once you saw Sally and how she was and what our relationship was then you understood my character. And every reason why my character was screwed up and buttoned down and emotionally shut down and everything, you just saw it.”
Once you saw who Maggie was and what she did to Abby you understood why she was so emotionally scarred. Abby had to take care of Maggie and her little brother when she was just a child. This lead to her learning how to hide her problems at a very young age because if her teachers or neighbors realized that she was her mother’s caretaker, she and her brother would have been taken away from Maggie. She learned to internalize all of her problems as a child and she carried this trait into adulthood. Her mother dropping into her life periodically, most of the time off of her medication and therefore manic, drove the dramatic plot of that particular episode. Her relationship with her mother progressed throughout the series. When we first see Maggie, Abby denies that she even knows her and does not want anything to do with her. Maggie eventually takes on a mothering role with Abby after the birth of her son and gives her advice about being a mother that Abby actually accepts; this culminates the progression of their relationship. Viewers felt for Abby when they saw how out of control Maggie was which lead to more empathy and relatability with Abby because who has not had issues with their parents? Maggie greatly dramatized the plot of ER whenever she was in an episode. Sally Field even won an Emmy for her portrayal of Maggie, which added to ER’s Emmy count, and would usually appear during sweeps periods to boost ratings.

Abby has a hard time in her romantic relationships because she never wants to depend on anyone, which stems from her dysfunctional relationship with her mother. She especially has a hard time letting Carter see her true feelings and does not immediately go to him for help when she needs it. She also hates it when he tries to ‘fix’ her in regards to her drinking. Carter ran to her rescue even before they were dating. In “Sailing Away” he did not even ask Abby if she wanted him to go with her to Oklahoma to get her mother, he just booked two flights. He then drove Abby and Maggie from Oklahoma to Chicago. Carter and Abby did not start dating until an entire season later in the season nine premiere, “Chaos Theory.” They had been quarantined during a smallpox scare and were finally released from the hospital after two weeks:

(While walking on the beach)

Abby: Chaos theory?

Carter: Seemingly random events; all part of a larger equation…A butterfly flaps it’s wings in China and creates a tornado half way around the world…I’m saying there is an inherent unpredictability about everything. Evolution, life, love, relationships.

Abby: So what am I? The butterfly or the tornado?

Carter: No, you are chaos in general.

Abby: Thanks!

Carter: I’m just saying you’re chaos to me, the unknown in me. And I’m your chaos too.

Abby: You’re hardly chaos, Carter!

Carter: I’m just saying that’s a risk in anything that you do. Don’t you want to get the odds in your favor! I’m drawn to you. Its kind of that simple. I’ve been drawn to you for two years but chaos always seem to rule and I don’t want it to rule. I wanna know where it’s taking me. You know what I mean… (“Chaos Theory”)

Carter came to the rescue several more times during more of Abby’s family nightmares. Her brother, Eric, comes to visit and displays some familiar manic tendencies that scare Abby. In “Tell Me Where It Hurts” Eric goes AWOL from the Air Force and Abby forges Carter’s signature to get his Army medical records. They reveal that he lied about his family medical history so the army doctors do not know to look for symptoms of bipolar disorder. This gets him court marshaled and Abby is unable to find out where he is. At the end of the day after calling different army numbers for hours, Abby succumbs to her addiction and buys a bottle of wine. Carter enters her apartment and sees a glass of wine sitting on the table untouched. She admits that it took her hours to even get it poured in the glass but she did not want to drink it. Carter embraces her in one of the few moments in the series where she lets her guard down,

Abby: I’m really scared for him, Carter, it’s so unfair. Because he was such a good kid, and we went through so much growing up, and I thought I got him through, I thought he was safe.

Carter: Nothing that you did or didn’t do would’ve prevented this.

Abby: It’s just that Eric, uh…he was the only constant thing in my life. He was the only thing I could ever count on.

Carter: That’s not true anymore.

Abby: Promise? [she whispers] Because I really need something to hang on to right now.

Carter: I’m not going anywhere  (“Tell Me Where it Hurts”).
Maggie turns up to complicate things even further in the next episode and they finally find Eric locked up at an Air Force base in Nebraska in the episode “First Snowfall.” Abby and Maggie go to Nebraska and Carter promises to come after his shift. A major blizzard hits Chicago and, despite all odds, Carter makes it to Nebraska to be there for Abby. Eric eventually checks out of treatment for his bipolar disorder, much to Abby’s dismay, and disappears just like Maggie used to. In “A Boy Falling Out of the Sky” Eric’s plane goes missing off of radar and Abby fears the worst. Carter has just left for vacation in Brazil and Abby tells him not to come back but of course he does anyway. Maggie shows up yet again and Abby spends the day working in the ER with Maggie chasing her around the hospital and Carter running interference and just trying to be there for Abby. Eventually they get confirmation that his plane has been found unharmed but there is no sign of Eric. Maggie wants to hire a private investigator and go to Michigan where the plane was found but Abby knows better:

Abby: We don’t get to do anything. Just have to wait… It’s really hard, but you just have to go about your life and do everyday things; go to work, do your laundry, clean the house. You know, just try to keep your mind off all the horrible things that might be happening to him. And you do that, for a week, or a month, or maybe a year.

Maggie: Then someday he’ll show up and we’ll drop everything and we’ll go to him.

Abby: Or, we get that other phone call. (pauses) Welcome to the outside of the disease (“A Boy Falling Out of the Sky”)
In the following episode, A Thousand Cranes, Carter is planning to propose to Abby over dinner. Before he can do this he has to drive Maggie to the bus station and they talk about Abby while they are stuck in traffic,

Maggie: I just don’t want…

Carter: Yes?

Maggie: I just don’t want you to wanna fix her.

Carter: Abby doesn’t need to be fixed.

Maggie: Or heal her or change her.

Carter: I love her.

Maggie: I just don’t want you to be waiting for her to change.

Carter: I’m not.

Maggie: She’s an amazing person.

Carter: I know who she is.

Maggie: She’s an amazing person with certain weaknesses. And you’d be lucky to have her, even with those weaknesses. But you have to love her, even if she never changes anything (“A Thousand Cranes”).
This gets Carter thinking about whether or not Abby will ever change since changing, maturing, and growing are Carter’s goals for himself and Abby in their relationship. He rents out a fancy restaurant and is planning on proposing. He is talking to her with the ring in his hand,

Carter: I really want this to stick.

Abby: Me too.

Carter: I know that, uh, we’ve had a rough time. And that there’s still a lot of things we have to work through. But I think we’re doing okay. And I think we’re growing, we’re changing. Do you?

Abby: I don’t know if people ever really change. But, I know what you mean…

Carter: You do?

Abby: I think I do.

(Carter puts the ring back in his pocket) (“A Thousand Cranes”)
Maggie, although indirectly, causes Carter to change his mind about proposing. Their relationship falls apart after this. Abby finds the ring in Carter’s coat pocket and in the finale of season nine, “Kisangani,” Carter decides to join Luka in Africa, much to Abby’s dismay. He returns in the season ten premiere, “Now What” in trouble with Abby who is mad at him for leaving her, the one thing he promised her he would not do. Carter then goes back to Africa in “The Lost” to find Luka who has gone missing. In “Dear Abby” Luka brings Abby a breakup letter from Carter who ends up staying in Africa.

Abby’s emotional withdrawal created problems for her in her relationship with Carter. He always wanted to be there for her and help her but she refused to ever be dependent on someone. Carter leaving Abby, after it took her so long to let him in and ask for help, further scarred her emotionally and paved the way for her future dysfunctional relationships. Carter and Abby’s ‘will they or won’t they’ relationship was a major part of the series for several seasons. Their relationship was very detailed, messy, and developed. There was a war of sorts among the fans of the show over who Abby should end up with, Carter or Luka. Abby’s relationships were very important to the fans, which the producers were aware of, so they definitely used them to drive the narrative and keep the viewers hooked.

Abby goes through several ‘growth points’ throughout the series during which she matures or changes, which moves the plot in a different direction. Her first appearance on ER is in season six’s “Great Expectations” as Carol Hathaway’s OB nurse. She was not particularly memorable in this episode; she was no different than any other secondary nurse character, and if we had never seen her again ER would have been vastly different. She becomes a medical student in the ER in “Abby Road,” which establishes her status quo. She was a very confident nurse but is completely unsure of herself as a med student. In the season seven premiere “Homecoming” she finds out that her ex-husband stopped paying her medical school tuition and she is forced to return to nursing. In “Sand and Water,” after Carter returns to the ER from rehab, we find out that Abby is an alcoholic. This adds a whole new dimension to her character. In “Beyond Repair,” on her birthday that no one knew about it, the plot is dramatized when Abby falls back into drinking for the first time. She decides to stop drinking and hiding things from Carter in “Walk Like a Man,” which suggests that she is maturing. Abby returns to medical school in “Out of Africa;” her career changes direction, which moves the plot forward. “If Not Now” was a major turning point in Abby’s life. Abby and Luka agonize over what to do about her unexpected pregnancy and eventually decide to keep the baby. If this had happened in an earlier season she would not have kept the baby. It took her about eight years to get the point of maturation and self-understanding to be able to have a child. She enters her mothering stage of life in “Bloodline” and “Graduation Day,” which is when she reaches her most self-aware and mature point of life. “The Book of Abby” rounds out Abby’s turbulent journey on ER. Abby says goodbye and leaves for Boston with Luka and her son. Her emotional arc comes full circle as she reflects on what she has learned. She quotes the Bible, the Book of Job, throughout the episode:

“Why is light given to those in misery?

And life to the bitter of souls?

To those who long for death that does not come?

Who search for it more than for hidden treasure?

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea?

Or walked in the recesses of the deep?

Have the gates of death been shown to you?

What is the way to the abode of life?

And where does darkness reside?

Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?

Tell me if you know all this” (“The Book of Abby”).
In a beliefnet blog published after The Book of Abby aired, Brad Hirschfield says:

“The passages used in the show were those questions which god puts to Job as a way of making him appreciate how much he has not seen and how limited is knowledge. But those same passages were dropped in last night in ways that did just the opposite. They celebrated the experiences of ten years in the ER at County General, and acknowledged the wisdom that was gained along the way.

God’s questions to Job could be heard as elevating human experience, not minimizing it. Abby experiences the depth and power of her own work…it provides the strength for her to move on to the next stage in her life.”
According to Janet McCabe, ER’s formula is that it has a “unique visual style, dense narrative plotting and a combination of episodic and accruing storylines” (208). Viewers become so attached to the show due to the plot dense formula. They go back and watch reruns often for sentimental reasons; they know what is to become of these characters and it is interesting to review the paths that have lead them there (218). In a quote from Television Criticism, Steven Spielberg says that ER characters are not overwritten and the viewers get to know them slowly as they would a friend. He is saying that viewers develop a relationship with the characters (O’Donnell 81). Abby’s growth arc throughout the series kept her storyline fresh and provided new issues for her to be hit with. She changed quite a bit throughout the series, which kept the narrative moving along and changing and made the viewers feel as if they were a part of her life.
Several dramatic and tragic events have happened to Abby and served to drive the plot. She was involved in an explosion, tackled by a schizophrenic patient, kidnapped, beaten up, and held at gunpoint on three separate occasions. Abby is assaulted by her neighbor Brian in “A Simple Twist of Fate” because she helped his wife get into a battered woman’s shelter. The scene is extremely scary and dramatic and could have been taken out of a horror movie. He knocks her out and when she regains consciousness she does not know if he is still inside her apartment. He broke her nose, gave her a concussion, and made her fearful of living in her own apartment. Abby is kidnapped by gang members in the hope that she can save one of their wounded in “Skin.” The entire episode cuts between her experiences with the gang members and the staff in the ER dealing with the casualties of the gang war. She is forced to treat a gang member at gunpoint in the back of an SUV. They make her use a needle and thread to sew up his intestines and she is unable to convince them that he needs to be taken to a hospital. She vigorously works on him as best as she can for hours but she is unable to save him. They make her lay down in the back seat of the SUV; she is afraid that they are going to kill her and pleads with them to let her go home. They miraculously drop her off in front of the hospital and drive away. She develops a minor case of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her kidnapping. The viewers were on the edge of their seats during this episode hoping that Abby would be okay.  The season 12 finale “21 Guns” contains a major shoot-out that destroys the ER. It is pure chaos. Abby was front and center, and twenty-six weeks pregnant, when the shooting started but she managed to roll on the floor and avoided being shot. While treating a wounded patient she goes into another room to get a piece of equipment. She doubles over in pain and when she tries to regain her balance she notices that she has blood all over her hand. Something is clearly wrong with her baby. We see her place a bloody handprint on the glass door she is standing next to just before she slumps over and collapses on the floor as the episode, and season finale, concludes. The audience was left to wonder if Abby would be alive and well until the widely viewed season thirteen premiere “Bloodline.” Kerry finds Abby on the floor and she gets sent up to OB for observation. The trauma to her belly has put her into pre-term labor. They try to stop the labor from progressing but she has a placental abruption and the baby is born two and half months prematurely. They have to do an emergency Caesarian section and Abby endures a hysterectomy because the surgeons cannot control her bleeding. Her baby is premature and sick and she realizes that she will never be able to have another child, something she did not even know she wanted until recently. This was a very sad episode for viewers because it was yet another emotional blow for Abby after she had been so happily anticipating the arrival of her child. Abby is held at gunpoint yet again in “Murmurs of the Heart” when Curtis Ames, who sued Luka for malpractice, breaks into Abby and Luka’s apartment when Abby is alone with her young son. Ames forces Abby to call Luka and make him come home, the fear evident in her voice as she clutches Joe to her. While they wait for Luka to come home, Ames starts talking about how great Abby’s life is and how she could never understand where he is right now:

Ames: You’re the successful doctor… right? You’re smart, you’re beautiful. You got the man, you got the baby, you got everything. So don’t take it personal, when I say to you: you have no idea where I am right now.

Abby: You’re wrong.

Ames: You think so?

Abby: Yeah. I think I know exactly where you are right now. You know nine years ago I had… My marriage was over, my mother was in a mental institution for the seventh time, I don’t know and I drank… a lot. A lot! And I had reached this… I… You know what, I… One morning I woke up in this apartment and I had no idea how I got there, next to some guy I didn’t even remember meeting. And he was going through my stuff looking for money so he and his buddy could get a fix. So I ran outta there and I went downstairs, and I tried to get a cab, but I had no idea where I was and it was five o’clock in the morning and there were no cars in the street, so I just… I just sat down on the stoop and I just… I waited for something to happen. And at that moment I’m telling you, I knew, I mean, I was positive that happiness was something I was never gonna find.

Ames: Getting deep on me, now.

Abby: (In tears) No! I am just trying to tell you that things can change, they can get better, even if you don’t see it, they can (“Murmurs of the Heart”)!
During this intense and horrifying moment in her life Abby has a revelation about the progress she has made. She realizes that to other people she has made it in life but she knows that it took an enormous amount of growth and change within herself to get this point. This was only the first few minutes of the episode. For the rest of the episode Ames holds Luka hostage while Abby tries to find them. It culminates with Ames breaking Luka’s hand and holding him at gunpoint on a roof with Abby and the police on the street below. A shot is heard and Abby thinks Luka has been killed but Ames actually shoots himself. This episode was a whirlwind of drama from start to finish with Abby at the center of it all.
Abby once said that she was a magnet for misery and considering all of the terrible things that have happened to her that is hard to disagree with. Many of the big, traumatic events that occurred on ER involved Abby and many were during the sweep periods and brought up the shows ratings. The audience’s hearts would race and they would hold their breath during the dramatic moments of Abby’s life, which were always the focal point of those particular episodes and constructed the narrative.
Abby is heroic at work and strives to do what is best for her patients, even if it sometimes involves breaking the rules. In “NICU” Neela and Abby face their toughest rotation ever after being assigned to the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit. Abby excels at taking care of both the patients and their parents, her supervisor tells her that she is one of the best students she has ever had, but even her best efforts are not enough to save her patient. She tries to save a premature baby by using an unorthodox treatment plan but it does not work. She did her absolute best and it was not her fault; the baby was just too sick. Her supervisor tells her, “you helped this family, Abby. They will remember you for the rest of their lives” (“NICU”). While this episode certainly would have been dramatic even if Abby had not been in it her presence made it resonate more with viewers because they were rooting for her in this new venture in her life. Abby is in the midst of her psychiatric rotation in “Abby Normal” and tries to help a seizure-prone mother with a controversial drug treatment. The drug they give her a type of truth serum to get to real reason behind her seizures. Before agreeing to the drug treatment, the patient challenges Abby to tell her something about herself since Abby expects the patient to tell her secrets:

Abby: I can’t follow through…. once something gets in my way its like a chemical reaction I just shut down and I give up I’m just looking for an excuse to stop because in the end it’s easier to do that then to risk being hurt or disappointed again (“Abby Normal”).
Abby’s supervisor was observing this session so it was very brave of her to open up to this patient as well as expose herself to her superior. It paid off in the end; the patient agreed to the drug therapy and they found out why she was having seizures. Abby was able to save her. “Scoop and Run” was a highly dramatic Thanksgiving episode, which ER was known for. Abby is called in for a helicopter transport duty minutes before her shift is over. She promises a boy she finds at an accident scene that she will help his mother who is stuck in a bus that is unstably teetering off of a cliff. She goes against protocol and her superiors by being in the bus with the patient trying to get her out. She manages to free her at the last possible second and they jump off of the bus moments before it plummets into the ravine below. This storyline was the central plot of the highly viewed Thanksgiving episode and Abby was at the center of it because she dramatized it even further.

Abby often threw herself into work so she would not have to deal with her personal problems. She would get very emotionally attached to patients, which would lead to her breaking the rules to help them.  She would often get in trouble and prove her superiors wrong, which added to the drama of a particular episode. Her being a hero at work was a stark contrast to the mess she often was in her personal life. It redeemed her to herself as well as to the audience who was rooting for her.

I believe that Abby is one of the most flawed characters ever to be on television. She was angry, depressed, threw herself into work, didn’t let others in, was an alcoholic, and was emotionally shut off at times but all of that made her very relatable and real. Everyone could relate to a moment of Abby’s despair or anger, which is why so many were shown. I believe that her mother is the reason why Abby is the way she is and does account for a lot of her emotional insecurities. She never came out and said ‘well I’m this way because of how I grew up,’ she didn’t rest on that as an excuse and she never stated it, it was just understood as the truth after we learned how her childhood was and saw Maggie. I believe she had the right to be angry considering all of the terrible things that seemed to happen to her. She even said that she was a magnet for terrible things. I also think her lack of emotions was her trying to not be like her mother who had a mood disorder and was therefore too emotional.

Abby was one of the most popular characters on the show, and eventually became first on the call sheet, so she had a lot of airtime. The fact that I was able to compile this much data about her multiple story arcs proves both the importance of character development and the fact that Abby was used to drive the narrative of ER. People expected to see Abby in despair or have something terrible happen to her because that is what drove the narrative. She never had a positive or optimistic outlook on life, which became a significant part of her character. Throughout her eight years on the show Maura Tierney went from a guest star to first on the call sheet and so too did Abby’s progress from static nurse character to completely developed protagonist who often carried the narrative.

Carly Soteras is a Senior at Columbia College majoring in Television Producing and Writing. She completed the Semester in LA Producing Program and is currently living in Los Angeles. She is an intern at Jerry Bruckheimer Film & Television learning how the television industry works firsthand. Her career dream is to be the Showrunner of her own television drama one day.

Works Cited

“300 Patients”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney, Goran Visjic. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. December 6, 2007.

“A Boy Falling Out of the Sky”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. February 13, 2003.

“A Thousand Cranes”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney, Noah Wyle, Sally Field. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. February 20, 2003.

“Abby Normal”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. April 29, 2004.

“Blackout”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. November 8, 2007.

“Chaos Theory”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney, Noah Wyle. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. September 26, 2002.

“ER Retrospective”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. April 2, 2009.

“Fear of Commitment”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. May 3, 2001.

“Graduation Day”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney, Sally Field. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. September 28, 2006.

“Great Expectations”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. November 25, 1999.

Hirschfield, Brad. “Farewell Abby Lockhart, Hello Job.” Beliefnet. 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. <>.

McCabe, Janet. “Creating ‘Quality’ Audiences for ER on Channel Four.” The Contemporary Television Series. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005. 207-222. Print.

“NICU”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. L. Scott Caldwell. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. January 15, 2004.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Minneapolis: Sage Publications, Inc, 2007. Print.

Porter, Michael. “Re(de)fining Narrative Events: Examining Television Narrative Structure.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 30.1 (2002): 23-31. Print

“Tell Me Where It Hurts”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney, Noah Wyle. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. November 14, 2002.

“The Book of Abby”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. October 16, 2008.

“The Dance We Do”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney, Noah Wyle. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. December 7, 2000.

“Walk Like a Man”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney, Noah Wyle. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. October 17, 2002.

“Where the Heart Is”. ER. By Michael Crichton. Perf. Maura Tierney, Sally Field. ER. National Broadcasting Company. NBC. May 10, 2001.

2 thoughts on “Abby Lockhart: The Driving Force of ER

  1. This is really a well crafted argument that explores how character development can also serve to construct complex narrative structures. This is not always the easiest thing to discern as the narrative unfolds so naturally that sometimes it can be overlooked as a driving force.
    This type of storytelling has an authenticity to it that appeals to people and audiences find this type of reveal to be interesting and are willing to become more invested in the narrative itself. On ER we see this occur with the character of Abby Lockhart, and as we get to know her it is much like getting to know an actual person in our lives. When we meet new people it is slowly over time, through stories and events, that portions of their lives become revealed. Narratives that unfold in this manner create a sense of intimacy that pulls the viewer in. Especially on a show like ER with a large cast this device allowed people to connect in a way the might not have done otherwise. Abby Lockhart provided that space of connect in the middle of what could sometimes be the chaos of the ever-changing ensemble cast.

  2. Reading this article makes me pine for the old glory days of ER. I always thought Abby was one of the most underrated, interesting characters on television. This article proves that some of the most compelling characters are the ones that are so diverse in identity in terms of negative traits and heroic traits. The best television always revolves around characters who exhibit a deep, emotional side that may detrimental to themselves and others around them. Abby was at her best when she was drinking- we could see the human side of her trying to live life. The times throughout her alcoholism when she stopped and started again is an accurate portrayal of someone tangible. For some shows that depict alcoholism, it’s as if the character has it one episode, then it goes away like a rash. ER did Abby justice by making it a reoccurring challenge for Abby to conquer.

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