Luka’s story on ER is probably the best character journey ever for a male character on TV, the accomplished doctor with his death wish and desperate attempts to fill the void of the family that no longer exists.
Last December I wrote a short post, as part of a Christmas countdown, where I included the fabulous singing of nurse Haleh and Dr Morris in season 12 of ER. This threw me into an obsessive rewatch of all seasons featuring my favourite character, Abby Lockhart, and the equally exquisitely developed character of Luka Kovac. The result is two articles describing their separate journeys through 20 episodes in total, where the writers so eloquently capture the characters and where Maura Tierney and Goran Visnjic just act the hell out of every scene. This is the first article. The second one you find here.
I have always considered NBC’s ER one of my favourite shows after Dallas and Nashville, but I never did obsess over it and I hadn’t rewatched a single episode since the last one originally aired in 2009. It was Maura Tierneys character Abby Lockhart that fascinated me the most back then, partly because I could relate so much to her and because I had not seen a female character like her on TV before. She is an introverted, sarcastic, independent pessimist with a self-destructive tendency who at the same time knows exactly how to take care of her patients. Rewatching I realised how equally captivating her biggest supporter is, the character of Luka Kovac played by Goran Visnjic of course. This accomplished doctor with his death wish and desperate attempts to fill the void of the family that no longer exists, which he continuously lets himself be reminded of in the trauma rooms of the ER.
There is something special about how a long running tv show has the possibility to let their characters develop and grow during so many years and this is something the writers and producers of ER took full advantage of with Abby and Luka
There is something special about how a long running tv show has the possibility to let their characters develop and grow during so many years and this is something the writers of ER took full advantage of with Abby and Luka – two wounded souls that both together and separately fought to relate healthily to their pasts, overcome their fears and get their lives in order.
Executive producers and show runners, John Wells and later David Zabel, who together with Jack Orman, R.Scott Gemmill wrote many of their episodes, all knew their characters so well – how they would act and react – and had a clear compass for where the characters were going. They were also very subtle in their storytelling and not often letting Abby or Luka be explicit about their thoughts and feelings, very much in line with the introverted characters that they are. Tierney and Visnjic being such brilliant actors with perfect ability to convey an inner life without many words adds to the perfection of course.
I love the love story of Abby and Luka, it’s the best love story I know, but it is their personal journeys that both make that relationship so fascinating and also possible in the end. This is why it makes sense to present their stories separately. Luka entered the ER in the premiere episode of season 6 and this is his story told through 10 episodes. Abby’s story will be told in part 2.
Leave It to Weaver (Season 6, episode 1)
Written by: Lydia Woodward
The first thing meeting Luka’s eye when he peacefully walks into the ambulance bay is a girl that seems to be left behind in an otherwise empty ambulance. He immediately approaches her, talks to her calmly to get her out and makes her feel safe in his arms as he walks into the chaos within the ER. There he presents himself to the girl: ”My name is Luka. It’s a funny name.”
Luka does what he thinks is right rather than what he is told to do. He defies Mark and Weaver, lets the girl see her seriously hurt mother and explains calmly what all the tubes and machines are for. The next patient is a curious little boy in need of stitches and after that Luka does not hesitate for a second, as the other doctors in the room, to first save a fully developed baby before continuing the attempts to save the life of the mother.
Kids, kids, kids and in addition to his little patients Luka is immediately drawn to the heavily pregnant nurse Carol. Confident and competent, empathetic and caring as well as very fond of children, that is how Luka Kovac is introduced.
A Walk in the Woods (Season 7, episode 14)
Written by: John Wells
Several months into their relationship Abby and Luka are lying next to each other, relaxed and content, and there is definitely a physical intimacy between them, Luka’s hands never stops touching her. To talk to each other and open up for emotional intimacy seems more difficult for them, even if Abby this morning makes an honest effort. She wants to know what he is thinking about, states the fact that he looks at her when they make love and finally asks him about his dead wife, maybe with the notion that the distance between them has something do with him having something or someone else on his mind.
A bishop has repeatedly visited the ER and this time he is close to dying. While being treated by Luka he has sensed something unprocessed under Luka’s professionell surface and at the same time Luka seems to be drawn to the bishop. Luka now does everything to help him being able to perform a last act, as if saving the bishop will save himself. In church, with oxygen connected to his lungs, the bishop tells Luka about his decision to become a priest and how it came to him during a walk in the woods. It’s like he talks about Luka, who painfully seems to recognise the story: I had no idea for how long I walked, but at a certain point I suddenly realised I didn’t know which way to go. I’d gotten lost. I was frightened. As I looked up at the dark that night, he came to me. The snowflakes. So still. So peaceful. Perfect.
It’s snowing in Chicago and Luka takes a walk of his own also looking at the sky for answers. Abby shows up and he smiles when she approaches him. ”Ready to go home?”, she asks. ”Yeah.” Luka throws another look towards the snow flakes, as to get a confirmation that Abby is the answer, before he puts his arm around her, his head against hers and they walk away. Yes, he is ready to go home, he seems to decide, and start a life together with Abby for real. There is just one other thing he needs to do first.
The Crossing (Season 7, episode 15)
Written by: Jack Orman
During an emergency callout to the field after a brutal train accident in a crossing, where the scene looks much like a war zone, Luka does not surprisingly get visions from the war in Croatia (getting independence from Yugoslavia). Back at the hospital he can’t help but find the ward where the dying bishop lies. Luka is at a crossing too, where he can let his memories and history wear him down or leave them behind and look forward instead. The bishop urges Luka to make a confession and meets his baffled face: That’s what you are here for, right? Your heart is burdened, Luka. Talk to me! Let me take that burden with me.
Slowly and matter-of-factly Luka tells the bishop what happened. That they stayed in Vukovar so he could finish his medical training even if it could be dangerous. That he went out to get supplies when his apartment was suddenly bombed behind him. The horror that met him when he ran back, the dead baby son under the crib and the dying daughter next to him. His wife that he could have saved had he carried her to a hospital, which he choose not to do in order to stay with his little girl instead. The confession of the gnawing guilt that finally once was spelled out loud.
Hindsight (Season 9, episode 10)
Written by: David Zabel
After a U-turn by Abby when she got together with Carter instead of back with Luka, he numbs the pain with alcohol and an endless number of casual hookups — nurses, patients’ mothers and whoever comes his way. He never makes much effort though, the women approaches him and he passively lets it happen.
Hindsight starts with the end in fierce Memento style, when Luka’s reckless driving makes him crash his Porsche into a building, with med student Harkins next to him in the passenger seat. They both seem fine and take care of the people in the other car involved before Harkins collapses att the scene and in critical condition is rushed to the ER.
The morning before Luka is awakened with the worst of hangovers. When ordered to come to work due to lack of personnel, he performs what probably is his worst day at work ever. Abby is keeping her eyes on him all day, barking at him for not caring about his patients and getting very annoyed when he doesn’t trust her opinion as he always do. Luka is not too shy to put his blame on the nurses and at the end of the day a patient dies for absolutely the wrong reasons.
The evening before, at Susan’s Christmas party, Luka is drunk and regretful when reaching out to Abby in some futile attempt to get her back. Her stone-cold rejection makes him return to his bottle, give in to Harkins’ flirting and resign to what seems to be the only thing that he’s good for and what is expected of him.
The Lost (Season 10, episode 2)
Manus: John Wells & David Zabel
Luka has been lost for a long time, in one way since his family died, but more specifically since Abby and Carter became an item. Now he is assumed dead during his mission for Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors without Boarders and Carter, who left him with some unmovable patients when it got dangerous, is heading back to Congo to look for his missing body. In parallell with Carter’s search for him, we follow Luka’s last weeks in Congo. ”Don’t do anything stupid”, was Carter’s last words to him, but Luka looks happy and relaxed when the others have left. He knows that it’s dangerous and he doesn’t know if he is coming back to the US, but he takes care of his patients and that is the only important thing. Luka is not afraid to die.
When the rebels come close he runs to the woods with a child in his arms and it’s like he gets to do what he could not do with his own family. When his malaria stops him he urges the others to continue without him. As in penance he won’t take any medication, everything should be used for the child, it’s his time to make a sacrifice now. Captured with tied hands, shaking from the fever, bruised and prepared to die, Luka says a prayer for the first time in a very long while, a prayer that actually saves him. Maybe he is not supposed to die after all.
When Carter finally finds him half dead there is no rivalry left between them, only the respect they have found for each other in Africa. It almost looks like love when Luka reaches for Carter and gives him a kiss on the cheek before he is loaded into the aircraft. Carter stays. ”Tell her I was lost, but now I’m found” he asks Luka to tell Abby, words that are just as relevant for Luka himself literally as well as mentally.
Touch and Go (Season 10, episode 11)
Written by: Marc Morocco
Luka talks to Weaver about leaving the ER to go back to Africa. This time he is in a good mood doing so, energetic and enthusiastic instead of depressed and self-destructive as he was the last time. Weaver promises to bring up his request tomorrow morning, but she is not without reservations: ”For the record. We need you here as much as they do there.” And that day shows Luka just how recognised and appreciated his work is these days, by patients and colleagues, and he ends up saving the arm on a little boy in a somewhat spectacular way, doing an innovative repair of an artery.
Alex, the son of new nurse and single parent Sam, quite often spends time in the ER and likes hanging with Luka. Sam is not pleased about her son acquiring such an inappropriate friend, but has to admit that it’s nice to get some help sometimes. Today Alex is at the ER again after being naughty at school trying to suture himself and Luka shows interest in him as usual. Sam is annoyed but later admits to Luka how hard it is to be sole responsible for him and as he lightly touches her arm, Luka ensures her that she’s doing a great job as his mother.
The smile in Luka’s face when later he carries a sleeping Alex to the car, and the look he gives Carter and pregnant girlfriend Kem as they pass, are almost those of someone in love. As happy as Luka is for them, as hopeful he seems to be for himself with the dream of becoming a father again suddenly coming to life. Before going home he gets into Weaver’s office and snatches the leave request he put there earlier that day. Maybe he actually can be needed here in Chicago as much as he would be in Africa.
Man with No Name (Season 12, episode 3)
Written by: David Zabel
Luka wakes up in the morning on the couch with his clothes on, a burned out cigarette in the ash tray and one of Clint Eastwoods spaghetti westerns flickering on the TV. Sam and Alex has moved out. ”I can’t give you what you want. Alex already has a father and I don’t want anymore children”, she explained to him with frustration.
Outside work a severely burned man is desperately walking towards Luka and the ER. ”He just walked in here like that?” Abby asks him later. ”A high tolerance of pain, I guess”, Luka replies. Luka is not giving up easily either. Let’s think about this, he begs Sam, it all went so fast. He refuses to admit what Sam has realised for a while now, that their relationship is not working. ”We are pretending, Luka. I don’t want to pretend anymore.” Luka finally realises that it’s over, but refuses childishly to work with her in the trauma room, which hurts a young patient. ”It was the wrong thing for the wrong reason”, he later says about his behaviour during the day and at the same time, finally, admitting what was the problem with their relationship already from the start.
Luka finds comfort in the bottle when Abby shows up at the bar and no one makes him smile like she does. The atmosphere turns serious when she tells him about her cancer patient – ”she was telling me how she’s at this point of her life, where she is worried that some of the things that she wants, she’s never gonna have” – without perhaps realising how well the words reflects Luka’s thoughts as well. He has been in the US for six years now and what has he achieved? He is still alone, without really being connected to anything and without the family he so desperately is longing for.
The episode ends as it began with a drunken Luka falling asleep on the couch, his cigarette, just like Luka himself, burning without being used and with the Man with No Name seemingly stuck on the screen.
I Do (Season 12, episode 9)
Written by: Lydia Woodward
What a difference a few months can make. Abby and Luka may have gotten into an awkward conversation – after impulsively spending a night together – where neither dared to admit that they wanted each other, but their friendship is blooming. At the same time the thought of getting the eccentric Dr Clemente as new chief of the ER has made Luka apply for the job himself. So much more affirmative of life, Luka goes about his day that gets characterised by this:
- his uncharacteristic but incredibly charming flirting with ”Dr Lockhart” and the long and thoughtful look he gives her when she leaves to get ready for Michael and Neela’s wedding
- the pleasure of having been appointed new chief and getting to joke around about it with Abby at the wedding reception
- the silly conversation followed by the telling silence in the car before he with zero hesitation answers her ”would you like to…” with a passionate kiss
- the steamy car that quickly gets replaced by the bed and Abby’s cautious, ”Do you really think we should be doing this?”
- and last of all Luka again, being assertive in bed and looking Abby in the eyes before softly delivering his resolute answer: ”I do.”
Bloodline (Season 13, episode 1)
Written by: Joe Sachs & David Zabel
A shooting in the ER has Abby fainting, falling and a way too early delivery getting started. A little boy is born, but Abby’s uterus will not stop bleeding. When Luka wants to stay with her she screams at him in desperation. ”Stay with the baby! I want you to stay with the baby. I don’t want him to be alone”, confirming what he of course already knows, that he could not have done differently back then in Vukovar.
It’s with a bit of cautiousness Luka watches the baby, hooked up and fighting in the incubator at the neonatal care unit, as if afraid to really relate. Back with Abby, after Weaver promised not to leave the baby alone, Luka shows a video and updates her about his stats. ”Will one be enough?” she asks him and it takes a few seconds for Luka to realise the meaning. The uterus could not be saved. ”One is all we need”, he ensures her before Abby slowly discloses the name she has chosen, ”I would like to call him Joe, if that is okay.”
The whole situation, including the fact that his father is called Josip, becomes too much for Luka. He quickly enters the nearest restroom and starts scrubbing his hands as to wash his feelings off. He fails miserably when the joy of becoming a father again, the sadness over Abby’s hysterectomy, the grief over the children who died mixed with the worry about the son who is born too early, all turn into cathartic tears that Luka just can’t stop.
The Chicago Way (Season 14, episode 19)
Written by: David Zabel & Lisa Zwerling
When going through a crisis wanting change is normal, big things and small. Luka has stopped drinking coffee he informs Abby while dropping of Joe one morning. He has also started a new job at a hospice. Sorrow is what Luka effuses when Abby gives him a newspaper, like married couples are supposed to do on their one-year-anniversary. He mourns the relationship that sort of died with Abby’s drinking, deception and that fact that she put Joe in danger. This time Luka is not looking for comfort in casual hookups, drinking or seeking death for himself, but he does seem to find peace being near those about to die.
Luka has always been patient and caring, the one that loves and encourages, but now he needs someone that cares about and encourages him. That someone becomes Walter at the hospice, who tells him about his life and his nephew. ”Kids give you strengths you didn’t know you had, make you fight harder”, which is exactly what Luka once told Abby, ”being a parent makes you stronger”. Walter seems to get him, he even jokes about him being depressed and Luka laughs for the first time in a long while. ”My nephew will pick me up. We’re going fishing. If I row us out, he will row us in”, Walter lets him know when it turns out he is not dying after all. You have to help each other. When one is weak, the other one has to be strong.
With this insight and conviction Luka finds Abby at the ER and takes her for walk. ”As long as we keep rowing, we are going to be okay”, becomes his version of Abbys marriage vows, ”let’s just try to love each other and persevere”. Life is always changing, there is no happily ever after, but if you persevere you will come through and right then and there, happy and relieved, Abby and Luka decide to leave Chicago together.
The producers found a great way to deal with the fact that Visnjic’s contract ended at the end of season 13 while Tierney’s lasted another season. Having Visnjic agree to seven episodes in season 14, where the season finale The Chicago Way was the last one, helped finish Abby and Luka’s story in a good way. Lukas absence is explained with him needing to go back to Croatia to tend to his ill father, which opened up for a great storyline for Abby. Tierney also appears in two episodes of season 15, where The Book of Abby is the last one, and where Visnjic also appears very briefly at the end. More about this in part 2 of this ER tribute, where I tell Abby’s story.
Note! All photos are screenshots from DVD. Material owned by Warner Bros Entertainment Ltd.
For details on what happens between Touch and Go and Man Without Name, read about Luka and Sam, a rather brilliant story about a couple getting together for all the wrong reasons: ER’s Luka and Sam: In pursuit of a family
Another post about the best of characters: ER’s Luka Kovac: Evidence of the carefully constructed and complex character he is