I had not seen a female character like ER’s Abby Lockhart on TV before, an introverted, sarcastic, independent pessimist with a self-destructive tendency who at the same time knows exactly how to take care of her patients.
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 second article. The first one you find here.
Abby was the character I fell in love with when first watching NBC’s ER. She was unlike any other women I had seen on TV and I could relate to her so much, her way of keeping her emotions within, her need to be alone, the use of dry humor as defence mechanism, the atheist and the women who had not spent a second of her life daydreaming of her future perfect wedding. And there is something else. I feel like Abby somehow represents the normal, everyday woman. The other actresses on the show – Julianna Margulies, Alex Kingston, Sherry Stringfield, Parminder Nagra och Linda Cardellini – are all so incredibly beautiful and so are their characters, Carol, Elizabeth, Susan, Neela and Sam. Maura is gorgeous for sure, but she is not über-beautiful like the others and that makes Abby even more such a relatable character, a normal woman less occupied with her appearance in general. I think that adds to her appeal, I know I love it.
The ER writing team really worked so cleverly and effectively with the themes, often mirrored in the titles, for each episode and how those themes usually included several of the characters and intertwined their private and the professional lives.
The best thing though is that we through the nine seasons of Abby get to see her grow, be challenged and finally overcome her fears one by one, with humor intact and with the effect that she can be in a relationship with Luka and succeed in her work. I love how Abby and Luka don’t save each other from their miseries, but they save themselves, with a little bit of help from the other here and there perhaps. It’s like Abby explains to Luka in season 14, “This is how we do it together. You have to help me do it alone”. Luka is otherwise the person who believed he could fix others and that for instance Sam could fix him by giving him a family.
As can be seen in the post about Luka’s story, the ER writing team really worked so cleverly and effectively with the themes, often mirrored in the titles, for each episode and how those themes usually included several of the characters and intertwined their private and the professional lives. Perhaps it’s even more refined in the story of Abby, who were introduced at the ER half a season later than Luka. This is her story told with the help of 10 episodes.
Abby Road (Season 6, episode 12)
Written by: R. Scott Gemmill
Abby Lockhart first shows up in the 8th episode of season 6 as an OB nurse when Carol delivers her second twin daughter, but her regular journey starts a few episodes later when Abby as a medical student begins her rotation at the ER. It’s winter and just about everyone is sick with the flu, so it’s not strange that Carol thinks she is there to cover for the sick nurses. It takes a while for Abby to explain she was just working extra as a nurse, but she is here now as a third-year med student.
We don’t learn that much about Abby in this episode (or in season 6), but she does have a very significant meeting that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of that story. Dr Luka Kovac shows up in the examination room where Abby and Carol are about to assess a patient. As soon as he realises Abby is a med student he lets her evaluate Carol’s suggestion for medication and he favours of her proposal for the next steps.
From the first day they meet, Luka is fully supportive of her and shows that he trusts her ability and judgement. Abby immediately shows a bit of interest in Luka and asks Carol if he is single. He doesn’t talk much about himself, a somewhat protective Carol informs her. ”Oh, tall, dark, handsome AND mysterious”, Abby replies about the man she will impulsively kiss and then casually ask out on a date six months later.
The Dance We Do (Season 7, episode 8)
Written by: Jack Orman
It’s not until The Dance We Do that we really start getting to know Abby and we get to do it through the dance she for so many years has been waltzing around in with her bipolar mother Maggie. It’s the dance where the mother storms into her life from nowhere seeking love and forgiveness, causing anguish and chaos, before giving up and disappearing to who-knows-where again.
It’s been a few weeks now since Maggie showed up at the ER and in Abby’s life again. It becomes obvious what Abby has repeatedly been going through since she was a kid. The suspiciousness mixed with the worry about whether her mother is genuinely in a good mood or in a manic state? The eternal question whether she can trust her mother when she earnestly states that she has taken her medication. The mortification over her mother’s embarrassing behaviour, like now when she overtly is flirting with Luka, who is suturing her after her conflict with a glass window. Or the one when Abby has to apologise and downplay her behaviour (that glass window conflict) to the police and shop owner. The weight of always being the caretaker instead of the one taken cared of, as a child should be.
The last things Abby feels when her mother finally leaves again is relief mixed with resignation, sorrow and guilt. But Abby doesn’t show her emotions to anyone, not the colleagues at work nor Luka, whom she flees to at night without having the ability to turn to and confide in him. Not until Luka is sound asleep will she lock herself into the bathroom and let the tears roll down her cheeks.
Fear of Commitment (Season 7, episode 20)
Written by: R. Scott Gemmill
Maggie is back and after a suicide attempt Abby gets her committed to a 90-days psych hold, but Maggie goes to court to get the decision revoked. Abby and Luka are closer than before and Abby tells him about Maggies actions as soon as she hears about it. She does not want any support though, but Luka doesn’t care and follows her to the court house anyway. The judge sides with Maggie and Abby hopes she will have better success in killing herself the next time. ”I don’t want to be a burden to you, but I just can’t be committed” Maggie offers and adds, ”I don’t want to break any more promises to you”. And no, Abby doesn’t want to live through any more broken promises either.
Later that day Abby is alone with her feelings in the bathroom again letting the water in the tub embrace also her head as if she wants to disappear. Luka’s voice makes her return to the surface and afterwards she hugs him, hard, and thanks him for being there. It’s like she, who usually doesn’t hug, is ready to embrace not only Luka physically, but also them as a couple, finally. But the moment only lasts for a few seconds. The doorbell buzzes and on the other side is Maggie, and with her the reminder of that loving someone hurts.
The Longer You Stay (Season 8, episode 2)
Written by: Jack Orman
The longer you stay the bigger the risk of getting hurt. Might as well break up before that happens seems to be the thought back in Abby’s head on this night out with Luka. It is tainted with her annoyance from the get go and when they at the end of the evening start fighting, it’s like nothing can stop them. Everything they have ever felt and thought but never talked about during the last year just gets spit out and it is not pretty. ”I don’t want help. I don’t want to be pitied. I don’t want to be saved”, Abby finally concludes.
What does she want? To be loved probably, but it’s difficult if you don’t think your worth it and it’s also scary. Love hurts and being together with someone probably gets you abandoned down the line, that she knows from Maggie and the dad that disappeared from her life a long time ago. It’s easier to be the one that stings first and she has already done that several times. This evening becomes the last straw for Luka, ”I’m done! I’m done, okey. Carter can have you.”
Amidst the agony, Abby seems to find some kind of relief in being by herself in her bed again. When you are alone, no one can hurt you. The fear of being abandoned and the need for independence seem to be the different sides of the same coin.
Beyond Repair (Season 8, episode 11)
Written by: Jack Orman
Abby’s day starts with her loud, fighting neighbours waking her up. At work her first patient, a frostbitten homeless man, sets the tone when one of his fingers is just frozen beyond repair and falls off when Abby is examining him. It’s not just a bad day in general for Abby, its a day that manages to remind her of all her fears and failures.
Luka, who she actually managed to become friends with after the brutal breakup, doesn’t remember that it is her birthday, even if he has a patient stating the date out loud. He also tells her that he will be going away for a while on a mission for Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors without Boarders. Later Abby’s ex-husband Richard shows up to tell her that he is getting remarried and becoming a father and the knife in her heart is twisted again. The start of their downfall was her not telling him about being pregnant and having an abortion, when the thought of having a bipolar child was too scary. Richard does not remember her birthday either. As icing on the cake she catches Carter kissing Susan in the lounge – Carter, whose interest in Abby was the perfect reason, or excuse, to break up with Luka. Now all the men in her life is abandoning her for something new.
The day also reminds her about her professional failure. The new med student Michael asks her about everything as if she was a doctor och even though she can answer him, She. Actually. Is. Not. A. Doctor! Beause she had to drop out of med school and then she just couldn’t get herself to enroll again. Nothing says more about Abby’s emotional state that day than the answer to the new receptionist Randi, who wants to read Abby’s horoscope:
”Abby! What’s your sign?”
”Out of order.”
And if the feeling is that you are beyond repair, then you might just as well say yes to that beer the neighbour offers when you get home that evening, even if you have been sober and attended AA-meeting since the divorce a few years ago. Right?
Dear Abby (Season 10, episode 3)
Written by: R. Scott Gemmill
“Dear Abby”, Carter writes in the letter to Abby where he explains to her that he will stay in Africa and continue his mission with Doctors without Boarders. “Dear Abby” is what Abby seems to tell herself in this episode, in which she realises that maybe she is not entirely beyond repair after all. Her relationship with Carter may have keeled (which might be just as well even though it hurts like hell to be left) and perhaps Luka has decided to leave his feelings for her behind (just when she was about to retrieve hers), but with her professional life she has all the power to do what she wants.
Abby knows her job as a nurse in and out. She is very competent, but she is also very tired of it. She knows when there is a need for an attending physician and not a resident. She informs a younger doctor of what he needs to do in the trauma room and of course she turns out to be right. She answers the questions from the surgeon meant for the new residents. She knows exactly how to handle her young patient in the best compassionate way. Still she gets reprimanded by Susan, ”you’re not her doctor, you’re her nurse”, which means she cannot tell the patient how sick she is, since the parents have not given permission. Not even the schoolchildren visiting respects her, they all want to be doctors. ”I hate my job”, she concludes this day.
Abby starts smiling though when finally she gets a chance to see Luka, who is back from Africa with malaria and a girlfriend. ”I didn’t know he was missing”, is her sarcastic answer when he explains to her that Carter found himself in Africa and in reverse, no one makes Luka smile like Abby. But he quickly becomes serious again. ”Africa changes people, I think maybe I have changed too”, he cautiously informs her. ”Change is good, right? I think I’m way overdue myself”, she replies with an honest attempt to sound convincing before girlfriend Gillian tenderly caresses Lukas forehead and they leave the hospital hallway together. Abby throws away the letter from Carter and decisively heads towards the room of her young patient to tell her what she needs to know, that she soon is going to die. The decision is made, Abby is going to become a doctor and it’s time to continue medical school.
If Not Now (Season 12, episode 11)
Written by: David Zabel
”It scares me, Luka.”
”Having it or choosing not to?”
An unplanned pregnancy, just when Abby and Luka have decided to be together again, gets Abby for the first time to spell out loud the feeling that has steered her life so often – fear – and finally she is comfortable to talk to Luka about it. The bathroom door is open this time and Luka is invited inside.
It’s the week after New Year’s Eve and the patients at the ER, a teenager that have had a dangerous accident and a young man who turns out to have unfortunate genes, reminds Abby of their long and many talks about the pregnancy during the holidays. Will she be able to love the child the right way? Is she really meant to be a mother? What if the child turns out not to be healthy? What if she leaves it in the supermarket when she goes shopping? Luka supports and reasons, but he has learned something too. No matter how much he wishes to become a father again, he knows this is something Abby must want and choose. ”It has to be your choice, I know that”, he quietly assures her, but it doesn’t stop her from wondering what will happen to them if she does have an abortion.
The obstetrician, Dr Coburn, assures her that whatever decision she makes it will be the right one, when Abby tearfully asks to make an appointment at her private clinic. But it’s never really about not wanting the baby, it’s about having the courage. ”I want us to have this baby”, she finally declares. If not now, with Luka, when would she ever have that courage?
I Don’t (Season 13, episode 21)
Written by: David Zabel
”I don’t think I could have planned a better wedding!”, Abby admits during a dance after an ER dinner surprisingly turned out to be her own wedding.
”You don’t?” Luka beams.
Abby’s first instinct, when realising what Luka has planned, is not surprisingly to flee. Not that they haven’t decided to get married, but because when push comes to shove it is still scary as hell. ”One foot after the other”, Luka asks of her after begging her to stay for just ten minutes so he can show her what he’s done. And putting one foot after the other is really what Luka has impelled her to do during the course of their relationship – giving her the courage to love, to have a baby, to move in together, to commit. What he didn’t get the first time they were together, that Abby can’t be pushed, he has learned by now and he knows how to grab her hand, keeping her from running the other way, like she did back then.
When it’s time for vows, Abby again gets the confirmation from Luka that this is something he has actively chosen, not something he just let happen, like he has done before: ”I choose you as the person to love an honor.” Abby is annoyed of course for not having had the chance to prepare, but she knows what has to come first. ”First of all, I love you, I do”, knowing she has not been explicit about her feelings and that she needs to make sure he really knows. She continues by admitting to herself that it’s okay to get a little bit of help when you need it: ”You’ve helped me through a lot, and we got here together with a beautiful little boy.” And when dancing to Astrid Gilberto’s Fly Me To The Moon, she has finally let her guard down.
Blackout (Season 14, episode 7)
Written by: David Zabel
Luka has left for Croatia to take care of his ailing father and what was supposed to last for a couple of weeks has now turned into months. Abby hates feeling left alone, it brings out her fears and self-destructiveness. After a visit to the ER with little Joe, who had fallen and hurt himself, the bottle of wine, a get-well present for Neela who was staying with her, becomes irresistible and this time her drinking is not staying at a moderate level. No one is keeping an eye on her and the feeling of abandonment together with the stress of having the sole responsibility for Joe becomes too much for her.
After a few weeks it’s like she’s giving up with the sneaking around and almost embraces her failure. It becomes her self-fulfilling prophecy, she always knew she was going to screw up. Under the influence at work she is cheeky towards the new chief of the ER, Moretti, without caring about consequences. At the bar after work, when two colleagues are to be celebrated, she turns up visibly intoxicated. She is clingy, outspoken and by overcompensating she manages to put a damper on the party instead of the other way around. While Queen and Bowie’s Under Pressure is playing in the background, Abby starts flirting with new chief Moretti by accusing him of flirting with her in between of being the tyrant that he is.
During that night there is a blackout in Chicago and Abby wakes up naked in an unknown bed. The fierce dread coming over her gets her to rush home, throw out the babysitter, drag Joe out of the bed and desperately getting to the airport to catch the next flight to Croatia. If only she will get to Luka, everything will be alright, but both the blackout and her hysterical demeanour stop them from getting anywhere. At the same time in the ER, the doctors save the life of a little baby that Abby despite of orders decided not to discharge. She may have fucked up completely, but her instincts as a doctor are still impeccable.
The Book of Abby (Season 15, episode 3)
Written by: David Zabel
The Book of Abby takes place during Abby’s last day at the County Hospital ER. She says goodbye to all her colleagues in different ways without actually telling them that this is what she is doing, just according to Abby’s book of rules. She still hates goodbyes. The episode offers so many scenes telling us about Abby’s journey through the years and I will focus on two.
Abby’s last day at the ER is also her first as an attending physician and we have had the pleasure of following her from being an insecure med student and discouraged nurse then through her way from student, intern, resident and now finally attending doctor. Already in season 7 the always supportive Luka encouraged her: ”You’re a good nurse, Abby, but you’re going to be a great doctor. You just need a little bit of confidence.” (Which she very uncharacteristically responded to by giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. The first.)
”The only person still not sure about Abby is Abby”, was Susan’s conclusion when the med students were evaluated in season 10. But this is now long gone. When the new chief of the ER shows up and immediately questions Abby’s work, she is frank and confident: “I’ve been here for 10 years and I know when I know something.” She has not stopped using humor, “I’m a skilled practitioner and an excellent teacher. It’s just getting too hard to deny”, but the self criticism has nicely turned into self confidence.
One of the long-lasting receptionists at the ER, the blunt ex-cop Frank, is forced by his wife to learn the tango before their 30-year anniversary. He has drawn footsteps on the floor, swirls around with his eyes on his feet and every time Abby passes by she reminds him to hold his head up. Finally, just before she is about to leave, she can’t keep herself from offering to help him practice and they are successfully dancing around in the entrance. Why didn’t we do this before, Frank cries out? ”I’ve been stumbling around here all day”, which is exactly what could be said about Abby, the pessimist that kept staring down at her feet and stumbling around only noticing her failures and problems.
”Keep your head up, Frank”, is her last words inside the ER, prior to the final goodbye at the ambulance bay from the colleagues now realising she is leaving, before Luka and Joe picks her up. ”Keep your head up, Abby”, is the phrase we hope she repeats to herself when she now is starting up her new life in Boston. Look forward and see the possibilities, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and you’ll see that everything will work out fine.
Abby shows up in a short scene in episode 20 of season 15, when she talks to Neela on the phone giving her life advice. She is in a good mood, it seems like she and Luka are happily settled in Boston. But Abby is still Abby and the dry humor is intact. With childrens’ noises becoming audible to Neela she explains: “Thursday is my day to do this childcare swap thing. I hate Thursdays”.
”I’m done! I’m done, okay”, are my own words now – although in a much more positive tone of voice than Luka – when my more than half-year-long obsession comes to, not an end, but to a much more sensible state after writing these two articles – this one on Abby and this one about Luka. It took a bit of time to choose the episodes for sure. Some were obvious choices of course, but there were also a few lingering on forever until I just had to make a final cut. There are just so many great and telling episodes in this show, which leaves us at a final question:
When is this fabulous show being picked up by a streaming service, so people are not dependent on reruns and DVD’s?
Note! All photos are screenshots from DVD. Material owned by Warner Bros Entertainment Ltd.
Another post about I why I love Abby so much: Abby Lockhart: Evidence the ER writers created a person, not a woman