The story about Sam and Luka is one relationship story very well told. So much thought went into this tale and so much depth was given to the characters even though it’s not really a love story, but about a man’s longing for a family.
I’m not a fan of Luka and Sam (played by Goran Visnjic and Linda Cardellini) as a couple and I rather hate seeing them together in season 10, 11 and the first few episodes of season 12. Still, I don’t hate the story as such, I think it is a quite a brilliant one actually, about a man and a woman getting together for all the wrong reasons.
The way the story is so thoroughly written, filmed and acted makes it a gem in relationship storytelling.
Love is not really part of the equation when these two manage to convince themselves that they’re a good fit. And who can blame them, from the outside it looks like a perfect match and things are fine on the surface until it all starts to crack and finally self-combust.
The way the story is so thoroughly written, filmed and acted makes it a gem in relationship storytelling. It’s an unusual one, because not often is so much thought and details put into a relationship story for a couple that is not meant to be. It’s intriguing and heartbreaking as well as really deepening our knowledge about the characters. Or rather, it makes us get to know Sam, who is a new character in season 10, and it lets us get even further into that sorrowful, yearning mind that is Luka’s at the same time as it becomes a very important phase in his personal journey.
How it started with Carol and Nicole
How Luka and Sam get together and their continued relationship is a natural continuation of the stories of Luka’s interaction with Carol in season 6 and Nicole in season 8. When Luka entered the ER in season 6 he was immediately drawn to the heavily pregnant Carol. His fondness of children was established already in his first episode and later that season we learned about him having lost his wife and two small children in the war in former Yugoslavia.
Not only would Luka never suggest an abortion, never not take care of his child, but for him being a family, as in being married, is more important than being in love.
They become friends and actually Carol seems a bit protective of that relationship when Luka meets Abby for the first time in the ER. Missing the father of her children (Doug Ross), Carol is happy to have Luka help her with the twins and other things and Luka does not mind at all. Luka makes it clear, rather clumsily though, that he can see their relationship become something more. “It’s time to get on with my life” he tells Carol and after she has talked to him about Doug, suggesting they could move on together. But Carol’s heart still belongs to Doug and she decides to go to him in Seattle crushing Luka’s vision of a family and leaving him sad and lonely behind in Chicago.
After the brutal breakup with Abby in the beginning of season 8 Luka falls into something with the waitress at his local bar, Nicole played by (and horribly miscast according to me) Julie Delpy. “It just happened” is Luka’s explanation when he tells Abby that Nicole is pregnant and this is where we learn that Luka kind of lets things happen to him. He wanted to help and he let Nicole move in when she lost her job at the bar, although we never see any of those scenes at his apartment. Luka got her a job at the hospital and when she tells him about the pregnancy, he says that he will marry her, because not only would Luka never suggest an abortion, never not take care of his child, but for him being a family, as in being married, is more important than being in love. (Note! Nicole later told him she wasn’t pregnant at all, but actually had an abortion as far as we know.)
Season 10 and the dream of becoming a father again
It’s certainly not any instant attraction between Luka and Sam when she enters the ER as a new nurse, replacing Abby who has started med-school again, and there is no proper introduction between the two. What happens is that Alex, Sam’s 10 year-old son hangs around the ER and befriends Luka at the café across the street. Luka treats him with a sweet without knowing he is a diabetic and Sam is furious when she founds out and annoyed that her son has acquired such an inappropriate friend. Luka is not happy about it either.
This seems to be somewhat of a pattern for them during the rest of the season, Sam initiates the sex, Luka initiates activities that include Alex.
After a few episodes though, when Sam finds herself feeling extra inadequate as a mother, Luka is there to offer a bit of comfort and support. As he carries a sleeping Alex to Sam’s car, the smile on his face reveals how the dream of becoming a father again comes to life. He can see himself with Sam and Alex, being a family.
Yet, Luka doesn’t initiate anything but doing some small talk with Alex. It’s Sam that actually tells Abby that she wouldn’t mind some regular sex and later spontaneously kisses Luka as they stand close to each other in the fully packed subway train. She is the one coming to Luka’s apartment after a bad day at work, looking for comfort and some stress release. Luka doesn’t say no of course, he never does.
This seems to be somewhat of a pattern for them during the rest of the season, Sam initiates the sex, Luka initiates activities that include Alex, like eagerly trying to find something fun for Alex’ birthday and ending up renting a camper van for them to get away in together. They do make their motives quite clear. She wants her regular sex and he wants to play family, and what the other one wants is just a bonus. They never seem to be in love, still they enjoy each others’ company.
Season 11 and the decision to start pretending
Season 10 ends with Sam and Alex fleeing Chicago in an attempt to get away from Steve, Alex’ father. Alex calls Luka to tell him what’s going on and Luka goes off to find them. Luka likes to rescue women, but Sam doesn’t really like to be rescued and blows him off when he offers them to move in with him so they’ll feel secure.
This turns into the most unromantic “I love you”-scene ever witnessed on TV. Outside in the ambulance bay Luka explains to Sam that he didn’t ask her to move in to because of what happened, but because he loves her. “I love you. I’m in love with you” he says in a voice that is neither loving nor passionate. He continues to matter-of-factly inform her that he doesn’t want to waste any time and wants her to let him know when she is ready. Sam is totally surprised, not happily surprised, just genuinely surprised: “Did you just say that?”
But just because something looks good from afar, in the dark or on the surface, it doesn’t mean it really is when you study it up close.
At the end of the episode extroverted Sam, who never has had any problem expressing her feelings before, tells Luka that “what you said earlier, me too”, not bringing herself to say it out loud. Then she seems relieved and happy having made that decision and as Luka starts walking away, Sam runs after him and they kiss.
I can’t help but notice how it is filmed. It’s dark and we do not get a close look. It’s romantic in the dusk, her in his arms with the street lights illuminating her blond hair. It’s similar the first time the have sex when Sam comes to Luka’s apartment. Then we see the kiss and the losing of clothes from afar in the evening darkness of his living room. They look good together, but we don’t see them up close, we don’t see the kiss or their expressions. This says two things. We are not really invited to see how they feel and how they act compared for instance to the much more up-close scenes with Abby in season 7.
Secondly, it is the thing about looking good from a distance or in the dark, which mirrors the way the relationship seems like a perfect match on the surface. Luka is the competent, hot-looking doctor with a sad, somewhat checkered past. Sam is the new, feisty nurse who also happens to be incredibly pretty with her doll face and golden locks. They are like the perfect couple from the outside and they seem to complement each other, fulfilling each others needs. She is extrovert and impulsive, he is a bit calmer and protective. She has a kid and wants a co-parent, a man around the house, security. He loves kids and wants a family.
They were made to be attracted to each other and for sure, none of them had anything against some casual sex. But just because something looks good from afar, in the dark or on the surface, it doesn’t mean it really is when you study it closely. And no matter how much Luka and Sam hooked up and played family, they just never managed to fall in love.
There is not that much going on with Sam and Luka in the middle of season 11 after Sam and Alex has moved in. Alex has troubles in school and Luka is there to support and talk to Alex. These are sweet, funny and sometimes awkward scenes in school and at home with Luka happily acting the dad part. But sometimes what is not included tells a story as well. There are no cute Christmas scenes with Sam, Alex and Luka together in the Christmas episode of season 11. What we see is Luka’s excitement about getting to spend his “first” Christmas with them. The focus is on just that, Luka’s anticipation and the way he envisions himself spending more holidays with them.
Season 11 and the cracks suddenly getting too apparent
Sam and Luka do seem to fight quite a bit. Luka does something that annoys Sam, she is upset all day and then they make up in the evening. One time Luka freaks out when Sam is annoyed over Neela obviously having a crush on him. Someone who is confident in his relationship would probably not react so strongly, but Luka gets nervous and is very eager to put Sam’s worries at peace. Love is not what holds them together and that makes their relationship fragile. It’s like Luka is afraid Sam will suddenly decide she’s not interested anymore after all, she only wanted it casual in the first place as she very well told him.
Just ”we enjoy each other”, which sounds like a plain ”the sex is good” metaphor.
Later we do get some sweetness between Sam and Luka. They don’t really appear to be in love, but they are sweet to each other also in situations not related to making up/having sex. At the same time this is when the breakup arc starts, where Sam says she can’t see herself with a toddler and then later asks Luka if he wants kids to which he answers nothing.
We see an evolvement of their relationship in the episode where Steve comes back. Last time he came he moved in with Sam, Luka was left out in the cold and it was all a mess. Now Sam knows how to handle it, they don’t fight about it and Luka stops Steve from taking Alex. They are ”a team now” as Sam says to Alex, not a family, but at least she sees them as a team. It feels like they have grown and settled into their relationship somewhat. But in this episode it also becomes clear how utterly sad Luka is about not having a child of his own and no matter how much he is pretending, Alex isn’t his.
Even later an episode starts with a pregnancy test, negative, that Sam doesn’t tell Luka about although he finds out. This is when they both stop smiling for good. ”Why does it seem we can talk about anything other than us?” she asks later and Luka doesn’t answer, maybe knowing that starting to dissect their relationship would not end well. But Sam is an extrovert who expresses her thoughts. She wants to solve problems and is not afraid to ask the difficult questions. She decides they should see a therapist.
”I don’t think Luka and I should be together” she honestly tells the therapist. Luka looks like he wants to be anywhere else and then just wishes they can pretend to be happy and move on with it. ”I’m happy, Sam’s not” he says with a voice that is NOT happy. ”We enjoy each other” Luka further explains to the therapist, not saying ”we love each other” or at least ”we enjoy being together”. No, it’s just ”we enjoy each other”, which sounds like a plain ”the sex is good” metaphor, nothing more.
That is not necessarily what he meant, but that is how it comes out. He isn’t even trying to convince the therapist, or Sam, that there is any love involved, maybe because he doesn’t see that as a priority. They are healthy and live a good life, he states, what else is needed? These words somewhat shock both Sam and the therapist. Luka seems more sad for himself than for them as a couple already. It’s over now and they both know it, even if they do nothing about it yet and Alex goes missing at the end of the season.
Season 12 and the desperation to hold on
Sam and Luka in the season 12 opening episode, Cañon City, is really painful to watch. While on the road trying to locate Alex, Sam continues to ask the difficult questions: ”Why are you with me Luka?” It’s heartbreaking to see Luka so desperately trying to hang on to her. And it’s not “why don’t you love me?” that he despairingly cries out on the truck, it’s “why don’t you want to have children with me?”
Love can be made up, created or pretended if you so wish. Children on the other hand are real.
Because that is what it always was about, he wants a family and he wants more children of his own. Love is not the priority, it is not what he so achingly is yearning for. Love can be made up, created or pretended if you so wish. Children on the other hand are real, but any more of those is not what Sam has in mind.
Sam and Alex moves out and an episodes later Luka is still desperat, begging her to come back. He is willing to pretend to get what he wants, he doesn’t even see it as such, they can start over, take it slow. They can be happy, be a family. But Sam is not willing to pretend anymore to get what she wants in life.
In the ER lockup Sam finally says it out loud: “We are pretending, Luka, I don’t wanna pretend anymore.” He is utterly disappointed and in pain and childishly avoids working with her all afternoon, which causes damage to a young patient. “It was the wrong thing for the wrong reason”, he admits about his behaviour later in the afternoon. Finally he is acknowledging that he knows that their relationship was wrong, that he went in to it for the wrong reasons, pushed it forward for the wrong reasons and that they never managed to get it quite right.
The way this story is told so cleverly and carefully thought-out makes it clear that Sam and Luka were not meant to last. At the same as Abby would focus on med-school and her first year as a resident, Luka wanted to move on from his fruitless pining for her and get those things he was longing for. And the story works. We get to know the core of Luka, he gets to take a deep look at himself, gather some self-revelation and come out a very insightful person at the other end. Abby is on her own journey building her professional confidence and personal self-esteem.
It is almost as they were never together
We can see how Luka’s relationship with Abby is all different. She is a pessimist who had never shown any interest in having children and he knows her family history. She never provided him with any vision of an idyllic family future for him to fall in love with. Luka just loved her. For once he took the initiative and made it clear to Abby that he wanted her. He kissed her breathlessly, he said his “I do” and made sure she knew he really wanted this. He took charge instead of just letting things happen to him.
When Abby becomes pregnant and very uncertain of her maternal capabilities, Luka says all the right things. Not only does he understand Abby this time around, that he has to be patient, otherwise she will run the other way. He has also learned from his time with Sam. He knows he must be clear about wanting Abby first and foremost, the baby second.
I think it is interesting also how Luka and Sam very quickly turn into just colleagues again. As soon as Luka acknowledges that their relationship was the wrong thing, they are back to being colleagues only. Even if Sam is slightly thrown by Abby’s pregnancy, it never becomes a thing. She and Abby actually become kind of friends in the end (just like Luka and Carter), but Luka and Sam are not friends, because just as they weren’t connected by love, they weren’t connected by friendship either.
It was Alex that connected them, the family and home life, not love or friendship. They did not do things together without Alex, although Sam tried to in the beginning. When they broke up, they just returned to being colleagues, there was nothing else between them anymore, thus there was no awkwardness hovering over them. It is almost as they were never together. Certainly it was not a relationship meant to last, although it sure had a lasting effect. It gave Luka the understanding of what he really wanted and the willingness to take charge and go and get it. Abby that is.
Note! All photos are screenshots from DVD. Material owned by Warner Bros Entertainment Ltd.
Read also this: ER’s Luka and Sam: What could have been