Code Black Season 1 Episode 3 Review: “Pre-Existing Conditions”

Code Black Season 1 Episode 3

Code Black Season 1 Episode 3 is the best the series has done so far.  This is saying a lot because the show has been good from its first outing.   However, Code Black, “Pre-Existing Conditions” is the first one that genuinely had me crying for a couple of minutes.  The emotional buttons they manage to hit are that raw.

If all this episode had was a scene that made me cry I wouldn’t be saying Code Black has outdone itself.  A mediocre episode can have an excellent scene.  In this case, the show was excellent throughout.  It made me angry, evoked feelings of compassion, made me laugh, and, as I said, it made me cry.  Most of all it made me think – and not many network shows can pull that off.

In a television landscape filled with zombies, mobsters, and superheroes Code Black hits the screen with everyday people doing extraordinary things – all the time.  It makes issues of life and death concrete in a way our American society has become numb to.  The onslaught of real life mass shootings, endless rounds of first-person shooter video games and shows where the “cool” thing is show people being killed can all lessen the importance of how precious life is ( While I’m not against violence in media per say (I enjoy many of the type of shows I’ve mentioned) Code Black brings the importance of a person’s literal life front and center.  For the highly cynical person who would rather not think about the impact issues of life and death has on people, Code Black may not be the show for them.  God forbid a television show make you think and feel things about everyday life.  More than any episode thus far Code Black, “Pre-existing Conditions” does just that.

The Setup

“Prc-existing Conditions” – which usually refers to illnesses a patient has before getting a new insurance policy is being used as a metaphor about the personal issues our various doctors have as baggage while having to deal with whatever the ER throws at them.

This week there’s no build up to hitting code black.  We enter into the active scene with Dr. Leanne Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden).  Time slows down as she stares listlessly into space, then flips back into the normal speed of chaos that exists all around her.  Code Black uses this technique often. but truthfully it’s the only way for the audience to catch a breath in the high octane action that’s going on in these code black hospital scenes.  

Leanne looks down into her nearly empty coffee cup and takes a sip.  She’s still in a kind of fog – as opposed to being lost in thought – when her boss, Dr. Mark Taylor (Kevin Dunn)  tries to get her attention.  Yes, Harden’s performance is that specific.  She’s amazing.

Mark lays out for us what the situation is.  The hospital has been in code black for 36 hours, and he’s got to use the interns in overtime.  He’s worried about this, but also about Leeanne.  She’s worked 13 days straight!

The Cases

There are a lot of things – as usual – going on.

  • Two brothers are in a car accident.  The brother who survives it is the driver – who was driving drunk.  Through this case we learn that it was a drunk driver that rammed Leanne’s family.  She was in the car with them and the only one that survived.
  • Doctors Angus Leighton (Harry Ford) and Mario Savetti (Benjamin Hollingsworth) are working on a case where Angus is the lead doctor.  Mario bully’s Angus into a wrong decision and Angus has to take the fall for it.  Mario’s role in this doesn’t go unnoticed though.
  • Dr. Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey) assigns Dr. Christa Lorenson (Bonnie Somerville) to a prisoner that’s been put away for life – and with good reason.  A number of ethical dilemmas come out of this that still have me pondering things.
  • A young woman comes in unconscious with a temperature of 108 – she’s Mario’s patient.
  • Angus has to work in the E.R. patient check in area and deal with what he finds there.

The Mother’s Dilemma

The story that dominates the episode is the one about the two brothers.  First of all, learning the specifics of how Leanne lost her family was an important piece of character development. She was in the accident! Talk about living with major survivor’s guilt! It explains her absolute fierceness about emergency medicine and doing whatever it takes to save a person’s life. She’s the doctor she wishes had been on the floor when her family came in.

However, even the best doctor in the world can’t save everyone. Dr. Malaya Pineda (Melanie Chandra) learns this as she’s working on the younger of the two brothers, Patrick O’Brien, who had been coding on the way in. Kevin O’Brien (Aaron Christian Howles) is screaming about his brother and begging not to let him die. Leanna and Neal, who is working on the other brother, exchange a look across the ER.  They already know the other brother is gone.  Leanne has Kevin wheeled away for a CT scan.  Once he’s gone she has Malaya stop trying to revive him and calls the time of death. They give the moment the dignity of a beat – and then it’s back to the chaos of being in code black.

This is a difficult thing for Malaya – as it should be. It’s not over though, Malaya is the one who has to make the phone call to the mother of the two young men. One of the rules about these phone calls is that you can’t tell the person over the phone what’s wrong. It’s the head nurse Jesse Salinger aka “Mama” (Luis Guzmán) that coaches Malaya through this.

Code Black

Daddy however doesn’t make Malaya do the actual notification. She handles it herself.  The mother is naturally stricken with grief, but goes with Leanna to see her other son.  That’s when the big shocker twist happens. Mrs. O’Brien tells her living son that he should have been the one that died!  Apparently mom knows that Kevin had to be the driving, and that he had to have been drunk.  She screams at him that he killed is brother as he sobs with regret.  Leanne has the mom taken away while Kevin continues bawling.  Malaya is appalled by the situation, but Daddy is unfazed. It’s one of most powerful lines in the episode:

Dr. Rorish: “This is what grief looks like.  Just let it be.”

Mama knows how hard this case is for Daddy and goes to her right after this.  It’s in this scene that we get to see some of Leanne’s bitterness about drunk drivers, and the way she defers her own grief with complaining about the stale food in the vending machine.  Soon the two are doing that thing where they call each other names with the deepest of love.  She talks about him being so fat that he has breasts, he accuses her of having work done on hers!   Then the break’s over and it’s back to work…almost.

Code Black Season 1 Episode 3

Leanne: “…and these girls are all mine.”  Jesse: “Ummhmm.”

Leanne goes to talk to the mom who is sitting in the room with her dead son.  In her grief she has disowned her living son.  Given what we know about Leanne losing her entire family, the idea that this woman is willing to walk away from the one that’s alive – no matter how awful the situation has got to be hard.  Maybe it’s her own rage about drunk drivers, but Leanne’s approach is understanding…

Leanne: “I can only imagine how angry you must be.”

Mrs. O’Brien isn’t ready for kindness though.  After hearing that Kevin had in fact been legally drunk – just barely above the legal limit – she starts telling Leanne about the boys and how Patrick was always making excuses for Kevin.  The kick in the teeth though is this:

Mrs. O’Brien:  My husband died ten years ago.  I have no one now.  You think you can imagine how I feel.  You can’t.

Again, Harden rocks this moment.  Of course Leanne can imagine how Mrs. O’Brien feels – even more so, because she truly did lose everyone.  Is this the time to say something, to make this about her?  No. She chooses to walk away and leave Mrs. O’Brien alone with her grief.  At least for a time.

Four hours later Leanne is faced with Kevin begging her to let him die, and learning that his mother is still sitting in the room with the dead son.  She goes to talk with Mrs. O’Brien about needing to forgive Kevin – this time choosing to reveal her past.

“Kevin feels the way any decent person would in this circumstance.  He wants to die.  The one thing I hold onto, death isn’t the answer to anything.  I wouldn’t be here otherwise.  I wouldn’t be a doctor – that’s for sure.  The only time machine we have in this life is the one we’re born in – and it only goes forward.  Kevin needs a reason to live. Don’t lose him too. “

So, if you wondered how one survives an intense loss…find something to live for.  For Leanne it’s working in the ER and training the best ER doctors she can.

Leanne’s words resonate with Mrs. O’Brien, and she leaves the corpse of her younger son and goes to the bedside of the living one to comfort him.  Yes, this is the place I was sobbing.

All About Forgiveness

It’s fair to say there’s a forgiveness theme going on throughout the episode.  When Mario pushes Angus into making a serious medical mistake, he acts like he played no part in it.  It makes it very difficult for those around him – and the audience – to like him.  Angus meanwhile has to deal with the fact that he let himself be pushed into a bad decision because of his own lack of confidence in himself.  It’s his work in the waiting room that helps bring back his confidence – he realizes that one patient is having a life-threatening reaction to peanuts, and that the pole-dancing woman who’s trying to flirt with him actually has a severe concussion!

Daddy is mad at Mario – even though Angus is the one who got the reprimand.  She and Neal have different thoughts about him.

Neal:      “No one’s unteachable.  Everyone’s has a lock, you just have to figure out their combination.”

Leanne: “I’m not a teacher.  I’m a filter.  No one gets through me who doesn’t deserve it.”

Mario really gets to feel that he’s become a pariah.  Angus and Malaya are ignoring him, and he gets some sharp advice from Leanne:

Don’t think you got away with anything this morning. A little advice from your daddy.  The further you go around here, the more you’re going to need the people you started with.

Even Neal, who earlier was defending Mario and works with him on the woman suffering from heat stroke (in part because of the party drugs she was on.), has some criticism for Mario to take in.

“You know, I think you could be a great doctor.  You know your problem?  You keep score.  Do yourself a favor and stop counting.  We’ll all win a lot more games that way.”

The final bit of ego-crushing news for Mario?  He was bragging to a nurse that Malaya had a crush on him.  At the end of the episode, Malaya is picked up by her very hot girlfriend!  So much for that angle!  It still makes me wonder what the deal is with her and Angus.  It was nice not having them paired in this episode.

For Christa, she’s stuck treating a patient from jail who’s body is rejecting it’s donated kidney.  She’s shocked a prisoner for life could even be on the donor’s list, but Neal tells her “it’s an eighth amendment thing.  For the record, such situations do occur.  Earlier this year a 17-year-old boy who was first denied access to the heart-transplant list due to his poor school records and run-ins with the law died in a police car chase after breaking into someone’s house (Anthony Stokes Case).  His case was nowhere as extreme as the one in Code Black, but the issue being addressed is not out of the realm of real life dilemmas and questions about medical treatment.

The case in Code Black involves an adult in jail for life because he’s some kind of psycho serial killer who would capture, rape and kill women.  Seriously, this character is like straight out of Criminal Minds.   Yet he receives a kidney?  When the prisoner is first brought in Neal doesn’t tell Christa what the creep’s history is, but the guy make sure she knows.

That is a major moment!  It starts a series of questions in my own mind.  If Neal hadn’t been there would she have let the man die?  Why are we required to go to extreme measures to help someone like that live?  Frankly if I had to do it I’d want to go throw up as well.  Who wants to have saved a serial killer?

The bottom line is that once you can deny one person the gift of life based on who they are or what they’ve done,  the fairness of these life and death decisions can be put into question.  As horrible as the situation presented is, it shows that doctors are not allowed to play God.  At the same time, I certainly understood Christa’s hesitation.

The Wrap Up

This was another wonderful episode of Code Black.  Each week we learn a little more about who these people are, and we get to consider our own flaws and foibles through their actions. It’s what a good drama does.  If you haven’t checked out Code Black I suggest giving it a shot! If you have seen it, let me know in the comments what you thought about it!

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

[Photo credit: Richard Cartwright/CBS]

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