The Best ‘ER’ Episode Of Every Single Season Highlight What Makes The Drama An All-Time Classic
Any show spanning 15 seasons must have been doing something right. ER was revolutionary when it first aired, dispelling forever the soap-opera conventions of past hospital-set shows and bringing real medical knowledge to the fore. Its long floating shots were technical achievements, and even amid the detailed jargon it rarely lost sight of the human emotions that made every decision so urgent. Though it's hard to choose just one from each, these are the best ER episodes of every single season, a super-sampler of what made the show the best even after a glut of copycats hit the air.
If you don't agree with some of the picks, that's because some seasons were so full of amazing moments it came down to an almost arbitrary choice. Season 1 also had the show's first major event episode with "Blizzard," where a dire snowstorm forced everyone into action. Season 3's "Night Shift" was a thoroughly enjoyable episode with an unforgettable emotional wallop at the end viewers didn't see coming. When it came to later seasons, the choice becomes difficult in the opposite direction — it's not a coincidence that so many Season 13 and 14 episodes appear on "Worst Episodes" lists. But that's only holding ER to its own high standards; even the show's low points were high water marks in television history.
Season 1: "Love's Labor Lost"
Not just one of the best episodes of its season, or of the show as a whole, it was an episode of television so powerful it merited a full breakdown of its creation 25 years later. It breaks down just how fragile health is, and how even doctors like Greene (Anthony Edwards), amazing at their job, can make small mistakes with devastating consequences for others as much as themselves.
Season 2: "Hell And High Water"
This high-drama episode focusing on Dr. Ross vaulted George Clooney from mere actor to superstar, paving the way for his eventual jump to movies. It was also the series' first major foray outside the walls of the ER, with all the tension and claustrophobia the writers could wring from the cramped tunnel location.
Season 3: "Union Station"
In the show's first exit of a major character, we say goodbye to Susan (Sherry Stringfield) and get a sweet ending to her and Dr. Greene's sort-of not-quite relationship. There's a wedding, a divorce, and another fling for Carter with Glenne Headly's Dr. Keaton.
Season 4: "Exodus"
A major event episode, with a chemical spill forcing every core character (with the exception of poor Kerry Weaver) into dramatic situations, including exacerbating the Doug and Carol (Julianna Margulies) drama by leaning in to that cliché of television clichés: Trapped In An Elevator. Still, it's high-wire and gripping television.
Season 5: "Middle Of Nowhere"
Sure, there was Doug Ross's dramatic exit in parts 1 and 2 of '"The Storm" and the swirl of "The Good Fight," but at least once a season the show would step out of the hospital to let us get to know a character in a more meaningful way. Season 5 takes us to Mississippi and let us spend some time with the softer side of Dr. Benton (Eriq La Salle).
Season 6: "Be Still My Heart"
This is a solid episode whose slow buildup of tension isn't even seen by viewers until the wallop-packing, heart-wrenching cliffhanger ending, which leaves two characters' lives in the balance as they helplessly watch each other suffer.
Season 7: "The Visit"
Sally Field shines as Abby's (Maura Tierney) unstable mother in this episode, but Benton's attempt and failure to save his nephew also hits hard in the best way possible - ER was at its strongest when it intertwined character-building, emotional impact, and clinical knowledge.
Season 8: "On The Beach"
A true heartbreaker for fans, who watch Dr. Greene come to grips with his looming death and try to smooth his troubled relationship with his daughter (a setup that would land with full emotion in the show's final episode). Death, never mind a beloved character's death, has rarely been handled so eloquently.
Season 9: "When Night Meets Day"
The end of an era on the show, as the very next episode 'Kisangani' sets Carter (Noah Wyle) up working with Doctors Without Borders alongside Kovac (Goran Visnjic) in the Congo. The split-screen works to parallel the stories instead of feeling gimmicky, doubling the tension that must happen in every real ER with multiple patients' lives on the line — it's a treat to get the full sense of it on primetime television.
Season 10: "Now What?"
While we have to acknowledge "Freefall" for its completely bananas dispatching of Dr. Romano (Paul McCrane), this episode seems to be asking the question of where the show was headed — answered with the arrival of future fan favorite and show staple Neela (Parminder Nagra).
Season 11: "Ruby Redux"
ERs aren't exactly the place for stable, ongoing doctor/patient relationships, but this episode gives a larger sense of the hospital as a community at the center of a city. Throwing all the way back to Season 2's "True Lies," Ruby (Red Buttons) returns and still wants nothing to do with Carter. It's a fascinating measure of just how far the show's come.
Season 12: "Blame It On The Rain"
Though there were plenty of subplots that happened outside the hospital, they were more distracting than compelling. This is a solid night-in-the-ER episode with some character twists and a solid running gag resulting in Jerry (Abraham Benrubi) getting a jolt.
Season 13: "Graduation Day"
In the show's weakest season, this episode rises to the top by not being the worst. Even the major heartbreak for Abby and Kovac doesn't have the emotional impact of past episodes, and Sam's (Linda Cardellini) wrap-up is buried in the background. What brings it to the top of the heap is the reappearance of Sally Field as Abby's mother Maggie.
Season 14: "The War Comes Home"
Despite having to deal with the cheesy cliffhanger hangover from Season 13, the penultimate season starts strong (maybe too strong, since this one outshines the rest of the season) with a major casualty episode affecting a number of newer characters we'd come to love, particularly Neela. The bomber melodrama comes up, but doesn't outshine the humanity of the rest.
Season 15: "And In The End..."
There's no way any other episode this season could've topped the series capper, which has one of the sweetest codas possible for a show about trauma and loss.
Of course, there's plenty of latitude when it comes to choosing which ER episodes are "best," but that's all the more reason to keep rewatching.