We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.
Many great doctors walked the halls of ER during its fifteen season run, and there’s none finer than Dr. Peter Benton. Benton never gains many friends amongst the hospital staff due to his stubborn, sometimes disagreeable personality, but he works extraordinarily hard to uphold the Hippocratic Oath and care for his patients.
Introduced as a hotshot, impatient surgeon, Benton constantly displays his desire to be the best doctor in the operating room. There are plenty of references to the difficulty Benton faced in becoming a doctor due to his family’s lower income status, which helps to explain his drive to succeed. He doesn’t just excel for himself, he works for the people closest to him, namely his mother and sister (and later, his son). Choosing work over personal obligations becomes a constant conflict for Benton, and he often neglects his loved ones to fulfill his surgical duties. Much to his family’s displeasure, unfortunate scheduling leads to Benton missing his elderly mother’s birthday party to save the life of a white supremacist in the season one episode “The Birthday Party.” But that’s what makes Benton unique. No matter the history/race/transgression of the patient, Benton cares for his patients equally. Well, almost. More on that in a bit.
Even with Benton’s self-discipline and extremely busy schedule, somehow medical student John Carter manages to find his way into Benton’s heart. The mentor-mentee relationship between Benton and Carter is my favorite part of a series that features many other exemplary episodes and characters. Benton regularly berates Carter and expects perfection from his student, but it all has a purpose. There is no maliciousness. Benton is demanding and uncompromising in order to make Carter a better doctor. And here’s something I noticed upon re-watching ER’s early seasons – Benton is always supportive of Carter during traumas. Traumas are fast moving environments where it’s easy for a doctor to lose his cool, but that’s when Benton encourages Carter, letting him know he can perform difficult procedures, believing in Carter even if Carter doesn’t believe in himself.
The historic episode “All in the Family” reveals just how much Carter means to Dr. Benton. After he discovers Carter has been stabbed, a panicked Benton rushes to his side and refuses to leave until he knows Carter is out of danger. Benton has full faith in his own abilities, and he won’t trust anyone else to heal his student. For Benton, Carter’s surgery isn’t just professional, it’s very much personal. And when Carter develops an addiction to narcotics, once again it’s Dr. Benton who’s by his side, chaperoning him across the country to a rehab facility.
Dr. Benton finally leaves the ER after realizing that being a father is more important than anything else, but he leaves behind a strong legacy. Dr. Carter may have filled the void left by Dr. Green, but he’s the product of his mentor, Dr. Benton. And Carter couldn’t have asked for a better teacher.