The Scrubs Storyline The Series' Creator Couldn't Stop

Pretty much every long-running sitcom has some kind of "will they/won't they" storyline between two of its leads, and "Scrubs" was no exception. JD (Zach Braff) and Elliot (Sarah Chalke) spent most of the first three seasons in varying states of angst over their romantic tension with each other, before seemingly breaking up for good near the end of season 3 in "My Self-Examination." It's a deliberately frustrating ending that basically works as a reverse of "The Office's" season 3 finale a couple years down the line: instead of the two characters finally getting together for good, the show stomps on the idea, seemingly forever. 

Ultimately, JD and Elliot were a much less healthy or mature coupling than Jim and Pam ever were, and the following few seasons make a sound argument that the two worked better as friends. Season 4 introduced some of JD's best love interests (Julie, Kylie, Molly) and Elliot ended up in a reasonably stable relationship with Keith (Travis Schuldt). As JD eventually had an unplanned pregnancy with Kim (Elizabeth Banks) and Elliot got engaged to Keith, a JD/Elliot endgame seemed increasingly impossible.

JD and Elliot were never supposed to end up together

When asked about the pressure to have JD and Elliot end up together, showrunner Bill Lawrence had this to say:

"When the show started, we had two attractive single leads, and so the network was, like, 'Put 'em together! Maybe they won't fall in love, but they'll still kiss!' Which, y'know, I think that's good instincts to attach viewers, but for me, I didn't want to do that. I was, like, 'I want this to be about medicine.'"

Lawrence was very adamant that the show wouldn't follow in the footsteps of "Friends" in particular:

"'Friends' was, to me, an ensemble show about this gang of people trying to survive in their twenties and early thirties in New York, but by the nature of the storytelling, at the end, it had to be about, 'Will Ross and Rachel end up together?'"

It was a legitimate concern, especially considering that there were plenty of similarities between the two couples outside of simply being the two most prominent unmarried characters throughout its run. A lot of Ross's worst qualities (such as his jealousy and his possessiveness) are shared by JD, just as aspects of Rachel's general character arc (sheltered rich girl learns to survive without her parents' financial support) can be seen through Elliot. 

In both shows, the couples' immature and often narcissistic traits make it so their initial attempts to develop a relationship don't pan out. The difference is that unlike "Friends," the creators of "Scrubs" were genuinely uninterested in revisiting the couple after the big season 3 break-up. JD and Elliot's reunion was less of an organic storytelling choice and more like something forced onto the creators. In the end we can't help but wonder: was it worth it? Looking back at the show as a whole, does it work better or worse now that we know for a fact that "Jelliot" is the endgame?

Season 1

Season 1's a strange season to rewatch, as it's both the show at its most grounded and also the characters at their most unrecognizable. It seemed like the writers weren't sure what to do with Elliot in particular, as the first few episodes portrayed her as a hyper-competitive, abrasive person. It would only take a handful of episodes before she was rewritten to be the deeply insecure, self-doubting Elliot we now know and love. 

JD, meanwhile, is just kind of a normal dude in the first few episodes. He's got his fantasies of course and he's already obsessed with forming an emotional connection with Dr. Cox, but he's otherwise very dialed down in season 1. Even his voice is different, growing goofier and higher-pitched with each passing season. 

As a result, their relationship in season 1 feels realer and more intense than it does in the rest of the show, and that applies most to the one and only episode that shows them as a couple, "My Bed Banter and Beyond." In this fifteenth episode of the season, JD and Elliot finally hook up and try to make a relationship work, but the honeymoon period ends fast and it takes less than twenty minutes of screen time for them to start hating each other's guts. Their arguments in this episode are some of the most brutal exchanges in the whole show. At one point, Elliot accuses JD of wanting everyone to like him, and he responds: "Oh, and that's a bad thing? That's a bad thing, Elliot? Why don't we get all of my friends together in a room and we'll fight your friend."

Their break-up is punctuated by Dr. Cox giving a separate monologue that's technically about his own thoughts on his failed marriage, but the thematic connection to JD and Elliot is clear: 

"Relationships don't work the way they do on television and in the movies: Will they, won't they, and then they finally do and they're happy forever — gimme a break."

Season 2

JD and Elliot go back to being friends after their season 1 break-up, and then seem to spend the next two seasons going back and forth with unrequited love each other. The season 1 finale ends with Jordan (Christa Miller) revealing to everyone that Elliot still has feelings for JD, with JD himself not being interested. However, they start hooking up again halfway through the season, becoming sex buddies for a short period before Elliot decides to break it off. "If we keep doing this," she says, "I'm not gonna be able to separate the sex from my feelings and we'll just end up being a couple again. And neither one of us wants that, right?"

JD lies and says he doesn't want it either, and this is the last episode of the season where "Scrubs" seriously entertains the idea of them getting together again. Elliot gets a serious boyfriend later in the season and we get to see JD be absurdly petty and obnoxious about it, but his unhinged jealousy is only played for laughs. 

If it was entirely up to Bill Lawrence, this may very well have been the end of the couple for the rest of the show. As he put it:

"So the initial thing was ... look, this is how it really worked in my real life when I was younger: when you work with someone who's also single and who's very attractive, you hook up once a year, and it's usually a disaster. And we did a couple of times, thinking that was all we would do, but as a result, they kind of had chemistry and it was funny and a treat to write romantic comedy. And then when I realized we were doing it too much, we tried to destroy it forever."

How did they try to destroy it forever? Well, that comes in season 3. 

Season 3

Although season 3 is often considered one of the best seasons of "Scrubs," the way it handles the relationship between these two just seemed kind of mean, which turns out to be the point. The season premiere finds Elliot making a major step to be more confident and assertive, which causes JD to instantly be into her again. He's about to ask her out in the premiere before Sean (Scott Foley) pops up and asks her out first. 

Elliot and Sean end up in a season-long relationship, one that gets strained when Sean has to move to New Zealand for work. There's a fun moment of absurd cruelty in "My Lucky Night," where JD — hearing that Elliot and Sean have broken up — runs over to Elliot's apartment to ask her out, only for him and the audience to be surprised to see that Sean's come back and he and Elliot have made amends. JD then has to awkwardly pretend as if the flowers he's holding weren't part of some romantic gesture, and Elliot tells him he can put the flowers next to the ones Sean brought her, which are way bigger. Anything to rub more salt in this wound. 

The tension between JD and Elliot ramps up again in the second half of the season, when Elliot gets advice from a patient that she should pick the man who's always been there for her. But there's another complication in that she hasn't broken up with Sean yet, and Sean shows up immediately after she and JD are done having sex. Instead of Elliot freaking out or showing any signs of guilt, she happily jumps back into his arms and he carries her away, not telling him about what just happened. The only sign that she's even a little bit troubled by the situation is when she gives JD a happy-go-lucky shrug as Sean carries her away. 

'I don't love you.'

It's a weird moment, mainly because it makes Elliot come across as a terrible person, having essentially cheated on two people at the same time without any apparent remorse or consideration towards either of them. It's hard to hold this against Elliot though, because it seems to clearly be the result of lazy writing rather than anything consistent with the actual "Scrubs" character. The Elliot we know would've been freaking out in this moment, but because the show's prioritizing JD's feelings of having the love of his life yanked away from him yet again, the show temporarily turns her into an empty vessel who happily goes along with whoever's giving her the most attention in the moment. 

Luckily for JD, Elliot does finally break it off with Sean officially, and for a brief moment it looks like these two have finally gotten things figured out. That is, until JD's narration hits us with a panicked, "Oh my god, I don't want her!" 

It's a frustrating moment because it takes what has so far seemed like a serious love story the audience was expected to get invested in, and turns it all into a joke, complete with over-the-top scary music playing as JD realizes he no longer wants to be with her. The next episode follows JD as he realizes that he only wants what he can't have, which sort of makes sense for his character at the time but mostly feels like a bit of a cop-out. In "My Best Friend's Wedding" JD bluntly tells Elliot "I don't love you" in the middle of Turk and Carla's wedding rehearsal. Elliot responds by pushing him over a table, then calmly sits down to eat as JD writhes on the floor in agony. It's a funny moment, but man does it feel hollow if you were at all emotionally invested in this storyline. 

Seasons 4 to 7

The next two seasons let JD and Elliot exist comfortably as friends, even going so far as to have a scene where JD explicitly makes it clear that there is no longer any sexual tension between them. This is perhaps why seasons 4 and 5 are often considered two of the best in the whole show: the constant back-and-forths between the two characters in the early seasons was getting repetitive, so it felt like a breath of fresh air when the show went nearly three seasons without returning to it. 

Instead, these seasons show the two growing as people and learning from their other relationships. JD goes through a string of failed relationships, a brief period of homelessness, and is then forced to grow up after accidentally becoming a father. Elliot, meanwhile, starts to really come into her own as a doctor and even switches to private practice. Elliot changes the most in this period, as she's now working fewer hours for better pay, which means finally she's able to find a decent work/life balance.

Their romantic history is never completely ignored; JD is still consistently jealous of Elliot's new boyfriend Keith, although it's mostly played for laughs like in the early seasons. There's also an extended storyline about Elliot sleeping with JD's brother and JD pretending to be more upset about it than he actually is. Really, it's only near the end of season 6 when Keith proposes to Elliot that it becomes clear the show is returning to this storyline in earnest. "It should've been me," JD thinks as he sees Keith and Elliot celebrating their engagement. This becomes a major recurring thread throughout the remainder of the season, culminating in an almost-kiss cliffhanger in "My Point of No Return."

Although the fallout of this moment leads to Elliot breaking it off with Keith and JD deciding to break it off with Kim, it's not until the final season that the show fully follows through on this scene's implications.

Season 8

When asked about the decision to have JD and Elliot end up together, Bill Lawrence explained:

"I didn't want them to end up together, and everybody else did, and I acknowledged that, whether I liked it or not, there was a ton of chemistry between Zach and Sarah, and for a lot of the audience, there were huge stakes. And we had to come up with a compromise, and the compromise was that I said, 'Look, most shows would do this in the very last episode, where J.D. and Elliot finally get together, but if we can have them be boyfriend and girlfriend right from the start, where they just start dating again and it's not the storyline that dominates the year but is just something that's happening in their life, then, yeah, they can have a great moment in the finale. But the finale isn't about J.D. rushing to the airport to keep her from moving.' ... If we don't do that, then I'm fine with it.' So that was the compromise: put 'em together to make people happy, and yet the series doesn't become about them."

And sure enough, JD and Elliot finally get together for good in "My Happy Place," the fourth episode of the season. It's a surprisingly undramatic, mature episode of the show, one where the two characters talk earnestly about their incredibly messy past and their undeniably uncertain future. As much as they may still like each other, the way they've hurt each other over the years still stings, and they take this next step not with a rush of excitement but with a ton of caution. They're aware of how easily they can mess this up, and that awareness looms over them throughout the rest of "Scrubs'" final season. 

Would JD and Elliot last?

In the end, the decision not to make the final season "about" these two getting back together is what helps sell them as a couple we can now believe will last a long time. Their first three attempts started out passionately but were poorly thought-out; for as much as they may have interacted with each other over the years, they'd never sat down and talked about exactly what they were feeling and what they expected from each other. The fact that this new attempt is started off with a long conversation, followed by simple hand-holding, makes this pairing feel a lot more stable, a lot more level-headed. 

The rest of the season has their relationship evolve gradually in the background, to the point where Elliot is moving in with JD by the beginning of the finale. We don't get to see how things end up with her and JD, but we get a montage at the end showing where things could lead, with them married with kids and still hanging out with the rest of their friends. 

There was tragically no season 9 ever created for "Scrubs," so we can never know for sure if JD and Elliot would've lasted long-term as a couple, but it seems promising. Ultimately, Bill Lawrence was right to try to avoid the "Friends" ending, as "Scrubs" was always a show that understood that relationships take work, that passionate declarations of love aren't enough. There's no real reason to assume Ross and Rachel wouldn't just break up again a couple months after the finale, but "Scrubs" spends its final season giving us a reason to believe in JD and Elliot.