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Tommy Westphall
St. Elsewhere character
Chad Allen as Tommy in "The Last One" (1988)
First appearance 1983
Last appearance "The Last One"
May 25, 1988
Cause/reason Series end
Portrayed by Chad Allen
Gender Male
Relatives Dr. Donald Westphall (father)

Tommy Westphall, portrayed by Chad Allen, is a minor character from the drama television series St. Elsewhere,[1] which ran on NBC from October 26, 1982, to May 25, 1988. Westphall, who is autistic, took on major significance in St. Elsewhere's final episode, "The Last One," where the common interpretation of that finale is that the entire St. Elsewhere storyline exists only within Westphall's imagination.[1] As characters from St. Elsewhere have appeared on other television shows and those shows' characters appeared on more shows, a "Tommy Westphall Universe" hypothesis was developed where a significant amount of fictional episodic television exists within Tommy Westphall's imagined fictional universe.


"The Last One"

The 1988 final episode of St. Elsewhere, known as "The Last One," ended in a context very different from every other episode of the series. As the camera pans away from the snow beginning to fall at St. Eligius hospital, the scene changes to Donald Westphall's autistic son Tommy, along with Daniel Auschlander in an apartment building. Westphall arrives home from a day's work, and it is clear that he works in construction from the clothes he wears. "Auschlander" is revealed to be Donald's father, and thus Tommy's grandfather. Donald laments to his father, "I don't understand this autism. I talk to my boy, but...I'm not even sure if he ever hears me...Tommy's locked inside his own world. Staring at that toy all day long. What does he think about?" The toy is revealed to be a snow globe with a replica of St. Eligius hospital inside. Tommy shakes the snow globe, and is told by his father to come and wash his hands, after having left the snow globe on the family's television set.[1]

One of the more common interpretations[citation needed] of this scene is that as Tommy shakes the snow globe in the apartment, he also makes it snow at the "fictional" St. Eligius. His father and grandfather also seem to work at this hospital even though neither man has ever experienced such a role. By implication this interpretation suggests the total series of events in the series St. Elsewhere had been a product of Tommy Westphall's imagination.

The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis

The Tommy Westphall universe hypothesis, an idea discussed among some television fans, makes the claim that not only does St. Elsewhere take place within Tommy's mind, but so do numerous other television series which are directly and indirectly connected to St. Elsewhere through fictional crossovers and spin-offs, resulting in a large fictional universe taking place entirely within Tommy's mind.[2][3][4][5][6]

In 2002 writer Dwayne McDuffie wrote Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere for the Slush Factory website, it is the earliest version of the hypothesis.[7] In a 2003 article published on BBC News Online, St. Elsewhere creator Tom Fontana was quoted as saying, "Someone did the math once... and something like 90 percent of all television took place in Tommy Westphall's mind. God love him."[8]


An example of crossover

The St. Elsewhere characters of Dr. Roxanne Turner (Alfre Woodard) and Dr. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) appeared on Homicide: Life on the Street.[9][10] Fontana was the executive producer and showrunner for Homicide for its entire seven years.

The argument of the Tommy Westphall Universe is that because of this fictional crossover, the two series arguably exist within the same fictional universe, and within Tommy Westphall's mind because of the final episode of St. Elsewhere; by extension this hypothesis can therefore be extended to series ranging from the science fiction program The X-Files to the entire Law & Order franchise (due to various crossovers with characters from the Homicide series, in particular Det. John Munch). The theory and its continued discussion—including adding more series to that universe—is arguably an Internet meme.


There are other possible interpretations of Tommy's "vision" which may suggest something other than the entire series being his dream. For instance, it may be the other way around, and the snow globe scene may itself be the dream. Brian Weatherson, professor of philosophy at Cornell University, wrote a piece, "Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis", which challenges the logical, factual, and philosophical basis for existence of the "universe."[11]

Weatherson's fifth objection holds that the appearance of a person or event in a dream does not mean the person or event cannot exist in real life. If a person dreams about visiting London and meeting Gordon Brown, it does not follow that because the city of London and Gordon Brown appeared in a dream, they do not exist in real life. Specific to the Westphall Hypothesis, even if we accept that St. Elsewhere is Westphall's dream, it does not imply that all of the characters on the show exist only in his mind. Therefore, appearances from St. Elsewhere characters on other shows are not sufficient to indicate that those shows exist only in Westphall's dream.

The notion that appearances by the same character in two or more series tie those series together in the same fictional universe is also problematic. Weatherson, in his sixth objection, offers the example of Michael Bloomberg's playing the role of New York City Mayor both on Law & Order and in real life, which, if one accepts the logic of the hypothesis, indicates that real life is in the head of Tommy Westphall. Thus, it does not follow that because one person, place, or thing is present in two or more works of fiction that those works are necessarily related. If two shows are set in New York City and both display certain key landmarks, that alone does not imply that they share a storyline. Setting and characters are just one element of fiction; crossovers and coincidences, critics of the hypothesis say, are not sufficient to link separate stories in such a fundamental way. The Westphall Hypothesis does not itself explain why this technique is indeed sufficient, nor does it provide positive evidence suggesting that the writers and producers of each show purported to be in the Westphall Universe actually intended for their shows to exist only in the dream of an autistic child.

Other objections have centered on the idea of intertextuality.[12] These argue that as both the main continuity of St. Elsewhere and the Westphall continuity are both fictional, there is little to no point in attempting to determine logically which is the "real" universe of the show. More abstract theories of metafiction, such as those expressed in Patricia Waugh's book Metafiction, would argue that fiction simply has the capacity to represent that which is not real at all (i.e., both St. Elsewhere and Westphall are as real as each other). Much like an abstract painting does not have to match any three-dimensional object, fiction, drama, film, television, and novels can be constructed such that they do not resemble any actual situation in the real world. Thus, attempting to rein such narratives into the confines of reality, or even of simple logic, is an essentially misguided effort. They do not function according to reality and logic unless their creators, or indeed their audiences, impose it. However, the Westphall hypothesis is generally not intended to serve as a serious interpretation of "reality" but rather as an amusing parlor game and exercise in television trivia.

See also

External links


  1. ^ a b c "Classic Series Finales: St. Elsewhere". Retrieved 2008-10-22. 
  2. ^ "Dr. Turner". Google Groups. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  3. ^ ""Friends" producers plan low-key finale". Google Groups. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  4. ^ "Crossover Guide Update". Google Groups. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  5. ^ McDuffie, Dwayne (2006-07-20). "Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere". The Fifth Column. Slush Factory. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  6. ^ "LOST: The Libby Theory and more". Uncle Bear: Jumping the Dire Shark. 2006-04-05. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Gallagher, William (2003-05-30). "TV's strangest endings". BBC News. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  9. ^ "Homicide: Life on the Street" at the Internet Movie Database
  10. ^ Homicide: The Movie at the Internet Movie Database
  11. ^ Weatherson, Brian (2004-10-04). "Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis". Thoughts Arguments and Rants. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  12. ^ "On the Tommy Westphall Hypothesis". Retrieved 2008-03-08. 
  • Hofstede, David (2004). What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. New York: Back Stage Books. ISBN 0-8230-8441-8. 


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