I wasn’t too sure about parts of this episode, in which Trinity was hit by a plague that had people bleeding from the eyes and ears. In execution, it was appropriately spooky, in logic – and the brevity of its ending – it was unsatisfying. But whilst I didn’t remember the story at all, I did remember its position as a swing episode. We’re two-thirds of the way through now, and change to the established position is about to happen.
That I’ll return to. But whilst I was less than convinced by some parts of the episode, its resolution opened up some intriguing doors of insight, and gave rise to at least one deeply intriguing thought.
But let’s look at the story. In outline, there’s not that much more to it than I’ve already said. The mysterious plague has already begun when Dr Matt and Deputy Ben drive out to an isolated farm in response to an emergency call. There’s an immediately truncated detail as Ben warns that the last time the wife made this kind of call, she’d ‘accidentally’ shot her first husband, but it’s a red herring because inside, she’s in bed, bleeding from eyes and ears, and he’s hanging from the door, dead, with a scrawled note taped to his stomach: Repent.
There’s an epidemic in town. To avoid panic, Matt supports Sheriff Buck’s lie that all is well. Blood supplies are disappearing fast. Billy Peale (guest star John Mese) arrives in town. He’s a photogenic, white t-shirt, blue jeans guy, laconic, unfazed, comes from Atlanta, talks like a Southerner, an epidemiologist from the Centre for Disease Control, and in his laid-back way he ain’t taking no shit from Sheriff Buck.
He’s also Dr Matt’s replacement, though we don’t get to that until next week. And he’s already attracted the attention of Selena, who’s shortened her hem-lines already, who’s showing signs of wanting to break free from Lucas, and that’s something there’ll be more of.
But in the meantime, Dr Matt has another encounter with a sick patient writing the word Repent, and the disease hits him, except that instead of the mere physical symptoms, Dr Matt goes bible-crazy, underlining verse after verse with yellow highlighter and leaving Billy Peale to lead the action against the plague.
Which we realise, to our shock, is being spread by Merlyn Temple.
First though, there are other factors. In one of the most dubious developments of the series, and in fulfillment of a cliche that I have loathed for a very long time, Gail gives way to her overwhelming lust and goes to get fucked by Sheriff Buck. I hate this stupid, lazy, demeaning idea that every good woman (and not a few good men) will always succumb to the utterly evil, vile, repulsive, bad boy, over all their loathing. It’s cheap, it’s nasty and if you’re going to do it, you need to establish a basis for attraction a damn sight more carefully than American Gothic ever has (and no, having the bad boy leeringly tell the good woman that she wants him, he knows it, does not add up to the characterisation needed to sell this).
There will be consequences, and one of them is immediate: Gail falls ill with the plague.
So Buck goes out into a lonely place, in a cold, foggy night (we are in January 1996, thank you Billy Peale) to confront Merlyn Temple. And this is where it suddenly gets very interesting indeed. Because he accuses her of overstepping. And he tells her she should listen to him, that he can help her avoid the pitfalls. She won’t listen: he has fallen.
And suddenly, a large implication opens up. We know Lucas Buck as a spoiler, a man of power, running his own virtual kingdom, giving people what they want and looking out for them, providing they conform to how he sees things and wants things to go. Did he start off seeking power with the intent of doing good? Was Lucas originally on the side of the angels only for Power to Corrupt, Absolutely? This is what he is warning Merlyn against, isn’t it?
She’s defensive against the very accusation, too defensive. But Merly has an advantage that Lucas Buck may not have had, that, ironically, springs from Lucas Buck, namely her young brother, Caleb.
I haven’t said this often enough, but Lucas Black’s performances as Caleb have been astoundingly good. There isn’t an ounce of artificiality in him, and Caleb’s solid core of good sense, his downhome benevolence, is central to every episode. Here, his solicitude for Dr Matt, his fear for his friend, and his righteous anger when he realises Merly is the plague sower, are at the bottom of her decision to reverse whatever she is doing, to draw back the plague. Merlyn Temple is struggling with her role. She has been sent her to punish the wicked and save the innocent, and she has these powers to assist her, but how, and when, and why to use her powers is proving difficult to understand. The age-old question, as once expressed in a 1970’s Justice Society of America story: what good are powers if you don’t use them? But what good are powers if you use them too much?
Thoughtful, profitable questions. Merly withdraws the plague, everybody recovers with miraculous speed, especially Dr Matt and Gail, and Billy Peale decides to stick around…