As I remember it happening, though not the shape of it, this episode is Dr Matt Crower and Jake Weber’s swansong, as Billy Peale and John Mese are promoted into the cast as his direct replacement, for the last six episodes of the series.
At the time, having no knowledge of how the series was faring in America, and knowing only that it was consistently absorbing and effective, I thought it a daring, even progressive move: changing a central cast member in mid-season, showcasing a change of alignment, as Selena Combs begins a movement from Sheriff Buck’s camp into the opposition ranks.
Now, with much more information available as to the show’s history, I’m seeing this from the opposite side. We’re two-thirds of the way through a season which is failing commercially, with renewal an ever fainter prospect. Much as I like Jake Weber in this role, much as he stands out as the Yankee in the South (not that anyone except Buck seems to hold that against him), it’s clear that Weber was too laid-back, too quiet, too soft to be a real focus of opposition to our over-powerful villain.
So, ring the changes, bring in a more pro-actively strong protagonist, stir things up, create new interest. Billy Peale will do all of that, even as he comes over as a laid-back Southerner. Matt Crower is broken by Lucas Buck, he’s pushed aside, more than neutralised, finished. Apparently, if there had been a season 2, there were plans to bring him back, but in the context of this episode, I cannot see how, plausibly, he could have been re-inserted, except as an occasional, recurring character.
Weber’s send-off comes in an incredibly strong episode. It begins with him producing X-Ray pictures at the Sheriff’s office showing clearly Merlyn Temple’s broken neck, refuting the killed-with-a-shovel official cause of death. Buck decides to take steps against Dr Matt, once and for all, and, building upon last week’s fever-induced hallucinations, tries to get Judge Ketteridge to sign committal papers on him. The Judge, being a principled man, refuses to do so.
Buck, being an unprincipled man, save for the principle of what-I-wants-I-get, exploits the gambling habit of the Judge’s pretty young wife, Charlotte, in a tense poker scene that sees her wipe herself out: the Judge comes home to find her in the bath, her wrists slashed. Not dead, though: and in return for Lucas clearing things up in some unexplained manner, he signs.
(At the risk of being accused of hypocrisy, whilst I’ve several times railed at Deep Space Nine for the laziness of not showing things, I have no problems with what’s essentially the same issue here. Deep Space Nine is an SF series, taking place in a scientific, rational universe, that frequently glosses over questions central to a scientific, rational story. American Gothic is a supernatural oriented horror story in which rational explanations are antithetic to its tone, and where atmosphere and a sense of mystery are central to its main character. In addition, the element of the Judge and his wife, though given weight by the lengthy and horrifying Poker game scene, are a side-issue, which would become distractingly complex if it bogged itself down in such detail.)
Meanwhile, in the other half of the story, we see Dr Matt gradually descend. He begins heroically: an attractive, albeit seriously stressed-out woman (guest star Veronica Cartwright) pulls a gun on the Sheriff in the street and he grabs the gun, forcing it down. It’s an ironic foreshadowing, for the episode will end with Matt pointing the same gun at Buck, and a combination of Gail, Billy and Ben forcing it down.
The woman, ‘Mrs Smith’, Angela, is suffering from a golf-ball sized tumour, but what’s driving her is hatred of Lucas Buck. She accuses him of being pure, unadulterated evil, and that killing him would be an act of love, not evil. She berates Matt for not killing Buck, which makes him worse than the Sheriff. She says she should know: she is Lucas Buck’s mother.
But she’s not. When he finally comes to visit her at the Hospital, where Angela is in the room where Caleb’s mother threw herself through the window ten years ago, where Lucas materialises in his usual fashion, looking demonic in his duster coat and his buttoned-up shirt, we learn she’s an ex-lover, his first, aged 16, the older woman. She’s angry, hating him for leaving her, though it’s insinuated that this was forced on them by ‘the people’, because of the age discrepancy.
Buck soothes her, kisses her, makes nice with her… and somehow persuades her to throw herself through the window. Dr Matt sees her fall, finds her body, looks up to see Luca at the window.
It’s the final straw. All episode, he’s been refusing Angela’s impassioned pleas: to kill is evil. But he’s been reading one of Miss Holt’s books on demonology, and its dragged him down. Matt takes the gun, and gives Buck everything he wants.
There’s a moment, en route to the asylum, where Deputy Ben defies his orders. He pulls up in the woods, orders Matt out the car. Matt’s cynical, conjures up an old mage of ‘Law’ in the South, the prisoner shot and killed whilst trying to escape. But Ben will let him go, tells him to go back North. Matt refuses: he won’t run away again.
So there is no escaping his fate, a cell in the asylum. And Sheriff Lucas Buck, come to gloat, come to deliver the send-off. Matt knows he’s out of the battle now, but he warns Buck there will be others. There will still be an Opposition, and one day they will win.
Not in American Gothic though. Not in the time we have left. Maybe, in some mythical, fictional later season, season 5 maybe? The changes didn’t do enough good. There are six more episodes left. I hope they’re all as good as this one.