Lou Grant: s02 e17 – Samaritan

This was a vastly better episode than the previous week, even despite the slightly trite ending. The subject this week was serial killers (though the term wasn’t used, this being before its public coining), but the idea was merely the underpinning of a well-written episode that avoided melodrama and sensation and let the effect of such a character play out through not only the Trib, but the general LA public.

It began with a letter bing written, that arrives at the City Desk. Lou thinks it’s a hoot but Donovan recognises it as the work of Samaritan, a serial killer active for six months, five years previously, who disappeared abruptly. Samaritan’s motif was to offer aid to stranded motorists or hitch-hikers, and then kill them.

The letter’s taken very seriously. There’s much debate about printing it, though the paper goes for not stirring matters up again for a mere letter. This decision is primarily Lou’s, though he’s supported by Jim McCrea (guest star Ben Piazza), the reporter who covered the Samaritan storry, who’s the paper’s expert.

That’s until theTrib’s star columnist, Jack Towne (guest star Richard B. Shull), blows the story in an overwritten, insensitive ‘personal appeal’ to Samaritan to give himself up, to Towne. This echoed the real-life Son of Sam case  in New York, a couple of years previously, and the involvement of columnist Jimmy Breslin.

Towne’s unrepentent of the damage he’s caused, the fear, the tension, the paranoia. One guy, stopping to help a stranded motorist, gets blasted by a shotgun.

The story escalates, as does the efforts to track down any clue. Jim McCrea is back in the swing of things. Jack Towne walks around smugly, with a near permanent paranoia. A guy walks into a Police Station to confess, but he’s not Samaritan, merely some poor schlub obseesed with confessing.

I liked the  way the episode, without even a single xplicit word, teased us with the idea that Samaration could have been McCrea himself, or possibly Lt. Bergen, the Homicide detective handling the case, who retired only a couple of months after Samaritan stopped, without explanation. Nothing was said to point the finger, just the facts combining to leave the possibility in the air.

Everythingwas moviing along. I was mentally preparing myself for some kind of non-ending, which I think may have been the better option, but the programme wanted some form of closure. Everybody’s accepted the letters as genuine, but Rossi tracks Bergen down and he takes one look and pronounces them fake. Samaritan’s letters always include a Bible quote, from Luke, chapter 10. Samaritan always used a King James Bible: the new letters use a modern language version.

So they’re fakes. So, who’s writing them? Here, the episode dipped from it’s high level of sustained quality. Lou has a wild hunch that tuns out to be true. It’s Jim McCrea, missing the excitement, the drama of the Samaritan era, the spotlight of his involvement, and trying to get that back by conjuring Samaritan up again.

It’s an ending. I found it a bit banal, but in all fairness, in 1978 it would have come as more of a shock. It even produces a good, sensitive column from Jack Towne, which is used to give the episode a melancholy pay-off, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God flavour.

But this was still a strong episode, because it used its subject to create a genuinely strong story, rather than a didactic exposure of a subject-for-concern. More of these and less of last week’s episode, please!

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