We’re rolling towards the end of season 2 of Lou Grant and this oddly cool but emotional episode may end up being the best of the season. I know it started a bit unprepossessingly with encounters between Rossi and a middle-aged woman in a Court Record office, a woman who one might describe as ‘no-nonsense’ if one wanted to avoid the use of the word ‘rude’. But this was merely the prelude to an episode which combined an understated character study with an equally understated murder mystery, and kept firmly away from the emotional pedal throughout, and all the better for it.
The woman was Martha Emmett, played superbly by Allyn Ann McLerie. Two years ago, her son Warren was killed in a hit and run case in Altamira. The man responsible was never found. Martha has left her husband, her home in Wichita and her job to pursue the case. As you may anticipate, she is obsessed and impatient, and that makes her acerbic and aggressive. She’s using a record book Rossi needs, and has no intention of surrendering it to him. On the other hand, when she’s accusing the staff of being unhelpful. he intervenes to show her how to home in on the unknown case number she needs, as to stop her clogging up the counter queue as any desire to be helpful.
But once he learns her story, Rossi sees her as a story. Not an easy one: Martha’s a hard woman to deal with, her mind focused upon one thing, and her insistence on this being the only thing that matters is interfering with Rossi’s other stories. When he bales, under the pretext of needing time to clear his decks, she sees through it, calls it for what it is, sends him of without a backward thought. Which brings Rossi round, fully-committed. And it’s not a tactic or a ploy, she really does dismiss him.
Meanwhile, in a slightly awkward attempt to tie everybody else into a related story, we start with Lou undergoing a prototype road rage incident on his way to his laundry, which somehow segues into everybody being snappy and at each other’s throats for no apparent reason. It’s a weak sub-plot because it comes out of the blue and we know it’ll disappear back into the black by next week, but it half-suggests Billie to a piece on road rage that’s then dropped because she hasn’t got statistics to support it (just wait, Billie, this is 1978, you’ll get all the facts you could want starting 1988).
The main story doesn’t need this stuff to distract from it and it doesn’t do enough to supplement, especially as there’s no suuggestion that road rage was behind Warren Emmott’s death, just a big black Cadillac hitting him, sending him literally flying, to land and break his neck, shoulder, arm and multiple ribs and die of internal bleeding whilst the Cadillac driver was courteous to swerve around Warren’s body to avoid hitting him again before driving off.
Slowly, the puzzle unravels. For the ultra-sharp viewer there’s a hint of foreshadowing, a mention of a tough traffic judge, and that’s where the story goes, in the closest it gets to dramatic irony. With a wonderful tough-mindedness, the episode refused to go into emotional tones: Rossi and Martha get an interview with Judge Cromwell (Ivan Bonar, stunningly effective in a tiny role). They elicit the Judge’s opinions on the deterioration of society, which is that it’s down to the cynical refusal of people top respect the law. Rossi then brings up a 1976 hit and run case, and without a word, or a gesture, solely by his face, Bonar crumples from within. Chillingly good.
So Martha had won at long last. The show was equal to the challenge of not going off the rails then, and McLerie remained perfectly pitched. It was as if she was in shock, suddenly her determined energy had gone, the monomaniacal purpose that had driven her for two years collapsed within, and she not ready for it yet.
That was the end, the unemotional emotional end. The show allowed the rest to develop off-screen, the Judge who would fight their case. We jumped to Martha’s return to Wichita, to her old life, by bus. Rossi saw her off, trying to be sentimental about their shared experience, but Martha remained solidly rooted till the end. They wouldn’t see each other again, but there was no soppy stuff, not even self-congratulation.
There was a moment earlier on that stuck with me. Martha didn’t seem to be motivated by any great love for her son, not even the ordinary level of maternal love you’d expect. He was just a kid who’d done nothing and found nothing, except the desire to get out. But Martha said that he’d never had the chance to be passionate about anything, a job, a cause, a girl, and she thought that that was the biggest cheat of all. On a line like that, alone, the greatest of stories could be built. Lou Grant built very well.