Lou Grant: s05 e02 – Execution


The strong start to the final season continued in a diametrically opposite manner with a well-written, well-acted and above all well-thought-out dramatic story that played fair and decent with some strong material.

‘Execution’ began with a flashback to September 1978, making it contemporaneous with ‘Pills’, the opening episode of season 2. Tom Pepper, a Trib reporter, and an unnamed photographer have stopped off at a corner store to buy cerea when a hold-up occurs, two youngsters, one male, one female. When he, naive and uncertain, says her name, she, Kitty Lester (Terri Nunn, she of the band Berlin), orders the four people in the store into the back room, where they are all shot. The killers are quickly caught and they are sentenced to Death. It will be the first execution in California for fourteen years.

We move to the present. three years later. Jimmy Lee died in prison, knifed to death. Kitty’s latest appeal against execution has been denied by California’s Superior Court. All that’s left is the Supreme Court. The story is that Kitty, against the advice of her attorney Jeff Benedict (George Wyner, soon to be a regular on Hill Street Blues) wishes to waive her right of Appeal, and an execution date be set within sixty days.

And that after seeing Joe Rossi at a Press Conference, she wants to talk to him.

Nunn is a genuinely beautiful blonde, small and slight. As Kitty, she acts demurely, thugh not without a certain cynical sense of humour. She makes her position plain: she accepts her guilt and regards her death as the proper penalty, and she does not seek forgiveness. It’s honest, it’s straightforward, but is it true?

That’s the question that underlies everythng that happens. Rossi, despite his initial scepticism, starts to see her as a person, and becomes emotionally involved. Others orbiting Kitty are less convinced: her past behavious militates against her being this sweet, understanding, rounded person. Rossi argues she’s changed, and Nunn has us wondering throughout whether this is true.

To present the opposite pole, we have Lou. Lou pulls Tom Pepper’s file, reads his cuttings, muses sadly about the fact he was just hitting his stride, showing his potential. A good writer lost, maybe a damned-good writer – and as we learn late on, a reporter brought to the Trib by Lou himself – britally murdered, leaving a wife and a son.

Lou’s as much emotionally involved as Rossi. Though the reporter accuses him of wanting revenge, Lou’s mindset tells him that justice will be done if Kitty Lester, who took Tom Pepper’s life, should have her own terminated.

If you’re going to ask me my position on this question then I’ll say that I have never supported the death penalty. Something deep and visceral inside me instinctively opposes it. To put it at its most basic, I don’t trust myself with the power of life or death over anyone so I’m sure as hell not going to trust you with it. This principle has been tested very sorely by multiple things over the past twenty years, things that make you automatically want to see the perpetrator put to death, for why should we suffer such people to walk among us after what they have done. Tested, and stretched, but not yet broken.

The Kitty Lester case becomes a circus, the most disgusting aspect of which is the London Publisher of cheap, tacky cash-in books about deaths and murders, Peter Whitter (played by that distinguished actor, Christopher Cazenove). It’s an early example of what would become a flood of portrayals of Brits as baddies, because Whitter, handsome and smooth and well-spoken, is a slimeball. Not overtly, at least not until he’s signed up everyone connected to the case to exclusive deals and offers an exclusive to the Trib that Mrs Pynchon takes a righteous delight in refusing.

Of course, this means Roissi is cut out, and he getting obsessive about the fair Kitty. And a story ‘leaks’ to a San Francisco paper about the secret love-trysts between the beautiful, blue-eyed convict and the ‘whip-thin’, supersmart journalist.

Once the final plea for a stay, raised by an Anti-Death-Penalty pressure group, is denied and a date for execution is set, Kitty decides to give her final interview to Joe. He understands by now by just how much he has been manipulated, and he has words for her about what has motivated her, an analysis of how she pushes people to do things they hate doing – like asking Joe to be a Witness to her execution – and how she was herself compelled to do things just to prove she wasn’t afraid of doing them, like the murder.

The episode ended in downbeat fashion. We are at San Quentin to see things being set-up, and then we cut to Rossi on a phone, dictating the facts of Kitty Lester’s execution to a copy girl, in flat, professional, factual tones before hanging up. It may well have been Roert Walden’s finest performance.

So, was Kitty Lester sincere? Or was she trying to manipulate her way to ome advantage that failed? She went to the Gas Chamber, just as she wished, when there were chances she ciould have taken to stop the process. But these were chances she would have had to take. She became a huge story for wanting to die. Was that to stimulate a late rescue, a commutation of her sentence, through the activities of others that she could then ‘resent’, an attempt that failed. Terri Nunn didn’t let you decide and neither did the writers. A good story.

All i can say for certain is that Nunn should never have gone back to Berlin. And i don’t mean that just because I can’t stand ‘Take my breath away’.

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