For a show that can usually be summed up as a socially-aware drama, this latest episode was far from the usual fare. It was a detective story, not a murder mystery, but a convoluted affair full of contradictory stances and plot twists, and the heaping of layer upon layer until everything reached an emotionally satisfactory conclusion.
The episode began obliquely, with an extended entree of old photos of old California leading into Mrs Pynchon and the Historical Society and its in-house historian, Dr Michael Shepherd (Nigel Bullard). Millionaire Alex Matheson (Linwood McCarthy), a Board member, has just demolished a family-owned building against the Society’s opposition. Rather than kick him off the board, Mrs Pynchon persuades him to have opened the Time Capsule buried in the building’s cornerstone and donate its contents to the City. Lou assigns Billie to cover it.
At first bored, then enthused, Billie is the investigator, with Shepherd as her main source of background. It’s done unobtruively, but Shepherd is always there to provide new information when Billie hits a brick wall, which she does frequently: from the moment the Time Capsule, the Matheson family immediately have a concern that comes over as shady. What secret are they concealing?
The concern is the Pasteur Cross, a supposedly beautiful, indeed dazzling, gold cross encrusted with diamonds, belonging to the Pasteur family and donated by the Mathesons. Which comes out looking grey and green and unimpressive. Is it a fake? The bogus expert hired by Matheson says not, in a scientically intricate explanation that’s as much fictional as any of The Flash’s stunts cooked by by John broome and Julius Schwartz. But why?
We follow the steps as they fall into place. Shepherd helpfully illuminates California’s history, its succession of rulers and peoples. There was a feud between the two halves of the Matheson family a hundred years ago that, despite the public picture, is as real today as it ever was. The object is the Pasteur Cross, which is not only a fantastically valuable object but which is believed to have healing powers, which Matheson’s aged and ancient father needs.
The rich Matheson’s have the Cross. The unrich Mathesons want it and are searching for an opportunity to steal it. Both sides present their case for their ownership. The irony is that there is a true owner, and not a Matheson.
But first the levels multiply. Old Mr Matheson has a live in nurse, Mrs Barbara Dupree (Lynne Thigpen). Why, when the Doctor is called in, does she spirit the Cross into his medical bag, which is snatched from his car by a ski-masked kid presumably out for drugs?
The Cross is marked with the letter P for Pasteur. It’s the family brand, a stylised P with a tail to it, not the plain capital P of the fake. In fact it looks like the top of a shepherd’s crook. “I am so dumb!” Billie shouts. Shepherd’s crook. The Pasteurs were sheep farmers. What does Pasteur mean in English? Yes, right, it means Shepherd. Dr Michael Shepherd. Because the Pasteur Cross never belonged to the Mathesons in the first place. It was stolen and now it’s been taken back. With the help of Michael’s married sister, Barbara.
There’s still an ending. A new Time Capsule is being prepared, full of wonderfully witty things conttributed by the people. And a donation by Dr Michael Shepherd, after explaining the history of the Cross and the Matheson family’s olden days thievery, and paying tribute to his parents and sister, a donation of the Pasteur Cross.
No-one understands what Michael is doing, least of all Billie. He’s put the Cross back into the Matheson’s hands, in their building. Only to Margaret Pynchon does he complete the explanation, diverting her to a nearby Catholic Church. There is a gold cross around the neck of the statue of the Madonna and Child. This is the real Pasteur Cross: another fake is in the Time Capsule. Shepherd can’t keep it, that would be illegal. Instead, from his family, he has genuinely donated it to the City, to a place of public inspection.
And the closing image is of a little girl, maybe five or so, kneeling at the altar, looking at the Madonna, making the sign of the Cross and ending it by blowing a kiss, in sheer joy. I’m not religious, but moments like that make me wish…
One final point. I’ve commented very often over the last almost-two years I’ve been watching Lou Grant about storylines being merely McGuffins to showcase the personal conflicts of the cast. It’s a rare and welcome contrast to see the cast as merely McGuffins for the story…