Even at this late stage in the game, gathering speed towards cancellation on the back of collapsed ratings, Lou Grant can still give you a slap across the face to demand your concentration. In the whole of the two years or so I’ve been watching these re-runs, I don’t think I’ve seen an episode that so powerfully dragged itself out of being bitty and disjointed to become something that demanded your attention to every second of screentime, and that being almost entirely due to an astonishing performance by the late Nancy Marchand as Publisher, Margaret Pynchon.
Mrs Pynchon’s role has been a mostly minor one down the years. The show has a regular cast of seven, though there’s a clear demarcation between the principal trio of Lou, Joe Rossi and Billie Newman, and the more background players like Charlie Hume, Art Donovan, Dennis ‘Animal’ Price and the patrician Mrs P. These latter get stories focussing on them from time to time, but their main role is support. Mrs Pynchon has always been the one at the top, the eighth floor. She is the patrician element, American royalty, the former brainless socialite turned serious newspaperwoman, whose major defining position is her determination to do the right thing in newspaper terms. She’s the straight arrow.
Late last season, Mrs Pynchon succumbed to a stroke, throwing the future of the LA Tribune into doubt, it being well known that only she of her family is dedicated to running the Trib as a newspaper. It’s not been played much on. She walks using a stick, sometimes but not always she wears her metal leg-brace. Charlie Hume has been taking as much weight off her as he can, running the paper, seekking to husband her strength. That he is concerned about a possible relapse is one of the three dangly threads that start this somewhat spatchcock story.
Another thread is a bit of go nowhere nothingness. Japanese-American reporter Ken Watanabe (Clyde Kusatsu) is competing with Billie on parallel stories about a husband and wife pair: she – Irene Rooney – is Billie’s beat, a decent, honest, upright woman running for the Police Revew Board, he – a plastic surgeon – is under investigation, gets raided, flees to Surinam, cue debate about how this will affect Irene’s career, she being innocent and all that. Until she gets caught, fleeing to Surinam with the krugerrands.
Nothing, except in that it introduces Ken. Rossi’s got the meat, covering a campaign for restitution to Japanese-American families for their internment forty years earlier, after Pearl Harbour: their treatment, their being pressed into what amounted to concentration camps, the loss of all their assets in being forced to sell land, farms, businesses for a fraction of their true value. Ken doesn’t want to know for himself: he doesn’t want to be seen as a victim, as helpless, lacking control. But the most important aspect of this story is that Rossi identifies a local company, Transpacifica Land Company, that made out like a bandit, pressing for cheap sales, building up at massive profit. The story lands where it has to for this to be a story: Transpacifica was owned by Matthew Pynchon, Mrs Pynchon’s late husband.
Up to this point the episode is unexceptional. Charlie orders Lou to kill the story because he won’t have that weighing on their Publisher when she’s vulnerable. Rossi’s outraged. He thinks Mrs Pynchon’s dne it. When, by chance, he leaves the building alongside her, she bright and chipper, asking what he’s working on, he brings it up to her. The shock is palpable. Mrs Pynchon visibly hates him, calls the story grave-robbing, orders him to get away from her. You fear another stroke.
And from here to the end of an episode that visibly grows in stature and effect by the second, Nancy Marchand, aided by some wonderfully concentrated writing from regular scripter Michelle Gallery, and with the sudden, solid and equally emotional support from Clyde Kusatsu, blows everyone of the screen. Mrs Pynchon challenges Charlie over the load he’s taking, accepts he’s being protective, not trying to take over, but establishes she is getting better, that there will be no second stroke. she authorises Rossi’s story, insisting only that he portray her fairly, and that, with incredble tough-mindedness, is that she been shown as ignorant but not innocent: she knew Matthew Pynchon, she loved him for the things that led him to drive these deals, she knew he saw deals as having winners and losers, with him as the winner every time. She sets up a Foundation to help the Japanese-American community. She will have the story told but she will not havevherself white-washed.
And Ken, who doesn’t want to see himself as a victim, who sees this as forty years in the past, goes ion the Employee Day to the races and recognises the track as where he and his family were temporarily interned when he was three. All sorts of things he thought he’d buried broke through. Mrs Pynchon has worn a ring given her by Matthew, forty years ago, with a Japanese inscription she’s never bothered to have translated. Ken can identify it as a family ring, inscribed with a family name, a very personal piece of jewellery that would only be sold in greatest need. He finds the daughter of the family, finds they too were at the same internment camp, will deliver the ring. Mrs Pynchon knows her duty, to rthe family and to herself, and goes with him.
I couldn’t believe the transformation, the sudden power, the way the subject came not so much to light as on fire from within. I have never watched The Sopranos, Nancy Marchand’s last role as Lydia. Everybody says how brilliant she was in that series. Well, for ten or fifteen minutes in Lou Grant she showed just what she could do, and that spell was worth all the five seasons put together for me. Astonishing.