Lou Grant: s04 e18 – Violence


Sometimes, balance is inappropriate. Sometimes it’s wishy-washy. The impulse to be fair, to let all sides of an argument be aired to enable the viewer to make up its own mind, to demonstrate complexity, is always laudable. But it’s still wishy-washy. Failing to show a clear moral standpoint, or failing to show it with sufficient force is a cop-out.

It’s something that’s been a characteristic of Lou  Grant  from the outset. The show’s innate, small-l liberal mindset demands that it doesn’t slant stories, as much under President Carter at the beginning as under President Reagan now and until the end.

But the determination to be ‘fair’ sometimes, as in this week’s episode, undermines the story. The violence of the title was primarily about American Football, and the way the game had changed by the early Eighties to de-emphasise the skill of passes and runs in favour of pumping up the violence: the blocks, the tackles, the ‘hits’

The lead was LA’s star defensive back, Cliff ‘Crusher’ Carter (Fred Williamson), who starts the show on a B&W TV at McKenna’s Bar that was so dark you could have thought the game was being played at night without floodlights. Crusher ‘spears’ Ron Templeton, who winds up in a coma from which he eventually wakes, paralysed from the neck down for life and refuing to support his wife’s $3.5 million lawsuit because it will hurt the Club.

Rossi’s doing a story on Crusher, who he already idolises, for Sportsweek. Charlie wants the Templeton story treating as news instead of Sports, where everybody is ganging up to support Crusher in his hour of need. Lou’s on their side so he assigns Billie, who can’t understand or stand American Football, and then objects when she examines the background of violence and injury in the sport instead of treating it like the ‘freak incident’ it is. Some freak: the more finessed defensive back Mike Hauser (Fred Dryer) puts another plyer into hospital with an undisputably clean block and resigns immediatey, sick to his stomach.

We know Crusher’s the bad guy. He is open about how he intimidates opponents, hits them hard. He films a Public Service Announcement about the importance of family then, off camera, slaps the ball out of the kid’s hands (‘You hold like a girl’). He gives tips to college players on how to get away with illegal hits, focussing on breaking the star kid who’s broken Crusher’s college interceptions record. And when he wants to kill Rossi’s interview, in the wake of Hauser’s retirement, he orders Joe around, slams him against a car and steals his notebook.

Yes, the show does paint Crusher as he is, a vicious, arrogant thug not all that concealed under his surface bonhomie. But it hedges that truth around with a mixture of Football’s own denials about itself, its attempts to squash Mrs Templeton’s lawsuit, the sports writers’ overlooking details, Lou’s own refusal to confront the genuine issues in the game, and the fans’ preferemce for violence and thuggery. Crusher has boxes of fanmail applauding him from wht he did to Ronnie Templeton.

There’s a counterpoint to this in the form of a B story. Lou bumps into the Trib’s film critic, the attractive Melissa Cummings (Tyne Daly, about to star as Lacey of Cagney and…) and they start dating, despite the fact that they have no apparent opinions in common. The problem is that Melissa isn’t a character, she’s a viewpoint, she’s 100% supportive and promoting of violent films, all of which are masterpieces, reflecting not influencing audience’s underlying violence and providing catharsis.

In short, she’s the advocate of the slasher movies and video-nasties of that era, in the face of the regular cast’s more mainstream tastes, but beyond her taste in films and ability to spout lyrical, she doesn’t exist.

(Case in point re the show’s unwillingness to get too close to genuine issues, not to mention the American character: we see an excerpt from ‘Carlos and Wendy’, about a couple on honeymoon attacked by three bikers, who beat Carlos and rape Wendy before driving away on their hogs, respecting the speed limits in a subruban area, allowing Wendy to drive up behind them and ram at least two of the bikes in a cathartic release of vengeance. The drawback is that whilst this truth-telling ‘film’ shows Carlos being punched, clubbed and kicked, Wendy is dragged off behind a suitable outbuilding to be raped invisibly, offscreen. I never was an aficionado of video-nasties but I lived through that era and the sex was always upfront. The show tried to exemplify something by introducing evidence it could never ever show.)

There were some decently subtle moments in the episode, including the reporter who, when Hauser announced his retirement and why, immediately tried to brush it under the carpet by asking if this was just a ploy in salary negotiations,and Crusher’s turning on Joe, who was starting to have doubts about him, was in the face of hassle from the Press and the Club over Ronnie Templeton but come on now, did you really think we’d see him get his comeuppance? Even a defiant supporting/lionising of him would have gie the episode some heft by giving us a form of closure – any form – but we know better than to accept that after nearly four full seasons of Lou Grant.


Person of Interest: s04 e20 – Terra Incognita

Now? Then? When?

We’re now only two episodes from the end of Person of Interest‘s fourth and last full season. Based on the pattern of the past two seasons, I have long been expecting some form of overriding arc but this has not materialised, except in little, background moments. Against such concerns, ‘Terra Incognita’ is an unusual choice of story, coming so late and, except in a little-pursued B story that occupies Finch, Root and Fusco, in keeping them off screen, is detached from any progress. And it’s one of the best, most deeply hypnotic, and saddest episodes ever produced.

The episode digs into your emotions in several ways. It lays John Reese bare for us, and shows us the man, the living, feeling man, beneath the hard-armoured shell that he wears to allow no-one near him. It brings back Taraji P. Henson as a guest star, for what is essentially a two-hander, to remind us of how much we miss her, and to point to a present that never existed, a phantom limb of life never expressed, a could-have-been that never could have been. And it points to a future that never would be, a phantom path through the woods ahead that had to be choked off the minute Person of Interest received a qualified, do-what-you-can-with-this renewal for a half-season to bring it all to an end.

The structure combined undated flashback, a present winter day and hallucination that allowed those so minded in the audience to incorporate the supernatural.

It began in the past, Reese and Finch on stakeout over a number, a bar owner in danger from HR. There’s a third person in the car, Detective Joss Carter. Finch leaves to walk and feed Bear. Reese and Carter talk as they wait. Or rather they don’t talk. Carter wants to know more about the Man in a Suit, who he is, what and why.

In the present, two members of the Brotherhood are shot dead without Numbers coming up. Is the Machine defective? No, it was murder by oportunity, not pre-meditated. A hint, no more. The Machine has been distant this season, in hiding, delivering mainly offscreen. We see everything through Samaritan now, though there’s one brief moment when the Machine’s eyes become ours again.

But there is a number and John Reese makes it his own business, his and his alone, all others excluded. Because Chase Patterson, former junkie, suspected of killing his parents and sisters, is a cold case, removed to the freezer when he fled the country. He was Carter’s case, her first, working with Detective Tierney. Hohn wants this to himself, to close the case in Carter’ honour. And to be close once again to the woman he liked, admired, felt an affinity for and who, in another life without the walls he has built, scared and alone in War, he might well have fallen in love with.

Reese follows Carter’s trail, the episode flipping between then and now, distinguished by a colder, bluer, more washed-out colour scheme for the past. it ends at a remote family cabin, in the snowy Catskills, off grid. No-one, not even the Machine, knows where John has gone. Long ago, Carter disturbed the real killer, who didn’t have the courage to kill a cop. Now, Reese finds Chase and the set-up for murder by drugs overdose. This time, the killer shoots John, badly.

The killer? An out-of-left-field older half-brother, son to a mother abandoned by Chase’ father for the woman who was Chase’s mother. An embittered psycho, of no importance, a nobody, a nothing. is this going to be the man who kills John Reese?

Another flashback to Reese and Carter, on stake-out, in the car. John unbends to start talking about Jessica, the real and unbelievably sad reason why he pushed her away, the woman he loved and who loved him. This cannot be fiction, it cannot come out of even the most sophisticated and deepest of writers, only real life can produce thoughts like this: two dead platoons, one from each side and every man carries a picture, a girlfriend, wife or kid they would never come back to, and the man who would become John Reese thinking that if he had no picture, no future he longed to last to see, it might make him more invulnerable. The heart cries at that thought.

nd we realise that we are no longer in the flashback, that like the Pacific Ocean canoists and the NASA astronauts in Pete Atkin’s ‘Canoe’, we have moved between times. John has killed the killer. He has broken into Chase’s car for refuge. He is bleeding to death, though he’ll die of the cold far sooner. And Joss Carter’s next to him, digging at him, poking and prodding, continuing a conversation they never had in life, despite John’s hazy recollections, opening him up. Keeping him alive long enough for someone to come out and find him.

Is Carter really there? Is John so close to the border with death that she can come back for a time, fighting to keep him from crossing over? Or is John’s mind constructing for him an hallucination, by way of self-preservation, not merely of his body but of his… well, would you call it soul? Forcing him to understand that he cannot remain so detached, so concealed from anyone and everryone that he is literally killing himself, seeking a death that he sees as inevitable, determined from the start?

There’s a mention of his psychologist, of Iris Campbell, a story that would have gone far further in the season 5 that wasn’t to be and which had to be abandoned, as we shall see in the season that was. Phantom relationships, stretching forwards and backwards. Elsewhere, people are looking for John. Headlights approach. he won’t die. Neither will Chase Patterson, who will reach a hospital before the pills his half-brother forced him to take can end him. No music, just a fade to a Person of Interest caption card.

And a long, silent ascent towards our own reality, full of thought.

Lou Grant: s04 e17 – Business

Despite an excellent performance from guest star Edward Winter as a new, progressive business CEO, this was another case of one step up, one step down.

If I were to tell you that this story was about relations between American busoiness and the Press, would you be expecting great drama and edge-of-the-seat watching? Maybe in America, where one President went so far as to define that ‘the business of America is business’, but through British eyes the story failed to convince as a worthwhile one, and ended up coming over as a whole lot of fuss about very little.

We began in media res with the aftermath of a devastating fire affecting plant belonging to long-established Los Angeles company, Cal-electronics. The company’s recently shed veteran officer Lester Sorenson (Phillip Abbott) almost as soon as he’d been appointed President, replacing him with the much younger and go-getting Russell Davidson (Winter) but they’re being intensively secretive about everything, to the extent that they’ve triggered Joe Rossi’s permanently lurking suspicions as to what they’re hiding.

It was at this early point that the episode lost me. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason in ducking questions, failing to supply information, especially when the truth that was being buried was minor and insignificant. It was all very Watergate, the cover-up creating far more harm than the story being suppressed.

But Davidson and everyone else at Cal-electronics seemed to think that the press was against them, that automatically it gave businessand companies grief, sensationalising stories, slanting them to make the problem out to be more widespread than it really is.

There was an example on the Trib’s side, and this from Adam Wilson, the economics writer and a natural friend to business, with a story exposing the cancer risk to employees that came over as a company-wide thing with potential spread to consumers when in strict fact it was five workers in one division, a risk neutralised instantly.

Without a background of familiarity with press reporting of business in the early Eighties it was hard to viscerally accept that the company were justidfied in their extreme circle-the-wagons approach. Naturally, the company wanted to fight back, buying full-page ads in the Trib to put over their point of view, hassling the Trib over sitting on a Washington State story about a labour dispute that escalated into deaths, because it was at a paper mill owned by the Trib.

To be honest, it all seemed very superficial and the ending – Sorenson explains the humiliating circumstances of his resignation, a breakdown due to promotion to a role he couldn’t handle and the secrecy merely being Davidson’s innate decency over not wanting to expose an old man’s frailties – fell flat because the story, well-acted as it was, was flat from introduction to coda.

I shall, out of decency, refrain from mentioning the thin-to-the-point-of-skeletal ‘B-story’, included assumedly because the actor needed a job.

One step up, one step dow. There have been rather more of the latter this season than any other.

Person of Interest: s04 e19 – Search and Destroy

Nice Wig

We’re a very long way into Person of Interest‘s fourth season without the usual sense of something building to either a conclusion or a cliffhanger, as we would normally expect. For weeks we’ve been experiencing individual stories without connecting threads. For the first time in a long time, this episode starts to deliver on its arc.

Not at first. New Number Suleiman Khan (Aasif Mandvi) is a man whose life has been destroyed in an instant. His company, Castellum, has grown from a garage operation to the world’s largest purveyors of anti-virus protection, automatically installed in 86% of the world’s computers. And it’s been hacked, in an instant, everything revealed, down to the nude photos of his estranged wife that he swore he’d deleted. Not just everything, but more than everything, including evidence of things he’s not done, like major embezzlement.

Khan’s life collapses like a souffle prematurely removed from the oven. Everything is stripped away, any avenue along which he might be able to fight back is closed off, practically the only thing they don’t remove is his expensive, hand-tailored suit.

What can lie behind this? Finch and Reese know but fantastic and arrogant as it may seem, Khan has worked out that he has been targetted, very specifically, but an Artificial Intelligence: Samaritan.

What’s the plan, Stan? It’s very simple, but before we go there, let us just collate the little semi-detached strands that decorate the episode. There’s Paige Turco making her final appearance as Zoe Morgan, fixing Castellum’s problems, twitting John about his relationship with his redhead, acting as his ear in a meeting. There’s John trying to teach Harold how to shoot a gun, since he won’t always be here and he wants to know Finch will be safe. There’s Root, going to great lengths to steal a virtually atom bomb proof suitcase, not for the beautiful Faberge egg it contains and which she chucks away, but for the suitcase: why?

But the plan is simple, and so in one sense, one fatal sense, is Khan. It’s his besetting flaw, his insatiable curiosity. Why him? Why has he been targetted? In the end it gets him killed. Rather than escape he goes back inside, is taken to Greer and Martine Rousseau. He wants to see the face of Samaritan, of God. His wish is granted, shot through the heart by Greer.

Because Samaritan has been using Khan’s code to search. Search the word for the presence of unknown code. For the whereabouts of the Machine. And it will find it. That is inevitable. And Detective Riley and Professor Whistler. How can one withstand a God forever?

Lou Grant: s04 e16 – Campesinos

One of many sides

Once again I’m in the position of being an unintentional contrarian in my opinions about a television episode. According to imdb‘s ratings, this episode is the lowest rated in season 4, one of only two to be given a rating under 7. Yet whilst the story was often confused, and was predictable in one major aspect, I thought it better than that, especially as, for once, the series’ reluctance to provide distinct outcomes was fitting: this was a story that would never end.

The story was about labour relations, in a time when, even in America, workers had a lot more going for them than they do now. Immigrant workers, Mexican, are employed in picking celery in California’s Central Valley. It’s wht it always is: back-breaking work, ten hours in the field under a blazing sun, or in pouring rain, for minimum wage, and that’s just for the ones who get to work: the rest starve.

There’s been a strike for six months, and the growers are getting illegals in to do the job for even less. The owners don’t care about the workers, they see them as free of responsibility. The owners hold the land, they work it and manage it, they are invested in it. They don’t have the freedom to move on and do something else whenever they feel like it. Besides, the owners don’t want to be told how to run their business, forced to hire workers they don’t consider sufficiently skilled or fast enough.

It’s an arguable case, but it contains a wilful blindness as to the real lives of the workers, their need for a living wage, their need for security. Oddly enough, the show allows the owners to make their viewpoint explicit but doesn’t give the same to the Union. I suppose it’s because their case is bindingly obvious: you take one look at the conditions under which they work and immediately support their need to be treated decently and fairly.

But what’s this all got to do with the Trib? It starts with Union organiser Tommy Hernandez (James Victor), former football star and school contemporary with Joe Rossi, roping him in to the story with the hook of former worker’s activist, the Reverend Hugh Holstrom (Jeff Corey) coming out of retirement after 18 years to rejoin the fight.

Though Lou is more interested in the Tommy Hernandez story than the strike, Hernandez uses Rossi’s presence (and that of a dozen other reporters also on the same ‘exclusive’), to advance his cause. The Reverend breaks the picket to try to address the illegals, bring them round to the cause (they cannot: without work they will starve) and is arrested. A rumour he’s had a heart attack in the Sheriff’s station causes a mini-riot in which Rossi is caught up and gets him jailed.

This forces Lou to take the overall story more seriously, sending a team to Ortega: Animal, Billie, Spanish-speaking Rubin Castillo (Emilio Delgado) and Donovan, whose beat this was fifteen years earlier. We’ve not seen much of Billie recently because Linda Kelsey had broken her left wrist, arm in slings and slimline plaster cast and she’s officially acknowledged to be on the Reserved Injured List herein. Continuity-wise, it’s a throwback to Billie’s injury during episode 13, ‘Strike’.

As the show develops, the strike is given a more personal edge by an unconvincing detail. One of the owners, Paul Geyer (William Lucking, Gandy Dancer in Tales of the Gold Monkey), is a former friend of Tommy and a team-mate who worked well with them. Geyer tries to negotiate separately with Tommy, but Tommy won’t budge, leading Geyer to conclude there’s a personal element to this, that Tommy is focussed on beating Geyer, not on his members interests. They’d be better off without you, he tells Tommy.

Straightway, you knew what was to follow. The frustrated pickets, whipped up by Tommy, break their lines and enter the fields. Tommy racesafter them, as much as you can in a celery field, urging them to go back. The guard with a rifle fires three shots, everybody turns round and retreats but one man has been hit: it’s Tommy and he’s dead. The show makes a hash of this scene, with the violence off camera, but it was all so predictable.

As was the outcome. without Tommy, the strike was settled, the Union compromised, the purveyor of Unintended Manslaughter got the traditional slap on the wrist and everything went back to normal, until the next time. The illegals were collected in a truck and went somewhere else.

It was a deliberately downbeat ending, recognising that here was a scenario that would repeat and repeat uintil the heat-death of the Universe. It was an episode ito which you could read any political position your own prejudices endorsed and in which, if your mind was open enough, see the opposite side and the practical reality of the world in that it was those of us who buy celery (I don’t) and want it cheap force conditions, compromises and even deaths on those at the other end of the production chain. And it did all these not to be wishy-washy neutral but to show us that this question is not as black and white as we would like it to be.

Could it have done it better? Oh, certainly. Two seasons ago this topic would have produced a tighter, sharper, more concentrated episode to say and show all these things, but it still got its intentions straight, and it deserved a bit more respect from its audiene. There are higher rated episodes this season that aren’t half as good as this, albeit flawed story.

Person of Interest: s04 e18 – Skip

Frankie and Johnny

So much contained in one episode, yet again, so impressive overall that it couldn’t be spoiled, well, not that much, by the early reappearance of Harper Rose (Annie Illonzeh) in one half of the story.

We’ve been getting a few of these separated stories in recent weeks, and I can’t decide whether it’s because the show has so many plots it wants to squeeze in at a point when the question of renewal for a fifth season was up in the air, or that the stories lacked the internal complexity to sustain a standalone episode without other entertainment.

On the one hand, we have ‘Detective Riley’ gambling with the Team’s remaining cash resources at a semi-illegal club, his eye (and who wouldn’t?) on new hostess Francesca ‘Frankie’ Wells (Katheryn Winnick). But Frankie is not victim but perpetrator, a bounty hunter tasked with retrieving the club’s manager, Ray Pratt (Ato Essandoh) to answer to his bail in Florida by Wednesday: not many tall, blonde hostesses have martial arts skills like that. Unfortunately, John’s at the wrong end of the stick and his intervention allows Ray to escape. John and Frankie make an uneasy team for the rest of the episode.

Quick interlude: Dr Campbell drops in to tell ‘Riley’ she’s handing him off to another psychologist for future sessions. Is it because of his recent unbending and the violence in his past? Her refusal to say why tells us instantly it’s not that, and what it actually is.

Over to Harold, who has a morning coffee date with an old friends, another returnee, this time Beth Bridges (Jessice Hecht, from episode 6 of this season). This is payback for Finch’s plan in Hong Kong to get certain software installed in her laptop. Now Beth’s algorithm has progressed to the stage where it’s going to be used. In a very few days it will be installed in Samaritan. It will function, once, as a very narrow back door, a trojan horse that will transmit a few megs of data before it is discovered and obliterated, but that data will include Samaritan’s ‘DNA’. It will give Finch a chance in an impossible to win war.

And the moment he sits down with Beth, she becomes a Number.

So ‘Professor Whistler’s association with Beth is to cause her death? Yes,but not for the reasons you might expect.

But back to John. Ray Pratt is going to need a fake ID to get out to Brazil, which takes him to the best in the business, a lady named Athena but who we better know as Harper Rose. Here I have to apologise: I remember three guest shots for our Lady of the Perpetual Scam but actually there are five, so this is not the ‘second appearance’ that prejudices me so irreversibly against her, though it does foreshadow her final appearance when it’s revealed, in passing, that Harper was led to Ray by contact from the Machine itself.

We’re winding deeply into this story, going through several action scenes in the show’s signature mode. Ray’s former boss, Carlton Worthy (Jeff Lamare), from whom he stole both money and a thumb drive with two years of crooked evidence, arrives to complicate matters. Frankie mentions a brother, Deke, now dead. Fusco, investigating Ray, uncovers a Florida killing, ascribed to a mugging, an accountant who got his throat cut, that he connects to Ray. The accountant’s name was Deacon…

And Root has reappeared to shadow Harold, and offer her assistance about Beth. She admires his plan… but we have another reversal. The threat to Beth is not Harold but Root. Harold’s plan to invade Samaritan is ingenious, worthy of his genius. She won’t let it happen, she will kill Beth before Harold can activate his Trojan Horse. Because if it goes through, Samaritan will kill Professor Whistler within minutes. And Root cannot allow that. She’s already lost Shaw, but Harry is the one person she cannot lose. She is not even acting on behalf of the Machine (which gives Harold no little relief): it has told her not to.

Harold is distraught. Some of it is his affection for Beth, who does resemble Grace Hendricks a little, but more than that he will not be responsible for the death of another friend. Root assumes he means Shaw, tries to deflect blame onto herself, it was her who recruited Shaw to get involved, but Ms Groves doesn’t know as much about Harold as we do, and we know to whom he refers.

And he heads her off by swallowing the chmical that will give Beth a heart attack. Only when Root promises not to kill Beth will he allow himself to be treated.

John’s story nose-dives into a three-conered shoot-out with Harper in the middle: John and Frankie, Ray, Worthy and his men. Typically, Harper negotiates a deal. Worthy gets the thumb drive and Riley lets him leave. Ray gets to choose between death or prison and Worthy lets him live. John and Frankie get Ray to imprison and don’t kill him. Naturally, there are multiple double-crosses; Harper hands over the wrong thumb drive, Riley has Worthy arrested before he leaves the city and Ray tries to shoot his way out only to be kneecapped by John. Right beats Might.

A coda and another quick interval. We’ll take the latter first: Frankie’s interested in John but tells him to call her when he’s free. John looks puzzled but here’s Doctor Iris to ‘fess up the real reason she has dropped John: she has developed feelings for him and that’s the complete no-no. John, on the other hand, knows how to keep a secret. Cue snog.

And Harold calls on Beth only to be thrown out. She’s been on the end of a reputation-destroying internet attack, claiming she’d falsified data five years before, an attack that came from ‘Professor Whistler’s office. Root only promised not to kill Beth but she has neverheless destroyed her. And she’s destroyed Finch’s activator, and thus destroyed months of planning and the only chance Team Machine had.

She’s done it even at the cost of the friendship that means so much to her. Professor Whistler is still alive. And whilst he doesn’t want to see Root at the moment, they are still friends.

Leaving me only to wonder. Finch’s scheme was set up twelve episodes ago, a great mystery. At this stage it was all in vain. By now I know enough to understand that it wasn’t just implanted then with the hope/intention of deciding what it was later on. But was it always intended to be a false trail, to set up the changed relationship between Finch and Root, or was it a casualty of lost opportunities, when the projected Fifth and Sixth seasons became improbable? We have seen other possible strands implanted by the series that were never followed up upon, for whatever reason that may be. I’d love to know if this episode was the regretful snuffing out of something that might have been prominent in another world’s version of Person of Interest.

Lou Grant: s04 e15 – Venice

One of these people will provide the clue

It’s reached the point where I no longer expect to see intelligent, well-written and acted and moving epoisodes of Lou Grant anymore, which is precisely why I found this episode to be such a surprise.

There were two strands to it, one of them negligible and uninteresting. this was the one about someone having obtained possession of a list of salaries at the Trib and threatening to publish it unless he got paid $1,000. An uproar is expected but fails to materialise, the culprit is uninteresting and so is the story.

Of far more moment was the larger story that for once centred upon the Trib’s comic relief photographer, Dennis ‘Animal’ Price. It began on a Sunday afternoon at Venice, California, a beach resort full of sand, sea, shoreline and plenty of relaxed, feelgood, let-yourself-go. Animal is wandering around, taking photos for a Sunday feature. It all looked good, a not-quite hedonistic energy, the feel of people free to just enjoy themselves.

The scene is interrupted by the arrival of an ambulance. An attractive young woman has drowned, an apparent suicide, the overkill of pills and drowning. Animal takes photos, but also has his curiosity lit up. Who was this woman? What did she do? Why did someone so pretty, so good a worker, so friendly a person that everyone praised and mourned kill herself? Did she kill herself?

Animal wants to know, to understand. From the moment he discovers Lesley Ellison was a keen photograher and, despite her reservations about herself, a talented one, his eagerness becomes not just obsession but more. Animal has fallen in love with a dead girl, wishing he had met her in life and might have averted this.

The episode was a sympathetic, gentle exploration of loss, as everyone missed Lesley like crazy. The baglady to whom he always spoke, asking after her welfare, the grieving but possessive father who blamed her death on her being here among these ‘freaks’ instead of being home in Chicago where she ‘belonged’, the gang leader who respected her and was ready to deal with someone who may have killed her (Trinidad Silva in a performance that could have been a rehearsal for Jesus Martinez in Hill Street Blues) and the sister who opened the door to an answer as to why Lesley’s suicide was not such a surprise, revealing a psychological history of loss and fear of rejection that I could empathise with.

Throughout, and especially when Animal had developed the last reel of film from Lesley’s camera, I feared the episode would blow it by coming up with a killer after all, but it held straight and true. These last photos, from the afternoon she killed herself, led to the revelation that Lesley, after a lifetime of failures with men, had believed herself in love with her childhood best friend, Carol. Carol’s response had been the final rejection, the one that left only one door out.

So it was all explained, no mystery, just a portrait of an unhappy woman who had lost her mother far too young and left with a father incapable of dealing with her loss, who grew up twisted into a pattern that led directly to her death. It explained but didn’t satisfy. And the show’s most poignant feature was the skillfully underplayed sense it left you that if Animal had met her a month before, it might all have been different, withut that suggestion seeming like sentimental slop.

Sometimes it really is about the right person.

Person of Interest: s04 e17 – Karma


This episode came as a welcome return to form for Person of Interest after last week’s encounter with Harper Rose. Though it was once again a one-off, with no discernable connection to the overall situation, this was a powerful story whose Number, despite being a Perpetrator was nevertheless a very sympathetic figure.

The show began with a flashback to 2010, to Finch still unable to walk himself, working in conditions very primitive compared to the Library and even the Subway. We were asked to contrast his limited manouevrability with his intended actions, which were not the prevention of death but rather its execution. Finch wants revenge, revenge for Nathan Ingram’s death and he is targetting Alicia Corwin (a welcome return for Elizabeth Marvel).

We know he’s going to end up not killing her, since we know that Root did. The question is why, and what moves him. and, since this segues into Harold telling a version of his story, with variant details, to psychiatrist Shane Edwards (Patrick Kennedy), how this is going to influence the contemporary story.

Edwards is our Number. He’s a careful, smooth, thoughtful man with concerns for his patients, but Kennedy invests him with a submerged tension, and underlying intensity that never reaches the surface in this role. Because Kennedy has a second life. He works for Victim Advocacy, counselling those who have had their lives changed by crimes against them, such as Angela (Megan Tusing), confined to a wheelchair after being hit by a drunk driver. Angela struggles with her lifelong imprisonment, compared to her assailant’s brief passage through Rehab, already out and drinking.

And Reese follows Edwards as he plants all the necessary details that lead to the underpunished Clyde Barton being framed for Armed Robbery. And that’s not Edwards’ first dispersion of Karma.

You’ve got to like the guy. Reese and Fusco certainly do, even if, ultimately there’s something deeply disturbing (albeit viscerally pleasing) about people being punished for things they did not do as a counterweight to the failure of Law to adequately punish them for something they did do. It’s analogous to Lord Vetinari’s principle that for every crime there must be a punishment, and if occasionally you get the right criminal that’s a bonus, which is great for a laugh but no way to conduct a serious Criminal Justice system.

What lies behind this? There is a root cause and here it’s the most basic and painful of all, one instantly acceptable to those who have lost a partner, someone infinitely precious to them. Edwards was married to a woman he loved. One day, eight years ago, he came home to find her bludgeoned to death. The culprit was Wyatt Morris (Daniel Sauli), sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment for manslaughter on circumstantial evidence, pinned to Ewards’ testimony that he saw Morris’s delivery truck drive away as he got home. It’s all very Richard Kimbell, except that Kimbell wasn’t lying about the one-armed man.

Yes, Edwards lied. He wasn’t there, he didn’t get home until later. After his wife’s death, he left his lucrative practice, set up this non-profit programme, counsels those who, like himself, have suffered loss. But as he counsels them about moving on instead of staying focussed on their loss, he’s avoiding his own advice.

Because Morris is out on parole, confronting Edwards at a charity gala to which Reese and Fusco have gained access courtesy of Iris Campell (Wrenn Schmidt, dressed up to the nines in a strapless little black dress). Reese saves Edwards from a car bomb, an ironic counterpoint to the flashback where Finch plants a similar device on Alicia Corwin’s car, refusing angrily the attempt of his mute Machine to move him off his course.

But it’s all part of Edwards’ meticulous planning. He’s setting up to frame Morris, possibly for the second time. This leads to much debate. Fusco’s all in favour of letting Edwards kill Morris: one less murderer is one less murderer and that’s always good. Reese understands revenge and approves. Only Finch objects, frantically drumming in that we don’t know Morris is a killer. When he maintains his innocence, he might be telling the truth. They must know.

Because Finch understands that revenge doesn’t bring closure. He traps Alicia in her car, externally locking her in. He tells her about the bomb. He accuses her of complicity in Nathan’s death. The Machine box around his head turns from yellow to red, a nearby payphone rings incessantly but Finch doesn’t answer it. But Alicia accepts the facts of her death composedly. She didn’t know about Nathan’s death until it happened, but she should have known. Her mere involvement in the web makes her, in her own eyes, as much complicit as anyone else, and her death is a just punishment. Torn between his naked urge to strike back after what happened to his best friend and his expanding realisation that revenge changes nothing, Finch releases the car locks. The payphone stops ringing. The future is set on course.

Which is precisely why, in 2015, Finch can’t let Edwards go ahead and do what he plans, despite his colleagues’ willingness to let the plan proceed. But Edwards doesn’t intend to kill Morris. He’s lured him to a sacred place, the bench where he first met his wife, where he later proposed to her. And he will kill himself, framing Morris for doing it. And it is Harold who stops him, telling him that to do this is to desecrate the place he was most happy, and that if he dies this way, the presence of the wife he loved so much will disappear. It’s a powerful moment that affected me deeply: you do not have to have suffered that kind of loss to understand the loss of someone important to you.

Morris still protests his innocence. Edwards has only known he was guilty because he knows. Unpalatable as it may seem, some questions cannot be answered. We may never know all.

So the coda. Reese is once again in session with Doctor Redhead. He’s even more taciturn than usual. She tells him he owes her. She got him into the gala, she wants something real, something he’s not proud of. Reese slowly tells her a very outline account of himself and Jessica. He knows about loss, just like Shane Edwards. Perceptively, she tells him he needs to allow himself to grieve. Gazing iside himself, Reese whispers that he doesn’t know how to.

Finally, Reese and Finch talk by the river. Edwards may finally be able to take his own counsel, and move on with, or rather towards the friendly Becca, who is definitely interested in him. Was Morris the killer? The only one who knows is the Machine, and you don’t just reach in and extract information. If Morris is indeed a killer, and proposes to kill again, they will be there. And the camera pans out to show Morris down on the shoreline. They are already watching him.

Then we pull away into the Machine. It is accessing records, from 2007, compiling data. It alone knows the truth about this murder. And the bastards cut to black and the credits before we see a single second of those records. Bastards!


Film 2020: Penda’s Fen

The run on Sunday morning film DVDs that I began on the first weekend in January 2018 is now very near the end. Short of any late acquisitions, Film 2020 will be coming to an end this autumn.

To help postpone the evil moment,I’ve turned to a number of TV films, though it would be more proper to call these plays.

The first of these is definitely stretching things to call it a film. A decade later, the definition might have been looser, but in 1974 Penda’s Fen was broadcast as an episode of the BBC’s Play for Today, from the era when the BBC, and ITV, still trafficked in single plays, frequently to great effect.

Penda’s Fen was not the sort of thing I would normally watch, neither in itself or in the Play for Today slot. What caught my eye was the presence of Spencer Banks in the leading role, who practically everyone of my generation will fondly recall as one of the two leads in the very successful cult classic Children’s ITV SF series Timeslip (1970-71).

There were a lot of very famous productions in Play for Today down the years, such as ‘Blue Remembered Hills’, ‘Abigail’s Party’ and the original, one-off, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, and the series covered a wide range of subjects but was largely concerned with realistic dramas. Among such plays, Penda’s Fen is a cult story, but it is remembered to this day.

It was broadcast once when I watched it, and repeated once, when I only got to turn over to watch the rest of it when something my mother was watching finished, and I turned straight into a dream sequence emblemising one of the film’s  more over themes. In a Terrible Voice, my mother demanded to know what this was. My answer was a very red-faced admission that I’d completely forgotten that scene was even in it. Which had the merit of being completely true whilst being completely implausible. Today is the first time I have seen the film since.

Penda’s Fen was written by David Rundkin and was a far cry from his normal, realistic fare, a story with intense moral, religious, nationalistic and mystic roots that the writer himself confessed to not fully understanding, and directed by the celebrated Alan Clarke. It’s set in and around the village of Pinvin, in Worcestershire, filmed completely on location, an English pastoral location of fields and grass and gentle green country, to which the Malvern Hills and Sir Edward Elgar are an essential backdrop. We don’t know how long a period the story covers but, with the exception of a single rainstorm, it runs through a long, idyllic summer.

Banks is Stephen Franklin, the son of a slow-talking, thoughtful and philosophical C of E Parson (John Atkinson). We meet him studying music in his bedroom, listening to Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’. He’s an awkward, priggish, intelligent but wholly dogmatic boy, a gifted organist, a Corporal in his Private School’s Army Corps, ultra-Christian, small and big C-Conservative with convictions as to the pureness of Englishness and the correctly stratified society that make you instinctively loathe the idea of spending ninety minutes with him. Stephen is one of those adolescents who knows already, who you can hardly imagine needing school to teach him anything.

What follows through a series of increasingly fantastic visions, is Stephen’s unmaking.

One thing that’s as clear as the gulfstream waters from the outset but of which I was next to wholly ignorant in 1974, which says a lot about me as a sheletered and naive character even through seven years of an all-boys Grammar School, is that Stephen is a far from latent homosexual. Even though, at the beginning, he would denounce it as unnatural, and certainly against God’s wishes from which all things derive, it’s as plain as the nose on his face, and it was a dream sequence in which his hand is stroking down the chest of a naked man towards a shaded area that I unfortunately turned over to on repeat (I genuinely had forgotten that and remembered the increasingly fantastic and quasi-horrific visions, in keeping with my onrushing enthusiasm for fantasy fiction).

Though the story is handled in static manner, with plenty of long, slow conversations, the old Stephen breaks down into something more questioning, finding an old paganism, born of place, breaking through. The moment he crosses an internal line into accepting his sexual nature, everything that has matter before, his narrow-defined Englishness based on traditional authority as worshipped all around him, ceases to become important without anything but questions replacing it.

He questions the values of his School, and its Backbone of England men, his father the vicar turns out to be considerably more of a Freethinker than Stephen has been, he learns he is adopted and that his natural parents were not English.

And the visions. a devil squats on his groin in bed. An Angel is reflected in a puddle beside a cornfield. Crashing off his bike and stunned, he hallucinates a scene in an Elizabethan house garden where contemporary children and adults re having their hands chopped off, presided over by a middle-aged couple who he has already praised as the ‘mother and father of England’ for winning an injunction to ban broadcast of a TV documentary on Jesus that is ‘investigative theology’ but which he denounces as a deliberate atheist plot.

In a rainstorm, he meets the aged, wheelchair-bound Sir Edward Elgar, talking about his music and disclosing the secret of the unrevealed melody that fits the Enigma Variations, a secret to e kept between them and England. Playing ‘Dreams of Gerontius’ on the Church organ, the aisle slipts in a widening crack intent on swallowing up…

There are no answers, nor any dogma. The closest we come to a definition is in the final scene. What Rudkin is striving for, on an unconscious level, is a definition of England that extends beyond its mortal traditions, attached to the Empire, and reaches into subsconcious areas of doubt and darkness and dissension and questioning.

It carries with it a suppressed power. Pinvin is a corruption of Pendefen, Penda’s Fen, the land of the last Midland’s King, King Penda. It is where Stephen lives and behind all his simple certainties it lies, awake still, holding deeper lessons.

And in the end, Stephen sits alone on the Malverns, looking out on this world. A man and a woman approach him over the brow, the ‘mother and father of england’, the banners and stiflers of the start of the story. In a scene echoing the Temptation on the Mount, they offer Stephen his Kingdom. He is the boy Prince, the one they have been promised so long, the Second Coming, the Pure who they exalt. But Stephen isn’t pure in his own mind, he’s a mixing of all things, and he claims this for himself and runs away downhill.

The ‘mother and father’ won’t let him go. If he cannot be theirs, he cannot be the Devil’s. They take a polaroid, start to burrn it. Stephen falls, his clothes starting to burn, his burning the agony it really is, not the joy this couple have claimed for it. He cries out to Penda and the couple vanish in a burning explostion. Penda sits on his throne, anointing Steph n for the truest qualities he embodies, for what he can now be. Stephen silently accepts this kingdom and descends to rejoin his people.

I don’t pretend to understand all of this any more than Rudkin does. What astonished me was the power of its appeal. The story reflects its time, and is a window into a past in which there were good things and bad things and these were different to what is good and bad now, and were differently proportioned, but even nearer to an English nationalism that was assumed and assumed to be both right and continuous instead of the crudely contrived bullshit we have now, it reminded me of an England with which I aill always have far more sympathy than that we live in today. That England was an England to share, and enjoy, not the England I now hate and despise and would abandon if I could.

I am from the Northern parts, shaped by my heritage and my home, nor the rolling country, the softer landscapes of Worcestershire and the south west Midlands. We are of different races in that ancient England. But theirs is mine as well in what we really are, beneath all surfaces. Penda’s Fen took us through those layers, into an England I recognise as true and of which I want to be part. Whether you call it a film or not, it holds its place here as much as any cinematic triumph.

Lou Grant: s04 e14 – Survival

Sometimes, the worst thing you can do with an old favourite television series is to watch it again. Whilst much of the first three seasons of Lou Grant were enjoyable at worst, not to mention being a historio/sociological treasure in terms of what was in our heads forty years ago, the fourth season has seen an uncommon collapse in quality. Not even good stories are making it.

‘Survival’ is a prime example of something that combined two strong elements in a more integrated fashion than usual yet managed through a failure of basic story-telling structure to come up with a tortuous mess.

Part of this was down to trying to cram in more elements than the running time could comfortably hold, plus an undistinguished guest cast, the most prominent of which was comic relief that so dominated that part of the episode as to diminish its seriousness whilst remaining utterly detachable.

The other guest was the notable actor, Ed Harris, who’s already appeared twice in the series as other characters, here playing Ralph Cooper, a survivalist with two children he’s already trained to be paranoid beyond belief, like him and nearly as determined to shoot to kill, but turning in a steely performance with few human aspects.

Let me try to suumarise the story to show what I mean. We begin at Donovan’s house, out in the hills in Tapanga, where Rossi is enjoying a euphoric jacuzzi with two fit birds on the eve of Donovan’s two week vacation in Hawaii. Rossi’s so mellowed out (mellow! ye gods, that’s going back) he takes a wrong turn onto Ralph Cooper’s land where he’s threatened with being shot both by Cooper but also his twelve-year old son.

Rossi starts getting interested in survivalism. He attends a lecture by an apocalytic economist, predicting recession, depression, shortages, looting etc., predicated on a possible fall of the Finnish marker. Cooper is also present. Later he gives his paranoid explanation, based on every man for himself and trusting no-one but himself. The man is plain and straightforward and not fanatical in himself, but he’s a flaming looney. We don’t need subsequent history to tell us of that.

A more responsible but still selfish viewpoint with relevance to the stock-piling panic that lit up the opening of the coronavirus panic is presented by a previously unseen but undoubtedly sober and staid black member of the Trib’s staff.

Whilst this is building, enter Wild Bill. This is our comic relief, played by Keene Curtis. Bill’s the weather expert at the Trib, a man with his own eccentric approach to the weather and what it will do, completely contrasting with the National Weather Bureau, not to mention an inexhaustible fund of stories about his war histor(ies), the dangerous stuff he’s done and several mutually exclusive active childhoods. In short, he’s a bullshitter, and he keeps popping up like a rash throughout the episode.

But, as you already know, he’s right about the storm(s). Accompanied by many spectacular shots of stock footage (either that or the show functioned incredibly through a fortuitous series of LA storms that would make Seathwaite-in-Borrowdale look like the middle of the Sahara desert), the show builds itself frantically on so many disaster stories. Billie’s hardly in it this week, subbing for Donovan as assistant City Editor and having her own micro-story in the form of a clash with the night editor, Linda, over printing a disaster relief phone number that’s clearly a contriveance to give Linda Kelsey something to do.

In the middle of this, Donovan phones in from Waikiki to rub in to his colleagues that whilst they’re being pissed upon mightily, he’s in the sun, in shorts and in the midst of bikini-ed babes. There’s a cheap tone to this that will be repaid in even cheaper fashion at the end.

This at least has a story-telling function. Donovan asks Lou to go up to his house and spread two rolls of plastic sheeting on the hill behind it to stop a mud-slide (I confess to not knowing how that would work but then I don’t live in California). Rossi drives him.

It’s pouring down and, the moment they arrive, everything fails: gas, electric, telephone, car, simultaneously. Lou and Rossi are trapped and no-one knows where they are. No-one misses them at the paper, where Billie and Animal go out on another contrived scene in which the failure of a copy boy to go to the right rendezvous is shoe-horned in.

Lou and Rossi get drunk. Rossi wants to bond. He talks self-defensively about his egotistical persona which he says he developed deliberately, but which has left him lonely and, in times of drunkenness, wanting to be liked.

Meanwhile, at Cooper’s place, his daughter is worried about a mud-slide. No worries, says every man for himself Dad, I’ll just go over to Mr Donovan’s place and steal the plastic sheeting off his porch and use it myself. He doesn’t actually use the word stealing, but ‘borrowing’: he’ll give them back though by then they might be a touch second-hand.

He also warns the kiids not to let anyone in, no matter what they say to trick them, your basic gun-in-the-first-act, albeit arriving very late.

Cooper turns up in the rain and nicks the first roll. When Lou and Rossi protest the theft, he pulls a gun on them and has them put the second sheet in as well. Armed robbery, lovely ideal. Then, as he drives away, he overturns his truck in what looked to be a very deliberate fashion, busting his leg. Of course Lou and Rossi try to help him. There’s a radio at Cooper’s cabin and Rossi says he’ll head there to summon help.

Meanwhile back at the paper, and you’ll just have to imagine how many times Wild Bill has popped up by now because I’m not going back and counting, Lou’s been missing, incommunicado, for ages. Linda, the interfering bitch, mentions seeing him going off with Rossi,who has been missing for the same length of time though no-one has noticed. And Donovan rings up for another gloat, and to deliver the plot-point of identifying where Lou’s been.

So help, in the form of a TV news-gathering helicopter, is sent on its way. Meanwhile, Rossi arrives at Cooper to be confronted by Cooper Junior and his loaded rifle. Rossi’s not interested in childish games and we’re wondering exactly how badly he’s going to be shot (according to his training in the early part of the episode, the kid will fire five shots and if he fails to hit anything vital, Joe’ll bleed out anyway).

However, I’m not taking into account fourteen-year old daughter who, being female, is not addicted to violence. She’s concerned about Daddy (bad move, kid, didn’t he tell you not to care about anyone else but yourself?) and distracts Junior long enough for Rossi to dash in,force the rifle up so that it’s shot goes nowhere, then to violently hurl it into the very wet forest. Resistance collapses instantly.

So, all’s well that ends well. Ralph Cooper gets an object lesson in trust and co-operation that we know damned well he will consider for about a quarter of a second before rejecting utterly, and to the show’s credit it doesn’t even try to suggest for that same quarter of a second that he – or Junior – will learn a damned thing.

Finally, the rains start to ease, and, as payback, Lou phones Donovan in Hawaii to tell him, with barely suppressed delight, that he hopes his Assistant City Editor has been keeping his insurance up because his house at 1,001 is now down somewhere nearer 950… It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but it’s dirty and nasty and out of proportion to the extent of Donovan’s gloating. A nasty taste is left in the mouth.

And, having delivered itself of this turgid combination of points, clogged up by Wild Bill, enter Adam Wilson, the economics wizz, to report that the Finnish marker has fallen, leading to concerns about the Dutch guilder, and the inevitable knock-on effect on the American economy, shortages etc., all in a monologue that fades to black and the credits, in a sneaky-clever way of bringing the story round to the beginning and suggesting the survivalists might have a point after all…

In its way, that’s a definitive point about an episode that had no clear idea in its mind of what it wanted to say and not only fell between all stools in doing so, dodged the most serious moment and gave far too much time in an already crowded script to a self-important blowhard who kept everyone else from having room to breathe. Not good.