When I read the mini-blurb on the DVD for this episode, I was mentally prepared for a substandard episode, a one-off with no relevance to the overall arc of American Gothic, a bit of a filler in fact. In one sense, that was an accurate impression, if you consider the story purely in respect of its plot. But it was a thoroughly well-made filler, it put Gary Cole in a position whereby Lucas Buck could be seen as an anti-hero, and it made space for a couple of scenes that subtly amplified the momentum of the series.
On the other hand, it did begin with what’s quickly becoming the show’s own cliche: Caleb and Boone, sneaking about at night, where they shouldn’t be, and coming across something horrific. This time, it’s a man being drowned in his own bath-tub, by a gang of four men in pig masks.
That’s the episode’s most serious weakness. The plot’s about four strangers in town, Northerners, from Flint in Michigan, here to run a protection racket among the stupid Southerners of South Carolina. A straightforward issue: the men are lawbreakers, a disruptive influence in an orderly small town. Why they should have killed off Will Hawkins is never explained. It’s a dramatic introduction, and as Will Hawkins voted for Lucas Buck’s opponent as Sheriff, it gives us a way into the wider picture, which is that Trinity as a whole immediately assumes these strongarm boys are working for Good Ol’ Sheriff Buck, but this is before we or Buck encounter them and no reason is given why they drown this man, or what purpose it serves them.
What we do get is a degree of unrest among the townfolk, and a substantial level of concern from sad sack and generally put upon Deputy Ben Healy, who can’t rightly rid himself of his conscience but who is too much of a weakling to be anything more than ineffectual. He even gets beat up on the street by these four charmers – one heavyweight drunkard, one rapist, the smooth, calculating leader and his shaky, unstable younger brother (played memorably by Richard Edson, whose face will be immediately recognisable even as his name isn’t).
Buck is playing this with his usual coolness. That everyone accepts the Northerners as just another one of the Sheriff’s tentacles is telling, and indeed Buck’s first step is to sound the quartet out on coming under his direction, though whether this is a real offer or just a means to get a close-up look and size them up is never defined.
Certainly Caleb thinks the Sheriff is conspiring with the bad guys, which he reports to Gail for her story. And he’s curious enough to sneak into their room, where he discovers a metal suitcase under the bed, filled with money, jewellery and at least one gun, which he takes.
This results in an invasion of his bedroom, at night, by three of the gang in their pig masks, to get it back. They’ve filled Caleb with fear, enough for him to openly call for Merly. When she doesn’t appear, he summons up his courage and, filled with some supernatural power, directs an animal roar at them that frightens them away. Caleb smiles in relief and thanks Merly, but the clear implication is that what Caleb has done has not come from the White side of the Magic line…
But let’s get back to the plot. I said three of the gang: Lucas has already picked off one of the gang, the drunk, intercepting him in the early morning, being dropped off after a night with one of the local tramps. A little more booze, conning the man into thinking he’s confessed to murder but been so drunk he can’t remember doing so, a little more booze and he falls asleep.
And wakes in a confined space at Will Hawkins’ funeral. Inside the coffin.
Lightweight member two is disposed of more briefly. He’s fixing to rape Gail, who’s already punched him in the balls, but Buck applies the traditional swing of the shovel to the back of the head, and lugs the unconscious body away, never to be seen (or spoken of) again.
This provokes Lowell into marching into the Sheriff’s office and attempting to ‘bail’ Earl and Just Eddie out, nudge nudge, wink wink. Buck provokes an assault, which gets Lowell into the cells, where somehow his belt gets wound tightly around his neck. Fortunately for all concerned, he’s saved at the last moment by the good Sheriff, and rushed to hospital where he recovers. As soon as Buck pushes himself into the operating theatre.
Now there are two, Lowell and Barrett. The Sheriff offers the pair a last chance: they can hand over everything they’ve stolen to him, and go to work under his aegis – as tyre salesmen – or they can go back north. Predictable to the end, the brothers run. South. There’s a roadblock waiting, Sheriff and Deputy. Lowell attempts to drive round it, flips the car. He’s stuck in it, Barrett’s trying to crawl away. Buck offers them one final chance. He cuffs them together around one of the car stanchions and flips them a knife. No, it’s not an original scene, it wasn’t when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used it in Watchmen ten years earlier, but it’s still effective. The knife won’t cut through the handcuffs but it might through a wrist, if they’re motivated enough.
Then he sticks a flare in the petrol tank.
This is all disturbing to DeputyBen, our conspicuous conscience. But he has the pain in his ribs to compete with the pain in his decency. The show suggests the latter is not the worst.
So: a filler, yes, but one that impacts on the overall picture, filling in a lot of unobtrusive background. One other thing does bother me, however, and that’s the boarding house where Caleb and Doctor Matt live. In episode 3, Caleb’s placed in the temporary care of Loris Holt, who runs the boarding house, which is supposed to be filled with African supernatural exotica. Actress Tina Lifford hasn’t been seen since, the statuary has disappeared, and the house currently seems to be being run by a blonde MILF.
Checking imdb reveals that Ms Lifford does appear in other episodes, one of which, according to their episode guide, I should already have watched, in fact last week, as episode 6. It appears very much later on the DVD. I’m assuming that the DVD arranges the episodes in the intended order, that reflects the overall arc, just as my Homicide:Life on the Street DVDs reflect the intended order, not the sometimes asinine placing of episodes by NBC.
Well, although it’s quite obvious that American Gothic is a superb series, it lasted only one episode. With CBS scheduling episodes out of order, and confusing the audience over what’s supposed to be happening when in a season-long arc, we have here one of the reasons why it ended up cancelled…