May 31, 2005
In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.Be Careful Out There
Cold Case: Lilly's Got a Gun
I have no Episode with grouping the other detectives into recognizable characters — cute one, fat one, Captain one, Yaphet Kottoish one. And I found myself, at the end of the 42 minutes, a little horrified.
There are things I like about this show, the back and forth of this time and that, the juxtaposition of the past and present, the layering of imagery and music, the re-creation of the buildup to a death, to loss.
I like that the hook is a punch in the gut. Much like my reaction to Without a Trace, the theme tears at me, brings odd, hot tears over people I don't know. I inevitably cry at the pictures of the missing aired at the end of Without a Trace: children and adults, sons and daughters who have disappeared from their lives.
I also find the prospect of real-life victims whose deaths are still unpunished, whose lives and identities and absences are still unexplored, to be incredibly sad, and can feel the edge of salt and water stinging my eyes when the montage airs at the end, the lives the victims led before their deaths.
So mostly, the show touches and satisfies me, blending some character development with the pathos of these curtailed lives. But as the season ends, I find myself unsettled, both by the way the season ends and by the derivations of other shows apparent in this finale of a show that does have an original storytelling device and deserves better.
Following in the footsteps of CSI, which offered Gil Grissom a similar opportunity several seasons ago, Cold Case ended its sophomore season with a serial killer story that referenced an earlier episode, catching the viewer - and Detective Lilly Rush - up with the one who got away.
The show knows how to do atmosphere. The flashbacks to the killer's childhood, the death of his mother, his horrific crimes, the early onset of his psychosis, dolls eyes cut out of his toys, all of this scared the bejesus out of me, leaving me sort of shaky and nervous. Neither the victim nor the killer came off as at all redeemable. The crimes leave the viewer terrified and titillated and the detective at a moral crossroads, having spilled her secrets to her worst nightmare, seeing herself reflected in the face of a monster.
It's a reliable device, if somewhat old hat. But CSI followed the exact same patterns, giving us the mystery, the connection between detective and killer, the reveal of childhood horror while keeping our hero's strength intact, even if his perceptions were shaken. Of course, in CSI's favor, it's easier to show vulnerability in a man without weakening him, and the show rarely pushes its characters to moments of true vulnerability.
But perhaps that's my Episode with the Cold Case finale.
|So of course it makes perfect sense that she'd return to the scene of the crime at night, which just happens to be an abandoned house without electricity, while knowing that the killer is on the loose and has contacted her already that day, pushing her to react to his disclosures.|
A killer who, in fact, led the whole department to the place (that same abandoned house) where he'd buried the skulls of his victims. So we find Lilly in the dark with a gun to her head, revealing her secrets upon threat of death, throwing back the killer's secrets to him in order to retrieve her weapon and her sanity. When faced with the killer's outrage, Lilly shoots him and the camera slowly pans toward her surrendering her weapon, leaving her and the viewers and her superiors with the ambiguities of having killed a man.
The X-Files did this, and truthfully, did it better. When Dana Scully shot Donnie Pfaster, we actually did fear for Scully's moral character, for the specific moment when she shot him without provocation beyond her fear and the knowledge of his actions.
The choice robs Lilly of her power, of her normal competence, in order to give us a cheap thrill. The trick was effective in The X-Files because there was no reason to suspect that Donnie Pfaster was in Scully's house. And Scully's own fears drove her as much as the very real threat that Donny Pfaster presented. It didn't rob Scully of anything except for her moral guidelines, and we knew that she and her partner would have to deal with the fallout.
In Cold Case, Lilly is stripped of this choice by being forced to go against the grain of any sort of common sense in order to be made vulnerable, to be stripped down and put into the woman in danger role. Whether or not she ultimately proves victorious, the threat is specific, back to the things she's fought against in order to be the only woman in her department. The threat of death, the stripping, racking vulnerability of sharing a childhood assault with her captor is Lilly's punishment for her success.
Jerry Bruckheimer might be willing to produce a show featuring a strong woman, but he is apparently unable to support her strength wholeheartedly. While each of the CSIs feature smart, strong women in key roles, they all play second fiddle to the male lead. Cold Case was a deviation from the norm, a way to explore mystery and murder in a slightly different way, using a new hook, but at the end, we're left with the status quo, a woman vulnerable to the threats of physical violence, waiting for rescue.
|She's been stripped of the sense and focus that had previously defined her, turning her from a relentless chaser of truth to one who makes reckless choices, who endangers justice for the victims that she clings to.|
It's forcing the show into previously established molds, with previously
established tensions and ambiguities, and frankly, I expected more.
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