If there’s one thing I associate with House—and, by extension, with its showrunner, current Battle Creek head honcho David Shore—it’s the narrative blind alley. (Well, that and the misanthropy, but we already touched on that in the last review.) The red herring obviously wasn’t original to Shore’s show, and plenty of other procedural shows use protracted, wrongheaded inquiries to make up for the fact that precious few mysteries actually need a full 60 minutes to solve if no mistakes are made along the way. But House always took a special kind of pleasure in going as far as it possibly could in the wrong direction before finally snapping back, which sometimes meant the show only left itself a few minutes to identify not just the solution but explain what the problem actually was in the first place. The potential advantage of that kind of storytelling was that the underlying issue had to be relatively simple, as there just wasn’t that much time for reams of exposition, but it also left open the possibility of having fun with anticlimaxes, as the eventual solution often could not help but feel a little pat compared to all that had come before. It was a way to tie up the story in the kind of neat narrative bow that the procedural formula so often demands, while still leaving room for some loose ends, some ambiguity.
That’s more or less what Battle Creek does in “Heirlooms,” particularly when it drops in on the suddenly rich little boy just long enough to suggest that he’s inevitably going to be corrupted by his now immense wealth. After a bit of the show’s patented—if only fitfully entertaining—zaniness with the hunt for the canine owner of the crime-scene snout print, the episode starts to spin up this convoluted plot involving the double murder of a local tycoon and a possible prostitute, all of which possibly involves some shady dealings with an accountant, or maybe one of a half-dozen aggrieved workers at the mansion.
What’s fun about this is that the episode takes the time to point out that what is plausible need not be correct; after all, the commander gives the go-ahead for the arrest just before the contradictory autopsy comes in, and she’s completely happy with the evidence that Russ and Milt have gathered up to that point. As Battle Creek most emphatically established with the end of “Syruptitious,” law enforcement here is less about showing slavish devotion to the truth than it is about telling the right story. And that isn’t just true for the police: As Russ points out, Eleanor and Robert Whitehall are going to have a hell of a time coming up with a story that explains why they burned their clothes while also still proclaiming their innocence.
The truth and the story can’t outright contradict each other, but there’s room to take liberties with the veracity of a few details here and there if it’s in service of some larger point. That can mean trying to goad the rich siblings into a textbook reenactment of the prisoner’s dilemma, but it can also mean smaller things on the margins, like Russ sugarcoating just how Max’s mother would know all the men they have on file. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine even a halfway likable protagonist just up and telling a kid that his murdered mother was a prostitute, but then it’s an open question whether Russ even is halfway likable.
This brings us back around to that other David Shore trademark, the misanthropy. Both the script and Dean Winters’ performance leave some room for interpretation in just how Russ looks at the murder victim. Her past as a prostitute is far more relevant to him than it is to Milton, but is it because her sex worker background makes her somehow more deserving of murder, or is it the more detached assessment that her hard past made her likelier to make bad or dangerous decisions that contributed to her death? Russ claims it is the latter, but the way he talks about the victim’s past does not indicate such dispassionate analysis; at best—and indeed, I think this is what the episode is going for—he is projecting his own cynicism and his own pain onto the victim, assuming she too could not cope with the harshness of the world and so turned on it. That’s the explanation most sympathetic to Russ, but there are certainly less charitable ones possible.
But again, this all goes back to the stories we tell, the ones we need to find in our daily lives to help give our own lives context. Russ, if nothing else, is a guy who keeps his damage nice and obvious, and it’s not difficult to see why he is so skeptical of everyone’s motivations throughout “Heirlooms.” Milton, on the other hand, is even more a mystery by the end of this than he was before. He talks a big game about how the story unfolding here may be one in which the victim really did do everything in her power to better herself, and that the cause of her death was born of emotions and disagreements far beyond her control. More than anything, he favors a story in which there are as few bad people as possible; even if a murder narrative does require at least one wrongdoer, there’s no need to make the deceased party one as well. So is this story of innocence regained and sins atoned something that is personal to Milton, indicative of the carefully hidden shame or indiscretion that led to his exile in Battle Creek? Or is it just another part of his meticulously orchestrated deception? Milton is trying to sell someone here, but we can still only guess whether he’s attempting to reaffirm something to himself or hoping to convince Russ of the big lie.
His apparently bullshit story about sleeping through September 11th does rather tilt the current body of evidence toward the latter possibility. Indeed, it’s a seriously dark move to invoke one of the most traumatic days in American history as a cover story, particularly when it’s so readily disproven. Unless there’s some mistake in Russ’ detective work, that really is a staggering untruth for Milton to tell, particularly given the utterly genuine demeanor with which he tells the story. I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but Josh Duhamel is fast becoming the best part of Battle Creek, if only because the placid calm and aw-shucks morality with which he imbues Milton is such a sharp contrast from all the hints of his true nature that the show gives us. As ever, we’re in search of the right story to tell about Agent Chamberlain, and the big problem is that it’s as though there are two utterly divergent narrative threads, one detailing the decent, forthright Milton to date we’ve seen, the other suggesting a genuinely dangerous, borderline sociopathic operator. That’s a weird, uncertain place for the show to be, but as ever the show is at its most interesting whenever it ventures into just such territory.