At its most compelling, Battle Creek is able to carve out a storytelling space that exists in more muted tones. That could sound counterintuitive, as it generally isn’t a good thing for a show to intentionally let the air out of its narrative tires. But “Old Flames” emerges as the strongest episode to date because it uses what at first appears to be an attempt on Commander Guziewicz’s life to spin out a bunch of more character-focused plotlines. Only some of them really end up revealing much about the detectives involved, but “Old Flames” has precisely the right instinct in centering the meatiest material on the commander, as that means the episode can be a showcase for Janet McTeer—that’s two-time Oscar nominee Janet McTeer to her friends. Her performance alone is good enough to elevate the episode above some of the expected cop show clichés, and her anguish throughout the episode adds a real poignancy to what could be a trite takeaway about Guziewicz giving up on relationships too quickly.
I mean, as solutions go, what we get for the original mystery is pretty goofy, though that at least is sort of by design. The episode is moderately clever in how it takes what starts out as a jokey exchange between the commander and her detectives, as she explains her 17 ex-boyfriends as proof that she’s had a good few years, and makes that the ultimate reveal of the jilted neighbor’s culpability, with him admitting that he was mostly just baffled that she broke their relationship off when everything still appeared to be going just fine. That payoff doesn’t land quite as well as it should, and this is where Battle Creek could stand to be a little more high-energy in its approach, as the neighbor is just a tad too bland in appearance and personality to register properly after a protracted absence from the episode. In theory, “Old Flames” appears to be looking to contrast Guziewicz’s comically inflected, almost sitcom-like willingness to dump boyfriends at the first sign of trouble with her much more serious, dramatically contoured decision to abandon her adoptive son after he let her down one time too many. That’s an intriguing connection to make, and it plays well with Battle Creek’s interest in mixing lighter and darker tones, but it doesn’t work as well as it could because there isn’t enough specificity in the comedic side of the setup. The contrast ends up being between the serious and the unimportant, which is still valid but not nearly as memorable.
Still, even if “Old Flames” can’t quite get the tone right with its more lighthearted elements, there’s enough going on elsewhere to compensate. When I think back on this episode, it’s the little moments that linger, most of them having to do with the commander. Credit McTeer with breathing life into the scene in the car in which the commander explains to Detective Jacocks how her son unexpectedly came into her life and how he just as suddenly left it. There’s nothing specifically wrong with how Liza Lapira portrays Jacocks in this scene, and she admittedly is given the far less interesting material to play, but there’s a slightly mechanical quality to her acting here; she doesn’t particularly convey a sense of emotional discovery as her captain lets her into her carefully concealed private turmoil. That’s common enough on television shows that are still struggling to sort out their identity, which can leave actors unsure just how strongly to commit to the tone of a given scene. But McTeer fully realizes the commander’s grief as she sorts through the tangled emotions she feels for her son, and the complexity she brings to the expository monologue adds vital layers to subsequent little actions, like her putting on sunglasses before getting out of the car, or like motioning to Jacocks to do the formal police work.
Of the rest of the cast, the one who benefits the most from the expanded spotlight on Guziewicz is Dean Winters. “Old Flames” doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the relationship between Russ and the commander, but the simple decision to give McTeer more space to operate helps underscore the pair’s mutual respect. There’s a revealing difference between the dismissiveness with which Russ handles the other suspects and the more nuanced approach he takes with Guziewicz’s son. That isn’t to say he’s any gentler, because that wouldn’t be Russ’ style. Instead, Russ respects the commander enough to force her to face up to what she knows is her duty, and he respects her son Danny enough to treat him as something at least resembling a human being. His interrogation is still primarily a tactical affair, one in which he weaponizes all that he knows about the suspect’s past and present to extract a confession, yet he is also capable of recognizing when Danny provides him with a very different confession from the one he expected.
Russ and Milt largely remain on the periphery of this story, chasing a suspect who is guilty of plenty but not the specific crime they are tasked with solving. A slightly more complex version of this episode might well play around with the question of why Russ ends up investigating the grimmest, most dispiriting lead, as though detectives manage to pursue the truth that best fits their personality; certainly, what little we know about Kal Penn’s Detective White suggests a contractor possibly setting fires to give himself extra work is rather more his speed. As it is, the episode largely eschews such deeper questions to continue exploring Russ’ complicated feelings for Holly, all of which doubles as a way to keep Milt as enigmatic as possible for another hour. We know that Milt has his own complicated romantic past—or, at least, he finds it strategically advantageous to claim that he does—and the look on his face in the closing moments suggests that something about Russ’ personal life has him plenty discomfited. This is arguably the second straight episode that has used Holly as the primary storytelling engine for Russ and Milt’s interaction, and that has, not coincidentally, served to sideline Holly, leaving her less space to interact with the ensemble as her role shifts to that of object of Russ’ poorly hidden affection. That’s a shame, for if “Old Flames” tells us anything—beyond the fact that Janet McTeer is just a ridiculously valuable asset to Battle Creek—it’s that the show is at its most interesting when it finds space for its entire ensemble to shine.