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Battle Creek: “Syruptitious”

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Battle Creek is a show with ideas. Those ideas aren’t necessarily revelatory, but the resolution of this episode indicates a willingness to engage in notions of truth and justice that are a little more complex than might be found on a standard-issue police procedural. More than anything else, what makes Commander Guziewicz’s decision to accept the father’s probably bogus confession is how quick and offhand it is. She is presented with a moral dilemma, and she arrives at her life-altering decision with no sign of inner turmoil or uncertainty. Crucially, the episode appears to agree with her take, as the moment is positioned more as a learning moment for Agent Chamberlain than as a sign of corruption on the part of the commander or, by extension, Battle Creek itself. The show presents us with this scene in order to point out, as Russ does, the often vast gulf between truth and justice. The commander talks about what ending she likes better, and it’s not hard to understand, given that the show has already shown us a judge who tips off people he issues search warrants against, why she might feel it right to take on that duty. Again, we’re far from reinventing the wheel here when it comes to police procedural storytelling, but this is all serviceable stuff, and the show’s willingness to underplay its hand—not just in this but in the still undefined relationship Russ Holly share—is a possible sign of narrative sophistication.


What makes it all so weird is that this is still an episode whose main plot is about a murderous syrup cartel and whose subplot is about a short-changing punk at the medicinal marijuana dispensary. After a series premiere that flirted with quirk, Battle Creek gets really offbeat with its second episode, to the point that it’s almost remarkable that the show is able to land that final scene with the commander at all. Holding this all together is Dean Winters, as Agnew repeatedly points out that this is not just some silly business with syrup, but the as yet unfinished story of a dead man’s final night alive. “Syruptitious,” which really is the only thing this episode could possibly have been called, tries to hit a delicate balance in which it gives the audience permission to laugh at certain details of the syrup plot while it asks other elements be taken seriously. In what may well be a conscious tip of the hat to show creator (and now more or less completely uninvolved executive producer) Vince Gilligan’s other show, Agnew suggests they approach the possibly murderous syrup cartel in precisely the same way they would a meth ring.

This means that the structure of the procedural storytelling can remain fundamentally serious—they are investigating some legitimately shady, unscrupulous operators, even if they don’t turn out to be killers in this case—while the details can be as goofy as Battle Creek wants them to be. From the outside, this whole place is so silly and minor-key that its criminal elements are an absurdist joke, but that doesn’t alter the responsibility to take seriously the tragedies that befall its residents. That’s not a bad description of how both Russ and Milt see their jobs, even if they do arrive at that conclusion in radically different ways. Building on Russ’ final line with the commander, Milt has had the luxury of seeking something as high-minded and pure as the truth, and so far he has had the resources and the good fortune to maintain the belief that the abstract quest for the truth in any given situation is the same thing as getting justice. To him, the universe is a fundamentally good, righteous place, and all he need do is attempt to balance the scale. Neither Russ nor the commander has room for such naked idealism, hence why they take such drastic steps to push the truth toward what they see as the best justice available under the circumstances.


So yeah, there’s weighty thematic stuff here, if the viewer is so inclined to search it out. And some searching is certainly required, for “Syruptitious” is mostly happy to present itself as lighthearted fun. The question for Battle Creek is whether all that weighty thematic stuff can really work when the episode as a whole makes so little an attempt to make the requisite connections between big-picture concepts and the storytelling ballast. Some of this is down to it still being early in the show’s run, as Battle Creek is plainly more intent on building up the combative relationship between Russ and Milt than it is servicing more complex questions. That’s why something like the judge suddenly turning on Milt is largely ignored as a possible reflection of the city’s institutional corruption—seriously, it happened so quickly that I wasn’t even totally sure why it had happened until the commander later told Russ that the judge had tipped off the head of the cartel—because the show primarily needs that moment to draw out the rarity of Milt’s failures and the pleasure—albeit the complicated, nuanced pleasure—that Agnew takes in that moment.

More broadly, “Syruptitious” places the seriousness of its underlying subject matter in tension with the silliness of its execution, and it’s really no surprise that the silliness is what wins out. The CBS house shooting style here is too slick to convey any particular pathos or complexity hidden beneath the goofiness. Consider the subplot, in which Kal Penn’s Detective White finds himself embroiled with a shady character at the dispensary. Beyond the weird resonances of having Penn play another stoner character when White is otherwise so straitlaced, this mostly just plays as a complete throwaway disconnected from the main story, a means to justify Penn’s place on the show as something almost akin to a third lead when the main plot has no particular use for him. And that’s fine, as Penn has more than enough presence to carry such a side-story, even if it doesn’t much connect with anything else going on, as even the dispensary clerk’s corruption feels far more like individual dickishness than symptomatic of some larger social decay.


But then there’s that last scene, in which White enlists Chamberlain’s help and only manages to make any progress when he catches the dispensary in flagrant violation of the FBI warning on a Cheech and Chong movie. It’s a clever little twist, and a richly satisfying victory for the put-upon detective over that jerk, but there also could be something deeper here. After all, we just had a scene in which Russ and the commander convinced—well, forced—Milt to not investigate a murder to his fullest ability because finding the truth might ruin their best chance at justice. Here, on the other hand, we have Milt enforcing the pettiest and most persnickety of all rules because it’s the best method at hand to see justice is served. There are complementary ideas here, waiting to be teased out, yet Milt’s presence in the latter scene suggests no signs of a connection being drawn. If this episode is any indication, Battle Creek can be fun, and it at least has the tools to be smart. What it needs to work out is a way to be both things at the same time.

Stray observations:

  • Meredith Eaton makes her first appearance as the show’s medical examiner, and her presence means I am now forced to acknowledge that I watched more than enough Boston Legal for that to be the main thing I know her from. (Hell, the same is true of Julie Bowen, Modern Family be damned.) Her casting is one of those things that could be a sign of lazy quirkiness—for much the same basic kinds of reasons that Peter Dinklage’s character delineated in Living In Oblivion—but the show mostly manages to make her scene about how big an asshole Russ is and how cripplingly underfunded the department is.
  • If we’re keeping track of Justified alums on this show, and you know we are, Damon “Dewey Crowe” Herriman gets much more to do tonight as Niblet, while Choo Choo himself, Duke Davis Roberts, gets to do a significantly less silly voice as the henchman for the syrup cartel.

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