The theme running through this episode is the conflict between those who would keep order by strictly upholding the letter of the law at all times and those who, out of compassion or team spirit or what have you, would take into account certain human factors that might lead them to bend the rules once in a while. It's a measure of how good Homicide was at this point that the writers and actors were able to imbed a concept like that into an episode in such a way that you couldn't miss it and still do solid work. It's also impressive that the ethical problems the cops have to wrestle aren't presented as clear-cut, with one character clearly right and the other in the wrong; watching it, you may have the welcome and unusual experience of feeling that you're being treated as if you were a grownup. This is a cracking hour of television that could easily have turned into a preachy bag of gas.
In the most prominent and self-contained story, Felton connects with an old friend from his childhood, Chuckie Prentice (played by an actor named Michael "not the novelist" Chaban), whose father (Wilford Brimley) is bedridden with cancer and is trying to arrange an assisted suicide for himself. The emotionally gnarled situation is made more so by the fact that the old man seems to be on warmer terms with Felton, who idolizes him, than he is with his own son, whose weepiness at the prospect of losing his father strikes dad himself as the mark of a wuss. (Brimley's character is a hard case, and the way Felton talks about how "cool and tough" he seemed to him when Felton was a boy, it's easy to imagine how much his illness has diminished and unmanned him.)
After Chuckie, with Felton's help, separates the father from the "suicide machine" that has been delivered by an unseen stand-in for Dr. Kevorkian, dad is able to persuade his son to fish a gun out of the dresser drawer where he's concealed it and paint the wall above the bed with dad's brains. (Literally—the brief glimpse we get of the blood-spattered room after the shooting is not the show's most tasteful moment.) After the shaky son explains that his near-paralyzed father took his own life by grabbing a gun and pointing the barrel at the center of his forehead, the case lands in the laps of Lewis and Crosetti. Mostly Lewis: although he doesn't have a personal stake in the people involved, Crosetti, sizing up the situation, is instinctively inclined to call it a suicide and leave it alone.
Lewis can't. Everything he sees and hears tells him that somebody killed somebody else, and nothing else about the circumstances matters. He drags Chuckie down to the station house for questioning, and after he catches Felton trying to counsel him—he tells him that whatever happened is irrelevant, all that matters is "what they can prove"—the two detectives adjourn to the men's room for a debate on situational ethics that's as gripping as anything I've ever seen on TV. Felton tells him what he knows about the dead man's wishes, and Lewis blows up: "It ain't up to you. it ain't up to Chuckie. It ain't even up to Chuckie's father. You go when you're supposed to go, and everything else is homicide!"
Just as Felton needs to make allowances for his friends, and maybe anyone else who touches his heart, Lewis needs to keep it that simple for his compass to function, but in the end, he agrees to let Felton take Chuckie to the bathroom to wash his hands clean of powder residue. (Then it's Crosetti's turn to blow up. Sensing that something is going on that people could lose their badges over, he turns red and starts to sputter, then simply tells Lewis, "You're the primary on this!" and storms out.) What follows is an extraordinary little after-the-storm moment: Lewis, who looks as if he's in shock, sits down at his desk and just stares at nothing, while, in the background, Bayliss and Munch are having one of their patented slow-train-to-nowhere bull sessions. It's a great moment that neatly encapsulates a few of the things this show captured so well that few other shows have managed to capture at all: the pleasures of hanging out and time-killing conversation; the disorientation of someone whose conception of himself and the world around him has just turned to ash; and the eerie possibility that those two things could be going on at the same time a few feet from each other, without anyone knowing it.
In the other storyline, Pembleton is the primary investigator in the shooting death of a black drug dealer found lying face up in an alley after a raid on a crack house. The bosses attempt to feed Pembleton a white cop named Hellriegel, who is ready to take the blame for the shooting but insists it was an accident: he says his gun discharged when he tripped and fell. An angry crowd has already gathered (and a bottle that somebody throws comes close enough to Andre Braugher's head to make you whistle to yourself and hope that it was CGI, which in 1994 it probably wasn't). Retreating to Gee's office, Captain Barnfarther, the show's face of political opportunism, sets up the goalposts: Pembleton is to determine exactly what happened, but if the media paints the shooting as racially motivated, then he'll "crucify" Hellriegel.
Gee is disgusted to hear such talk; nobody knows yet if Hellriegel did anything wrong, and anyway, Gee thinks the department should stand behind its men. Pembleton, as single-mindedly devoted to "just the facts" as Joe Friday, floats above this seamy discussion as if he preferred not to sully his ears with it. But if he has no political motives for scapegoating an officer, he also has no patience with Gee's inclination to give a fellow cop an extra measure of sympathetic understanding. Having cleared the unfortunate Hellriegel, he asks Gee's permission to go after the other officers at the scene. and when Gee refuses, Pembleton coldly informs him that he'll just have to go over his head and ask Barnfarther to order the men to turn in their weapons for testing.
This all carries over into the next episode, but for now, it's worth noting that these developments amount to a major escalation in what's already on its way to becoming a recurring theme on the show, the battle for Frank Pembleton's brain and soul between Gee and the bosses, who think it's a shame that such a great detective is wasting his time solving difficult cases when he could be using his talents to get them good press. Pembleton may be right on this one, but he's allying himself with people who are right for the wrong reasons. And if Gee is wrong, it doesn't change the fact that you'd be right most of the time if you simply made it your policy to always do the opposite of what the bosses want you to do.
- In what's become a running theme of this feature, this was originally intended to be the season premiere, but NBC delayed it by a week so they could lead with "Bop Gun", the episode that was meant to be the season finale, because "Bop Gun" featured an attention-getting guest performance by Robin Williams. In this case, it didn't matter all that much, partly because the "second season" consisted of a whopping total of four episodes. NBC wanted to get as much credit as it could for hanging onto a critically acclaimed but low-rated series while giving up as little air time to it as possible.
- One way you can tell this was intended to be the season premiere is the subplot involving a therapist (Carry Westin) who's been brought in the provide "sensitivity training" sessions, which turns out to be a smart way to reintroduce the characters and give them an excuse to brief us on the state of their private lives. Bolander, for example, finally gets over his divorce enough to ask the therapist out. She gently blows him off (and hints that she's a lesbian), which, for those of us who've been amazed at how hot all the ladies in Baltimore are for Ned Beatty, comes as something of a relief.
- Bolander, dreading the prospect of his session with the doc: "Is this where you're locked in a room for eight hours and you can't go to the bathroom?" Munch: "No, that's Yom Kippur."
- This was the first episode since the pilot written by Paul Attanasio, who is (controversially, in some quarters) credited as the series' "creator". In the pilot, he has Lewis say "Fuggedaboutit" so many times that I can only assume that he had hopes of launching it as a catch phrase, but none of the scripts written since that one picked up the hint, and Attanasio, knowing when he was licked, didn't include a single "Fuggedaboutit" in the dialogue this time. It's probably just as well. If it had caught on here, he might have written the big "Fuggedaboutit" speech in his screenplay for Donnie Brasco three years early, and then when they'd made that movie, Johnny Depp wouldn't have known what to say for three or four minutes.
- If you're not watching the series for the first time, it's hard to watch this one without thinking of the great third-season episode, "Crosetti", where it's Lewis who is working with all his might to prevent the world from officially coming to an obvious conclusion that he's rather sweep under the rug.
- Munch, eerily anticipating the plot of Minority Report: "If we ran around arresting everybody with the intent of killing somebody, there wouldn't be a husband left in Baltimore."