Last fall, Frontline had an episode about a 1997 rape and murder case in Virginia, where the police managed to extract signed confessions from four men who had nothing to do with the crime. (The cops would arrest three other men, who also had nothing to do with the crime, before they got their hands on the actual killer, who freely confessed to having committed the crime by himself. Naturally, rather than release the men they’d already arrested, the cops went right to work pressuring the murderer to admit that all eight of them had been in the room and participated in the rape and killing, even though he was the only one who’d left behind any physical evidence of his having been there at all.) As many people discovered when the Central Park jogger case blew up in 2002, a signed police confession isn’t the guarantee that the confessor actually committed the crime, even though juries and the good average citizens they’re composed of tend to find it unbelievable that anyone would sign away his freedom just because it’s the only way to get a detective out of his face. But we know that it happens, and God knows how often, and not in the way you might think, with some mean bastard with a badge locking the interrogation room door behind him and breaking out the rubber hoses.
The center of “Black And Blue”—which wraps up the police-shooting story line that began with the previous episode—is Frank Pembleton extracting a murder confession from a man he knows is innocent. His technique is markedly different from that of the cops who broke the men in Virginia and those who broke the boys in the Central Park case. There, the cops simply kept things going for however long it took, and the men in Virginia told Frontline that they heard so many times that confessing was the only thing they could do to save themselves from death row that, after enough hours without rest or food, they finally bought into the idea that their tormentors were trying to help them save their own lives.
Andre Braugher’s Pembleton is fiery and mercurial and theatrical, and he works so fast that it’s as if he thought that extracting false police confessions was a category recognized by the Guinness Book Of World Records. First, he pretends to be angry with the “suspect,” played by Isaiah Washington, complaining that he isn’t showing him the same respect he extends towards the white Bayliss. Then, having thrown Washington off balance, he guilt trips him, telling him that he’s responsible for the dead man’s murder because he’s to blame for him having been there in the first place, so that when in the moment that Washington parrots back the charge that killed his friend, he sort of believes it.
The scene may make you realize how carefully Braugher shaped his performance on this series, episode by episode: every shot of him being still and watchful and even a little recessive is part of the planning that goes into his being able to pull off something as big as this. And Washington—whose off-screen reputation as a jackass who needs to keep his mouth in storage between takes has lately overshadowed his reputation as an actor who’s often been terrific—is brilliant here. He doesn’t court sympathy at all: At first, before Pembleton pulls the rug out from under him, he wears the confident smirk of a punk you might not mind seeing become the recipient of a little police brutality. He pulls off a beauty of a transition as Pembleton gets inside his head and reduces him to a sobbing wreck, and when we see him later, in a cell, he’s like a man who’s just seen a tornado take out his house with his whole family inside. The storm has passed, and he’s eerily calm, but he figures his life is over.
Pembleton’s motives also differ from those of the run of cops who’ve coerced phony confessions from people. I imagine that most of them manage to somehow convince themselves that their suspects really are guilty. When there’s no physical evidence or detectable motive, no good reason to believe they did it, that just makes it all the more important to “prove” their guilty by the only means left: make them say they did it. (And when the evidence that they didn’t do it just keeps piling up, then it becomes that much more important to double down and prove that your instincts were right.) Pembleton does it to make a point, in response to Giardello’s demand that he soft-pedal his investigation whenever it leads him to suspect a cop, and push harder whenever he has any half-cocked excuse to suspect someone who isn’t a cop.
Giardello wants so badly to pin the murder on someone outside the department that he’s on the verge of becoming dangerous; he has the fever that infects cops and makes them want to believe in a suspect’s guilt for reasons that have nothing to do with the evidence. It’s only after Pembleton has served the Isaiah Washington character up to him on a silver tray that Gee snaps out of it and permits Pembleton to follow the trail of evidence that leads to the arrest of the actual shooter, Lt. Tyron (Michael S. Kennedy). Even after justice has been served, the scene can rock you back on your heels a little. Pembleton has messed not just with the mind but the life and future of an innocent man, just to send a message—a message he had no way of knowing for sure would be received. Although the right man ends up in the cell at the end, Giardello has revealed his potential to be a whore for the police, just as Pembleton has revealed his potential to be a shark, amorally ruthless and frighteningly effective. (There’s pride mixed with disgust in his voice when he comes out of the room and tells Gee that Washington would have stood a better chance against a bunch of old-schoolers with baseball bats.)
I’ve gone on at such length about this one scene because it’s a great scene of the kind that you don’t often get in a network series—one where, for the sake of exploring the darker sides of their characters, a show was willing to make them dislikable and wrong, without even explaining that they were temporarily deranged by some trauma or rigging things so that the only other course of action available to them was much, much worse, or just reminding you that, whatever they did in a moment of weakness, these are our guys, who exist so that we might relate to them, and slip up in order to earn our forgiveness. (That’s how it usually worked on Homicide’s more popular competition, NYPD Blue, or more recent “daring” show like Rescue Me.) I’ve also gone on about it to avoid acknowledging the other main story line, in which Bolander goes to a diner and strikes up a romance with a 26-year-old waitress (Julianna Margulies, eight months away from the premiere of ER) who plays the violin. (At the end, Stanley blows the dust off the cello under his bed, and they practice Handel together.) The only redemptive aspect of this continued effort to portray Ned Beatty as Balmer’s most unlikely chick magnet is that his developing uptick in his love life is contrasted with the sorrows of John Munch, who gets to relate a fish story that it’s worth suffering a little for.
- This episode was written by James Yoshimura, from a story credited to Tom Fontana, and directed by Christopher Menaul, a veteran British TV director who also made the previous episode (“See No Evil”) and the original Helen Mirren Prime Suspect, and, more recently, episodes of Combat Hopsital and the Rufus Sewell vehicle Zen. It’s hard to know how much credit or blame he deserves for this, but for all its virtues, “Black And Blue” may represent a peak in hollow flashiness for the series to date. The pre-credit sequence, depicting Pembleton’s interviews with three of the cops on the scene, is a crashing tidal wave of jump cuts and fancy edits, and there are too many annoying “WHOOSH!” noises throughout. (They pop up to underline such moments as the one where Pembleton goes into a restaurant and sees that Howard and Felton are sitting with—OMG!—the very cops who were so unhelpful during their interviews with him!) There are also dramatic, gong-like noises when Washington signs his confession, and when Pembleton contemptuously forces it on Giardello. Also, when Howard reflects on her very-hard-to-buy “short but oh, so sweet” affair with the mole-faced Tyron, there’s some incidental music that used to crop up on Miami Vice whenever Sonny would gaze meaningfully into the eyes of a special guest hottie who you knew would end up eating a bullet or receiving a hot shot from her dealer.
- Besides Washington and Margulies, there’s a notable guest performance by an actress named June Thorne, as the woman who brings Washington—her grandson—to the attention of the police. It’s a small role, just there for the sake of the plot, but Thomas imbues it with the combination of otherworldly naïveté and self-effacing sweetness that Jean Stapleton used to have as Edith Bunker.
- The cellist Zuill Bailey served as Ned Beatty’s double in the string duet scene. He and Tom Fontana must have gotten along, because he later turned up in a recurring role on Fontana’s HBO prison drama, Oz.
- Pembleton: “It’s one thing having civilians lie to you, it’s another thing when cops do it. Being cops, I kind of hoped they’d be better liars.”