This is an uneven, often frustrating (and, in some quarters, overpraised) episode, but in a different way than the previous uneven, frustrating (and, in some quarters, overpraised) episode. If "Night of the Dead Living" showed the unhappy results of Homicide trying to define itself as something different than a crime drama, "Son of a Gun" sometimes gives you the feeling that it's simply trying to be the best damn crime drama ever seen on television. One difference between the two episodes is that "Night of the Dead Living" recognized the strength of the show's ensemble cast and did its awkward best to make the most of them. Although "Son of a Gun" has something like half a dozen plot threads moving around in it, it seems to be conceived as a star vehicle for Jon Polito, an actor who's in clover when he gets to play comic vulgarians. Here, he's called upon here to be tortured over the shooting of a beat cop, Chris Thormann (Lee Tergesen), that Polito's character, Crosetti, had trained and befriended.
I don't think it's Polito's fault that the show overemphasizes his big dramatic moments. It sometimes feels as if the producers were trying to bypass the usual awards selection process and hand him his Emmy right there on the set. It definitely isn't his fault that almost everything about this story feels a little tired. Yes, it's based on an actual incident that was included in David Simon's nonfiction book. But there had been a lot of scenes of cops trying to deal with the shooting of one of their own by the time that incident was turned into this TV episode. Apparently the people who made all those earlier shows did their homework better than we'd ever imagined, because it all feels cliched, from Crosetti's comforting Thormann's wife (Edie Falco) to his having to deal with the insensitive vultures of the press or the medical profession, from his begging Gee to let him handle the case to his talk about religion and his wondering aloud whether he should just off the shooter himself if he can find him.
One message that comes through loud and clear is that all those TV bosses who told their guys they weren't allowed to go near that case they were "too close to" knew what the hell they were talking about. In another part of the show, Pembleton is deriding Bayliss, still working on the Adena Watson case, as a "snail" and stressing the importance of making headway in a case as quickly as possible, before the trail goes cold. Meanwhile, Crosetti is too busy eating his heart out and having theological arguments with his partner Lewis to concentrate on his leg work. The script does hand Polito two fresh, striking moments, both of which he knocks out of the park. Trying to persuade Gee that he's up to handling the case, he drops his pants to make a point. It could easily come across as pathetic, with Crosetti as a desperate man degrading himself, but the matter-of-factness of the directing and acting save it. At the end of the episode, Crosetti takes a break from not working on the case to do what he should have been doing all along, pulling up a chair next to his unconscious friend's hospital bed and listening to music with him. It's a sweet scene right through to the final shot, with the camera closing in on the image on Crostetti's T-shirt: Miles Davis sternly raising a finger to his lips, as if to tell the universe to keep it down.
The best stuff in the episode is the return of Calpurnia Jones, the black widow of Balmer. It was in the first episode that Lewis and Crosetti began sussing out that she had been laying waste to countless husbands and family members, and she was barely mentioned again until the case cracks open here. Homicide's decision to raise a plot point like that and then let it lie fallow for weeks until the moment seemed right to pick it up again was a calculated risk, and it pays off big time here. When Felton and Howard pick up the thread, it turns out that the recently widowed Calpurnia has remarried, to her nephew. This means that when Felton asks an actor if he's "aware of the fact that over the past few years, several members of your family have died recently?", the lucky actor gets to answer, "Sure. My wife Aunt Calpurnia kill 'em for the insurance money." (Howard has the follow-up question: "You know this?" "Sure, we all know it," comes the reply. "It ain't all that hard to figure out.")
- The episode was directed by Nick Gomez, who made two of the great lost crime-milieu movies of the '90s, Laws of Gravity and New Jersey Drive. The former featured Edie Falco, which was how he knew she'd make an impression in the smallish role of the wounded officer's wife. That's how she came to the attention of Tom Fontana, who later cast her in his HBO prison series, OZ, which led to her being one of the HBO repertory all-stars by the time David Chase started looking for a Carmela Soprano. In short, take a bow, Nick Gomez.
- I know it's mainly there as local color for the Baltimore audience, but those of us who are '70s political junkies also appreciate the subplot about the woman who arranged to have a co-worker killed because they disagreed about the legacy of Spiro T. Agnew.
- Other notable guest stars in this episode include Luis Guzman, who appears in the exceedingly weird role of Bolander's next door neighbor, a woodworker who has built a casket for some mysterious person who never came back for it. So the coffin sits there in his apartment, and later, when Bolander responds to a call at his building, Guzman is laid out in it. Mucnch tells Bolancer that he's been interviewing other people in the building, and that one of them described Guzman as "a man of loud desperation." Why that's not the episode title, I couldn't tell you.
- Everyone seems to be in a philosophical mood in this one, though the detectives' philosophies regarding their jobs don't all match. Pembleton tells Bayliss that he, Bayliss, will never be a great murder police because he doesn't know what it's like to see the world through "a killer's eyes." This seems to indicate that Frank thinks that some people are killers and some people aren't, and that there's an advantage to being able to tune into the mindset of those who are. But when Bolander finally goes on his big date with the medical examiner, he suddenly tells her that "anyone will and can kill anyone else for any reason at all," and laments the fact that "everyone I see nowadays looks like a murder suspect. Mothers, husbands, daughters, bosses, secretaries, priests, nuns. I haven't had a nun confess to me yet, but it'll happen." I don't know which of these schools of thought is closer to the truth, but I can, with some surprise, report that it's the second one that will apparently get your wheezing, red-faced, middle-aged ass laid.