Recurring villains are difficult to do well on a series. The dramatic potential in bringing back a familiar bastard is obviously huge; instead of having to waste valuable episode time building a character from scratch, just to blow them up or shoot them in forty minutes, you have a personality that's already clearly defined, with an established relationship to the hero. Sure, you'll want to bring new audience members up to speed, but the history exists and makes scenes between the two characters already more compelling than scenes between the protagonist and some random one-off. Thing is, the history brings its own problems. The more a bad guy pops in, the more difficult it becomes to repeat the same black/white dynamic, and if that bad guy is played by a charismatic, talented actor, the audience is going to like him enough that sooner or later, the temptation to turn him good will arise. Cartoons can get away with perpetual, never-learning villainy. Live action, not so much. And once a bad guy starts doing good, he has an unfortunate tendency to turn boring in a hurry.
"The Return of Baptiste" marks the great Lennie James's third appearance on Human Target as the unrepentant assassin with a fetish for expensive timepieces. As always, he leaves an impression. As a semi-recurring character, Baptiste is the perfect double threat for this kind of show, representing both a credible threat who inspires an immediately emotional response in Chance, and a link to Chance's criminal past. James gravitas and sly humor made a terrific contrast last season with his lethality, and he made a fitting compliment to Chance's reformed savage. Our hero had found his way out of the darkness, but here was that darkness personified, someone who had none of the moral qualms Chance developed, and all of the murderous skill. I don't want to oversell here, as this is a show that's best appreciated without expecting too much in the way of grand drama, but the most effective highs from the first season all pretty much revolved around this guy. He had this really effective edginess to him that a series like this needs from time to time. We don't really do main character kills around here, but if we did, odds are Baptiste would be the one hold the bloody knife.
So it's good to have him back again, although he's not quite as scary as he used to be. A journalist friend of Ilsa's gets kidnapped by the evil Miguel Cervantes, and Chance decides that the only way to get the friend back is with Baptiste's help. See, Baptiste once worked for Cervantes, and their working relationship went sour, so Baptiste has a grudge, as well as insider knowledge on the compound, etc, etc. You've probably seen this sort of thing before; it's a classic way to bring a villain back, and it nearly always seems contrived, and, if the villain is interesting enough, that contrivance is worth the effort. (Although even then ... I'm thinking of certain developments in later seasons of Angel.) This one passes muster, because of all the good things I said about Baptiste above, and because, well, this is Human Target. A mild dose of contrivance is part of the charm.
Of course, that doesn't really excuse the fairly lazy writing that runs throughout this episode. Chance is able to bribe Baptiste out of jail for a couple of days using Ilsa's Diner's Card? Eh, okay. But the fact that Baptiste knowledge amounts to pretty much nothing is annoying; he gives Chance a name, Esteban, during their first meeting, who just happens to be the guy who met with Ilsa during the cold open, and given how quickly he shows up here when Chance and Baptiste start poking around, I'm not convinced that Chance couldn't have done all this on his own.
What really rankles, though, is how poorly integrated all the various pieces of the episode are. We never know much of anything about Cervantes (Chance doesn't even talk to him directly), and the journalist's big story is basically irrelevant. It's obvious that trying to integrate Winston, Guerrero, and Isla into the main plot is always going to be tricky, and while this is probably the best Ilsa has done on the show since the premiere, her attempts to distract a military man through tepid seduction are exactly pulse-pounding television. (Although I did like that the "Norma Jean" jokes from earlier actually make sense by the end. Giving con jobs names is funnier when we get to be in on the joke.) Unlike last week, the emotional beats of "Return" weren't quite so forced, but it still felt like a collection of scenes the writers pulled together from other series, and then weren't able to really connect in any meaningful way.
And as for Baptiste, well, it looks like he's getting a little soft now. Armand Assante (the "old man" that both Chance and Baptiste once worked for) has let him go, so he's adrift, and more than a little hurt by Chance's betrayal; Cervantes offers him his freedom and $20 million dollars, but Baptiste ultimately turns him down in order to keep his word. Which, honestly, I'm not really buying. A Siberian prison can't be fun for anybody, and we're talking about an amoral murderer who killed Amy Acker in last year's season finale. You don't kill Amy Acker unless you have some serious mental problems. (Okay, I keep hoping the character isn't dead, and I'd bet that was the intention in the finale, since we don't see her die, but who knows what the retooling bodes?) James is strong enough in the role to mostly sell the changes, but what we have here is another piece of the kinder, gentler Human Target that the show has been pushing all season. It's competently done, and there are cool action sequences (the bar-fight was great, though the green screen during the jeep chase was pretty distracting), but, given how unnecessary the changes are, it's unfortunate.
- On the plus side, no Ames! She's "cooling down" in New England.
- Boy, Indira Varma does a lot of looking at things, doesn't she.
- One of the problems with Baptiste's ultimate lack of relevancy to the journalist kidnapping rescue is that it's hard to believe Chance would be this willing to team up with him again. The episode tries to present it as Chance possibly wanting to offer his old co-worker a second chance, but given what's already happened between them, that's a stretch.
- "A Norma Jean went bad on my cousin. She ended up pregnant with two twins." Fingers crossed Ms. Pucci avoids such a fate.