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Life On Mars: "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows?"


Life On Mars

"Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows?"

Season 1 , Episode 4

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If we're lucky, we never really know our parents. We love them, and we learn from them, but they're not people we know–they're people we experience. They are a presence and a force, and they anchor us to our lives. Anything more than that, and things get complicated.

But we aren't lucky, are we? Not in the long term, not forever. You get older, and you start to notice the cracks. You realize that Mom doesn't know everything after all, she just does that voice that makes you think she knows everything. Maybe you see your dad checking out some porn online, and you spend the rest of the day not making eye contact. It's not really bad stuff, generally, although there can be a little of that; mostly, it's just human stuff. The nose hairs and the bad calls and the myriad imperfections.

Maybe luck isn't the right word here, or maybe I'm just applying it in the wrong direction. Seeing the limitations in the ones who raised you and learning to accept those limitations is part of getting through life. But there's a time and a place for everything, and for Sam Tyler, time is way the hell out of joint. He's finally getting a chance to see who his mom really is/was; unfortunately, he's filling in the blanks as they happen, and the way he handles them might be life or death for her, and for the little boy he used to be.

"Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows?" is the strongest episode yet of Life On Mars. It has some of the same flaws that've been with the show since the pilot, but in "Mother," those problems are largely in the background. Making the main case tie into Sam's own history gives us some incredibly high stakes; we can be reasonably sure that Rose Tyler isn't going to end up in the river like the other girls because Sam doesn't remember it, but since we still don't have any real idea what's going on, that certainty isn't all that solid. And even if it was, just having Sam try and talk with his mom while his younger self is sleeping in the next room makes for some amazing stuff.

That wasn't the only plus, either. We're finally getting real dirt on the cops of the 1-2-5, something more complicated than the casual brutality and sexism. When Sam arrests a thug he catches messing with his mom, he finds out that the thug, Nicky Profaci, works for a local gangster named Eliot Casso. Casso has an "arrangement" with Gene; he provides him with information and the occasional cash incentive, and the cops look the other way on some of Casso's less-than-legal activities. Unsurprisingly, Sam gets pissed; it gets worse when he learns that Ray, with Gene's approval, passed on a couple of murders that may have been connected to Profacio. The victims were two young woman, one of whom worked at Casso's club. Given Profacio's clear willingness to rough up the ladies, Sam has to find a way to prove the connection before his mother becomes the next target.

Hearing that Gene had reached a compromise with Casso was great, because it delivered on some of the down-and-dirty policing the show has been promising since day one. The more Sam is a fish out of water, the more interesting Mars gets, and having him try and find his footing in a corrupt-yet-operating police department has a lot of potential for drama. It gets even more interesting when we hear Gene's side of the story. Keitel was more awake this week than he's been the entire season; his speech to Sam about a cop he knew who went rat wasn't poetry, but it worked, and the last scene, where we watch him burn all the money he'd gotten from Casso, was the first time I can remember really caring about the character. If this series is going to stay solid for more than a season, it needs to start developing the characters beyond Sam–giving Gene more depth than just an old coot with a badge is a good step.

I had a few moderate problems with "Mother"; the references are getting better (the Sleeper conversation with Annie was a great example of how the period nods should work), but having Sam see Joe Nameth and then chit-chat with Jim Croce in the space of about three minutes in Casso's club was goofy as hell. It was the only moment in the episode where I stopped caring about what was going on; the rest of it, even the more predictable crime story elements, were competent enough to hold my attention. Randomly bumping into Croce and reminding us again that it's not 2008? Not so much.

My other problem, and this one was with the episode as a whole, is that it all went down too quickly. Casso and Profacio weren't the most original thugs to hit TV, but they had potential as recurring villains; they added a new level to Sam's relationship with Gene and the others, and to have that roughly resolved in the final act was disappointing. The Adrienne sub-plot was also rushed; the acid trip she sends Sam on was great, but given her limited time on screen, her sudden change of heart and inevitable death were rote almost to the point of self-parody.

But this one gets high marks overall, because even with those problems, I was fully engaged through all of "Mother." From the opening, with a televised Nixon's comments on the oil crisis switching briefly to George W. hitting the same notes, to the way the final moments loop back around to Mama Rose, the ep felt like a credible, exciting whole. Sam's temporal dilemma has always been compelling, and having that dilemma force him to deal with some pretty painful mommy issues gave the episode a nice weight. All we have to do now is get past the Movie of the Week checklisting (Next time: Black Panthers!), and this could really be something. And hell, there can't be that many hot button seventies issues to deal with, right?

Grade: A-

Stray Observations:

--Stellar music picks this week: Paul Simon, Velvet Underground, the Kinks.

--More proof that Windy isn't real: Sam has an overnight visitor, and there are no comical misunderstandings.

--At one point, Sam offers to give his mom his life savings to get her out of town. Where the hell did he get life savings?

--What's your take on the Nameth/Croce bit? It seemed so out of place from the rest of the episode that I'm wondering if I missed something.