One week a month, Watch This offers television recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of the series finale of AMC’s Hell On Wheels, our favorite episodes about trains.
Homicide, “Subway” (season six, episode seven; originally aired 12/5/97)
“Why’d I gotta take the subway today?” John Lange asks hypothetically, as his body is stuck between a subway platform and a train, his spine crushed, his legs curled underneath him. Every other day of the week, Lange drives, but on Fridays, he takes the subway. On this day, he really wishes he hadn’t.
“Subway,” the seventh episode of Homicide: Life On The Street’s sixth season, encapsulates a lot of what made the show great: It portrayed cops not as white knights, but as real people, and it used crime to highlight other, larger issues, like homosexuality or race. “Subway” is a doozy: Its theme is death itself. The detectives of the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit investigate the murder of a man who is not yet dead. But it’s not the investigation that fuels this episode. It’s Lange, a man who at first refuses to believe a fate he can’t escape, but in his eventual acceptance, becomes human.
Lange, played by Vincent D’Onofrio before he was all ticks and scenery-chewing, is just a commuter who kisses his girlfriend before he heads underground to the subway. There’s a scuffle, and suddenly Lange’s top half is above the platform while the bottom half is below it. Was it an accident, or was Lange pushed by a fellow commuter? “Subway” was praised for its writing—James Yoshimura won a Peabody for it—but one of the more incredible parts of this episode is the sound. Above the din of the subway and the commuters and the chaos that leads to the episode’s inciting incident, there’s the sound of John Lange’s body being crushed between the subway and the platform. When Detective Frank Pembleton (the great Andre Braugher) essentially needs to tell Lange that he’s about to die, a voice comes on the loudspeaker to announce the train’s delay. A man’s life is about to end, yet the subway must keep running.
The announcer is not the only voice that views Lange’s death as more of an inconvenience. An official from the Baltimore Metro Subway tells Pembleton to get this rescue show on the road because he’s got thousands of commuters to appease. In “Subway,” death is viewed in a variety of different ways. Homicide, and other related cop shows like Law & Order and The Wire, captured how cops have to distance themselves from victims in order to keep their sanity. Death is not revered; it has to be joked about, lightened up. Even Lange tries for humor: He complains he wants his $1.35 fare back because his ride wasn’t completed. Death is made abstract in order for these people to get through their day-to-day. The first beat cop to meet the detectives knows that Lange won’t make it out alive. “Why do you think I called Homicide?” she states matter-of-factly, a comment made even more stark when the scene cuts to Lange alert and moving.
“It’s not every day you talk to a dead man, huh?” Lange says to Pembleton. No, it’s not. Pembleton and Lange have more in common than they initially think. Frank Pembleton is a legendary unlikable character, introduced as a lone wolf who doesn’t want to deal with a partner. Even though he knows Lange is dying, Pembleton has no patience for him at the outset. He’s not a nice guy, and never has a desire to be, but Braugher was so good at embodying Pembleton it never really mattered. Lange isn’t a nice guy either: He’s introduced nudging people out of the way to get down the subway steps faster; he calls the EMT trying to save his life a bitch; in his remaining time left on earth, he takes time to make fun of his brother. Still, we’re supposed to feel for this guy; we should want him to live. But the more Lange he talks, the less empathy we feel for him, as he seems to be kind of a dick. As Pembleton talks to him, and bonds with him—he too has had a near-death experience—Lange stops being an asshole, and starts being a person. That’s the last thing Pembleton needs. He needs a body. Not a human.
It turns out that Lange is a random victim of a mentally ill man who has done this before. If he hadn’t taken the subway, John Lange would still be alive. He would have gone to work and kissed his boss’ ass, he would have flirted with anything in a skirt, he would have continued to be kind of a dick. Instead, John Lange decided to take the subway, and he died because of it. But after Lange’s body is taken to the hospital by paramedics who know that the man they’re caring for is already dead, the subway continues to run once more.
Availability: “Subway” and the rest of Homicide is available on disc from Amazon. Some episodes are also available on YouTube.