Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Prime Suspect: “Wednesday’s Child”

Illustration for article titled Prime Suspect: “Wednesday’s Child”

This episode turned out to be quietly devastating. I had a growing sense of dread throughout the main plot about the identity of the killer. The signs were there. For one thing, Jane Timoney spoke ill of her own mother on several occasions. She has made those sorts of comments before, but these were delivered multiple times and in the presence of a sister who, like Peter Gerety’s Irish accent, seems to have just appeared one day. The Lady MacBeth moment, though, sealed the deal. When the boy’s mother wandered into the homicide department full of confusion and guilt, they should have locked her up right then. The reveal, though, was far worse than anything I was prepared for. Part of being a parent of a small child is learning how to control and release one’s frustration. Louis C.K. points out that most new parents believe that that having a baby is as hard as it gets, because the baby is helpless and needs parents to do everything, but then when they get older, children can do all of these things for themselves but simply will not. His voice shakes with anger as he delivers the punchline. It’s funnier and more subtle than Go The Fuck To Sleep, but it’s not that far off from any other expression of parental rage.

Although they master the art of defiance early, children are small and surprisingly fragile for how often they bounce back from the scrapes and falls of life. When he was three, my son slipped at daycare and cracked his skull. He was fine, and he still is fine, but I would rather suffer any number of terrors rather than live through those moments again. I bring this up just to point out that, like many people, I am susceptible to being manipulated by the horror of a hurt child, even a fictional one. This episode of Prime Suspect raised that horror to tragedy in a particularly skillful way. I know I complain about certain aspects of the show every week, but here, the writers made me feel not just angry about a child whom the viewers never even saw alive, but both furious about and sadly sympathetic to the mother who, in a fit of pique and frustration, laid her relatively powerful and hungover hands on this child and delivered the blunt force trauma that would later kill him.

It should be obvious to anyone, even the most brain-damaged Penn State fans, that adults who hurt children or allow children to be hurt must be punished severely. On the other hand, the climax of this show featured Timoney unleashing her demons on this mother, and I felt a surprising amount of sympathy for this lady. It is not that she shouldn’t be punished but that she gave in to a terrible impulse in a moment of weakness. This is, I suppose, the circumstances framing many a homicide, and the show acknowledges this (beautifully) by allowing the C-plot to comment on the A-plot. In the C-plot, Lt. Sweeney is visited by the mother of a man he put away some 22 years prior. She wants him to attend the parole hearing. He visits the man at Riker’s Island (point of contention: isn’t Riker’s Island a jail for short-term offenders, rather than a prison facility for long-term ones?) and ultimately decides to write a letter to the parole board asking for clemency. Both Timoney and Duffy are aghast that he would help someone get out of prison, but the larger point is outside of their grasp. Many, if not most, people who are incarcerated for long periods of time do change, and most murderers do not recidivate. They act once, during a crime of passion, a moment of weakness, and they learn their lesson harshly. They usually don’t deserve your forgiveness, but many do deserve an ounce of sympathy. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” quotes Sweeney, and there are worse places than The Sermon On The Mount from which to draw wisdom.

Let’s step back here and review the mechanics of this story. I’ve covered the details of the C-plot. In the B-plot, Detective Riviera from episode three, “Bitch,” is still working on the case involving the guy who robbed Timoney’s dad’s bar. She thinks that she has figured out the place that he will strike next and flirtatiously invites Duffy to join her on the stakeout. Duffy jumps at the chance to spend some time with her and even impresses her with his detective skills. When he finally manages to ask her out, though, she drops that she has a boyfriend. At the end of the episode, he has a hard time putting in a good word for her to his lieutenant. Since I’m off on a sympathy-for-the-devil kick, I will say that he is probably right to feel manipulated, although she is not necessarily in the wrong, either. Her role in “Bitch” was to play the sort of woman who uses her sexuality to succeed in her job, and Duffy, being the president and only member of the Homicide Department He-Man Girl-Haters Club, responded with the enthusiasm of the repressed. Duffy is completely in the wrong, though, if he is not supporting her move to Homicide because he is angry that she has a boyfriend. In his defense, she doesn’t appear to be much of a detective.

Here, we should say a word for how tightly written this episode was because there was also a D-plot, in which Timoney squabbled with her unemployed vegan sister over the care of their father, who is going into the hospital for minor surgery. Their dad tries not to take sides, but he does tell off the sister while in recovery. Apparently, as we learn in a different scene, Timoney’s mother drunk-drove herself into a fatal accident when Timoney was a teenager and her sister was four. Their dad tells the sister to take it easy on Jane because she gave up her childhood to help raise her sister. That’s a nice touch, considering how much the adult Timoney both dislikes kids and mothers her little sister.

The A-plot is, of course, the case of the week involving the poor little dead boy, Ben, who gets a name but not an appearance on the show. The boy died at his high-end daycare of blunt force trauma to the head with his blood full of the ADHD medications that his parents strictly forbade. The parents point towards his teacher, but she turns out to be a kindly sort who is, understandably, upset about the whole situation. She mentions that the boy’s nanny spent so much time with him that morning at drop-off that the school had to ask her to leave. Timoney and Augie go to see the nanny’s mother, but she stalls. Augie tricks her son into allowing him to use the family computer, where he quickly (instantly, in fact) finds the nanny’s one-way bus tickets out of town. They catch her quickly, but she turns out to be heartbroken over the situation, too, telling them that she did give the boy ADHD medications, but that she and his little brother were his only friends. Timoney visits the ME, who says that she could allow that the trauma might have taken place up to two hours earlier if it will help with the case. Timoney and Calderon visit the mother again, and Timoney takes the opportunity to search the bathroom. The nanny helps her by showing her the way to the master bath. There, Timoney finds a vial filled with various pills and booze bottles hidden in the wall sconces. When she confronts the mom, she tells her that her own mother would hide booze bottles in the same place, a trick she learned from The Lost Weekend. Anyway, I’ve talked around this scene because it is a little too brutal to face head-on, but let it be known as a highlight in a show that generally features at least one first-rate scene in every episode. It is wrenching and awful in context, but it is also powerful and true and the moment of quiet devastation that leads me to believe this is the best episode yet.

Last week’s episode had a somewhat blunt approach in suppressing Timoney’s feminine side, but this one opened up a new wrinkle in her psyche. She doesn’t like kids, but she does actually understand how to raise one because she helped to raise her toddler sister. She feels a need for vengeance for poor little Ben, a surprising emotion for a woman who seems to have quashed any maternal instinct that she may have otherwise had. The previews for next week’s episode appear to put her into yet another maternal situation, where she must protect a child from unknown dangers. While I found this episode quite moving, I’m not sure if the right way to feminize Timoney is to bring out her maternal side in two subsequent episodes. However, we shall see how the show handles it. It could hit the mark just right.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t think I’ve ever had dim sum chicken feet. Are they as good as Detective Augie says?
  • Her dad is clearly heading towards a major fight with Timoney over the way she talks about her mother. How many episodes until he lays her out with a well-observed revelation?
  • Now that I think about it, the show may have mentioned the sister before. Why doesn’t she participate in more of the rituals involving Timoney and her dad?