Murder in the First: Peeling Back More Layers

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Episode recaps
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Warning: Spoiler Alert

“Murder Is Just The Beginning”. TNT’s aptly used new tagline for the show is also the cliffhanger they left us with at the end of Episode 1. We’ve had a little time to let that episode fester. I’ve watched just a hair past two and a half times since last Monday night. Part of me wants to believe it is just a very well done pilot. As a self admitted connoisseur of pilot episodes, that very easily could have been the case. Where does the plot move toward? Is that more the truth or more window dressing? Do those not quite stars or high-end cameos become recurring characters? Is it as connected as I’m sure most of us want to believe? Is it Malfoy? or is that just too easy? How does Skinny Pete fit into all of this, really? All of these are questions we seemingly won’t answer tonight. However, they are questions I think you should continue to ask yourself as this series progresses. Something tells me we will answer some of those questions repeatedly before we actually get a satisfactory or accurate answer.

Murder in the First drops us directly into the tall grass, as should be expected by now. Leading us into the first gasp moment of this episode. The pathologist is conducting the autopsy of the recently deceased flight attendant and suspected romantic conquest of Erich Blunt (Malfoy from Harry Potter-seriously I don’t think I’ll pump the brakes on that reference for a while). While the doctor is making his notes and discoveries we move to the burial site for Detective Terry English’ recently passed wife. Anyone who has lost some too early will immediately identify with Terry’s comments. “People say everything happens for a reason. No, I don’t believe that. I think it’s something we tell ourselves during times that don’t make much sense. There is no reason for this. But, I guess it can’t be avoided.” Not trying to make any theological debate stance. Merely as an implication of the quality of writing or more specifically, storytelling. As one who can in some measure empathize with early loss, that scene felt exquisitely real. Diggs’ tone and body language was spot on. We’re only through two episodes, but he continues to impress. I say that alongside the idea that I was fan before this show. Also, as much as I enjoy Kathleen Robertson in most things she does, she is an ugly crier. Made me want to fast forward as she was reacting to English’ words.

Back to the autopsy, the doctor reveals something we expected and something that maybe we didn’t. One, yes, the autopsy reveals that the cause of death will categorize this as a homicide. Then, presumably as he is ‘fishing’ around inside the body, the doctor gives a sigh and let’s his head roll back slightly. You don’t have to be a TV addict to see what’s coming next. “Amending and expanding my ruling, make that a double homicide”. Gasp moment #1.

Our first shot of English and Mulligan is essentially them starting the snow ball down the hill. English hints at the potential that there are no coincidences in police work and no way that two murders happen around Blunt without a connection. A great example of the “audience knows more than the characters” device. Shortly after our main characters exchange in an almost dare I say, “Sorkin-esque” witty banter while walking, the show takes us to Skinny Pete (Chris Walton, petty criminal for those not up to speed on Breaking Bad).

Walton is conversing with his public defender on the prospect of going to trial. One too many times in this series thus far, they have gone out of their way to mention how Walton looks, sounds, behaves and the length of his rap sheet. Maybe I’m a little more detail oriented in this regard, but I’m getting the old ‘spidey-sense’ about that little tidbit. Red flag is a waving. Naturally, Walton is between a rock and a battle he’s sure to lose. Admit to killing Niers and they’ll drop it to manslaughter and he’ll do six years. Probably less.

TV, movies, books, whatever. This is the part where the guy in lockup hears six years and immediately gets defensive. Break out the “I’m innocent, I’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve gotta believe me” speech comes out. Walton replies with a calm, “I’ll have to think about it”. If you’re red flag wasn’t up before, it better be now. This Walton situation stinks of being part of the bigger plan. On the other side of the commercial break, Walton is in court standing and listening to the judge. She throws out the typical court room speak to a man who clearly doesn’t understand half of what she said, but he stands confident. Walton is so absolutely set in his conviction to take the deal, that he’s not listening at all. When asked if he understands, he says yes and admits to killing the man. Completely out of procedural order.

Speculation note: Just throwing it out there and don’t hold me to it. To a casual observer this should feel like Walton is the first of multiple ‘patsies’ within a bigger web of bad stuff. How true that is, we’ll see as it develops.

In another Sorkin-esque scene, Blunt and his lawyer David Hertzberg walk through the campus of Blunt’s company discussing how to move forward in light of the flight attendant’s death. Hertzberg insists on a criminal lawyer while Blunt insists that there is nothing to hide. A theme that will play out throughout this episode and probably even become a bigger theme throughout at least this season. That is, does Blunt have nothing to hide or is this just another brilliantly crafted smoke screen?

Moving through potential leads, our detectives discover that the deceased not only has an ex-husband, but an abusive, persistent, Adderall addict ex-husband. Like Walton, the ex-husband has a significant rap sheet that paints him into a corner. More importantly from a viewer’s experience perspective we are about to see the game and how it’s played by our fearless duo. English tells the man he’s a “day off” implying that the evidence is so completely in the detectives favor that putting him away will be easy. Generally when TV detective do good cop/bad cop its a comical rendition. This however, is poetry in motion. This should be required viewing for detective training. English leaves the interrogation room maintaining the hard ass who just wants to clear up this paper work so he can get home early. As he turns the corner, a little smile forming from the corner of this mouth, we see Mulligan approach. English says the phrase “alley-oop” they low-five and Mulligan takes her turn with the suspect. She comes in with a bottle of water. She un-cuffs him. She even goes so far as to say she believes him. She plays up the concerned ‘good cop’. Says very little, and this guy just starts spewing everything he can about the details of what happened. With the intention of creating an alibi. Maybe jumping on the grenade of a small restraining order violation in order to clear him on murder.

The thing is, at this point I’m still very skeptical about Walton’s situation and while the ex-husband seems authentic, I’m just not buying anything at the moment. After his one way conversation, he drinks the majority of the bottle of water. At which point Mulligan gets up grabs the bottle and walks out. When the ex-husband asks where is she going, Mulligan replies with “I’m just the water girl”. All in an attempt to get a real DNA sample. Is it unprecedented genius? No. But there are so many easier way to create the need and secure the evidence. Another example of the level of storytelling happening on this show.

With English’ late wife’s sister in town for the funeral, we had to expect an awkward moment. English is in his bedroom reading. The sister enters to tell him her flight has been delayed. In this moment two things should be evident. One, both of these people are suffering through an onslaught of emotions. The result of which are unpredictable. Two, why is she wearing nothing but a bath robe. This is a crossroads moment. I don’t need to string you along, you know what happens next. But it’s what follows that will be more impactful. At the halfway point of episode 2 we are starting to understand, grasp or in some cases empathize with these characters. I think it’s fair to say that these characters have been presented in a way that makes them very likable. English’ next move will either solidify that or damage it. Examples of this are more obvious in series’ like Dexter and Breaking Bad. The sister disrobed. English stands up. Moves slowly but deliberately towards the sister. Then proceeds to put her robe back on her and hug her as if to say, “I understand, but that’s not the answer”. Brilliantly played once again by Taye Diggs. Gasp moment #2.

In another great cop scene our two detectives follow-up on a lead dealing with the pilot of the plane who employed the dead flight attendant. The pilot (played by Steven Weber) does his part explaining his relationship and the details leading up to the day the girl died. At this point in the episode, you should be “all hands on deck” for subtle little things throwing off your spidey-sense. The pilot is visibly sick and probably blows his nose 3 times in 60 seconds. You don’t have to be a fan of the CSI type shows to know what’s about to happen. Hold that thought. While you’re spidey-sense is tingling, you should have picked up on the manner in which the pilot would glance over to his wife when answering questions. And even at one point, his answer to were you and her close? his answer was, “yes, on a professional level”. His wife is clearly uncomfortable. In an effort to sell the fact that he’s cold, the pilot gets up to find more tissues. While he’s trying to avoid the detectives, the detectives are just using this line of questioning to confirm what they already think they know and grab one of those discarded tissues covered in DNA. I love not only the rapport, but the manner in which these two detectives operate. It’s Jordan/Pippen, Stockton/Malone. Something to behold. Fictional of course but brilliantly captured.

Quick note on the writing. Getting passed the storytelling. Down to the actual dialogue. Remember one thing for a show like this based on how they are telling the story. If you can say a thing with 5 words instead of 25, you’re just being lazy. There is an artistry to great dialogue. Although I am not willing to put this show into the category of great just yet, consider the following back and forth.

Blunt: This is just an introduction, right?
Hertz: Right. He’s aware of your situation. If nothing else, chalk it up to free advice from one of the best trial lawyers on the planet.
Blunt: The planet? That’s a little hyperbolic…
Hertz: Well let me put it this way, had Daniels been defending Jesus in front of Pontius Pilot, worst case scenario he would’ve gotten his charges knocked down from King of the Jews to disorderly conduct with time served in the lion’s den. Maybe some community service. Cure some blind orphans. Counsel a couple of whores. Fill up all of the soldier’s canteens with water. And presto vino, Jesus walks.
Blunt: You are so going to hell.

Instead of saying, “this guy is the real deal and can adequately protect you from whatever happens next”.

In the scene that follows, one I believe is more smoke and mirrors than required discussion for the characters sake, Blunt rejects the idea that he needs criminal trial council. James Cromwell plays the elite lawyer beautifully down to reading what the would-be client and pointing out what he is saying that he shouldn’t. I will spare you the dialogue play-by-play. In the end, Blunt stands by his conviction that he does not need a criminal lawyer because he has done nothing wrong. Cromwell replies with “call me when you do (need a lawyer)”.

Back at the precinct, Blunt and Hertz are waiting patiently in an interrogation room. This move temporarily perplexes the chief and they enter the room. The game of chess has begun. Blunt makes small talk. The detectives don’t respond. Hertz describes exactly what they are doing. How they are reading him so they will know how to proceed. It is a brilliantly presented scene that opens thing up down the line. After repeatedly disobeying Hertz suggestions, he declares that he might as well leave if his council will just get ignored. Blunt agrees and Hertz leaves. As arguably the biggest West Wing fan on the planet, let me just say that I will be very displeased if that is the end of Richard Schiff on this particular show.

The back and forth continues. Blunt really not giving anything away. Making a solid attempt to play the cooperative former employer type. Towards the end of the scene, after Mulligan asks about the nature of the sex (in that sultry way she does), she transitions back to the coincidence of multiple murders surrounding one very high-profile man. All the while, Blunt is as cool as they come. Not wavering in the least. Then we see that glimmer of Blunt that reared its ugly head in episode one with the blackmailing programmer. In no uncertain terms, Blunt dares Mulligan to charge him with murder.

“I will eviscerate your case piece by piece. I will put this whole building on trial. From the DA to the doorman. I will embarrass you. And I will win. Because I’m smarter than you. More capital at my disposal, more resources than this entire city, and I just happen to be innocent. Get a life.”

Mulligan’s reaction is peculiar. A smile. A defense mechanism for the awkwardness she just went through? Or she’s legitimately pleased with how that went down.

Later Mulligan answer’s her phone and agrees to have drinks with someone on short notice. You’re lead to believe it’s another joker from her online dating app. Something I’ve intentionally left out of the recaps since they have yet to offer anything of substance. In fact, it turns out to be Erich Blunt. They are both skeptical of the others intentions, but the ‘date’ moves ahead. At one point, Blunt asks why Mulligan hasn’t inquired at all about the case or his involvement with it. She replies, “I’m off duty”. Earlier in the scene where Hertzberg leaves, Blunt does divulge that he trusts Mulligan more than English. Which may be part of the plan, on both sides. Maybe she’s setting Blunt up by creating a deeper sense of trust. Maybe she honestly sees something in him, something attractive on some level.

As they depart for the evening, Blunt insinuates that Mulligan is wearing a wire. She emphatically denies it. But what’s more, she invites him to investigate (physically) to make sure. Again in that sultry way that has. He obliges because it would be un-gentlemanly of him to reject an attractive woman’s advances. Right about the time I think I’m going to gasp again, she grabs Blunt’s face and makes out with him right then and there. Not that awkward high school kids trying to get away with it sort of way. More like, step one of ‘it’s about to go down’ type of kissing. Then just like that she stops and walks away. Gasp moment #3. Alas, by design.  The DA said, “get Blunt’s DNA sample. Whatever it takes.”  As Mulligan walks away, she casually pulls out a clear container and spits into it what looks like gum (and/or saliva).  Either way, there’s DNA in there.  Whatever it takes.

The most important thing to take from this show at this point in the progression is that regardless of what you think you know, there is an excellent chance that you are wrong. Not in that hipster-ish manner of other shows where they zig and zag so many times that when it’s all over the ending was obvious from the beginning. No, twists, turns, hints and pull backs all part of an eloquently told story. Imagine any typical procedural cop show. CSI, NCIS, Bones, Blue Bloods, etc. In each episode there are x number of suspects. One of the suspects is the guilty one. The remainders are smoke and mirrors. Details are shown to make you think its suspect 4 when it’s really suspect 2. However, in this show, each and every suspect has a specific function. Each man or woman plays a role. None of them are throw-a-ways. None of them are expendable. Each and every detail in some way plays into the bigger picture. Or at least that is my theory as of week 2. I reserve the right to change said theory as many times as need be until I get it right.

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