Homicide Life on the Street: A Retrospective

Part 2: What It Really Means When Someone Dies

They spoke for the dead. Others had to deal with the loss datebook.sfchronicle.com

In the opening minutes of the second episode of Homicide, Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) lowers his sunglasses and stares at the front door of the Watson home. The rookie detective has just caught his murder as primary — their ten year old daughter Adena — and after spending hours standing over the body is about to announce the news of their daughter’s murder.

The door is answered by the mother who looks worried. Bayliss tells them who he is and asks about their daughter. The mother’s face contorts for second before giving out a primordial scream of grief when he tells them about Adena’s murder. She embraces one of her other children, who also begins to cry. Another drops a bowl of cereal on the floor. Pembleton, usually the most stoic of detectives, expresses so much in three simple words: “I hate this.”

During the era of the new Golden Age, the viewer has gotten used to the deaths of characters in a way they truly weren’t when Homicide premiered. But the frequency of these passings has led to a certain becoming numb to the over feeling when it happens. Your reaction to a death has the nature of Kurt Vonnegut: There was a slaughter at a wedding in Westeros. So it goes. It happens so constantly in the course of the series that it is rare when even the dead characters friends and family have to deal with it, the mourning period is practically perfunctory. During series like 24 we didn’t even have time to take a breath. The sole exception to this was, of course, Six Feet Under but even then the series hedged its best by making the passage of souls a business as well by making the opening death of the series more a subject of surprise and humor than grief.

To be clear the detectives on Homicide regarded the murders they solved just as much a job as the Fisher’s did preparing the bodies of the deceased. There were bad jokes over the bodies, often little sympathy for their character and sometimes if their murder deserved to be solved. This didn’t make them inhuman, of course: a lot of the murders and deaths would frequently to get to many of the detectives, particularly Bayliss and Pembleton, but occasionally the rest of the squad. What Homicide did differently than any other police drama I’ve seen before — and almost no other show has done since — is demonstrate how violent a violent loss of life can be for those who are left behind. The series didn’t dwell on it that often — Homicide was already a dark show; if they’d dwelled this frequently in the darkness it would’ve been almost unwatchable — but once or twice a season they would look deeply into the true consequences of murder not just from the prospect of solving the crime but from the wreckage it left behind.

To look at three perspectives, I will examine three particular episodes one each from Season 3, Season 4 and Season 5 of the series respectively. They are among the highest regarded episode of Homicide by the fans as well the critics. In a poll that Court TV did of the fans when they were running the show in the syndication of the fifteen greatest episodes, the first two I will discuss were on that list.

‘Every Mother’s Son’ is a seminal and haunting episode. Bayliss and Pembleton are called to investigate the shooting of a thirteen-year old boy, Darryl Nawls. Darryl doesn’t run with the gangs but was nevertheless shot by another boy in a bowling alley. The witnesses recognize the killer, Ronnie Sayers.

The detectives visit the Nawls’ family, which are a mother and a young child. She is unbelieving when she hears the news. The police quickly apprehend Ronnie after searching his home and scaring his family, another woman and a child of approximately the same age as the Nawls’ child. Ronnie (memorably portrayed by Sean Nelson) is astonished not by the police but by the person he killed — he shot Darryl by mistake. His behavior in the interrogation room is absolutely terrifying: he confesses to get his mother out of the room to protect him, and doesn’t believe he should be prosecuted because the murder was a mistake.

Ronnie is all of fourteen. Both he and the victim are African-American, but sadly, that’s hardly news for the series. Both women are escorting to the ‘aquarium’ where everybody waits to be called on. The episodes centers on a seven-minute conversation between the two, neither knowing yet what the relationship they have to the other is. It is agonizing because it’s very clear all the things they have in common. Neither has a husband or a man in the picture. Both know the agony of raising a child in this world — Sayers’ mother mentions almost casually that she’s been to the funerals of three of Ronnie’s classmates this year. Their son both like comic books, and they scorn the absence of real heroes in Baltimore. The viewers knows all too well what’s coming, but that doesn’t make the moment when Pembleton leads Ronnie into booking and the true revelation of what’s happened any less anguishing. Because we know that both women are essentially the same — they’ve both lost their sons.

Even more agonizing is the denouement of the episode where Mrs. Sayers visited Mrs. Nawls. The awkwardness is horrible. Then they both notice their younger children happily playing together. Mrs. Sayers haltingly raising the possibility of that happening again. Mrs. Nawls is blunt about it: “What happens when they find out what happened to their brothers?” There is no joy in this Baltimore; nothing but ashes remain. It is in this episode that Andre Braugher, who delivered so much of the best dialogue for the series, says the line that could stand as the statement for Homicide and every single procedural. “One time, I want to see one murder that makes sense. One time, for any reason.” He knows when he says it that it never will.

‘A Doll’s Eyes’ in Season 4 is a different kind of murder. The victim is another child, this time ten-year old Sean Garrabrek. He’s in the mall with his parents, when a bunch of kids chasing each other shooting run by. Sean looks at his parents, and then falls to the ground.

Pembleton and Bayliss are called to the crime scene, even though the victim is still alive. The episodes divides its span between the detectives and the Garrabreks (Gary Barasaba and Marcia Gay Harden, the latter on the way to becoming one of the greatest character actresses of all time). The parents soon receive the news that their son has ‘doll’s eyes’ — the lingo for no brain stem activity. The only thing keeping him alive are the machines.

Bayliss and Pembleton throw themselves as hard as they can into the investigation — it’s what they call a dunker, the shooter is very quickly caught — but can’t avoid the pain of the victim’s parents deciding whether to kill their son or let him live as a vegetable for possibly the rest of his life. Never having equilibrium as partner, the detectives find themselves sparring more than usual as they find themselves hung up over anguish.

Eventually, the parents make the hard decision to take their son life support. The mother says the hardest words of her life: “I’ve loved you the ten years, three months and fourteen days of your life.” Then the machine is turned off and their son is taken away to have his organs retrieved.

The kicker of the episode — which demonstrates a different kind of pain — comes after Bayliss and Pembleton are leaving the squad. A man comes in, asking if they caught the murder of Sean Garrabrek. The baffled detectives say yes. In a tone of near joy, he says his son’s life was saved due to the boy’s heart. He finishes with a message of gratitude. The detectives don’t even try to answer; they just go out on the street for the next murder.

In ‘Heart of a Saturday Night’, the episode takes a look at a grief counseling sessions involving the recently bereaved — indeed, as we find out all the members lost their loved ones on the same Saturday night. Jude Silvio’s wife was murdered in a carjacking and the baby was still his seat when the car was taken. Carolyn Widmer’s husband was murdered in a barroom brawl (ironically The Waterfront, the bar three of the detectives own together). The Rath’s daughter is found dead strangled in an alley.

In a series of flashes done in the bleached out colors the series did so well, we see the spouses and parents of murder victims in various stages of grief. And as we see, its not the same for any of them. Indeed, all of them seem to be stuck on anger, though who their anger is directed as is completely different for each case. Silvio is angry that the murderer is still out there and the detectives are incompetent for not catching them. The Raths are angry at each other: the father is angry at the mother for treating their daughter so easily growing up; the mother at the father for never being supportive. Widmer (in a brilliant turn by Rosanna Arquette) is angry at her husband — he cheated on her, he treated her badly, and she was going to ask for a divorce almost the day before he died.

At the end of the episode, having endured the rages and the attitudes of the other members Carolyn Widmer finally asks a question to both men: “Can’t you see you’re the same? You (Rath) lost your child but you still have your wife. And (Silvio) lost your wife but you still have a child. There must be some comfort in that.” And for the first time in the episode both men agree: No there isn’t. The loss they have suffered will never go away, never abate.

For the past two years glib opponents of BLM often shout ‘All Lives Matter’ as a ‘snappy’ retort. Homicide makes it very clear that, with few exceptions, no lives matter even among the detectives who have to solve their murders. If they do, it is only as names on a board to be changed from red to black, to be regarded as part of a clearance rate, as something to be packed away when the next dead body comes along. But in a strange sense (and try not to take this the wrong way) Homicide made it clearer than maybe other show at the time that all lives do matter…to the families, to the friends, to the people left behind in the wake. Very few shows ever made it clear what happens when a person violently dies. That is something that needs to be made clear, not just in television but everywhere people walk the earth. In that sense, Homicide achieved that goal.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.