Homicide Life on the Street Retrospective: Perfect Partnership, Imperfect Men

Tim Bayliss and Frank Pembleton: Unmatched in Every Respect

There have been never been two detectives like them because there’s never been a show like this. gettyimages.com

While going through several online sites, I found myself looking at an article listing the greatest TV characters of all time, a list that is almost always in flux. I was not surprised (but very happy) to see Frank Pembleton, even more than a quarter of a century, is still on the list. I was overjoyed to see that Tim Bayliss was on that list as well.

In one of my initial blogs for television, I wrote that Kyle Secor’s work as Tim Bayliss was by far the most underrated character portrayal in the history of television. My opinion on that has not fluctuated one iota since I wrote that column. Andre Braugher may have been the engine that drove Homicide for most of its run, but Kyle Secor’s Bayliss was the series’ conscience. Even as he turned from a wide-eyed rookie to an increasingly harden cop over the series, echoing the words that Pembleton himself preached to him as gospel, going from an utter novice to being considered a ‘legend’, you could see that there was still a soul in him, struggling against the ugliness of Baltimore. It was a masterful character study that Secor never got his due for at the time.

If the first go-to image of Homicide is Pembleton in the box, the second must always be of Bayliss and Pembleton in a car together, debating every issue of life, in complete disagreement on everything except the job (and sometimes even on that) One critic once referred to Pembleton and Bayliss as ‘the greatest love story on television’ which is kind of true, but for the length of that story, it always seemed like is one sided (Bayliss) and unrequited. Most cops partnerships are a marriage, but the union of Bayliss and Pembleton was that of a couple who argued about everything. I could give countless examples of this from the show, but it’s best summarized in a scene followed by a perfect juxtaposition.

In a fourth-season episode ‘Stakeout’, the squad is in the process of trying to identify victims of a serial killer. Bayliss has just returned to the squad when Pembleton, in his curt fashion, tells Bayliss to match dental records of missing teens to John Does at the morgue. Bayliss, for reasons I will go into below, balks complaining that Frank never says ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ Frank reacts naturally: “Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.” Bayliss starts to rant about how he doesn’t have to be in this job, that he could leave and pursue other options. Again, Pembleton doesn’t bat an eye, and asks him to do so or go back to the morgue. “In any case, stop wasting my time. All you ever do is keep repeating yourself over and over again.” Immediately, we cut back to the house where Howard and Lewis are using as their stakeout and we hear the husband walk right past them saying to his wife: “You keep repeating yourself over and over again…”

This is a very funny scene, and the reason it resonates so much with the viewer is because it sums up perfect what Bayliss and Pembleton’s relationship has been like to this point in the series and will basically continue to be the rest of the way: Bayliss begging for even the barest modicum of respect and dignity from his partner, Pembleton refusing to give him more than the barest crumb and almost deflecting when he does so. Later in this same episode, Bayliss complains that he’s been in the squad three years and he’s never even been to Frank’s house. Frank immediately says he spends all day and some nights with him, why would he want him in his home? The fact that Frank is essentially married more to his job than his wife is a contradiction that Frank fundamentally doesn’t see. (I will get back to this later on in the article as it is actually critical to understand the relationship between both men.)

Both men fundamentally needed each other, but only Bayliss would be willing to acknowledge it. Pembleton spent most of the series denying it. This couldn’t have been clear in situation when both men either considered — or actually did — quit the force.

In the middle of Season 3, Frank was called in by Deputy Commissioner Harris to investigate the attempted kidnapping of a Congressman. Frank would learn the kidnapping didn’t happened and had been an act by the Congressman to get revenge on a male staffer who’d be having a homosexual affair with. This would have been a problem, except the Congressman had filed a false police report. Under the direction of the Commissioner, Pembleton agreed not to charge the Congressman. The media found out, however. (All of this, for the record, is an accurate portrayal of an incident in Simon’s book.) When Pembleton was called in by Barnfather and Harris, Harris denied that he’d order Frank to do so. After he was suspended and Gee refused to back him, Frank resigned from the force.

In the final scene, Bayliss tries to persuade Frank not to do this, saying that he’s his friend. Frank, naturally, says to him: “You’re not my friend. I don’t have friends.” When Tim says that Frank’s a murder police, he tells Tim: “I’m looking forward to tomorrow when my shifts normally over and I haven’t seen one dead body.”

Of course, Frank’s attempt at being a domestic is an utter failure: he shows up at the Waterfront, which is just a few days away from opening telling Tim he’s burnt the dinner he was cooking for his wife and for a drink. Tim tries to lure him in by discussing his most recent murder, and Frank doesn’t give him the time of day. (After Frank leaves, Tim takes the money for his drink and hangs it over the bar; it remains there until the final episode.) Frank intends to testify about what happened despite the consequences, but at the last moment, he takes the responsibility himself. We’re never entirely sure why he does so (it’s certainly not for the Commissioner who he dresses down at the attempt of an apology in the next scene) but in the next scene, he’s back in Gee’s discussing Bayliss’ case, and with a minimum of groveling, Giardello gives him his gun and badge back (in a sign he knows his best detective, it’s still on his desk.) “Besides,” Giardello says, “Bayliss needs a partner.” He opens his office door, and like a puppy, Bayliss is there.

A year and a half later, Bayliss is considering resigning from the job because he feels a disconnect from everything. “I try not to care,” he says to Howard, “because if I actually do stop caring, I stop being who I am. No job is worth that.”) This scene takes place in ‘Stakeout’ where Pembleton and the Bayliss on the self-same serial killer case. Near the episode Frank is having a discussion with Gee, and Al asks him if Bayliss is considering quitting the force, a rumor that has spread from detective to detective from the start of the episode. Frank doesn’t deny it. “Is he serious?” Gee asked. “Yes,” Frank says simply.

In the last scene before the killer is captured, Pembleton reminds Bayliss that he is considering taking a security job. Bayliss acknowledges as much. Rather than tell Bayliss to stay because he needs him — Frank would never do that — he tells Bayliss he needs to stay in homicide, because it is the highest calling. “We speak for those who can speak for themselves no more,” he said in one of the show’s defining statements. After the killer is caught and the names on the board are being changed from red to black, Pembleton asks almost casually: “Are you still thinking about quitting?” Bayliss paused, looks at the cases under his name, and his eyes meet the one open case. “Not until I close the Lambert case,” he says and walks away. Pembleton waits until Tim has left before the briefest of smiles crosses his face. It’s as close to an acknowledgement that he needs Tim aa much as Tim needs him as he will give until Braugher’s final episode on the series.

But no matter how much they need each other, every partnership has struggles. And in what would be its single most daring storyline, Fontana and his writers would give lie to the idea that personal trauma is the kind of thing that brings partners together.

In the fourth season finale, Pembleton and Bayliss are interrogating a potential suspect in a robbery that resulted in two deaths. Frank is standing over the suspect and his attorney when he grabs his head, begins to seize and collapses over both of them. When the medics arrive, one of them diagnoses Frank with what looks to be a stroke. Everyone goes to the hospital but when Giardello tries to convince Tim to leave the return to the interrogation, Tim refuses. During the last minutes of the episode, Tim sings Frank’s praises, and expresses his fears whether or not he’ll be as good a detective without Frank around.

When the fifth season begins, everyone is waiting for Frank to return. Tim is preparing a special chair for Frank before he and Munch are called out on a case. (Munch is not particularly glad to see Frank back; we will later learn that he called him multiple times but Frank never returned his calls. In a rare display of sheepishness, Pembleton admits he got them but didn’t think Munch would care that much.)

Pembleton walks into the squad with a shuffling step, a slur in his words, and gaps in his memory. He has been assigned to do administrative work until he can qualify on the firing range again, something he resents because he’s ‘always been a lousy shot.” Frank’s tongue may have been cut out but his personality is still the same. He will spend the first half of the season proving as much.

When Bayliss sees Frank, he runs to him and embraces him. In a reaction that perfectly describes their relationship, we see Pembleton recoil at the touch. Tim spends the remainder of that episode and much of the period of his recovery, acting like a nursemaid something Frank openly resents. “Stop clucking over me,” he says when Tim asks for what has to be the hundredth time whether he’s taken his medicine.

It becomes fundamentally clear that Frank wanted to come back to the job, working with Tim was not necessarily high on his list of priorities. And for all of Tim’s desire to see Frank again, when he begins offering advice about investigating certain cases, Tim barely pays it any heed.

After nearly a third of the season has gone by, Frank finally passes his firing exam and is allowed to return to the street. He and Bayliss catch a triple homicide and from the start they are clashing about everything. So far, everything’s business as usual. But when they are interrogating the man both think is guilty of the murders, Bayliss hauls Frank out of the box and says their rhythm is off and that he is genuinely terrified about what happens if his ‘head explodes’. Frank waves it off and the two manage the get the confession they need. But it is a sign of problems to come.

Their difficulties collide in one of the most critical episodes of the series ‘Betrayal’. Finding a child who was beaten to death by the side of the road, Bayliss and Pembleton find themselves involved in the case of the Thomsons, a mother who is so used to being beaten by her boyfriend that she is willing to cover for him even after he’s beats her daughter to death. Going back to the murder of Adena Watson, Bayliss has always had problems with the murders of children, but this was in particular enrages him. He yells at everybody, threatening to lock up a social worker for not doing her job to the DA who will end up giving the killer a reduced sentence. All of this leads to one of the most gut-wrenching moments in TV history when Frank finds Bayliss, heavily drunk and saying: “Every murdered child, every abused child, I understand, because those children are me.” He then reveals that when he was a boy his uncle sexually molested him and when he told his father about it, his father sided with his uncle over his son. (This storyline unfolds so naturally from what we know about Bayliss that it’s actually astonishing that Secor himself suggested it to Fontana.)

This is the kind of moment that in any other show would lead to something that would bring partners closer together. But when Frank tries clumsily to embrace Tim, it’s Bayliss’ turn to recoil. “That’s not why I told you,” he shouts. “I don’t want to be partners with you anymore,” he says as the episode ends. And when Tim says he didn’t mean a lot of what he said that night, he makes it very clear that he was serious about ending their partnership.

To explain how the story resolves, I must now turn to Frank’s marriage. While we saw relatively little of the detectives’ families throughout the series, we were privy to a large extent to Mary Pembleton (Ami Brabson, Andre Braugher’s real life wife). We spent much of the third season learning the two were trying to have a child, Mary was pregnant at the start of Season 4 and gave birth at the end of the season. (It is telling that for much of that season Tim was happier about the impending blessed event than Frank was.) Mary had always been supportive of Frank, and throughout the fifth season continued to demonstrate it, driving him to work every day, dealing with his stubbornness, showing support to Gee. But in Season 5 we could see there will be fault lines. The medication Frank was taking led to impotence and in a very beautiful scene, he went to see his doctor to tell him how badly he wanted to make love to his wife again. Of all the detectives in the squad, Frank alone seemed to be a ‘role model’.

Not coincidentally, the episode after Frank and Tim terminated their partnership, Mary suggesting that the two of them should go into counseling, something Frank dismissed. That same episode, Mary went to see Tim and they actually went into the box. “Being a cop is all Frank’s wanted to be,” she told Tim. “I’m just not sure being a cop’s wife is what I want to be.” Bayliss reached out to Frank about partnering again that episode, and this time Frank rejects it out of hand.

In the ironically titled episode ‘Valentine’s Day’, Frank’s marriage seems to collapse. We see him in a therapy session where he is openly hostile to both the therapist and Mary. In a telling scene, she tells him he did everything to recover so he could get back to his job, not to her. In that episode, Frank agrees to have their daughter baptized but doesn’t show up until its over. That is the last straw for Mary; she moves not only out of the house but with her parents in a different state.

Frank spends the next episode reeling in his low point in the box, he is trying to get a confession from a suspect when Howard walks in telling him that they have evidence of the right person. That night, he invites Tim to dinner and tells him that Mary has left him. That night, he says he doesn’t know who he is anymore: “I was your partner, Mary’s husband, Olivia’s father…” Perhaps Frank knows if he’s to have any chance moving forward he has to mend his relationship with Tim first.

The rebuilding takes a while: they slowly begin partnering again, but Tim spends much of the rest of the season out of the squad visiting his old and now senile uncle. “What do I do with my hate?” he asks him at the end of one episode. And he spends the rest of the season trying to care for him. When Frank finally finds out the truth about what Tim’s doing, he asks if it makes him resolve things. Tellingly, Tim never answers.

In the season finale, dealing with the murder investigation of Beau Felton, Frank finally calls his wife and does everything short of begging her to come back. (We learn almost casually that’s she also six months pregnant with their second child.) Mary returns that night, and Frank leaves an investigation to beg her to come back. “Your home is here,” he tells her. When she admits she could have used the phone to yell at him, the joy in Frank’s face — something we almost never see — is palpable.

It is telling that when the sixth season begins after a shift in robbery, Frank’s priorities have shifted slightly. He still likes working murders, but he thinks more about his family than he ever did before. He actually talks about them, not only with Tim but with other detectives. At this point in his career, he actually seems to have mellowed slightly. He’s willing to work with other detectives with far less conflict than was usually the case before, admit when he has made a mistake, and give praise to other detectives when they’ve done a good job. (Some of them know as much: accepting praise from him, Falsone says: “Coming from you, that really means something.”) He is also more willing to go to bat for Bayliss than he has been in the past: when Tim spends much of the next season experimenting with his sexuality, Frank is not comfortable with it, but when other detectives take shots at him, he goes out of his way to defend him.

All of this comes to the surface in the final episodes of Season Six. Trying to bring down the Mahoney organization after the squad room is shot up, Frank has a clear shot at a dealer, but freezes. Tim jumps in front of him and takes a bullet. “My partner’s down!” he shouts in genuine despair.

At the hospital, Gee pulls him away from Bayliss and he is infuriated, first by the fact the bullet tore through his vest and then Gee forces him back to the squad to find the truth about how Mahoney died. It is for that reason as much as the fact that Gee refuses to let these be written up as murder that Frank hands in his badge that night. “I know that smell,” he says about Bayliss in his hospital bed. “Smells like death.”

Frank says a prayer over Tim’s bed to a God he has spent this entire series saying he barely believes in. The last shot of the episode is of Frank standing over Bayliss’ hospital bed, holding his hand. But he is true to his word and is gone by the next season.

Many — myself included — have critiqued Bayliss character in what would be the final season of Homicide, his Buddhist attitude and his continued exploration of his sexuality irritated many fans who had grown to love this character for seven seasons. But in a way, there’s a good argument that Tim is trying to find his way in a unit that no longer has the man he considered his partner and his friend. Bayliss does many questionable things in the final season, and there’s an excellent chance none of them would have happened with Frank there to serve as his anchor. When he departs the squad in one of the last scenes of the series, it is not just because of his own actions, but because he just can’t work in a world where Frank isn’t there to guide him when he needs him.

As far as the world of procedurals goes, the partnership of Frank Pembleton and Tim Bayliss is the gold standard that to this day, no other police drama has ever been able to surpass and almost certainly never will be. It’s not just that the procedural has almost entirely become plot rather than character driven. It’s because no police drama has ever tried so hard to show two detectives who complement each other perfectly on the job and will never get along anywhere else. Even with the perfect partnership, the writers of Homicide went out of their way to make sure that we knew that the detectives involved were never perfect, as well as that they needed each other desperately and would never acknowledge it even to themselves.

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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.