How The Closer Was a Much Darker Series Than We Ever Thought
Turns Out Lying to Suspects Wasn’t The Worst Thing About Kyra Sedgwick’s Character
Note: The next two pieces are in a sense follow-ups to my most recent piece on Homicide and interrogations.
In writing about the interrogation scenes on Homicide, I wrote that on very few occasions in the entire series did any of the detectives lie to the suspects they were interrogating. This stands as a contrast to The Closer, in which lying to the suspects was basically at the core of Brenda Lee Johnson’s interrogation method.
In a piece I wrote in December of 2020, I stated very broadly that I thought that much of The Closer dealt in what was portrayed mostly as a light-hearted comedy one of the darker portrayals of police in TV in the new millennium. Now, after learning some more about the methods of deception used in interrogation, I realize that if you look at how Brenda Leigh Johnson is portrayed, she seems less like a sweet-natured heroine and more as a cold-blooded sociopath that even Dexter Morgan might consider a monster.
It is not just that she lied to suspects — most of them the kind of deceptions that anyone with a grain of sense could have seen through. I actually think there’s something pathological about who Brenda Johnson was. She was uncomfortable anywhere or with anyone — not even her husbands or her parents — outside an interrogation room. On more than one occasion, she was stave off her parent’s visits and head off to a murder investigation. She delayed vacations and even going on her honeymoon to close cases. Once she brought an accomplice to a murder on a trip to Atlanta in her parents RV so she could get him to confess. Another time she used her troubled niece to come with her to a hospital bed, so she could maneuver a dying suspect to confess his crimes. Her boyfriend and future husband Fritz (Jon Tenney) was frequently frustrated with her, but often only when it interfered with a corresponding FBI investigation. Some might consider this love; I think he was enabling her.
Not to mention she was utterly immune to doing anything to make her bosses life’s easier: she refused to let any of her detectives leave her department even though the budget called for it, she did everything she could to make life difficult for the chain of command or the district attorneys, and she may be the only cop in television history who had to be pushed by a superior in to trying for a promotion when the opportunity was afforded to her. Some might call it loyalty to her people, but honestly Brenda Lee Johnson only seemed to feel any sort of satisfaction when she was putting a murderer behind bars. You never saw her really interested in anything else — saw her really seem alive — other than when she was locking a suspect up.
And in case you’ve forgotten, that was when the justice system worked in her favor. Given Brenda’s way of handling murderers who could find loopholes in the system, I actually preferred the direct bloodthirstiness of Vic Mackey and his Strike Team on The Shield. At least Michael Chiklis’ character was honest when he went into the interrogation room in the Pilot and said to a suspect he was about to severely beat down: “I’m a different kind of cop.” (It may have been the only thing he was ever honest about on the series, in fact.) Brenda, by contrast, would off set up suspects who she couldn’t send to prison to face death on the streets. Throughout the series most critical arc: ‘the Shootin Newton case’, where she left a triple murderer without police protection to be murdered by his gang, she would spend two seasons telling everyone that she had done nothing wrong. Apparently, she was just as good at lying to herself as every other suspect she got to confess.
In a way, a lot of these murders are actually a lot more frightening then all the violence we would see on the far more graphic The Shield. Throughout the series run, Mackey’s behavior would be tolerated, but it was considered despicable by his bosses such as Aceveda and Claudette (CCH Pounder) both of whom made concerted efforts to bring him down, and who tried to the Strike Team’s actions as an aberration. In the Major Crimes Division, the ‘blue wall’ was up for every single action Chief Johnson took, no matter how horrific it might be. While the lawsuit involving the Newton murder was going on, every cop to a man not only stood behind Chief Johnson but refused to give Sharon Rayder (head of the equivalent of IA and therefore a rat) even the benefit of a real interview. (There are contrasts that were clear when Rayder took over the squad in Major Crimes, which I will go through in another article.) If anybody had any doubts about what had happened, they refused to say it on the show.
And it is very clear as to just how The Closer viewed even the slightest deviation from the party line. Throughout the investigation, Rayder was convinced that there was an information leak in the department, something that Brenda refused to accept despite the overwhelming evidence. After the case was resolved, it was revealed that leak was- indirectly — Sgt. Gabriel (Corey Reynolds). Over the past year, he had been dating a woman and in the final season he had proposed. Eventually it was learned that she had been approached by the lawyer for the Newtons and that she had shared pillow talk from Gabriel. Gabriel was shunned by the rest of the squad for the remainder of the series, and eventually left Major Crimes. Just to be clear, for talking about the case with someone he cared about, Gabriel was by association a rat. All the loyalty the squad had built up during seven seasons disappeared in an instant.
Perhaps because of Kyra Sedgwick’s inner charm and ability as an actress, we saw Chief Johnson as fundamentally a force of good on The Closer — a bulwark of justice against the criminals out there. In retrospect, she seems just as much an antihero as all the others that made up so much of Peak TV during that period — as loose with the rule book as Vic Mackey ever was; as much as a ruthless dispenser of ‘justice’ as Dexter Morgan was, and in her own way, as much an addict as Gregory House was. Indeed, that latter example is a lot closer to her than I thought. Both had no use for anything out of the problem they were trying to solve, both thought everybody was lying to them; both utterly disregarded their superior’s advice, and felt no remorse at any time for their approach. Taking that a step further, Brenda would later get her own medical diagnosis which would make eating chocolate — her one real indulgence — impossible for her. She basically ignored it the same way House refused to deal with his Vicodin addiction.
Perhaps it was the fact the Southern drawl and her butter-melting approach that made her seems the force of good. To quote Mike Ehrmantraut when he had to deal with the monstrous Lydia on Breaking Bad: “That’s what (you) get for being sexist.” Because let’s be honest, there’s nothing about her approach to people and criminals that wouldn’t be fitting in any of the antiheroes that were dominating cable around this time. She is as cold and calculating in her approach to human life as so many of the other ‘difficult men’ in TV — the fact that she doesn’t kill them herself the way Tony Soprano does or manipulates them with her words the way Walter White would — doesn’t change that fact.
But Brenda Lee Johnson and The Closer in their own way represent as dark a portrayal of how law enforcement works in a perfect world as The Wire does for how it does in one that is anything but. And since in both worlds, the bosses don’t care how the job gets done as long as the case gets closed, why wouldn’t more viewers choose the one that leaves us feeling better at the end? The Wire was a huge critical hit, but never popular — on its best day, it had a fifth of the average audience of The Closer and the latter series is far more popular in syndication and streaming.
What makes this particularly odd is because when the spin-off — or to be more accurate, the continuation — of The Closer premiered weeks after that series ended, even though its cast and approach were essentially the same, there was a critical difference in how Major Crimes approached policing. I’ll deal with that in a follow-up piece.