Archive for July, 2012

Episode 88: Sweet Revenge

July 4, 2012

Starsky lies dying in the hospital and Hutch fights to discover who ordered his death, the still-unknown enemy James Gunther.

James Gunther: William Prince, Bates: Alex Courtney, Doctor: Conrad Bachman, Jonathan Wells: Sean Griffin, Nurse: Stefanie Auerbach, Lancaster: Ivan Bonar, Schneider: Lou Felder, Jenny Brown: Beverly Hart. Written By: Steven Nalevansky and Joe Reb Moffly, Directed By: Paul Michael Glaser.


The Hutchinson File: This series finale gives rise to more questions than answers, but it’s a fitting end to a remarkable four years. While the pilot began with Starsky (arriving first, establishing a strong character, dominating our first impressions) it ends with Hutch. Oh boy does it ever. David Soul gives an incredible, highly-charged performance as a man torn between action and paralyzing grief. There isn’t a second in the entire episode in which he isn’t fully committed, and there is no one who is scarier in the throes of rage. The template of the story, in which one is injured and the other seeks retribution, has been employed several times as a complex but easily palatable (and handy) metaphor for the partnership’s durability and invincibility. It allows both men to show the depth of love and care for one another in a way that is intense, tangible, and societally sanctioned. Yet because this episode is the last in the series, there is no certainty of success when a life hangs in the balance. Death is actually breathing down their necks in this one, a foul presence as real as any character onscreen. This time you’re just not sure Starsky is going to make it.

This episode is extremely well made on every level. You can see how much care and love has gone into making this a farewell worthy of the series as a whole, and its perfection can make it difficult to explicate in any meaningful way. Much space will be wasted pointing out this wonderful moment and that one, but this is such a beautiful last episode and so germane to the story arc as a whole in terms of theme and emotional tenor that there is very little to add in terms of critical analysis. It is, I might venture, the only fully conscious episode in the canon.

Here, the events, and the resolution, are fairly straightforward. Clues are found, a call is made, lines are drawn between suspect and victim. But that is not the real story now, or at least it’s not the one that holds the greater meaning. What is in the process of happening is like a chrysalis, hidden from view but miraculous all the same: nothing less, I think, than a transformation, the maturity, the final stage of a relationship. Throughout the series Hutch has been contentious and difficult, a man with equal parts of darkness and light. While there isn’t a doubt of his affection for Starsky, he has recently betrayed him with Kira (“Starsky vs. Hutch”), and has often been berating, condescending or sarcastic, leaving some to wonder why Starsky is so loyal to him in return; we fear the darkness is encroaching on the light. But here he is given a chance to show himself as he truly is, as Starsky has always known him to be: brave, determined, loving and principled.

The title of this episode is unusual. Throughout the series titles have either been descriptive (“Satan’s Witches”, “Murder at Sea”) or nonsensical (“Quadromania”, “Ninety Pounds of Trouble”). Occasionally they give us a contextual hint (“Deckwatch”, “Manchild on the Streets”) or underline a political point (“Velvet Jungle”). But rarely, if ever, does a title tell us how to make up our minds about a contentious point. For instance, “Pariah” is a title that tells us what we already know: Starsky feels like one. But in this case we are talking about a concept the series has tried very sincerely to define: that is, the concept of vengeance and how it adds to or detracts from justice. This episode is not entitled “Revenge”. The use of the adjective “sweet” could be ironic or it could be sincere, it could be political and it could be in direct opposition to the long-running theme of mercy and justice. I believe it may be a bit of all these things – it is there and we have to pay attention to it. Throughout the series it has been stated very clearly that neither Starsky nor Hutch are vengeful. They never act for selfish reasons, even if those reasons are “good”. Time and time again, starting from the pilot movie, we see them consciously reject any notion of personal retribution. True justice, they believe, is the good of the community, despite personal injury. It is a direct disavowal of an eye for an eye-style punitiveness, despite everyone around them howling for reprisal. But also there’s another layer here. The word sweet is whispered in Hutch’s ear throughout, the implication that nothing less than making Gunther suffer as Starsky is suffering, and that Hutch is suffering, will do. How many of us, in Hutch’s shoes, could resist this siren call?

Filming notes: all the stops were pulled out for this episode: real hospital equipment was hired, which helps the hospital and its doctors and nurses look entirely authentic. A very unusual three cameras were used for filming the tag, and Glaser spent a month editing the episode instead of the usual two weeks. Reportedly, Glaser and Soul also wrote much of the episode (uncredited as always). This is the fifth episode directed by Glaser, and his metaphoric, highly stylized approach beautifully highlights the strong bond between Starsky and Hutch. The use of visual tropes is extraordinary and one of the best is the marvelous shot of Hutch in the elevator, replaying his last conversation with Starsky in his mind, with a sign next to him reading “Maximum Load”. It’s a perfect summation of his extreme, crushing burden and I love that Glaser is using something we have all seen a thousand times, only now it is new and meaningful. Soul hung around for the shooting even when he wasn’t required, as they always did for each other when the other directed. Glaser apparently was suffering a bad cold throughout much of the shooting and could only whisper off-camera.

The first scene, a murky boardroom lit only by dim lamps and the glare from a slide projector, is a wonderful encapsulation of what this series has always maintained as the epitome of evil. Disembodied voices droning on about corporate acquisitions, the throwing around of British titles and incomprehensibly profitable shipping agreements, the muted self-congratulation, the accumulation of vast wealth for its own sake, all this is presented as far worse than any young punks stealing cars or robbing convenience stores.

Wonderfully creepy, too, is the acrid, palpable fear of James Gunther shared by all in the room.

We first see Gunther as a disembodied hand clutching a gold necklace. Later, Bates has this same necklace in a death grip. This is obviously an important object, but what is its significance?

Mr. Schneider comments that with “minimal cooperation from Wall Street,” Gunther will do well. Does he mean cooperation in terms of crooked trading and bribes? Or cooperation is terms of being pleased with the way it naturally plays out, as the way the weather “cooperates” for a picnic? In other words, does Gunther control much of Wall Street or not?

The renovations going on at the police station indicate dismantling, reordering: the furniture is in death-like shrouds and the cheery plastic piggy bank the only familiar object left, still in its position of honor between the desks. We are reminded once again that the end is here.

There are many, many significant elegiac details in this episode illustrating Starsky and Hutch’s partnership. Surprisingly, one of these is ping-pong. It really does work as a metaphor: for instance, this is a game entirely dependent on a certain delicate give-and-take. For the game to work, both players must be similarly adept, since merely smashing the ball to an unresponsive partner is no fun at all. Look how perfectly matched Starsky and Hutch are, as their rounds go for a long time without either conceding a point, and 20 to 19 is incredibly close. Hutch somehow finds a ping-pong ball and bounces it impotently as he checks on Starsky’s condition; without a partner, the game cannot be played. There is also an ad hoc quality to ping-pong: it can be played anywhere there is a flat surface, hence the spontaneous game on the desks. You could say the same for this friendship, springing fully-formed from two people of disparate backgrounds and interests. The speed and precision is hypnotic. And the longer it continues without a break, the better it is. Later, the paddles foreshadow the defibrillator pads. Starsky slaps his against Dobey’s lower side as he is leaving, Hutch slaps his against Dobey’s upper chest, both are roughly in position doctor uses them later on Starsky.

There is very little Torino in the final quartet of shows, so it’s nice to see it again here, however briefly.

It’s a mark of Starsky’s strength that the only thing that can bring him down is a machine gun.

The timing of the shooting seems so much more cruel because it happens while the guys are happily joking about plans for Starsky’s victory dinner (Hutch wants to do it “at five a.m.”)

If the aim is to assassinate both of them, then why start shooting when Hutch is standing behind the car? Seems to me they could have taken aim when they first leave the building, walking together.

This episode is meticulously composed, with a half-hidden soundtrack. It’s in the rhythm of Starsky’s heart monitor, the sound of the clock in Gunther’s office, the bounce of the ping-pong ball, the click of the spoon against the cup with Bate’s poisoned coffee, the whooshing of the ventilator, and the sound of Huggy’s footsteps in the hallway.

It’s heartbreaking when Huggy tries to sound optimistic about Starsky’s chances and Hutch says “he’s dying.” In “A Coffin for Starsky” Hutch was the one exploding when Dobey expressed similar pessimism, shouting “It doesn’t matter if we have two minutes, we don’t give up.” But here he’s repeating what he’s been told by doctors, trying to get used to it, make himself immune. He can’t even risk a shred of hope. He can’t afford it, he’ll break into a million pieces. Only rage can motivate him. He’s not even speaking to anyone in particular when he starts talking. “The body can only withstand …” So much is the end of that sentence, but he can’t say it. His voice trails off. For Hutch to be bereft of language is, to me, a sign of his own disintegration, his own form of death.

This is the longest period of quiet in the entire series, which is risky, ambitious, and unremittingly intense. Hutch enters Starsky’s room and is completely lost. He stares at nothing while the room shifts in and out of focus, bathed in a remarkable light that can only be called ethereal. Time passes. He then wanders back into the hall and stands as if he can’t remember what he’s doing there, or where he should be going. He’s broken.

The silence is ended spectacularly with a lot of shouting, furniture-moving, and police radios.

Hutch tells Dobey, “I already got a partner, I don’t need another one.” Hutch isn’t implying if Starsky dies he’s through as a police officer, he’s saying they will never be separated by death. It could be a glimpse into his desperate hope, or there could be a kind of supernatural interpretation, that there is no such thing as death in a relationship as immortal as this one. It could be both, or neither. It could be that this is one of Hutch’s conflicting signals, one moment telling himself and others Starsky is going to die and then in the next refusing to believe in that very possibility.

In “Pariah”, Hutch gently teases Starsky about the car running better if you start it. Huggy does the same thing to Hutch, “Your keys, you can’t drive a car without keys,” after Hutch goes down to find Dobey’s car in the garage.

Later in the elevator he says to Huggy (who has never looked better in a startling rust-colored suede jumpsuit and scarf), “Starsky’s going to die, Hug. Starsky’s going to die and there ain’t nothing anyone can do about it.” He then goes on to say, “At least from their end there isn’t. I’m still here. I’m still alive. They haven’t got me yet. And until then there damn well better be something I can do.” This is an interesting speech in many ways. Hutch is saying a lot of contradictory things, and in there somewhere is a merging of his life with Starsky’s, an acknowledgement that they got one half but not the other, and that “doing something about it” doesn’t necessarily mean saving Starsky’s life, but making the end of that life lead to something good or just.

As an aside, Soul is often filmed in profile during these wrenching scenes. Of course we can see his profile is noble in the extreme. But a deeper reason for this might be he’s often looking off into another realm while speaking rather than addressing the person. He never once looks at Dobey in the previous scenes, and he doesn’t look at Huggy in the elevator either. When he finally does, as the doors close, it’s with shocking warmth and immediacy.

Dobey complains that letting Hutch investigate the case would be “like shooting fish in a barrel”. But here is Hutch, left to walk alone in an ominously dark underground parking lot with no police escort.

Hutch is holding two people who take a bullet meant for him. The first is Billy Harknes in “The Bait” and the second is the guy in parking lot who attacked him with knife. He’s incredibly lucky both times, as bullets can easily blast through more than one body.

This is another instance of Hutch walking in his distinctive forward-tilting way while in total silence (here, and in “Bloodbath”, also directed by Glaser).

The acoustics of the parking garage are employed well, Hutch’s shouting making dramatic echoes, and later the cannon boom of his gun continuing to roar for some time as a kind of evil background music.

Why would Jenny Brown be that Jenny Brown? It’s a common name but Hutch takes Huggy’s word for it and races off, despite how weird it seems that a successful model would get involved in a hit on a police officer. Her participation is a regrettable complication, and unnecessary, in my opinion. Did the writers think it wasn’t a true Starsky and Hutch episode without a pretty girl somewhere in it?

The intensive care nurse who preps the defibrillator has red fingernails, a professional no-no. This is the only detail that doesn’t quite ring true in an episode in which the nurses – mainly tired-looking, older women in cardigans – actually seem like the real deal.

Again we discern the details making this episode so magical: the doctor seems ready to stop and declare time of death when something makes him try once more.

Huggy is the only one with an appetite when Starsky is critically ill. Is it because he is the one that has the most optimism Starsky will be all right? Maybe this speaks to some small but crucial missing element in his relationship with the both of them. Another interpretation could be that a skinny man anxiously eating and a  fat man refusing food is the epitome of the kind of private anguish that turns the world upside down.

Why is Jenny Brown bailed out of jail, but the guy Hutch caught in garage knifed to death? Why didn’t they kill her as well?

Gunther’s lawyer Jonathan Wells, who probably isn’t afraid of much, is nevertheless so unnerved by Hutch’s murderous stare that he does what he says, tells his secretary to hold his calls. Hutch thanks Wells for clearing up “my confusion about prostitutes. Now I know that the high-priced ones can also wear three-piece suits.” Wells pretends not to be affected but you just know it’s going to bother him for years. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of a single instance in the four-year run of the series in which a lawyer has proved to be truly honorable. This adversarial relationship might be understandable given the defendant-vs-prosecutor legal system, with Starsky and Hutch being on the prosecution side, but the fact that I cannot come up with a single instance is troubling.

Hutch not only gets Huggy to pay for the call but gets him to read out Bates’ number even though it’s right in front of him. It’s the sort of behavior he’d usually inflict on Starsky.

Throughout the entire show Huggy is seen as confidante, helper, assistant and all-around friend. He’s the one who swipes the receptionist’s call sheet at the law firm that leads Hutch to Gunther, and, in the previous “Targets Without a Badge”, also stole the stationery with the incriminating letterhead (a talent for theft comes in handy). Hutch is thankful for his help but Dobey is unmoved. He just grunts when offered food and ignores him for the most part. The series ends with this relationship stuck where it was at the beginning: with antipathy on Dobey’s part, and confusion on Huggy’s.

Hutch’s joy with the computer print out is really something. You can imagine how good it feels to finally piece together all the shards of this painful case, down to Clayburn’s role in it, and it’s touching that Hutch feels urgently compelled to share this with his partner even though he knows he is unconscious and unresponsive. This is another interesting example of the growing usefulness of computer data bases in law enforcement, still in its infancy here. We see Hutch has been particularly interested since the earlier episode “Huggy Can’t Go Home”, and it makes sense, given his rather analytical nature.

Gunther gives a long soliloquy about the futility of seeking control over an uncontrollable world when there’s a “fly in our ointment”, a speech that goes right over Bates’ head. “I don’t follow,” he says, working on papers right next to the ironically-placed Rodin statuette, “The Thinker”. Gunther goes over to Bates and rests his arm and hand there – presumably meaning he is a thinking man, or at the very least thinking of something important – as Bates says sincerely but cluelessly, “I’m sorry.”

Gunther says to Bates, but almost more to himself, “I wish I had seen him sooner.” The him being the fly, who has a name. Gunther is blaming Bates for the breakdown of the west coast operations; presumably Bates has been responsible for hiring the shooters as well as Jenny Brown as intermediary. What he is about to do, in his mind, is not so much murder as it is a kind of downsizing. “Ah, providence, once again,” he says as Thomas comes in with the poisoned coffee, not only abstracting what he is about to do but distancing himself from it. This is an impersonal act of God, like a thunderbolt or fallen tree or the shifting of a number from one column to another.

Bates thinks there is always a choice in life, Gunther thinks the universe is immutable. This argument over free will vs fatalism has been going on a long time and here it’s perfectly stated. Gunther’s belief in the doctrine that all events are subject to fate and happen by unavoidable necessity – including his own murderous act – is a peculiar kind of psychosis, in my opinion, a kind of magical thinking which absolves the individual of all responsibility.

There’s an interesting echo of this issue of chance and culpability in the beginning of the episode when Huggy says “there’s always a chance (Starsky will live)” and Dobey agrees, but Hutch refuses to believe it. Occasionally I wonder if his statement that there’s nothing anyone can do to save Starsky is another case of lacerating self-loathing. This was all too good to be true. I was never worthy of this. It was always going to end badly. This is what happens when you trust somebody.

Bates should have been more suspicious when Gunther offers to pour the coffee, since it’s so out of character. But does he kill Bates simply because he hired inadequate people to do nasty jobs, or does he dislike Bates’ optimism, his lack of introspection? Perhaps Bates is killed as an example to the rest of them. Fail me, and this is what happens. Sometimes I wonder if Gunther is acting like a deranged parent who kills their own children to protect them from the imagined indignity of failure. One thinks of the horrifying story of Magda Goebbels killing her six children when it became clear the Nazi empire had fallen. There is certainly a Nazi element to James Gunther: his global reach, rigid rules, the climate of paralytic fear of his reign, the Darth-Vader-like grip he has on his upper echelons, the preoccupation with aristocracy, the bunker mentality, the cold-blooded cruelty.

Gunther’s rationalization for killing becomes even murkier when he observes Bates “would have gotten along fine” with his father. Gunther’s list of his father’s attributes (“Nothing can’t be fixed; just put your mind to it”) is admiring, yet he seems to dislike these features in Bates. Perhaps he is thinking the old-school man, like his father and now Bates, are antediluvian creatures incapable of living in this heartless, preordained modern world.

When Thomas the servant says, “he’s arrived, sir” Gunther nods and says “good, show him in”. There’s something in the way he speaks that seems to indicate he’s known all along Hutch was on his way to force a showdown, and that he, Gunther, would most likely be the loser.

Compare the two characters of C.J. Woodfield and James Gunther upon the time of their arrest (“Captain Dobey, You’re Dead”). Both have ostentatious wood-paneled offices. Both react calmly to the announcement of the lackey that “they’re here” and are elaborately polite when hearing the information. Both take a revolver in their hands as if contemplating suicide or shooting their way out of trouble. And finally, following the arrest, the Miranda Rights are given to both men as a kind of triumph of the democratic system.

Imagine what Hutch is thinking when he comes into the room and sees Bates dead in the chair holding a bloody coffee cup, and Gunther talking about him as if he’s alive.

“You gonna kill me?” Hutch says quietly, eyes blazing. “Try it.” It’s not bravado, it’s a dare. Hutch can’t be stopped at this point. He’s on an adrenaline-pumping half-crazy high, and it makes him both calm and brutally sure. It’s a long trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco and he’s been boiling the entire way. Imagine him on that airplane. Imagine the poor guy sitting next to him trying to make conversation.

Hutch believes he is beyond harm at this point, even though Gunther is armed, as are the ten or so goons you know are just outside his door. This is reminiscent of the earlier scene in the elevator when he says to Huggy that they may have killed Starsky but they will never kill him. It reminds me of many ways throughout the series in which Hutch says he is the brain of the partnership while Starsky is the “not too inconsiderable” brawn. We can see this duality in many ways, not only through Hutch’s teasing but through Starsky’s various aches and pains, his toothaches and hunger pangs, his often-remarked-upon hedonism, his general demeanor of either sleepiness or grouchiness or comical good moods, his full-frontal approach to problem solving (vividly illustrated in the funny locked-in-an-airtight-room scene in “Omaha Tiger”). Of the two, Starsky is seen as physical, or corporeal, while Hutch keeps himself aloof and more cerebral through deliberate acts of withholding such as fasting, strict routine, preoccupation with arts and culture, and most potently through a kind of self-imposed isolation, a wall of sarcasm and disdain. Knowing this as we do, Hutch’s dare to Gunther is imbued with a transcendent, almost spiritual power. He is saying, in effect, you can kill the body but you can never kill the mind.

Whether or not this is true, or if Hutch thinks it’s true, is debatable. At that moment it is psychic armor, a tool for surviving the most difficult few moments of his life.

The arrest of Gunther is quiet and matter-of-fact, more sad than triumphant. It doesn’t really matter to Hutch whether he cracks this case or not. The damage has already been done and arresting Gunther is a come-down, a sweeping of junk into the garbage can. The moment Hutch gets Gunther in handcuffs he loses all interest in him. So what, then, is sweet revenge? It can only be the restoration of the partnership itself despite all attempts to put it asunder.

The tag is absolutely wonderful, and a fitting cap to the series. Filming notes: The one significant difference between the filmed episode and the original script is that in the script Starsky is up and around on crutches. During the first run-through of this scene, the champagne bottle Fargas stuffed into his pants exploded, soaking him completely, much to everyone’s amusement. By the time the scene was actually shot, the foursome (and the crew) were just about as drunk as they were playing. Even without this information we can see the mixed joy and poignancy in their faces, the acknowledgement of something wonderful come to an end, with no one knowing what the future will bring. Apparently the water kept spraying the scene even after they cut, and a drunken food fight with the crew spontaneously broke out. They finally changed clothes and had an impromptu party. Glaser kept the bullet-holed jacket, and both he and Soul kept the champagne glasses they toast each other with in the tag.

Is the feast that Hutch, Dobey and Huggy bring Starsky meant to fulfill the ping-pong bet, or is Starsky going to make Hutch take him out again?

Hutch is already very drunk when he comes into Starsky’s room with the stuffed veal under a silver dome. He’s had to bribe an orderly, and makes a joke about “turning him into a bottle of beer” slurring the line until they both start giggling like maniacs. I’m guessing the previous scene went something like this: visiting hours are over but the three visitors don’t want to leave, they’re having too good a time. There’s champagne involved, smuggled in to toast Starsky’s miraculous recovery. Quite a lot of champagne and mostly consumed by Hutch, who been through so much fear, grief, elation, rage, and exhaustion he now just wants to get drunk. Hutch brings up the ping-pong bet and says he could make good on it now. “Now?” Starsky will say dubiously. “Now!” Hutch says, and then commands Dobey to bring the appetizers, and Huggy to bring more booze and “maybe something to make it look more festive in here.” Huggy’s solution is the ridiculous and possibly life-threatening lamp. He himself will provide the main course. “At one o’clock in the morning?” Starsky says, but Hutch has made up his mind and nothing will dissuade him. Starsky takes four painkillers and lies back to wait. And … action.

Good thing there wasn’t an oxygen tank in the room when Huggy strikes a match. Would have been a whole lot worse than water coming down.

And Starsky and Hutch are reunited, “undercover” detectives, and all is right with the world.