Character Studies 30: Divisible and Indivisible

I have made the point many times that Starsky and Hutch are essentially the same person despite their many and celebrated differences. Those differences, blond and dark, brain and brawn, aesthete and hedonist, are simply exceptions proving the argument. Differences disguise unity, and both Starsky and Hutch employ those differences to their advantage as police officers throughout the run of the series. A beautiful example of this is in “Hutchinson for Murder One”, in which Starsky seemingly plays along with institutional regulations while hatching a truly transgressive plot against that very institution. Similarly, they pick a public fight in “The Committee” as a way of secretly working together, and do the good cop bad cop thing fairly often. This playing up differences is also an useful internal structure, allowing one partner to take umbrage (usually over something trivial) as a way of healing or regrouping in a safe and practical way. Thus, Hutch goes on a tirade aimed at Starsky in “Lady Blue” and Starsky does the same to his partner in “Coffin”, each peacefully allowing themselves to stand in the way of the storm. The ultimate expression of this is in the horrifying aftermath of Gillian’s murder in which Starsky allows Hutch to physically and emotionally brutalize him as a way of quickly moving through the stages of grief so justice can be sought and won.

When this mechanism does break down, it breaks for a very specific and fascinating reason. It is when one of the partners has gone through a prolonged undercover operation alone. When they are undercover as a pair the episode is often light-hearted, verging on goofy, with Hack and Zack or versions thereof romping through the scenery. There are also other times in which one is undercover but the other shadows the action closely, allowing both men to regularly meet and re-establish their partnership (“Quadromania”, “Class in Crime”, etc). Somewhat off-topic but still similar is the uneasy separation in “The Game”, when Hutch allows his undercover self to resist Starsky’s urgent attempts to recall him. Here, they come back together in a most intense and unusual way by figuratively getting into each other’s heads during a meditation exercise, a “game” every bit as conjoining as the previous one was divisive. But when circumstances dictate that one should go and the other stay, bad things begin to happen. The huge personal cost of undercover work is one of the most realistic aspects of the series, as many police departments report drug and alcohol abuse, divorce and depression as common hazards. A good undercover detective has to undergo a dissolution of self to integrate convincingly. They must isolate themselves from all that is familiar, and become a new person, and this dissolution and isolation has a profound and ugly impact on both Starsky and Hutch. I believe separation from each other is an unnatural state for them both. The closeness of the partnership is not a crutch or a convenience. It doesn’t feel stifling or stunting, like identical twins with their own secret language, who, once separated, are crippled by insecurities. It has nothing to do with dependence at all, and it’s not a matter of utility. It doesn’t even have to do with compatibility or expediency. It is nothing less than lifesaving, and life-giving, and without it they both begin to falter and fail.

Every solo undercover operation – or any action one takes which is in direct opposition to the work routine of the other – the partnership suffers. Sometimes it’s really nothing, as in “Running” in which Hutch tentatively questions Starsky’s involvement with Sharman but overall supports him, or in “Survival” when the two light-heartedly bicker over who gets to be the flamboyant buyer of illegal goods. Besides, who wants to watch two people get along perfectly all the time? Arguments, missed opportunities, misunderstandings and somewhat male-specific silences are what make a partnership interesting as well as dynamic. But the longer the separation goes the worse the fallout, the deeper the cracks. Starsky is isolated from Hutch when he is involved in a civilian shooting in “Blindfold”, in “Rosey Malone” he is working alone for perhaps a week or ten days, and in both instances the two erupt in a violent argument over Starsky’s role as a police officer. The same thing will happen when Hutch is involved in a prolonged undercover operation in “Ballad for a Blue Lady”, and there is a resulting fight for very similar reasons. In “Starsky vs. Hutch”, although both are involved in the case they work separate aspects of it to the point of not conferring at all, leading to an extremely painful moment in which they briefly but genuinely despise one another, or more precisely, the person they both believe the other has become.

In all incidents both Starsky and Hutch make the mistake of alienating themselves from the partnership by including the other, however obliquely, in a bitter criticism of the undercover operation. They blame the job for turning them into “hypocrites,” as Starsky says in “Rosey”. They view the other as the enemy, a personification of the dehumanizing bureaucracy that has brought them so much pain. Starsky lashes out at Hutch for wanting to bring him to the station to discuss the case in “Rosey”, and Hutch likewise views Starsky with blood-curdling contempt in “Starsky vs. Hutch” for exactly the same thing. In “Ballad” Hutch snaps at Starsky to get off his case when Starsky tries to get him to bring in Marianne. Starsky says to Hutch: “You’re a cop.” He means this to be comforting, a re-establishing of authenticity – but Hutch takes it as a slap in the face, (mis)interpreting the word as a crushing responsibility rather than a safe haven. It’s interesting to see in “Ninety Pounds of Trouble” Hutch, undercover as a hit man, coolly “kills” Starsky, whom he calls the cop, to prove his authenticity. This could serve as a metaphorical murder, the act of someone who is walking away from his old identity – and if Hutch was in the role for much longer it might have taken on a greater and possibly tragic significance.

“Cop” is not always a negative: in “The Plague”, when Hutch tells Starsky he is a bad liar except when undercover, Starsky understands this as both a compliment and absolution, because at this moment the partnership is strong and intact, they are united in one aim and he is thinking rationally. But separation from one another erodes rationality. The chilling solitude becomes masochistic, an act of self-harm. It’s similar to the way an adolescent will alienate himself from family, believing no one understands his pain. He thinks the things he once loved or caused him to feel safe are not real. When Starsky and Hutch fight it has a similar feel of immaturity, a regression into brute emotionalism rather than intelligence, and it serves as a glimpse into what might happen if that separation was permanent. I believe there is an oft-hidden but palpable bitterness underlying the personality of both Starsky and Hutch, partly due to the misery both witness daily as police officers but partly, I think, due to the memory of loneliness, the sense of incompleteness, both felt before meeting one another, and the ever-present fear that the partnership might end, one way or another. The solitude of an undercover operation must feel in some ways like a Dickensian peeping into an alternate reality. And it is not a happy one.

Because of script limitations we never see the partners reunite or cement their bond after these temporary breakdowns, so we have to content ourselves in what the the final episode shows us: the bond is finally and completely indestructible, defeating even death itself.

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22 Responses to “Character Studies 30: Divisible and Indivisible”

  1. Karen Thomas Says:

    Wow! What an amazing analysis. I agree 100% with your insights. No wonder this show was/is so special to me.

  2. Blunderbuss Says:

    Amazing insights, merl. I have never really thought to make these kinds of connections about their undercover work before, but it makes sense. Their sense of identity is really important to both men, and their sense of identity, even more than “I’m a cop,” is “I’m this guy’s best friend.” And when they can’t be this, it hurts them.

    I really like this:

    “I believe separation from each other is an unnatural state for them both. The closeness of the partnership is not a crutch or a convenience. It doesn’t feel stifling or stunting, like identical twins with their own secret language, who, once separated, are crippled by insecurities. It has nothing to do with dependence at all, and it’s not a matter of utility. It doesn’t even have to do with compatibility or expediency. It is nothing less than lifesaving, and life-giving, and without it they both begin to falter and fail.”

    This is a great distinction. They are better, stronger, healthier, and more complete individuals when they are together. Their partnership doesn’t enable a mediocre or unhealthy existence the way codependent relationships do, it allows them to be more ‘real’ — kind of like the velveteen rabbit.

    I wonder though…in light of this, how would they cope with their partner’s death?

    • merltheearl Says:

      Thank you for your kind words, and what a great question. I guess no one really knows, do they, how one would carry on without the other. I suppose it depends on the time and the manner of death. And whether or not life’s journey has changed the partnership irrevocably as logic tells us it must. I always think Starsky might survive something like that marginally better, owing to his sanguine nature. But who knows? It’s hard to even think about it.

  3. Bernie Ranck Says:

    Very well said

  4. Lisa Says:

    Lovely analysis, I agree completely. And yes, this is why the show holds such long lived attraction for me.

  5. Ruth Says:

    Yes, wow, this is perfect and I have never seen (or thought to look) for this pattern before. Most of my impression of undercover operations were always the ones where Starsky and Hutch were in it together. And it’s telling, isn’t it, that they usually go undercover as people who already know each other and are therefore allowed to interact with each other in a familiar way so they don’t need to dissociate from their bond, just kind of twist it around to playact as bad guys or hapless civilians, not as strangers who know and care nothing for each other. An exception would be Tap Dancing, and they do kind of a crap job of acting like strangers there, what with Starsky pinching Hutch’s ass and all 😀

  6. Anna Says:

    Great analysis! I envy your eye for detail and patterns so much. I’d never have noticed something like that. How do you notice these things?

    It IS a shame we don’t get to see them make up after a fight, although it seems like sometimes they don’t even need to. In the Las Vegas Strangler, they have a brief but pretty heated argument that dissolves in a blink without any need for apologies or cooling off, in a situation which might also be related to this post – even though they are together throughout that operation, they are emotionally separated by Jack Mitchell and their different opinions of him.

    • merltheearl Says:

      It’s true, Jack Mitchell divided their attention, as did Starsky’s relationship with Vicky and the myriad of complications throughout the case. It’s a good thing they were strangers in a strange land; I wonder if being far from home helped in this case. I can’t say I’m especially good at details, I miss all sorts of things, but it sure is fun when insight happens in a flash as this one did.

  7. Wallis Says:

    This is an excellent post merl, and what a good observation! Almost everything in this show seems to incorporate the same common denominator: the stabilizing force, on multiple levels, of two human beings’ partnership with each other in harsh life conditions.

    I recently read an article about an interesting study of police officers and PTSD or the lack thereof, which not only relates to the positive effect of Starsky and Hutch’s friendship but also perhaps to the differences between them: http://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2015/01/001.html

    • merltheearl Says:

      Wallis, thank you for your kindness, and what a fascinating article. I always enjoy extracurricular reading. If we were to take this article and apply it to these characters I would imagine Starsky would suffer substantially less than Hutch, even following the events of “Sweet Revenge”. I can easily imagine him waking in a sweat for years to come, sure that he was seconds too late to help.

    • Laura Says:

      Wallis, thank you for sharing that article, it was very interesting. I agree with Merl’s comments about the differences between the partners and who would be more likely to suffer from PTSD. Although we don’t learn much about Hutch’s family during the series, fan fiction picked up subtle clues and seems to unilaterally portray his family as cold and distant, so unlike Hutch who has such great empathy. Perhaps this type of childhood is why he tends to be cynical at times. We learn a bit about Starsky’s family and despite the tragedy of his father’s death and friction with his brother, he seems to have a close relationship with his mother. That foundation, reinforced by his faith in his relationship with Hutch and a strong sense of gratitude seem to see him through difficult situations with more ease than his partner.

  8. Laura Says:

    Merl, what an insightful observation. I’ve often noticed how sweet and bitter they can be to each other, sometimes switching between the two in a matter of seconds. As much as I’ve watched the episodes, though, I’ve never noticed the consistent pattern of just how off kilter they are when separated from each other for any length of time by undercover assignments. It’s fascinating to watch how they change when they immerse themselves in an undercover persona alone. As they pull away from the partnership, they begin to lose themselves, as well, often struggling with what’s right and what’s wrong, something they rarely doubt when they are together. They truly are incomplete without each other.

    Reflecting on it now, I think, too, of how they behave when there is a temporary reunion during a long term separation: they bristle, needling each other, picking fights, intensifying the distress. It’s as though they intentionally create friction, the conflict making the continued separation bearable. If all was well and their partnership was comfortable and stable, it would just be too hard to separate again.

    Of course, there is always a level of discomfort when they work separately, because they know the one undercover alone is so vulnerable. The separation produces anxiety, particularly in the one left behind. It’s like watching a puppy separated from his littermates, but still able to see them. His single-minded obsession is to get back with the group; nothing else matters but reunification.

    I’ve driven through many snowstorms with my family and navigated through some terrible conditions without a great deal of stress. It’s mostly a matter of concentration and activating the skill set honed from years of driving in snow. It can be dangerous, but I don’t find it difficult to remain calm (and carry on). But when one of my family members is out driving alone in the snow and I’m home safe, I’m a wreck. There’s nothing to do but worry. It’s not that I don’t have faith in their driving ability, it’s just I keep wondering if they are okay and I know that I’m not there to help if something does go wrong. I really identify with that helpless feeling of letting someone you care about, and trust, handle a difficult situation without you.

    Certainly Starsky and Hutch are not puppies, nor do we ever see them drive through a literal snowstorm, but they share a tight knit bond that makes separation difficult and the world isn’t right until they are back together again. They are partners and friends, but they are also family. When they are together, they provide each other a safe haven, a place where they can be their true, imperfect selves, and still know they are accepted. They just accept each other’s quirks and shifting emotions, in part because they balance each other so well. For them, home isn’t Starsky’s place or Hutch’s place, it’s anywhere that they are together. Often home for them is the squad room or Starsky’s car.

    I was very relieved that the series ended on a high note, emphasizing their continuing friendship. It’s sobering to contemplate how unbearable it would be for either to go on without the other.

    • Blunderbuss Says:

      What an absolutely beautifully-written and thoughtful addition to Merl’s post, Laura! Your metaphors are really apt, and what a great insight about why they bristle at each other to temporarily guard themselves against the pain of being separated again. Your last two paragraphs put a bit of a lump in my throat.

      • Laura Says:

        Thank you for your kind reply, Blunderbuss. I enjoyed your comparison (in your post above) to the Velveteen Rabbit. Neither partner had to bring the other to life, but one could argue that Hutch brought Starsky back to life in the finale.

  9. Adelaide Says:

    Beautiful and beautiful. You see so many things we never see, yet which make so much sense. I really like your description of how they need each other to be themselves, but they make each other better and stronger, rather than holding each other back or being a crutch.

    I also was intrigued by the reminder that we’ve never seen them talk over and resolve a major conflict onscreen. I think a lot of the lamer tags could have been better off as a postscript scene to discuss and reaffirm. Do you ever think up a list of “episodes you wish existed”? Events or ideas, like meeting their families, or seeing them argue and reconcile onscreen, or explore something else from their past, or see them handle a particular issue, that would have been really fantastic to see in an episode, but never happened? Or is it just me? 😉

    • merltheearl Says:

      Thank you, Adelaide! And that is a very interesting proposal, episodes I wish existed. I am very tempted to compile such a list, although it does threaten to stray into fan fiction territory, something that I try very hard to avoid. I’d love to see episodes that take each one out of Bay City and into the hometown of the other. Forced to negotiate unfamiliar territory, surrounded by nosy relatives, the dramatic possibilities would be endless – as well as the comedic ones. I’d love to see a murder on a military base – hippie cops versus The Brass would be great. Also a prolonged undercover operation that wasn’t a big joke. I wish there were more journalists involved as recurring characters. And some Watergate-like political conspiracy, minus Barons and biplanes, would be terrific too.

      Confirmation and consolidation in the tags would have been the best way to go, but I suppose it’s there if we look hard enough. That small gesture, usually physical, a playful punch to say what was broken has now been repaired; for all its deficits, these can be pretty charming. A great one that springs to mind is the tag of “Rosey Malone” when Hutch swings the merry go round hard, forcing Starsky to hang on for dear life. Nicely metaphorical, that one.

      • Blunderbuss Says:

        Your comment about a Watergate-like conspiracy made me nod vigorously! I have been fascinated by the parallels between the S&H pilot and the film “All the President’s Men” (and I’m sure the real Woodward and Bernstein were inspirations for the creators) and idea is so appropriate. Corrupt and hypocritical authority figures are such a strong recurring theme in the show. I guess we got a little of that in the “Targets” arc, but not exactly. The two big things I’ve always really longed for were more minor recurring characters, and a two-part episode about street gang warfare, because LA has such a fascinating gang culture.

        As for post-show, my unsolicited two cents are that they (especially Hutch) would enjoy a bit of a change, even setting aside whatever effects Starsky’s injuries might have had on their prospects, and I have speculated that maybe they’d either wind up with a reputation as such influential organized crime busters after taking Gunther’s operation apart that they would become leaders of some kind of task force on the mob, or if not that, then maybe a transfer to juvenile hall, where they could try to stop criminals before they are created.

      • Adelaide Says:

        Color me intrigued by all the scenarios mentioned, but especially meeting their families! I always imagine Starsky’s family as big, rough, and demonstrative, and Hutch’s as strict, unimaginative, and kind of snotty. If the writers had written episodes about their families, I have no doubt their families would be written to be as different from each other’s as possible.

      • merltheearl Says:

        Exactly, Wallis. That low bar is not one I would frequent, even if the drinks were free. Goodbye to that particular entry!

  10. Floss Says:

    I am so impressed with your sharp eyes! I would never have noticed this trend, but it makes so much sense.

    One of the things I’m really liking about this blog and the way the posts are written is your way of analyzing. Other people who analyze shows get all caught up in claims that something is 100% unambiguously what is happening in this scene, or limited by only what the writers intended.

    These are all annoying for different reasons and usually don’t accommodate different points of view. Either they are shallow or insist too hard. This is so different. Even when your point of view is really clear, you are always describing trends, or coming up with possibilities, and asking us questions! I love that.

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