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28 February 2016 @ 04:31 pm
Rewatch: S1E04 "Last Act" (May 19, 1992) by Brad Wright  
"Last Act" (S1E04) (LA) is one of FK's best episodes. Excellent writing, directing, acting. Outstanding themes, parallels, genre-entwining. Movement between the daytime human world and the nighttime vampire world. (Some bloopers with scene-to-scene costuming continuity!) On all its levels, "Last Act" is about motivations, and its tenacious grappling with why epitomizes much of what I so love in FK's first season.

As Natalie says of Erica's final play, "I know it was all about death, but I found it very life-affirming." To me, that line speaks meta not only about this episode, not only about first season, but, archetypally, is the foundation and justification of all that FK should be.

Recap: "Last Act" is the episode in which Nick's old friend and lover Erica ("How old?"/"Oh, two, three-hundred years."), a playwright, commits suicide in the sun, and Nick remembers her (and is, perhaps literally, perhaps metaphorically, haunted by her) as he investigates the suicide of a young doctor, Marilyn Siegal, slowly revealed to have been a murder. The procedural story structure offers three suspects: Doctor Cole, coworker; Dean Simmons, patient; Carl Janns, fiance. In the end, Nick and Schanke expose and capture Janns. And it is all — from Erica through Marilyn and the suspects to Nick — about motivations. Who values life, and how?

Not a serial killer

Both "Dark Knight"/"Dark Knight, the Second Chapter" and "For I Have Sinned" involve serial killers. As the series progresses, we'll deal with more and more multiple killings, and those mystery investigations will necessarily focus on what the multiple killings share in common, in a race against the clock.

"Last Act" is more satisfying as a mystery puzzle, I think, in part because the clues are revealed not by further actions by the villain, but by the efforts of the investigators. Natalie discovers that Marilyn was pregnant, and then that Marilyn was on "a pro-choice action committee." Schanke gathers information, reactions and context from Marilyn's home and habits as well as from Marilyn's fiance. Nick ponders deeply, comparing and contrasting experiences and motivations, seeking a match — getting the clues to line up. Eventually, all together, they find the answer. It's exciting to watch, and to play along!

While death is universal, out here in the real world, suspicious deaths are relatively rare, mysterious murders more rare, and multiple murders very rare indeed. (We've all noted that the murder rate in FK's Toronto is at least ~20X that in real Toronto.) "Last Act" calls Nick and Schanke to the site of what is presumed to be a suicide, not a murder. This is believable, so the slow escalation into a full-blown murder case, with the murderer attempting to both cover his trail and take further revenge on his perceived rivals, has that much more tension in the build-up.

Most importantly, making this a single murder by an otherwise sane person gets us those precious motivations. Nothing explains away or excuses this atrocity. It was a choice, a clear choice, by a person with reasons for what he did. Are they valid and sufficient reasons? Of course not! But he thought they were ("She was having his baby!"). And they give us something very human to reflect on. When the murderer in such a mystery plot is openly insane or completely divergent from our standards and values, nothing pushes us to examine ourselves. A monster is a monster; we aren't monsters, we assure ourselves. But because Carl Janns exists within some accepted boundaries — he's a med student on spring break; he lived with Marilyn for two years; the only things exclusively his visible in their apartment are his kendo poster and laptop; she cuckolded him, and for many centuries in many cultures...? — Nick and the audience must grapple with those motivations, choices and consequences.

"Last Act" versus "Last Knight"

I choose "Last Act" over "Last Knight" (S3E22). Life over death, hope over despair, striving over surrender. Selflessness over selfishness. Escape eternity by joining the living, not the dead.

Natalie says, "Suicide is never the answer" and "You don't want to die any more than Marilyn Siegal did."

Nick says, "I still find life exciting; I think I've got more to give." and "No! Not by my own hand."

There is a great deal to be said about Erica's theory, that one must give as much into the world as one takes out of it, and that when one is only a taker and not a giver, one should exit. (When did she develop this theory? Who are the "takers" she has known and disavows? Does she not know that being a recipient of love can also be a way of giving, that life and love are not market transactions?) There is a great deal to be said about Marilyn's attempt to give Dean immortality through a child, and Erica's perhaps thwarted longing for a child, for that lifeline into the future, hopefully endlessly renewed in each generation. (Some of these thoughts come back in "Father Figure" (S1E13) and perhaps even "Fallen Idol" (S3E18).) There is a great deal to be said about Nick's confusion at the coexistence of Erica's ferocious hunger for life and her unsuppressible thoughts of death.

There is, always, a great deal to be said about the fascinating, horrific betrayal of the intersection of "Last Act" and "Last Knight." (By Lacroix's hand, apparently.)

I'm not the one to say it. At least not today. "Last Knight" hurts. More than it first did, actually. Differently than it first did, entirely.

"I could have stopped her," Nick says.

"You're a fool to think so," Janette replies.

And yet. He would have tried. Maybe he should have been given the chance to try. Perhaps if Erica's friends had been there for her, she might have found joy in life again. Perhaps not. What is the duty of friendship, of love, of humanity?

"She had an old soul, didn't she?" the young woman playing Catherine asks.

"Not when I knew her," Nick answers.

Flashback sequence and setting

We've seen various contentions over the years about when precisely the flashbacks are set. After all, that play (with Nick, Erica and the other woman on stage) could have happened at any time from when its actions and dress would have been current to the present. It could have been a contemporary representation or a historic re-creation. And yet Erica's doll is an artifact of a much later era than that play's setting. For fanfic, use whatever serves your story!

Instead of getting into all that right now, I'd like to observe that while we usually interpret the "Last Act" flashbacks as near each other in time, they don't have to be. After all, the previous episode, "For I Have Sinned," sets its flashbacks years apart. Why not these, also? In two of the flashbacks, Erica has simple black hair; in one, she has an elaborate red hairdo, whether her own hair or a wig. In the first flashback, she's wearing trousers; in the second, she's wearing undergarments more suitable to a dress, though possible to tuck into trousers; in the third, she's wearing a gown that isn't the robe from the second flashback, though both are white. Nick has that same straight ponytail in all three flashbacks, and seems to wear the same white shirt in all three, but the first has a black coat and the third a black vest.

(And of course that same white shirt and black vest, he wears in the loft, in the present day, when he's going over paperwork and lamenting clues that won't connect. Some people have half-seriously suggested that this is Nick's way of dressing down for hanging out around the loft during daylight hours — vintage button dress-shirt, waistcoat and trousers. Oh, continuity...)

Humor

The humor in "Last Act" has a deft, light touch, lofting back and forth between characters around the action. It's not just the final scene with Nick, Natalie and Schanke at the play, and "boor" Schanke missing "the Middle Ages." It's also the "playful bottle of Chianti" at the "dinner that never was," the nitroglycerin nightcap plan, and the battle over the hospital food cart that ends with a cookie in Schanke's mouth as Dean labels him Nick's "back-up." It's even when Nick pulls the plug on Stonetree's hopes that Nick is bustling off to investigate, when he's really just going to the theater. These moments weave in a wonderful sense of relief and hope, contextualizing the darker reflections of murder and suicide, holding fast to the ordinary world with life and hope and joy.

Subtext, then and now

In the conventions of '90s television, it's clear, though unstated, that the audience should consider Doctor Cole, the older woman doctor, to have had a romantic interest in Marilyn. This is obviously necessary to complete the parallelism between the three suspects; all had intimate relationships with Marilyn, and the procedural structure suggests that the relationships could have been motive to murder. When Janns walks into the trap at the end dressed like Cole, wig and all, and stabs Nick with a knife meant for Dean, the audience is supposed to gasp and very briefly think that it is in fact Cole (this was much more convincing on a little '90s TV screen, but still).

I wonder whether this integral element of the mystery and investigation might be lost on a new viewer today. Is it too subtle to convey something that today would not go unstated? It shouldn't be: the hand we see in the shower should be speculated to belong to Cole, because Cole is the only other character we've met at that time. Still, the conventions and expectations have changed.

Women's roles, then and now

It's worth remembering that having both doctors be women, plus Erica, plus both players in the play-within-a-play, plus the two nurses, plus Janette and Natalie and the bereaved wife in the emergency room in the teaser, was an awful lot of speaking roles for women for an episode of a '90s police procedural or genre drama. That wasn't usual, then. But FK did it more often than not.

Erica being a playwright in an earlier era, playing masculine roles on stage, and characterized by Janette as a "tomboy," is all fine and good, but another, lesser show would have let that be all it offered and patted itself on the back. FK builds its whole world on a norm, not an exception.

(I presume that we owe many thanks specifically to Naomi Janzen for this trend in FK, but also across the board, to everyone in the crew and credits. Team effort, team sensibility, team achievement.)

Schanke's fashion sense

"Nice tie, Captain. What, your kid make it?" Schanke lightly mocks Stonetree. This line will of course come back to haunt Schanke in "False Witness," specifically, when Schanke will compliment Stonetree's suit, and Stonetree will retort, "Thanks: my kid made it." Possibly, this may also tie in to Schanke's defensive comment about his own suit (and thereby his level of civilization) in "Cherry Blossoms," and his critiques of Nick's appearance in DK/DK2.

Schanke is by no means a fashion plate, with his brown suits and sideburns dated even there in his '90s milieu, and Natalie once teases him about ring-around-the-collar. But, apparently, Schanke thinks of himself as sensitive to appearance and the choices that make it.

Miscellaneous

  • On the flyer that the young actress playing Catherine shows Nick and Janette in Erica's apartment, the play's author is credited as "Erica Bentley." (Little things made clear on today's big TV screens!)

  • Nick says "pile of clues that don't connect" twice: once in the squad room to Stonetree, and once in the loft to himself (and, apparently, Erica's ghost).

  • The skill behind Nick's slight-of-hand illusion, producing his badge and shield from behind Dean's ear, must come in handy in many situations. And of course this is the episode in which Nick says that he spent a little time in the circus, coordinating with the circus posters on the walls of the loft, about which we never learn more! Missing flashbacks! Lost episode! :-)

  • "Think of the paperwork if you drop him," Schanke says. And so begins the fanon legend of Nick's supposed deep, deep dislike of paperwork...

  • I rewatched both Region 2 and Region 1 of "Last Act." Almost nothing is missing from the Region 1 DVD, and none of it is dialogue. The Eurominutes are mostly just longer and more plentiful establishing shots. (Famously, the "Erica's ghost in the car" scene, which is on the Region 1 DVDs, wasn't included in the original US airing and many subsequent Canadian and US airings of the episode.)

  • Granting that Stonetree is entirely correct that you cannot deduce suicidal feelings from someone's living space, nevertheless, big set/prop kudos for the difference between Erica and Marilyn's respective homes. As represented by their homes within the symbolism of the story, Erica had been dying slowly for a long time; Marilyn was bubbling over with life. Plants in both! Dead and alive. And the doll and the baby...

  • Nick's frustration here with having 8 outstanding cases (while detective Cheevers "is on a hot streak") has some parallels to his frustration in "The Games Vampires Play" (S3E15). The difference is that "Last Act" Nick is frustrated, stymied, and stuck, while "The Games Vampire Play" Nick is bored, jaded and stuck. "Last Act" Nick has goals he isn't reaching; "Games Vampires Play" Nick needs goals!


What do you think?

Next week: S1E05 "Dance by the Light of the Moon" (DBLM)

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waltdwaltd on March 7th, 2016 05:29 am (UTC)
Last Act

Murder rates: Toronto doesn’t hold a candl to the most dangerous (fictional) place on earth to live: Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove.

Last Knight doesn’t exist. Not in MY universe.

FK’s humor was always interesting, if nothing else; sometimes strange, sometimes outright farce, sometimes subtle, but always interesting.


Altogether: good plot, good story, good characters, good writing.
As Nero Wolfe might say to Archie: Satisfactory!