By Cory Barker
Hill Street Blues
Season 2, Episode 18: “The Invasion of the Third World Body Snatchers” (Season Finale)
Original airdate: May 13, 1982
Previously on Hill Street Blues: LaRue played a big role in a major investigative success. Frank discovers that Joyce is carrying a gun in the wake of Gilliam’s death. Renko struggles as his father gets closer and closer to the edge of death. Howard tried to convince everyone to join him in the post-nuclear housing edition, First Strike Estates.
After a second season that I wouldn’t necessarily call “up and down” but I would definitely refer to as “uneven at times,” I found myself with conflicted expectations as I sat down to watch the season finale of Hill Street Blues. On one hand, I expected some flash and maybe a little zany action. That’s the kind of season it’s been. But on the other hand, based on the last few episodes, I assumed that this finale would be a relatively quiet, plot-light affair.
Ultimately, “The Invasion of the Third World Body Snatches” ended up being a bit of both of those expectations, and after my initial viewing, I didn’t care for this finale at all. Outside of a fun car chase, there isn’t much action on display in the episode, but more importantly, there isn’t a whole lot of resolution or concluding action. Instead of spending much time exploring LaRue’s sobriety and attempts to get his job back or highlighting Bobby’s changing relationship with various officers, this finale chooses to go the more procedural route with stories native to this hour: Lucy breaks it off with a married commander she had been hooking up with and Joyce goes the extra mile to get one final client off the hook before heading off on vacation with Frank.
Renko’s father finally passing away is the big narrative conclusion of the season and that’s really quite disappointing. And when much of that story is portrayed here through goofy means when John Renko’s body goes missing as part of the theft of the morgue van, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes throughout much of this finale. This season has been full of engaging, powerful stories and a whole lot of silliness and I hoped that the finale would go out on a strong note by holding tight to the former rather than the latter. But again, walking away from my laptop after my viewing of the episode, I was disappointed and annoyed.
However, as the day went on, certain things from this episode kept coming to the forefront of my mind, and slowly, I began to realize that while this finale struggled to hold my interest on a purely plot level and didn’t reach much of a substantive narrative end-point, “Body Snatchers” is actually a fine conclusion to the season’s big thematic focus on the price of the job. In recent weeks, I’ve been talking a lot about how characters have been put through the ringer and faced their biggest challenges, with many coming out the other side wanting to quit. Though I think the finale could have actually explored this in more detail, “Body Snatchers” provides some nice final engagement on that front, particularly with Joyce, Renko, Goldblume, Washington and LaRue.
As I said, the mystery of the missing elder Renko was sophomoric and staid for most of the episode, but it created one more chance for Renko to piss and moan about his terrible relationship with his father, which is, informative, I guess. I would have preferred that the show actually put Renko and his father in a room more often instead of relying so much on the younger one delivering monologue after monologue about how much he disliked his dad. However, on a contradictory note, I will suggest that Renko having to deal with yet another problem (in both the logistic and emotional sense) caused by his father led to some solid material for Charles Haid. Renko’s exasperation over his father’s missing body wasn’t overdone, even if it did verge into weird comedy territory. And most importantly, the final sequence in that story, with Renko realizing that all he needed this whole time was for Bobby to make him laugh, was awesome. Not sure the conclusion warranted all the time spent on it but that was still a darn fine conclusion.
More impressive was Joyce’s handling of her final case before vacation. After growing more and more cynical and disgusted with her place in the legal machine (and more fearful for her life) in the wake of Gilliam’s death, this episode brought us Joyce’s recovery of sorts. When tasked with saving a young man who, by all accounts, seems like a great citizen and student, from rape charges, she is initially more annoyed that the client won’t plead out so she can leave with Frank than anything else. But eventually, Joyce grows to see that she can’t just turn her back on this kid because of what’s happened to her, and she recognizes that there is still some value to her job. Even when it looks like her client is screwed thanks to some shifty witness-related issues, Joyce pushes — and finally saves the day.
Now, watching this play out in the episode isn’t that compelling. The interrogation room and line-up scenes are very familiar and actually pretty repetitive when lined up with what we’ve seen over the last half-dozen or so episodes. As a procedural story, it’s simple: The witness won’t come forward because doing so will jeopardize something in her personal life (in this case, a relationship with another man). However, when looking at this story with the bigger picture in mind, it works a lot better. Just last week, we were watching Joyce spout jaded rhetoric about the crumbling city and the need to carry a weapon. By the end of this episode, she is revitalized. I don’t think she’s totally back to believing that her job is angelic, mostly because this season has shown that she was too idealistic to begin with. There was always going to be a fall for her, and she’s slowly but surely making her way back up, more aware of what matters and what doesn’t.
Moreover, it’s fairly odd that the season’s most satisfying “arc” belonged to a female character, considering that this is a show so dominated by male characters and one that has a moderately troublesome (but not abnormal) relationship with women in general. A number of characters found themselves up against it this season but no character’s struggles or eventual recovery was explored more than Joyce’s. Veronica Hammel did a great job with the material, and I’m happy that Joyce became the show’s most compelling character. Still though, it’s weird, with most of the other women being shrills or sluts and all.
The two other stories that helped the finale work better on a thematic level were tied to LaRue and Washington and Goldblume. I’ve complained about the lack of focus on LaRue since he hit the bottom and stumbled on the way back to the wagon but Goldblume’s post-shooting divorce story probably could have used more attention as well. Although I understand that the show has a number of characters and a procedural story engine to service, this season, at times, threw out new ideas without exploring them in much detail way too often. Both of these stories fit that description.
In any event, I loved the two scenes with Washington discussing LaRue’s future, one with LaRue himself and one with Furillo. Not only did LaRue recover from his darkest days but Washington did in some ways as well. Washington almost lost his job earlier in the season for some ticky-tack procedural rule, then found out his girlfriend was lying and cheating and then watched his best friend take that awful first drink again. For Washington to firmly support LaRue to his face and to Frank–and he gave Frank the realness, even calling the captain out on his own alcoholism–was very admirable. Washington didn’t have much reason to be loyal anymore but he did, and it led to some powerful work for Taurean Blacque. The story ended up being more about Washington than it was LaRue, which is odd, but it worked.
For Goldblume, the battles were mostly all personal this season. He constantly had problems with his wife that led to risky, stupid behavior at work. He was beat up pretty bad once and shot much later, only to be divorced not soon after. Tough year. And yet, here he is, putting himself out there at a singles bar, and (ugh) finding some comfort in the arms of Faye Furillo. While I’m not particularly looking forward to the future exploration of that relationship, it was a nice little cap to Goldblume’s struggles. Again though, we should have seen more of said struggles beforehand.
Ultimately then, most everyone who faced the crappy days made their way back. No one but Bobby really gave up, but at least he quit the coalition to help his struggling friend. It’s tough working in these jobs in this city, and most of the time, these people can handle it. However, when they cannot, Hill Street Blues is at its best. Even though the second season waffled from really, really good to something more trivial and mediocre more than the show did in season one, this was still a really good stretch of episodes. No real sophomore slump here.
- This Week in Phil’s Sexual Exploits: We close out the season with NOTHING. No Grace, and very little Phil at all. I think Michael Conrad was falling ill at this time, so that makes sense, but damn.
- This Week in Roll Call Gags: Another relative goose-egg. Some jokes about prostitutes and johns getting it on in the bushes now that spring had sprung, which was a familiar riff on jokes from recent episodes. Yawn.
- Belker went undercover with homeless people and enjoyed it. What’s new. I wish we would have seen more fallout from Captain Freedom’s death, or seen Belker with his love interest from a few episodes ago. This season definitely introduced and dropped things too quickly at times.
- Thank you so much to the small group of you that watched and read along with me over the last 10 weeks. It’s been fun. I’ll be taking a break from Hill Street Station for now and jumping into the brighter, faster-paced world of Miami Vice (a show initially created by Hill Street scribe Anthony Yerkovich). That should be a totally different, but still instructive experience. More 1980s cop dramas!