From 1993 to 2005, David Milch and Steven Bochco’s cop drama NYPD Blue was the nakedest, swearing-est show on television. But as we see in this latest installment of Criminal Complex’s episode-by-episode recap of the series, just because there was a lot of sex, violence, and curse words, that doesn’t mean NYPD Blue was without depth, character, and cultural relevance.
Season 1, Episode 4
Original Air Date: October 12th, 1993
“If I had more bullets, I would have shot ‘em all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets.”
“Don’t be angry.”
-Detective John Kelly, 15th squad
Anger is something I’ve had to deal with my entire life. Raised by an unrepentant hothead from a long line of unrepentant hotheads, I have had the emotional life of Bruce Banner, going from meekly brainy guy to raging monster at the drop of a hat, often coming out of my stupor with my clothes in disarray. As romantic as that temperament may seem when guys like Bill Bixby play that sort of role, take it from me and any of my number of ex-girlfriends, it’s a real pain in the ass. Over the last couple of years, I’ve made a real effort to get my shit straightened out in this regard, so perhaps this is why I see such a unified theme in this, the fourth episode of NYPD Blue. I must have seen it a few times by now, but it was not until this viewing that I saw how all the plot-lines revolved around this notion that anger is destructive, and holding onto the past will bury your future, almost literally.
The most prominent example of this is the sub-plot involving the former Mrs. Kelly’s neighbor, Josh “4B” Goldstein, a nebbishy Jewish kid from Ohio just beginning to make his way in the big, bad city. Goldstein is played by David Schwimmer, in one of the few roles that doesn’t make me not like him. As much as I tend to enjoy the other works of the cast of Friends (Office Space, Scream, that Lisa Kudrow episode of The Simpsons), I can never blot that awful show out of my mind whenever any of their faces pop up on my screen, and Schwimmer tends to get the worst of it from me, mostly because of that horrid adaptation of Apt Pupil. But here, his cutesy-pie awkwardness works extremely well, so much so that I’d have a hard time picturing an actor I really like in this role over Schwimmer.
4B is a fresh-faced young lawyer, new in town and desperate to fit in. He befriends Laurie, Kelly’s ex-wife, and nurses a hopeless (if adorable) crush on her. But then he gets mugged down in the laundry room, and so begins his downward spiral. Evincing that Joe-esque I’m-not-gonna-take-it-anymore attitude, he buys a gun and then begins doing his laundry nightly, just waiting for the son of a bitch to try and victimize him again. Suddenly buoyant with machismo, 4B begins to center his life around his Bernie Goetz moment, and Kelly can see that it’s going to eat him alive. Kelly tries to talk 4B down, but not only does Kelly act as a rival for Laurie’s affections (though 4B seeks Kelly’s approval as much as Laurie’s), Kelly’s also kind of a condescending dickhead. He constantly speaks to 4B as though he’s a kid, which he might be in a lot of ways, but being treated like a kid—helpless, easily victimized—has caused 4B to really act out, to buy himself a big, shiny, lethal cock. 4B is responsible for his own actions, but Kelly treating him like a freshman is not helping.
Speaking of which, Detective Walker (whom we never see again) is giving Sipowicz similar treatment. Walker catches a liquor store robbery which turned into a double homicide. Kelly and Sipowicz are assigned as his back-up, and Walker is sure boozehound Sipowicz is gonna fuck everything up. Never mind that Sipowicz has been clean for two months, Walker won’t stop riding his ass. Sipowicz, somewhat uncharacteristically, mostly keeps his cool, determined to not let Walker get to him, even when it becomes plain that Walker is the one fucking everything up, hauling in Howard Coleman. Coleman (played by the great Jack Kehler, most fondly remembered as the Dude’s landlord in The Big Lebowski) doesn’t match witness descriptions, but his alibi’s fuzzy, and Walker is determined to pin it on him. Sipowicz manages to catch the right guy, and then Walker is sure Sipowicz is gonna throw him under the bus, which would really be all he deserves. Walker has been so wound up about having to work with Andy that he went and busted the wrong guy, but Sipowicz, whatever his failings, is blue to the bone: there’s no way he’s gonna make Walker look bad to the el-tee, no matter how much he may have it coming. Walker made a bad decision—“It happens,” Andy says—but Andy is not going to hold it against him. When Sipowicz is the most level-headed guy in an episode, you can bet everyone else is screwed in that regard.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Wagner, Kelly’s bodyguardee from last episode, decides to end her marital strife with a bullet. She tries to feed Kelly some bullshit story, but what it basically came down to was she’d had enough. Kelly, who has a real soft spot for this nice lady (and who wouldn’t have one for Wendie Malick?), basically walks her through the arrest process and gets her to confess, even if it buys her three years on a man-2 charge. Licalsi, all drunk at the bar later, gets in Kelly’s face, wondering why he can see fit to forgive Mrs. Wagner for murdering her piece-of-shit husband, but can’t forgive her for murdering another piece of shit, one who was actively trying to kill Kelly himself. Not enough woman-trouble for Kelly, he and Laurie take a roll in the hay for old times, after which Laurie tells him she quit her job and plans on going to work for the DA in Narcotics. Kelly pulls his usual “no wife of mine” routine (never mind that she ain’t his wife no more anyways) before his pager goes off and he has to split before he can pull his head out of his ass.
So in four different instances, we see Kelly trying to run others’ lives for them and, no matter how right or wrong he is, he can’t seem to get it through his head that he can’t live others’ lives for them. Sure, he got Mrs. Wagner to come clean and probably actually saved her some jail time, but if he’d resisted the urge to have a tough-guy stand-off with Mr. Wagner (“This isn’t High Noon, 4B,” Kelly remarks in this episode), the guy probably wouldn’t have taken it out on the wife and bought himself a bullet. But that’s conjectural, and Mrs. Wagner is really the only thing he does right today. However, he refuses to listen to Licalsi or to even acknowledge his feelings for her. He treats Laurie like she’s fresh out of law school and doesn’t deal with as many criminals per day as he does. And he treats 4B like he’s his kid brother. Basically, Kelly is sure he can run everyone’s life, if they would just shut up and listen to him.
Kelly redeems himself by episode’s end with a little neighborhood watch speech to the tenants of Laurie and 4B’s building. He gives them some basic safety talk, but he stresses, “This is your city. This is your city, not the bad guys’.” He insists that taking back the streets by force really only makes them prisoners to their emotion. So don’t imprison yourself in your own feelings of frustration. Life can be really, really shitty, but you can only do so much, you can only control your own actions, not those of others. This unwillingness to cede control over others, Kelly admits, has been a problem for him. But then we learn that Kelly’s father was shot down in the street right down the block, so now we, the audience, can maybe allow him some sympathy.
Basically, what Kelly is saying (even if he’s not doing) is let the past be the past. Walker can’t let Sipowicz make a fresh start, thereby jeopardizing Walker’s own career. Mrs. Wagner is so paralyzed by the thought of being a penniless divorcee, is completely unable to imagine a future where she would be able to run her own life, that she turns to homicide as the only viable solution. John Kelly cannot deal with the fact that the women in his life can and will act of their own accord without checking with him first. And 4B simply cannot leave alone the night he was made into somebody’s bitch. These are all difficult situations to overcome, but it really boils down to either you handle the situation, or it handles you.
Unfortunately for 4B, he doesn’t live to handle it. While on the subway, he sees a woman being mugged and pulls his pistol. Oddly enough, the mugger is not only also armed but more adept with his weapon. 4B takes some lead to the gut, and Kelly gets to the hospital in time to watch him die. It’s a well-handled death scene, Schwimmer nailing it, giving 4B that look of, “Well, I’ve gone and done it now.” It’s a very sad, poignant moment when the doctor tells John and Laurie that they’ve lost 4B, even when the doctor does that same stupid TV doctor thing they do on every show—it’s like the stage directions at this point must be a standard “remove glasses, sigh, deliver line breathlessly.”
Anger tends to come from control, or rather, a perceived lack of it. I know the most common cause of my own temper-tantrums were over things I could not control—other people’s rudeness, day-jobs, landlords, my height, etc. It can be more than just an inconvenience when you can’t control the world around you, as when you’re a victim of a crime. Fortunately, I’ve never been mugged as 4B was, but I have been burglarized, assaulted, had my car stolen. It’s a humiliating, frustrating, powerless feeling, but the last few times, I barely blinked. Fuck it, dude, let’s go bowling—that’s my motto. If that sounds like an oversimplification, well, yeah. That’s kinda the point. When shit gets overcomplicated, oversimplifying it is the way to go. Don’t be angry. That simple.
All right, join us next time for more Zen with Callaway and Sipowicz.