Thursday, January 16, 2014

The depiction of loved ones affected by death

The Hateful Hero was on MeTV recently. While I was watching, I ended up realizing another very unique angle this episode tackles and another reason why I would say it’s one of the best Perry episodes of all.

It’s interesting and a bit sad to note that even though there are deaths in every episode, it’s very rare to see the repercussions of said deaths on the family and other loved ones, unless the repercussions cast all the relationships in a negative light. It’s common in episodes for family and friends to say that they’re unmoved or glad that the person is dead. Worse, sometimes when someone shows grief or outrage, it’s an act and they’re the guilty party. (Or occasionally, they genuinely loved the person and the death was an accident, sometimes causing a breakdown in court when this is revealed.)

It’s gotten so bad that whenever there’s someone in a detective series who’s supposed to be close to either the victim or the defendant, I end up almost immediately suspecting them. And many times, I’m right. It’s kind of tiresome. Having a close loved one be the guilty party happens so much that it’s way too much of a cliché. Or alternately, I suppose, it’s a large dose of reality, since many crimes in reality actually are committed by close loved ones. Depressing.

Of course, another thing to factor in is that most of the time, the deaths are of very unlikable people. But even that doesn’t always mean there aren’t people who genuinely care about them. Sometimes, those people really are grieving, too, and were not involved in harming the victims.

Even when this happens, however, it’s usually not a major plot point and instead is something incidental, perhaps thrown into the confession scene as the person reacts to the news of who killed their loved one. Even in The Antic Angel, where the defendant is the estranged husband of the victim and clearly still cares about her, we don’t really see his grief. Although, the effects are certainly shown in the fact that he ends up accused of the murder!

This manner of showing the effects of death happens in several episodes where loved ones are accused of the crime. The Flighty Father is another example, and the girl in it expresses sorrow over having had an argument with her uncle before his death. She calls him a poor old man and feels honestly horrible about what she said and did.

However, as poignant as that scene is, it is only one scene in the episode. I can think of just three episodes off-hand where the effects of a death are keenly felt and shown for one or more loved ones and the grief is indeed a semi or major plot point, stretching over several scenes or shown throughout.

One is The Loquacious Liar, where the wife’s continuing love for her rotten husband is very critical to the plot. It causes her to think her son is nuts about apparently his whole story of being abducted, instead of just thinking he must be wrong about his step-father hiring the guy and someone else must have hired him instead. This causes her to tell her husband about the disaster, setting into motion the fight that leaves him dead and the son accused of murder. She grieves heavily about the death and her part in the fight being started. She’s caught in a nightmare involving her two most precious loved ones.

This is also the episode that has one of Tragg’s best and most moving serious moments, as he tells the wife of her husband’s death and says that in thirty years on the force, he’s never found an easy way to say it. It’s one of the most caring and kind announcements of a loved one’s death throughout the series; indeed, perhaps the very most.

Then there is The Lover’s Leap. Who could forget Julie Adams’ heartbreaking performance as the wife who doesn’t care about her husband’s crimes or going to jail as an accessory or anything except him? The scenes where her act as an uncaring ex-wife is stripped away, revealing her immense grief and anguish over his death, are among the most haunting of the entire series. When the true killer’s identity is revealed, likely crushing her anew because he’s a dear friend of hers (who admittedly didn’t mean to kill the guy), and she collapses against Perry in tears, it’s extremely powerful and poignant. She railed against Perry’s constant questioning and always appearing at the worst moments for her, but then she turns to him in that moment of deepest agony.

And, of course, we come to The Hateful Hero. It’s interesting to note that this is one of the few episodes where there are two deaths instead of just one. One of those deaths is the more standard “creep” variety, and in fact, we never meet any family of Ralph Pearce. But the other death, that of Andy’s dear friend Otto Norden, is the more rare “good guy” variety. And, I think, this is the only good guy character death in the series where we really see the repercussions on loved ones.

Certainly Erna Norden’s intense grief is one of the driving sub-plots of the episode. One reason we see so much of it is likely because of her and Otto’s important connections to Andy. Another reason, however, is because of how important Otto really is to the unraveling of the mystery.

One little thing I like very much is how Carrie Wilson, the owner of the plastic company where Otto was killed, wants to go see Mrs. Norden and offer condolences. It’s a compassionate, human gesture that I don’t recall seeing from very many people throughout the series and helps to signal that this is going to be a very unique and powerful episode.

I do wish this episode had shown the actual funeral. The funerals shown at various times in The Wild Wild West and Adam-12 are very moving and powerful and even heartbreaking. We do see Mrs. Norden’s mantle of photographs and awards that Otto received, including one given posthumously. It’s a beautiful but bittersweet tribute to a courageous policeman.

Andy is deeply affected by his friend’s death, although with Andy’s personality, we mostly see this through his facial expressions and the tones of his voice rather than through tears and outbursts. He tries desperately to be strong for Otto’s mother, comforting her when it fully hits her that Otto is really gone. But even then, his voice trembles a bit, showing some of his sorrow.

Andy, unable to bear hurting her more than she already is, can’t bring himself to question her on the possibility that Otto may have been the dirty cop instead of his cousin Jimmy. Perry then takes upon himself the role of devil’s advocate and goes to question her, resulting in a grief-stricken breakdown. It’s definitely a good thing Andy didn’t attempt the questioning, as he was very likely the only close loved one she had left. For him to be the one to question her would have felt like a final crushing blow.

When the mystery is finally solved and healing can at last begin, we revisit Mrs. Norden. Perry brings her the news that Otto was not a dirty cop, nor was Jimmy. Mrs. Norden reveals her own doubts and fears and how grateful she is to finally have them alleviated. Andy and Jimmy then appear for Wienerschnitzel night and Mrs. Norden accepts Jimmy as another surrogate son.

The Hateful Hero thus takes its place as a very realistic emotional venture, showing the deepest grief that a death can have on a loved one. In one way, I wish they would have taken an approach like this more often. In another way, though, it would have made the show so heartbreaking. The fact that most of the victims are creeps and very often have no one to really care about them somehow makes it so much easier to shrug and accept the death and move on without being particularly emotionally affected. A more rare episode like this really wrenches the heartstrings and makes you wonder why such a horrible death had to happen. It feels so very human all the way around. And it’s all the more powerful a venture because of its rarity.

Bravo, Perry Mason.

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