The Box: On The Greatest Episode of All Time

Watch TV long enough and you start to think about The Question. Talk about it enough, others ask it for you. Pretty soon, it stalks the viewer like Delta Force in the Columbian jungle.

"What's your favorite TV show?"

That question is, of course, in reality two, for the devoted fan knows there are favorites and there are the best. One may grow up watching "Salute Your Shorts" and become addicted to "The Apprentice," but they wouldn't call those the best programs on TV. They don't hold up alongside, say, "Scrubs" or "Deadwood." Not to mention the best shows of all time--that's a seperate subject with its own set of complicated criteria.

Still, I get The Question quite a bit and I'm asking it just as much. I'm, also, asking myself a variety of other questions relating to tv; best actor, best single season, greatest moment, and so forth. I am, at heart, a list maker and obsessive organizer.

Of these varied and complex television inquries, the most complicated is, perhaps, the question of the best hour of dramatic television, or, in a less flowery fashion, the best episode.

It's a complex question because I can separate the best from the favorites, and while many of my favorites I also consider the best, my top choice (like "The Godfather Part II") is one I respect and admire much mroe than one I enjoy watching.

That episode is 'Three Men and Adena' from the first season of "Homicide: Life on the Street."

When talking about the Best. Episode. Ever, I often tie 'Adena' with 'Two Cathedrals', the second season finale of "The West Wing." 'Cathedrals' (or, as I call it, 'The One Where Bartlet Has Had It Up To Here With The Almighty') is probally my favorite episode ('Dead Irish Writers' from season three is a close second) from my favorite show ever. It's certainly the hour of tv I've watched the most. Even after I'd seen it three, four, and six times, I'd still leave meetings early just so I could be home in time for that episode. It sums up what's wonderful about "West Wing," rewards repeat viewing, and continues to kick my ass seven ways till Sunday.

(For those of you who've seen it, think about this the next time you do: The whole episode is about the aformentioned Almighty telling the aformentioned Bartlet, 'No, it's not good enough.')

But as wonderful as 'Two Cathedrals' is, it's also not 'Three Men and Adena.'

'Adena,' for the uninitated, is the climax to the first part of "Homicide"'s Adena Watson saga. His first night on the Baltimore squad, rookie Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) finds himself the primary detective on the high-profile "red ball" murder case of a young girl, Adena Watson. Enduring public humiliation from the media and private skepticsm from his partner, Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher, creating a legend), Bayliss neverless pursues the case with fervor. He narrows the suspects down to Risley Tucker, an arborer (which is like a street vendor...I think), and brings the man in for questioning.

And that is where 'Adena' begins, with Bayliss watching Tucker head towards "The Box," the squad's notorious interrogation room, while his colleagues pump him up for a long night. They know Tucker is guilty but the little evidence they've been able to collect isn't enough to prove what they (and we) already know. Bayliss and Pembleton, therefore, have twelve hours to extract a confession from the man or he'll walk free--period.

When Bayliss, with his crates and photographs, and Frank, knowing he's the smartest person in the room, enter The Box, everything starts to change. Over the course of that hour, ninety percent of it takes place in the tiny, dingy interrogation room. The handheld cameras of "Homicide"'s signature style push in on the participants. Sometimes, it feels so cramped you can smell Tucker's sweat.

The mood of the room goes from unleashed, frantic rage to heated sexuality to, finally, desperation. By the time another detective tells them their twelve hours are nearly over, even the great Frank Pembelton is worn raw.

He knows Tucker is guilty. Bayliss does, too. Then something rather unexpected happens in TV land. They it the twelve hour mark, and the arborer walks free. The Adena Watson murder remained unsolved for the rest of "Homicide"'s run.

That dose of reality, however, isn't what makes 'Adena' the greatest episode of all time. It's what happens after. Not only did writer Tom Fontana (who won an Emmy for this episode) have the guts to pull off this grueling, emotionally rendering encounter in The Box, but he had the balls to follow what happened there to its natural conclusion. Looking at 'Adena, within the context of "Homicide" and its seven seasons, one can truly see that episode as 'The One Where Everything Changed.' And that's a very rare thing in TV land.

(Note: I will now discuss, en detalie, spoilers for "Homicide"'s seventh season and the TV-movie finale.)

Both Frank and Tim never quite recovered from their interrogation of Risely Tucker. The latter's commitment to the Adena Watson case broke him that night, and we watched for six more seasons (all played with quiet heartbreak by Secor) as Bayliss struggled to calm the demons unleashed by that time in The Box. Finally, in the seventh-season finale, Tim took the law into his own hands when an internet serial killer walked free. He got his vengance, at last, for Adena and all the other victims.

Fontana knew, though, that vengance (like fear) eats the soul, and in the TV movie serving as the show's finale, Bayliss confessed to Pembleton, who by that time had left the force. After the events in 'Adena,' the lone wolf Pembelton found himself partnering with Bayliss and trying to develop other relationships at work. We saw that, in many ways, Bayliss was the first person Frank respected as a peer. He might have even been his first friend on the job.

We never saw what happened to Bayliss after his rooftop confession. Some interpretations have Frank, so bound by his duty to God and the law, turning in his friend. Others say Bayliss took his own life after Frank refused to turn him in. I think the second is the right one (despite the totally awesome "SVU" that Fontana and Dick Wolf could do), and the appropriate follow-through from the events in 'Adena.'

It all changed there. Watching it now, even knowing what's in store, you wait for it to go a different way. You wait for Tucker to confess--and Fontana puts you there alongside the two men, begging him to confess. When he never does, it makes the knowledge of what's to come all the more painful to see. The conclusion to 'Adena,' where the emotionally distant Frank tries to provide some support to a shattered Bayliss, Bayliss pulls away just as Frank is reaching out.

'Adena' is also a masterwork of television not just because of its future, but because of the past it draws upon. In the early days of broadcasting, shows like "Playhouse 90" offered interpretations of Broadway dramas to a mass audience. Television is often described as "radio with pictures." 'Adena', then, is an episode that, with a few modifications, could appear in both those forms. Fontana is aware of that, but he is also aware that for many years, the conclusion to 'Adena' would have been a different one. While shows like "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" pushed the boundaries of drama through the eighties, they, too, often made dramatic sacrifices to the network. Fontana, a writer/producer on "St. Elsewhere," knows that, too.

'Adena' is the one where everything changed: for the show, for the viewer, and yeah, for TV. While there are many hours I could watch forever, I don't think I'll find a more honest one than 'Three Men and Adena.' That's why it deserves to be called "The Greatest Episode of All Time," and that's why I'll always do so.


Desert_Squirrel said...

A great essay and a great choice that I agree with 100%. One aspect that I think made that episode even more dramatic was the casting they did for the Risley Tucker character. Most other shows would have made him some smooth middle aged man who was the smartest guy in the room as well as the cockyest. [The actor whose name escapes me] is simply an older man who looks fairly week and upon first glance you'd never think of being capable of such a crime which makes him more sympathetic as Pembleton and Bayliss intergate him.

Anonymous said...

Brendan got our first comment? You're fired.

Jebbus said...

The term is "arabber."
The man who played Risley Tucker was Moses Gunn. It was one of his last acting roles.

I agree with you. This is simply the best hour (or 45 minutes) of TV I've ever seen. No matter how good HBO shows like "The Wire" or God knows what else might offer, this was simply the best, most wrenching, most incredible thing I've ever seen. If anything trumps it in the future, I will be dumbfounded.

My quibble with your post is this: you assume Tucker is the killer. But that's where it should hurt the most: Bayliss and Pembleton *wanted* him to be the killer, but really all they had to assume that was circumstantial stuff. Tucker could have been innocent. In fact, there's nothing to say he WASN'T.

THAT is where "Three Men and Adena" is so gut-wrenchingly awful, wonderful and masterful: because we side with the detectives and eat away at this man and want to scour his brain and soul for a confession. We want him to be burnt away so much that he has no choice BUT to say he did it.

Yet he doesn't.

Instead, he is brought to tears speaking of the dead child. A cynic says that Tuckers's a guilty pedophile. Another man says Tucker's a pedophile who never acted on his own desires and regrets that he'll never have the child for his own. And yet another man says that Tucker's a sad lonely old man who's only connection to the world was his love for a girl he knew was too young to love, that his heartbreak was finding that one person, too small, too young, too away from himself. And THAT might be why he weeps, because he had nothing else. Because, poor bastard, he DID love that girl more than he loved his empty life, and that emotion was something someone wanted to jail him for.

That's why "Three Men and Adena" is in the absolute pantheon of television shows. Moses Gunn sold that episode. Braugher and Secor were fantastic, but only Gunn could make you sympathize. In the end, he made me doubt and he made me believe that maybe he loved. If we could walk away KNOWING he was guilty, it wouldn't be a great episode. We'd have that clucking assurance that "we got the bad guy." But if you watch that episode again and again, you can't know who the bad guy is. The arabber isn't the automatic bad guy. He's more of a human being than Pembleton. He's not as terrified to care as Bayliss. He's just a sad, sad old man.

You, me, anyone, *we* get to choose if he's the bad guy. And the best thing about that episode is that who we choose as the hero/villain speaks as much about us as it does the characters.