NYPD Blue, Season 4, Episode 4
Where's 'Swaldo?
Written by Stephen Gaghan & Michael R. Perry and David Milch
Directed by Mark Tinker

PLOT ONE: LIVING AND DYING IN THE BACKBOARD JUNGLE

Kwasi Oloshula, the black community leader with whom Andy clashed after the basketball game massacre last year, is the latest murder victim in the 15th precinct. He's found shot in his car along with a dead drug dealer nicknamed Prince. No one saw the shooting itself, but several witnesses saw a third man get out of Kwasi's car before police arrived. Andy expresses little remorse at the death of his nemesis, until he and Bobby encounter Kwasi's sweet 10-year-old daughter Hanna, who's sitting on the stoop of his building, waiting for her father to drive her to her baseball game. Bobby, reluctant to tell her about Kwasi's murder, suggests they go inside to call Hanna's mother.

While Kwasi's ex-wife, Mrs. Torrence, explains the truth to her daughter, the detectives run the case for Lt. Fancy. Andy makes a snide comment about Kwasi, and the Loo says that's the last crack he'll tolerate until they find out exactly what happened.

Mrs. Torrence knows about Andy's previous conflict with Kwasi, and refuses to let Hanna talk to him further. Diane offers to interview the girl, who rebuffs her mother's offer to come with her with a cold, "You weren't with Daddy." While a clearly uncomfortable Andy remains quiet, Bobby asks Mrs. Torrence about the reasons for her break-up with Kwasi. She cuts him off, saying that has nothing to do with why he was killed, and suggests that he died trying to help someone. Hanna returns from her interview with Diane, sobbing over her father's death and the nasty comment she made to her mother. She also says that Kwasi left her that morning to meet her Uncle Jerome for some unknown business.

Mrs. Torrence leads the detectives to her brother's apartment, where he's found cowering in a closet, his pants badly soiled. After getting cleaned up in the precinct bathroom, Jerome explains that he found some cocaine in his building four days ago, and left a note at the nearby 27th precinct telling the cops where they could find the drugs. A few days after that, he was accosted by Prince, who threatened to kill Jerome if he didn't get his drugs back. Jerome asked Kwasi to intercede, which he did, calmly explaining the situation to Prince and warning him not to go after Jerome or else face incarceration. Prince got upset, pointing out that his boss, Fat Cat, had given him the drugs, and without them, there was no way to pay him back. While they were talking, another car pulled up alongside Kwasi's, and the passengers opened fire. Kwasi and Prince died quickly; Jerome only survived because he was hidden by Kwasi's slumped-over corpse.

After informing Hanna and Mrs. Torrence that it looks like Kwasi did indeed die a hero, the detectives prepare to raid Fat Cat's place, an illegal downtown nightclub. The appropriately-nicknamed Fat Cat takes the arrest in stride, but one of his bouncers, a moonlighting cop, doesn't. Fancy offers the cop two choices: an ass-whipping or an IAB investigation.

The cocky Fat Cat claims he was at the boat show with his mother when the shooting occurred, then lawyers up. Jerome, meanwhile, can't decide between two different men in a lineup -- one of whom is part of Fat Cat's crew -- and, when pressured by Bobby to be specific, picks the wrong one. Bobby realizes they have to play Fat Cat's two bodyguards, Hollis and Trent, against each other. He tells the dim-witted Hollis that he's really on Fat Cat's payroll, and can kick all of them loose, but Trent's refusal to admit he works for Fat Cat is holding up his scam. Bobby explains that all he needs is for Hollis to go into the other interview room, point at Trent, and say "He's the guy," in order to vouch that he's part of the gang. Hollis, not realizing he's being played for a sucker, does precisely that. Trent figures he's just been given up, and offers to cut a deal implicating Fat Cat.

But while they've nabbed Kwasi's killers, one problem remains: no one at the 27th precinct has any record of Jerome's note, or of the drugs they supposedly picked up. In an attempt to keep ADA Cohen and IAB from starting a corruption investigation, Bobby and Andy reinterview Jerome and try to get him to admit that he never turned in the drugs. Eventually, they realize that he put the note on the wrong desk, and that any cop in the precinct could've picked it up. Cohen goes to notify IAB, and, to the disdain of the detectives, suggests that Fat Cat may get a deal in exchange for giving up some dirty cops.

Fancy calls Mrs. Torrence and Hanna back in to tell them that they've caught Kwasi's killers. Andy tries to compliment Kwasi's decency, but Mrs. Torrence tells him that "People who hated him alive don't get to say nice things now," and bitterly reminds Hanna that Andy once called her father a "nigger." Andy apologizes to Hanna for having used that word, and begs her forgiveness. Ignoring her mother's cold stare, Hanna accepts, and shakes Andy's hand.

After filling out the paperwork, Bobby goes into the lockerroom to clean up before heading home, and finds Andy getting worked up about the things Mrs. Torrence said about him to Hannah. He tries to explain to Bobby why he has trouble with black people, in a rambling monologue that bounces from his days in Vietnam to his first police assignment as an undercover agent befriending members of the Black Panthers to the project apartment where his father raised him. Bobby bristles at Andy's use of the word "spade" at one point, saying all he can think of when he hears that word is Hanna's face. Andy tries to play the victim, saying that he's had problems with black people all his life. Bobby points out that his own father was often beaten up just for being dark-skinned, but he doesn't hate white people, and he doesn't hate Andy.

Andy tries to take solace in the reaction he got from Hanna. "At least she shook my hand," he says. "I don't think she hated me that much." Bobby, tired of being a guest at his partner's self-pity party, finally goes home, leaving Andy alone to grapple with his hate.

PLOT TWO: CODE OF SILENCE

With the rest of the squad busy unravelling the mystery behind Kwasi's death, Greg and James get stuck with a whodunnit all their own: an unidentified murder victim in an empty bodega. The only thing resembling a witness is a street alcoholic named Lonnie, who saw a pair of well- dressed men run out of the bodega after the shots were fired, followed shortly after by a hooker named Lisa. The owner of the dingy store, Oswaldo Medoza, is nowhere to be found.

In exchange for the money to get a cough medicine prescription, Lonnie tells them where to find Lisa, a crackhead who insists she was only in the bodega to buy "a female product." After repeated prodding, she admits that she performed favors for both of the well-dressed men in the basement -- at the urging of Oswaldo -- and that she was still down there when the shots went off. When they threaten to lock her up until they find Oswaldo, she gives them the address of a betting parlor he favors.

Oswaldo, complaining of a heart condition, tells Greg and James what happened, but is adamant that he'll never repeat the story in court. The murder victim was shaking him down for protection money, without realizing that Oswaldo was already paying someone else for that service, and that someone promptly had this young turk killed. He says he doesn't know who the two killers were, and declines to offer any further assistance out of fear for his own safety.

James gets an anonymous phone call about a man bragging about the bodega hit at a local bar. The bartender quietly admits that he placed the phone call, but the most he'll do is point James towards the man in question. They pick up Lisa to try to identify their suspect in a lineup, but she refuses. Oswaldo, reached by telephone, claims he's too sick to come in, and sends his lawyer to the precinct to make sure the detectives get the message. Greg points out that Oswaldo likely sets up drug deals out of his store, and when the attorney tries to pin the blame for everything on the neighborhood, an angry James -- realizing they have to kick their suspect loose -- says that Oswaldo got the neighborhood he deserves.


I generally don't like hype, and when I saw an ad for "Where's 'Swaldo?" in TV Guide proclaiming something like "Tonight, Dennis Franz earns himself another Emmy," I was naturally wary.

For once, the hype was right. Dennis Franz may not win the Emmy next year -- and, considering that he's already won it two of the last three years, he probably won't -- but his delivery of that lockerroom monologue had me gasping.

If I was Franz, I would find some way to have myself surgically joined at the hip to David Milch, because there's something about their collaboration that brings out the best in each other. Milch, co-writing his first "official" script for the show in a long time (although he has a hand in just about every episode in his capacity as Exec. Producer), turned in a real gem. I daresay that even if it hadn't been for the final scene, I still would have loved the episode, but those final five minutes or so pushed this from a great episode into an all-time classic, one of the best shows "Blue" has ever done.

Dennis Franz has said on several occasions that he doesn't think Andy can be simply categorized as a racist. He's right, in that Andy's opinions are far from simple. He may make a surly crack about how Ayesha's not a woman's name; "Susan's a woman's name," but the moment he meets the "Ayesha" in question (Hanna), his heart almost breaks (check the look on his face before he picks up her baseball cap right before the credits). He may refer to black punks as "spades," but while teaching Andy Jr. about policework, he made sure to point out the difference between them and hard-working, decent people of color. He may try to play the race card whenever he has a feud with Fancy, but he clearly respects him. The problem is that he tends to take a guilty until proven innocent approach with most minorities that he meets, which inevitably leads to trouble.

That bathroom scene was extraordinary for so many reasons, not the least of which was the stubborn way that Andy, who'd be the first one to laugh at a murderer who blamed the crime on his childhood, tried to do the exact same thing with the depths of his hate. In the span of those five minutes, Milch managed to give us more background on Andy than all the other characters probably have gotten combined over the course of the series, and all within the context of the story. And just when you maybe thought that the show's sympathies lay with Andy, Bobby spoke right up and made it clear that Andy's excuses were just that: excuses.

And remember how a lot of us were crying charges of political correctness after Bobby got all huffy over Andy's comments during "The Backboard Jungle"? Well, it turns out it wasn't a case of PC run amuck; we all forgot that Bobby is a minority himself -- mainly because the character has never, aside from one random comment two years ago, been written with any distinct ethnicity -- and likely has faced bigotry and racial slurs himself. Hearing Bobby talk about his old man getting beat up for being brown-skinned almost made me feel ashamed for chiding him last year.

Dennis Franz gets all the showy material and all the critical accolades, but Smits matched him beat for beat here. If you have a few minutes, go back and watch that scene again with your attention focused on Smits; the silent expressions on Bobby's face during Andy's speech are rather extraordinary. Without saying a word (for the most part), you can easily tell that Bobby has heard this kind of thing before, doesn't particularly want to indulge Andy's attempts to rationalize his bigotry, but reluctantly tries to listen out of respect for his partner.

My friend Ellen Gray, the TV critic for the Philadelphia Daily News, put it best when she said that long after the hubub about David Caruso's butt and the use of the world "asshole" has died down, "NYPD Blue" will be remembered for a different kind of adult content: its mature and insightful examination of racism, in the personage of Andy Sipowicz.

And the kicker for this story was the great characterization given to a man who was dead from the opening frame: Kwasi. In "The Backboard Jungle," it was questionable whether he really was the peachy-keen civic leader that Fancy viewed him as, or the arrogant blowhard who tussled with Andy. As it turns out, he leaned more towards the former than the latter, and the fact that he died a hero really had to drive an extra stake through Andy's heart about this whole matter. Like Andy, Kwasi wasn't perfect; he could look after a child, but couldn't keep his marriage together, and he often let his passion override his common sense (if it was me, I never would have let an armed drug dealer with a mad-on for my brother-in-law into *my* car). Plus, in the show's worldview, Kwasi was a good guy for settling his differences with Andy face to face, rather than going to the press (which explains why there was never any fallout from the use of the eptithet).

I've often said that I really get bored by stories that are pretty much straight police procedurals, with no kind of personal stake in them for the regulars (see the wrong guy plot from "Yes, We Have No Cannolis"), but I honestly think I still might have dug the investigation into Kwasi's death even if it had been some random community activist, and even if it hadn't led to Andy's confessional. There was enough tweaking of the formula and well-written guest characters to keep me interested throughout, even though I was waiting for the inevitable Award-Worthy Moment from Dennis Franz.

This wasn't just a straight murder investigation, proceeding very linearly from canvassing the crime scene to securing the confession. There were interesting bumps and detours along the way, from Fancy's dressing down of the off-duty cop to Fat Cat's genial cockiness during interrogation to Andy and Bobby's realization that their investigation will likely lead to a lot of cops getting investigated.

In particular, I *loved* the sequence where Bobby formulated and then executed the plan to con Hollis and Trent. First, he and Andy realize that Jerome will be useless as a witness (a rarity for the show), and try to figure out which of the two thugs is dumb enough to give up the other. Bobby, clearly several steps ahead of Andy, realizes that he'll go after Hollis, leaving a befuddled Andy to ask, "So are we making Trent dumber?" Then Bobby marches into the interview room with Hollis, and, in the best acting job I've seen one of our detectives give (even better than Andy's psycho turn in "The Nutty Confessor"), throws Hollis completely off-kilter and tricks him into "vouching" for Trent, as Andy finally figures out what's going on. Very nicely done, and a clever change from the cliched threats of physical intimidation or invoking of the death penalty.

I suppose I should be getting down on my knees and expressing thanks about the Greg and James story, since it ended with the detectives stymied and the killer freed, and I did like it, but compared to the main story, it barely registered on my radar. There were some nice elements to it -- the contrast between do-gooder Jerome in the main plot and all the folks interested in self-preservation over doing what's right in this one -- and all the characters were very well-drawn (particularly Lisa), but something seemed to be missing that could've pushed it up to the level of its companion piece.

Maybe it's just that Greg and James could use some better dialogue. There was nothing as awful as their speculation about Fancy's delegate ballot in "Cannolis," but there wasn't anything particularly clever, either; everything out of their mouths was pretty straight, Joe Friday stuff.

Or maybe it's that this case wasn't exciting enough in its own right to stand without some kind of emotional connection with the detectives. I thought that's what we were going to get when James chewed out Oswaldo's lawyer. After all, he grew up in a rough neighborhood himself, and lost his brother to a heroin needle, and would therefore have particular animosity towards a dealer like Oswaldo, but it felt like all of his hostility arose simply because Oswaldo was too afraid to come forward. With a little tweaking of that scene, it would've worked much better.

Still, it was better than a lot of the B-plots we've gotten lately, and I'd rather see a slightly weak cop story than a slightly weak romance or comic relief subplot, and the rest of the episode was so incredibly strong that I really didn't mind too much.

What did everybody else think?

Shorter takes:

Couple of random and miscellaneous things. First up, for those of you who missed the first season of "NYPD Blue" and can't wait until next fall for the reruns to start airing so you can find out how Andy met Sylvia, James became a detective, etc., I've started doing summaries from the first season. The first 14 episodes are currently up on the website, with the other eight to follow as I do them. If you wanna wait to meet The Other Guy in person, then don't read 'em.

Seccond, I realize some people are getting sick of all the "EZ Streets" posts, so I'll say my final word on the subject and then shaddup. For those of you who don't know, CBS pulled three of the shows on their Wednesday schedule off the air after only one week, including "EZ Streets" and Steven Bochco's sitcom "Public Morals" (which means that Bill Brochtrup is now looking for work again; which means I can't wait for Upstairs John to come back and replace Geri "Psycho" Turner). CBS president Les Moonves is an "EZ Streets" fan and plans to bring the show back in the spring, but how good a timeslot it gets and how much advertising CBS devotes to it (which was the reason no one watched the first time around; no one knew it was one) is entirely dependent on the fan and critical reaction he gets in the coming weeks. If you watched the show, and even liked it a little, I'd ask you to please write a letter to CBS telling them how much you enjoyed it (exaggerate if you have to :)), and that you can't wait for them to put it back on the air. CBS has both e-mail and snail mail addresses, so this shouldn't take up too much time and effort. They are:

I'd appreciate it if you could take a couple of minutes to do this. Thanks.

See ya in the funny papers...


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