I’m scared of Whoopi Goldberg.
It’s only temporary. I’ve known she was a fine dramatic actor ever since The Color Purple, but she plays quite possibly the most chilling criminal in the entire Law & Order franchise in an episode called “To the Bone.” The episode also shows women relating to men in ways other than mom, victim or lover, so there’s a lot to talk about. Spoilers below the “more” tag.
Despite the length of this, some elements of the story have been left out: if you want more story details, just ask.
Barek (Annabella Sciorra) and Logan (Chris Noth) are investigating two home invasions in which entire families were slaughtered with machetes, a child was brutally tortured until he gave up his rich friends’ addresses, another child was sodomized with a tennis racket, and small valuable (easily fenced) art pieces were stolen. Whoever’s behind this is clever and vicious, and the clock is ticking.
They get a lead on one of the perpetrators, a young man who turns out to be a former foster child of Goldberg’s character, Chesley Watkins. She a well-respected woman who once ran a foster agency and now raises foster kids – only boys, because “boys listen to their mothers”. Her “boys”, as she constantly calls them, are extremely well-mannered, and one of them even went on to become a cop. But it turns out they’re so under her control that even after they’ve left her care she’s manipulating them into committing these hideous crimes so she can fence the goods to pay for her upkeep. Her source of income was until recently the fostering, which she’d done without taking the usual psychiatric exam (she got a pass on that because she’d run a foster agency). Now the state has demanded that everyone take the exam, and they’ve stopped sending her boys because she hasn’t taken it.
This is bad. It means she’s crazy, she knows she’s crazy, and she doesn’t care.
If it was just about money, she could’ve gotten that through less horrific criminal methods. No, she has a need to destroy others in the course of getting what she wants: the families, her boys (more on this later), and eventually Mike Logan. She’s a pathological narcissist who sees other people as mere things that should serve her or be destroyed – and Logan was raised by a mother who treated him much the same way. Naturally, Watkins and Logan zero in on each other instantly, in that way abusive people and survivors of abuse do in real life. (By the way, if you know the Angela Lansbury version of The Manchurian Candidate, you can let your memory of her character flesh out Ms. Watkins for you – they’re very similar.)
Watkins sets up two of her former foster “boys” – the one the cops have a lead on and the one who became an undercover cop and has nothing to do with the killings – to be beaten to death by the others at a diner (her motive seems to be the mere possibility these two could be turned on her by police). Barek and Logan are staking the place out, so they intervene when the beating begins. In the confusion, the undercover cop – who’s literally been beaten senseless – fails to identify himself as a cop and swings his gun around until it’s pointed at Barek. Logan shoots him.
The shooting is by the book and he’s almost instantly cleared, but the fact remains: Logan has killed a fellow cop. He’s devastated. In shock, he keeps trying to wander off to the hospital to give blood as a symbolic gesture, and Barek has to babysit him until the scene is secured and Internal Affairs has questioned everyone. Eventually, she drives him to the hospital so he can give blood.
Meanwhile, Watkins senses an opportunity. She holds a press conference in which the boy the cops were watching comes forward to cooperate with police so he can be “cleared”. She expresses her hope that the police will take better care of this boy than they did of her other one. Instead of being cleared, of course, he’s arrested. And while he’s in jail but outside his cell, she or someone under her control stabs him to death.
Her boys are just pawns. She makes them commit crimes for her, then disposes of them when she feels like it. Women like this do exist in real life, but on-screen this level of power abuse is usually relegated to men. Why? On TV, women are almost never shown to have complete control over men – our society is in denial that it’s possible. TV women always have to give up something – usually sex – in order to manipulate men. Chesley Watkins controls and destroys grown men without servicing or appealing to them in any way. What the vixen character sugarcoats, Watkins paints starkly: the imbalanced system we have does not just victimize women.
Watkin’s manipulations don’t work on Logan because he’s already survived someone like her. But in the end, the cops’ only witness is one of her boys that they tricked into turning on her. Rather than testify against her, the boy commits suicide and Watkins gets away with her crimes.There is one other very telling and refreshing sequence. The day after the shooting, Logan is still traumatized but functioning. He’s hardly been out of Barek’s sight since this whole nightmare began. That evening they’re at a restaurant talking about the case. When she announces she’s going home, he remarks that she lives all the way in Brooklyn and his place is just down the street – why not stay there? Barek goes stone cold. He plays innocent by assuring her he’ll take the couch (with a smile that’s anything but innocent), but she says “I don’t believe you have a couch that big” and volunteers to forget what he just suggested “on account of you’re not in your right head”. As an aside, this may be the only investigative drama I know of that would use something like this not to hint at potential romance but to show how troubled one of the partners is.
She leaves. Logan goes to the bar to get another drink, and a woman hits on him – by “hits on”, I mean “asks him to take her home about thirty seconds into the encounter”. He’s all for it… until he realizes how intoxicated she is and tells her “another time”. Then he walks out and makes a call on his cell phone.
Next scene: he’s at the home of Dr. Elizabeth Olivet, the police psychiatrist who counseled him way back in the original series’ second season, after his partner was assassinated. She diagnoses post-traumatic stress disorder and recognizes that his come-on to Barek was really an attempt to “provoke her”. Despite his actions having been correct, he wants someone to punish him because, as he says, “I killed a cop”. Olivet tells him it will simply take time for him to accept what happened. And she points out that ten years ago, he wouldn’t have come to her of his own accord – that represents progress on his part.
This sequence is particularly revealing of Logan, who is undoubtedly the focus of the episode (aside from Watkins – the criminal is always the focus on L&O), but it also say ssomething about all those ways women relate to men that TV and film rarely explore. Barek is a colleague, just like Logan’s previous male partners, and this single hint of him sexualizing her throws the non-sexual aspects of their relationship into even more stark relief: he hits on her because it’s the one thing she won’t tolerate in the extremely forgiving relationship police partners have to maintain. The drunk woman at the bar represents Logan’s attempt to use sex as emotional anesthetic. Symbolically, it fails before it even gets started – as that tactic always does, eventually.
Olivet is the one woman he should be seeing on this crazy night. She understands him, and that’s significant because he’s spent a lifetime trying to keep women from doing that. She’s the only woman in the course of the series he’s allowed to get that close – that might not be clear from this single episode, but for those of us who watched the early seasons, we’re seeing a recall not only of her counseling him after his partner’s death, but of him being the cop she called to report her own rape (in an episode I should probably write about sometime, for handling the subject rather well). There’s a powerful level of intimacy between them, even though they’re not friends or anything outside of work and whatever counseling she’s given him. That intimacy is possible largely because she’s none of the three things most TV women are: a mother figure, a potential lover or a victim to rescue (no, not even in the rape episode). Instead of relying on those lazy characterizations, which Logan’s character has well-established rote reactions to, this show knocks them violently off the table then proceeds to dig deeper. The focus may be Logan, but instead of letting his characterization overshadow that of Watkins, Barek or Olivet, the writers wrote women who could challenge him to grow. Everything this episode reveals about him comes not at the expense of female characterization, but through it.