New Tricks has the most enjoyable female lead I’ve ever seen in a crime drama: Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman. But there’s a secondary character – a frequently recurring guest role – who also really interests me: Esther Lane.
Esther is the wife of Brian Lane, one of Sandra’s team of retired detectives. To reveal Esther, I need to tell you that Brian is a real piece of work. He’s brilliant, with an incredible memory, but he’s obsessive, anxious, depressed, highly suggestible and a recovering alcoholic. He doesn’t really get human emotions or body language, which makes him incredibly oblivious to social cues. The Brian we know now is maddening but well-meaning and adorable, but we get glimpses of how hard it must have been to live with him when he was still drinking and on the police force. He’s absent from all the photos of Esther and their young son, for example.
Naturally, such a character has a long-suffering wife with a recessive personality who’s willing to tolerate endless amounts of crap, right? Esther is both long-suffering and recessive, but there’s a limit to how much she will tolerate. Brian’s lack of sensitivity, she tolerates, sometimes to the point of internalizing stuff she probably shouldn’t. But in the second episode of the first series, she discovers he’s still snooping into an old case he promised he would leave alone, so she immediately packs up and goes to stay with her sister, without a second thought. Brian eventually realizes the only way to get her back is to drop the case for real, and so he does – and what looked like it was set to be a series-long story arc for Brian is hardly ever mentioned again.
This is the first signal that Esther may be remarkably patient, but not a doormat.
Her tolerance limits are better defined in series two, when Esther – generally frustrated by Brian’s general obliviousness, rather than anything particular he’s done lately – cuts her hand badly while washing dishes (this is what I meant by “internalizing stuff she probably shouldn’t”). The doctor puts her on complete bed rest, which means Brian will have to do everything for her. He promises very earnestly, but you know he’s just not up to the task, and so do the other two retired detectives (Jack and Gerry) on the squad. Fortunately, they pitch in to help – and discover Brian has never once cooked a meal in his life, and is planning on serving Esther ice cream the whole time she recovers (he also brings her some knitting to do, like she can use her hands). They make Esther comfortable, cook gourmet meals for her and bring the TV into the bedroom for her. When the team finally gets some old TV footage they needed to solve the current case, they all pile into bed and watch it with Esther. She’s the one who points out something that helps them solve the case. And this is not the first time she’s helped Brian with a case.
That seems to be what makes Brian realize most profoundly how he depends on her. So in the next episode or so, we find Brian determined to learn to cook for Esther. Naturally, he starts with a souffle instead of something suited to a beginner, producing one of the funniest TV sequences ever: as Esther sits at the table waiting for dinner, the first souffle stays put when he pulls out the rack it’s on - stuck to the ceiling of the oven. The second one comes out a pile of charred carbon. The third comes out looking perfect, but proves to be hard as a rock.
The reason why I love Esther is that there will always be people who are willing to do 99% of the giving in a relationship because it suits their personality type. There’s nothing at all wrong with that – relationships don’t have to be 50-50 to be healthy. It’s when someone’s doing 100% of the giving and getting no response from the partner (other than the occasional meaningless “here’s some damn flowers, now shut up” gesture) that the relationship becomes hollow. Brian does actually prove now and again that he cares about Esther and means to do right by her. A doormat requires nothing from a partner and will tolerate anything, because s/he thinks s/he has no choice. Esther chooses to have requirements of Brian, however minimal, and limits to her tolerance, however high. I find it refreshing to see a “long-suffering wife” character I’m encouraged to respect rather than scoff at.
Because there’s something at the end of the fifth series that probably throws all this into stark relief in Series 6, I should mention that no one outside the U.K. can have seen Series 6 yet because it’s not even on Region 2 DVDs yet. You’re welcome to talk about that series in comments, but please put a spoiler alert on your comment if you do.