New Tricks: Esther Lane

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.


  1. Charles RB says

    After reading these entries, I’d be very interested in seeing some on the female cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures if you follow that. (The Sarah/Maria dynamic isn’t something I remember seeing with women on another sci-fi show)

  2. says

    @Kathleen, me, too! This is one series I’ll watch over and over again.

    @Charles, I’m not familiar with it, but I’m adding it to my Netflix queue.

    @SunlessNick, I’d be curious to hear what you thought it would be like, and why? Because the first time I saw part of an episode from Series 1, I thought I was seeing a number of tropes that never go well for women. And in fact, they WERE touching on themes that usually end up making female characters look 2 dimensional, but when I watched everything from the start, it felt more explored than that, and it worked.

  3. SunlessNick says

    I’d be curious to hear what you thought it would be like, and why?

    I was expecting a celebration of “old-fashioned, no-nonsense*” police work at the expense of the force at large.

    * Note that “no-nonsense” in the context of British TV characters is generally a shorthand for characters with no time for modern fads like feminism or social skills. In other words, a synonym of “politically incorrect” (and meant equally positively).

    Therefore, I was expecting Sandra Pullman to be the character used to represent the “nonsense.” Where you say – (imagine Jack O’Neill wrangling three Daniel Jacksons) – I’d expected that she’d be more like IOA of later Stargate seasons, an obstacle rather than an asset.

    The way you’re describing it makes it sound like the “no-nonsense” part is being applied to actual nonsense.

  4. says

    It’s definitely not celebrating the good ol’ days when you could beat on suspects and the women on the force were for bringing you tea. In fact, as they go through old investigations botched by cops taking “shortcuts”, there is much criticism of bad police methodology. (There’s also some criticism of certain aspects of the new ways, like the fact that the Met seems more concerned about PR than about the cases themselves, but that’s reasonable.)

    Sexism and racism are always treated by the show as mistaken attitudes that need to be overcome, not some White Man’s Burden of political correctness. And the people behind the show seem to have an actual understanding of sexism and racism.

  5. Charles RB says

    “the good ol’ days when you could beat on suspects”

    If the suspect is at a protest or rally, you can still do that now sadly.

  6. SunlessNick says

    I’ve had a chance to see the first two series of this now. One thing I like about the portrayal of Esther is that it’s clear there are times she regrets marrying Brian – just not enough to leave him and lose the aspects of their marriage she does like.

    Like when she talks about never having read the Female Eunuch, and says she won’t do so now because it would be like reading a tourist guide to a country she’ll never visit (ill-suited comparison for me, because I like doing that, but I get the sentiment).

  7. says

    Ah, Nick, that’s one of the her most poignant lines. It’s a regret, but the sort of regret borne of not being able to do everything you would have liked to in the one life you have.

  8. SunlessNick says

    I’ve seen more seasons 5 now, and one other thing jumps out at me. It comes up in a few episodes, but the most telling is the one with the model soldier enthusiasts. Brian is spending a lot of time around this hobby, which was something he did in when he was drinking, and Esther is worried about it – that it will make him slip back. The thing I like was that this, and every other time, she expresses such a concern, the other characters [i]always[/i] take her seriously.

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