I’ve been a fan of Graceland since it first debuted in early June. It’s well-cast, with a nice blend of drama, action, and humor. Mostly I’ve just been watching it as easy, summer escapism. But this week, in its fourth episode, the show rose above the traditional USA “procedural with spunk” character and set itself apart as something smart and insightful — kind of a rare occurrence in summer tv.
But even before addressing episode four (“Pizza Box”) a brief moment to really applaud the writers for creating strong, independent female characters. It is sadly rare to find a strong female character (Linda Holmes wrote a nice, brief blog about it at npr) today, either in film or on tv: and most of those so-called “strong females” are either (a) overly sexualized, or (b) unrealistically strong. Graceland avoids that, particularly in the character of Charlie: a hard but compassionate, old school Italian woman working for the DEA. She can handle a gun and tough situations, but she doesn’t single-handedly take down bigger, brawnier men. She’s equally comfortable in a dress and heels as t-shirts and jeans. She cooks, she cares about her friends, she parties. She’s as much of a character as any of the male counterparts. (We’ll see about the other female, Paige — the first introduction to her was in a skimpy dress, posing as a mobster’s girlfriend — since then she’s played a strictly supporting role).
But I digress — there’s a whole different piece waiting to be written about what makes a “strong” female character — and it’s not strapping some guns to her thighs and a push-up under a leather corset. But back to “Pizza Box” and what made it so great (and for those who have never seen an episode, check one out before further reading).
Plot A deals with Mike and Briggs getting increasingly deeper in with Bello and his Nigerian druglords. Bello takes a particular interest in Mike, pushing Briggs aside. And here’s the first hint of the episode’s theme of isolation. Until this moment, we viewers have never seen Briggs as anything other than central. He has been in the mastermind behind every big sting and big operation — in this episode, he’s out of action, sidelined to the command center and Graceland himself. Initially he pulls back, dislikes it, disdains it even, until Charlie (strong moment #1 in an understated but compelling showing this episode) points out to him that he should be appreciating results, and not his role in obtaining them. Briggs is brought back into the fold and the family at Graceland.
Meanwhile, Mike is being asked to teach Bello’s men how to shoot — obviously he can’t do that, and the FBI specifically tells him not to teach them anything. Mike’s stranded for a moment — if he teaches them to shoot, he’s potentially strengthening a criminal operation, and if he doesn’t, he’s liable to get his head blown off. The compromise is that he stalls — teaching them how to clean and take care of a gun, but not how to shoot it.
Meanwhile, in Plot #2, Paige is trying to bring down a marijuana farm that is growing more than it’s allotted legal weed, and selling the excess on the black market. Turns out that Jakes has an in with the woman on the farm, and he pulls in Johnny to help bring her down. On route to the farm, they joke about this target being as easy as summercamp — hint number two of that isolation, as the two are promptly separated. Johnny sleeps with the target (up to you whether you view that as “taking one for the team” or “unprofessionally getting laid while on an assignment”) and while leaving in the morning with evidence of overgrowth, gets caught. When Jakes and Paige return to rescue him, the three agree that it’s “not quite like summer camp.
Plot C deals with Charlie and “the Sauce.” It’s a beautiful little scene, as Johnny, Mike, and Jakes gather around Charlie while she regales them with the family mythology surrounding “the Sauce” which takes three days to make and which must all be eaten in one sitting — no left-overs. At the end of the episode, after Johnny, Jakes, and Paige have returned from their mission, and after Mike has successfully stalled his gun lessons, the whole Graceland family gathers to enjoy “the Sauce.” When, of course, Mike is called in by Bello.
Bello has grown suspicious, hearing that Eddie, his lieutenant, is planning to head off to Flagstaff (he can’t get witness protection, because there’s no indictment — but he’s getting out of the drug-selling danger at least). So he calls in Eddie and Mike. Eddie, having figured out that Mike is undercover, tells Bello that Mike’s in the FBI. In a tense standoff, Bello hands Eddie a gun, which he points at Mike’s head. . .and with which he then shoots himself.
Here’s where it gets really good. Mike heads out on a date with his girl from Georgetown, but is so shaken by the whole murder/suicide that he can’t get out a straight sentence and just mumbles about an accident. He can’t tell her what happened to him, but he can’t not talk about it — he’s stuck in a strange world where he has to communicate but can’t. He heads home, where Charlie has, miraculously, left out a plate for him of spaghetti, violating her family tradition of “no leftovers.” Mike, still too shaken up from the standoff, gives his leftovers to Briggs, and the final scene is him barely holding in tears as he begins to clear the pot from “the Sauce” his hands covered in it.
The easy analogy is clear — there’s a connection between Mike washing spaghetti sauce off his hands, and the sense that he’s wiping Eddie’s blood from his hands as well. That’s a strong image to begin with. But even stronger is this sense of isolation. The Sauce was masterfully built up through the episode as a way of bringing people together. Charlie’s family mythology of the sauce revolves around it bringing two lovers together, and the show twice shows the sauce bringing the Graceland family together. But Mike, having to live this life undercover, having to become the very criminals that he wants to fight against, can’t bring himself to share in this family environment — can’t even bring himself to eat the sauce that embodies the virtue. Instead he stands alone at the sink, cleaning it, and removing it.
If the final scene had just been the sauce = blood analogy it would have been strong, but also a little trite — after all, it’s been done before, since Lady MacBeth trying to “out, damn spot!” to recent horror movies. But the build-up behind it in the show is enough to elevate it to something else, and to bring out a theme that has been bubbling beneath the surface of Graceland: where do you find the strength to continue on when you have nobody you trust, nobody to share with, nobody who could understand? The show planted that theme in the first episode, and at the close of “Pizza Box” it’s brought full circle.
It’s an evocative image and makes me, for one, excited to see where this show moves heading forward. While the plotlines are not always the most clever, the acting and the underlying themes are sufficient to keep me tuning in for the rest of the summer.