Murder, She Wrote: A Very Good Year for Murder

In the later half of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote was the episode A Very Good Year for Murder. The episode is set in a vineyard, so the title is a reference to a thing commonly said of wines. Fine wines don’t really enter into the murder, though, so the pun, such as it is, is not great. Pretty scenery, though.

The title card is an overview of the Gambini vineyard. We know because of a voiceover provided by Marco Gambini. The Gambinis grow the finest grapes in the world, using love. The voiceover turns out to be a conversation between Marco and Jessica, as they walk their horses on a trail:

I imagine that actors walking horses is less expensive than having the actors ride them.

Can you believe that a penniless immigrant (his father) created all of this from nothing, he asks? Speaking for myself, I can’t. And I don’t even mean that only God can create ex nihilo. I strongly suspect he had to have some seed money to at least buy the land and some starting grape vines (grapes are grafted, not grown from seed). Still, it does help to establish characters; there is an intense sense of ownership and pride in the vineyard because it was built by the family. There’s also a weird exchange where Marco says “Papa did all of this” and asks Jessica what she thinks and she replies, “I’d say that you are very proud of him, Marco.” Answering a request for an opinion with not giving one is normally an insult, since it implies that anything you could say would be too painful and you’re trying to spare the other person. Marco takes it well, though, saying, “Proud? You bet.”

Jessica is in town for Papa Gambini’s seventy fifth birthday party, because apparently she’s an old friend of the family. How a school teacher in Maine became a family friend of rich vineyard owner in California, I doubt we’ll get an explanation for because I don’t think an explanation is possible. One advantage of Jessica being in her sixties is that she’s had a long time to make friends. Still, this is stretching things, given her small-town backstory.

Here, by the way, is the family mansion:

We then meet one of Marco’s children, Paul, and also (to my surprise) find out how Jessica is a family friend:

It turns out that she used to tutor Paul in English, and in fact Jessica is the reason he was able to stay on the football team in… they don’t say. College is the most likely answer, but how on earth would a kid from California require summer tutoring in English from a high school English teacher in Maine? Are we to suppose he somehow ended up playing football for a university right next to Cabot Cove that had a major football program that fed to the NFL? Jessica’s backstory was that for most of her life she lived in a small town (Cabot Cove), teaching English in the local high school until she retired. She only became a literary titan when her nephew Grady stole a manuscript for a murder mystery that she wrote—to keep busy during her retirement—and showed it to a publisher. (This happened in the pilot episode, The Murder of Sherlock Holmes.)

All that said, stranger things have happened. But how did she go from tutoring Paul in English to being a family friend? Even if Paul was somehow in Cabot Cove during the summers he was at college, that doesn’t explain how any other members of his family met her.

Anyway, another of Marco’s children arrives. His name is Tony:

He introduces himself to Jessica as Paul’s younger brother, and she says that she remembers him. No details on where or how, of course. It’s clear that she hasn’t seen him in years, though.

Paul asks Tony if their sister is coming. He says that she is, presumably with her latest boyfriend. Tony and Paul explain to Jessica that their sister has a constant stream of new boyfriends which she uses to make her father think that she’s going to settle down, but it’s just for show as she’s having too much fun being free. We then meet their aunt, Marco’s sister, Stella:

She tells Tony in a disappointed voice that she got a message from a “John” in Tahoe. John apparently knows horses like Tony knows nuclear physics, which is said in a way that suggests John knows a lot about horses and Tony knows a lot about nuclear physics. He goes off to see about the phone call. After Tony leaves, Paul remarks to Jessica that Tony has a gambling problem, which is a pity because he’s got more brains than the rest of the family put together.

We then meet two more characters:

The woman is Fiona, Marco’s wife. The old man is Salvatore Gambini, the patriarch of the family and the immigrant that Marco spoke about building the vineyard up from nothing. She’s trying to get him to take his medication, but he out-stubborns her and she gives up and hands the pill bottle to Jessica as she leaves. Salvatore asks Paul to leave her and Jessica alone.

Paul overhears Tony on the phone with some gambling associate; there’s not much to the conversation but Tony tells his associate to not threaten him, and moreover he’s definitely good for the money he owes.

We next see Salvatore showing some special wine to Jessica that they’ll have at the evening meal; it’s made from special grapes from northern Italy that he imported 18 years ago and he only drinks it with special people. He then talks to Jessica about how, when he’s dead, all of this will belong to Marco, and he hopes that Marco and his children will value it as much as he (Salvatore) does. He clearly doesn’t believe that they do.

Jessica goes to the kitchen and talks with Stella. She says that Salvatore doesn’t look as good as he should. Stella explains that there’s a company from out east who wants to buy the vineyard. Salvatore is fighting it, but how much fight does he have left? Jessica reasonably points out that if Salvatore doesn’t want to sell, that’s the end of it, but Stella refutes this by saying that the men who want to buy the vineyard wear suits. (I’m not kidding. Her exact words are, “Do you know what kind of people we’re talking about here? Men in fancy suits who make screwdrivers and shaving cream.”)

The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Michelle with her boyfriend-of-the-week, Ben Skyler. (Michelle is the wayward sister Paul and Tony talked about before.)

I will miss giant hair and shoulder pads when we get into the later seasons.

Paul and Tony come out to meet their sister and are introduced to Ben. He makes some small talk which makes Ben seem as dumb as a box of rocks, then they go in.

The camera pulls back to Marco’s room, where he was watching this happen through a window. Fiona is sitting on a chair in front of a mirror in a dressing gown, brushing her hair. He mutters frustration at how Michelle can’t keep a boyfriend, but Fiona changes the subject to how oppressive living on a vineyard is and how she and Marco are just part of the farm equipment. Fiona is not at all a sympathetic character, and I suspect that she’s being set up as a suspect for Salvatore’s murder. Time will tell, though.

The scene shifts to dinner, which is quite awkward. Paul talks about his recent football games which Stella finds offensive because of the violence. Tony accuses Paul of accepting bribes to throw games, or at least that the team is even if Paul isn’t. There’s a lot of complaining and not much in the way of manners. Marco interrupts the bickering with a toast to his father. Salvatore then makes a speech about how happy he is to have his family (plus Jessica, who is like family) gathered together, and how it warms his heart that they will all toil for the rest of their lives on his precious vineyard, long after he’s gone. (That’s not quite how he puts, but it’s not too far off.)

The next morning Tony wakes Salvatore to tell him that he’s got to run off to Tahoe for business but will be back in time for the party—he’s chartered a plane. Salvatore is very understanding. He intends to sleep in, though, so he asks Tony to go fetch some wine from the basement so it can be decanted. He then tells Tony not to do anything dumb, and that if he gets in trouble he should come to his grandfather.

As Tony goes into the cellar one of the steps gives way and he falls. The rest of the family wakes up and finds Tony on the floor at the bottom of the steps.

Hard to see how he hit the front of his head but is lying unconscious on his back.

Then we go to commercial break.

When we come back, Tony is sitting on a stool in the kitchen having his wound cleansed by Stella.

Jessica goes to the cellar, where Paul is installing a makeshift new step. Jessica examines the old step. Paul remarks that it’s just an old step that gave way. Jessica says that in spite of the splintered wood, it’s obvious that the step had been sawed through:

The prop department went to town on this board.

Maybe this is a Californian wood I’m unfamiliar with, but that’s not how normal wood breaks when you support it on two ends and put pressure in the middle. For one thing, the fibers are bent in both directions (up and down). Really, the fibers look like they were raised by being banged with a hammer edge-on, or perhaps with a chisel. When wood fails from weight being applied to the middle, it’s one of two ways: either you get tensile failure (the fibers are pulled apart from each other) or you get delamination (layers of wood grain that correspond to growth rings separate from each other). This is neither of those.

Perhaps worse, the part of the board that was clearly sawed through is about 5% of the total cross-sectional area of the board. On a step as big and thick as the one shown, that wouldn’t even make it creak. There’s no way it would not result in catastrophic failure.

Now, based on what Jessica said, it is established that, plot-wise, the board failed from being tampered with, so that’s what we need to base our understanding of the plot on. So, we’ll do that. I just don’t understand the purpose of a close-up of the evidence that’s completely wrong.

Paul and Jessica don’t do anything with this information, though. The scene shifts to Tony leaving to go to Tahoe and having an argument with his father while doing it, but it’s just yelling and a rehash of what we already know. Then we move on to the party that night.

Jessica strikes up a conversation with Ben Skyler. He’s not dancing with Michelle, and Jessica asks if it’s not his kind of music. He says that when it comes to dancing, he’s all thumbs. He then tells her that he grew up on a little farm outside of Moline, Illinois, and wrote stories. He asks for advice on novel writing. Jessica’s advice is to read, read, and read some more.

This isn’t the worst advice in the world, to be sure, but at the same time writing is actually pretty important, too. Writing is a skill that takes practice, and some advice about going for it and not waiting around until you think you can do it perfectly would probably be better advice than just doing copious amounts of reading.

Be that as it may, Jessica says that she’s in the middle of a gripping novel by P.D. James. Ben says that he loves “his” (James’) work. Jessica corrects him that P.D. James is a she, not a he—the P is for Phyllis—and Ben laughs and says that he knew that. This establishes pretty clearly that Ben is lying, though not why. Whatever the reason, though, he clearly isn’t the sharpest light bulb in the picnic basket

Later on at the party the local police chief, Thaddeus Kyle, introduces himself to Jessica and asks her about the accident that morning. He’s got men stationed around the place, and asks if she has any ideas who might have done it—he’s heard of her reputation as an amateur solver of crimes. Jessica demurely says that her reputation is exaggerated, then gets down to business but doesn’t have any ideas.

The next morning everyone gathers in the kitchen and Salvatore invites Jessica to pick the wine for lunch. They go down to the wine cellar and discover Ben Skyler, dead on the floor.

The wine cellar’s constant temperature should help with the time of death.

This was definitely an unexpected turn of events. It’s hard to imagine who could want the poor dope dead. No one even knew him.

Anyway, as soon as Jessica stoops over the body and announces who it is, we go to commercial break.

When we come back Thaddeus Kyle is overseeing the body being put into an ambulance to be taken to the morgue. Then Jessica questions Michelle and asks if Ben could have had a heart condition she didn’t know about. Michelle says that she didn’t really know him well. She met him eight weeks ago when he came to the agency she works for and asked her boss for a copywriting job.

Jessica confers with Thaddeus and he tells her that the doctor puts the time of death at around 2am, give or take an hour. The cause of death is uncertain, but could be poison. Another thing that concerns Thaddeus is that the door to the wine cellar was locked, and there’s only one key—Salvatore’s. He keeps it in the nightstand by his bed. Jessica asks if Thaddeus is accusing Salvatore, and Thaddeus says no, someone could have copied the key or even borrowed it while the old man was sleeping—he’s reputed to be a sound sleeper. What he’s getting at is that it points at someone inside the house.

Jessica asks to see Ben’s luggage, and Thaddeus agrees. They go to do it and it’s revealed that Marco was listening in from behind a nearby door.

I know that look. It means he’s not the killer but we’re supposed to think he is.

Jessica and Thaddeus go through Ben’s luggage. Jessica finds a receipt from a gas station in Long Island City, NY. It’s dated nine weeks ago, which is one week before Michelle met him. However, he had told her (in their brief conversation) that he had spent the last four months in California researching lost gold mines. Jessica wants to know why he lied about that. Thaddeus points out, reasonably, that he didn’t exactly lie; a short trip to New York City over two months ago would hardly be worth mentioning in small talk at a party. Jessica admits the possibility in a way that makes it clear she doesn’t believe it for a second.

This is a weakness that Murder, She Wrote has because of time constraints. It doesn’t really have the time to put many clues out and very little time for red herrings. As a result, when it tries to make it seem possible that clues are red herrings, it tends to overdo it because it doesn’t have time to provide the counter-evidence that the clue is a real clue. In this case, it isn’t even a little bit strange that the guy didn’t mention being in New York nine weeks ago while making small talk—he wasn’t very conversationally skilled, but irrelevant details are precisely the sort of thing one should leave out at a party when you get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk with a famous author.

Also, he never actually said he was in California for the last four months. His exact words were, “For the last four months, I’ve been writing every day on a piece about lost California gold mines.”

In the next scene Jessica is snooping around the outside of the house when Salvatore walks up and asks what she’s doing. She says that she’s almost embarrassed to tell him, and he surmises that she’s “playing detective.” She explains that Thaddeus thinks that someone inside the house killed Ben, so she was hoping to find some indication that someone broke into the house. Salvatore angrily says that Thaddeus is crazy for thinking it was someone inside the house. This indignation is odd, since how could an outsider sneak Ben into Salvatore’s private wine cellar? Jessica changes the subject to asking about Ben, though of course Salvatore knows nothing. Michelle has a new boyfriend each month; they’re all the same so why should he take notice? Jessica says that there’s something different about this one. She relates the P.D. James story to no effect, then says that he drove a luxury car and wore expensive clothes, despite claiming to be an unsuccessful writer who grew up on a farm in Illinois.

They’re interrupted by the news that Tony is back. Apparently he didn’t show up for the party as he’d promised; no one mentioned it at the party so this is the first we’d found out about it. There’s some pointless bickering, then a call comes in from Thaddeus for Jessica, so she excuses herself. The Coroner’s report is in and the cause of death was, indeed, poison. (No poison is named. Just… generic poison.) That’s not the only news he has, however. On a hunch, he sent Ben’s fingerprints “to the central file in Washington” (I assume this means with the FBI). Ben Skyler’s real name is Benito Soriano. He is, or was, a hitman for the mob.

(“Benito Soriano” seems to me to be quite a stretch. The guy had no accent; certainly not a NY Italian accent, and I suspect that the actor, Grant Goodeve, is about as Italian as Angela Lansbury. I mention this not to nitpick, but to say that the casting/acting was misleading. I suppose, though, he could have been actually quite intelligent and merely faking his accent as well as pretending to be dumb in order to make people not suspect him.)

In the next scene Michelle is sitting in Thaddeus’ office, telling him about Ben.

I really admire the set decoration. It feels like a real office.

The only thing is that she doesn’t have anything to tell. They met when he came in looking for a copywriting job, one thing led to another, and they went on a date the following evening. Jessica asks who initiated the date and it was Ben. I’m not sure what the point of that is, though, since it would be unusual for the woman to ask the man out, just given social norms. Jessica also asks if he ever tried to pump her for information about anyone in the family, but he didn’t.

Thaddeus lets Michelle go and Marco takes her home. Jessica stays behind to speculate with the chief. He asks who Ben would have been there to kill, and Jessica says that if Tony’s accident was Ben’s handiwork, the target must have been Salvatore. Thaddeus asks who might have done it; he wonders about Tony’s shady Tahoe contacts.

Jessica dismisses this because Tony was injured; Thaddeus says that he just got a bump on the head and for all anyone knows didn’t even fall. The problem with this counterpoint, that otherwise could have raised suspicion, is that we, the viewer, saw Tony fall when he was alone. Be that as it may, both of these arguments seem to miss the fact that there’s no reason to suppose that—if Tony had hired the mob hitman—that he’d know who the hitman was, and still less that he’d know how the hitman planned to perform the hit. Since (I assume) Tony isn’t the culprit, though, I suppose it’s OK that they miss this.

In the next scene, a weird, open-mouthed fellow whose name turns out to be Steve Ridgely shows up at the Gambini mansion in a blue car.

His mouth was open before he got out of the car.

I don’t know why he keeps his mouth open so much of the time; it’s a very strange acting choice. It doesn’t seem to be part of the character, though, as it’s never remarked on. He’s come to talk to Paul, explaining that he took the first flight he could could get when he heard about the murder on TV in LA. Paul suggests that they go for a drive.

As they drive off the scene shifts to Salvatore’s office, where Salvatore wants to know who it is and Marco says that he will ask the deputy later. Right now he wants to grill Tony about the fifty thousand dollar check he wrote when he doesn’t have fifty dollars in his bank account. Tony whines that “they were threatening me!” Marco is furious, and Salvatore tells him to leave. Salvatore then gives Tony a check and a lecture about how he needs Tony to take over the vineyard when he and Marco are gone, since he’s the smart one.

There’s an interesting part to the conversation where he says, “I’m an old man. I don’t have much time left. I don’t want to die with things like they are now.” Tony replies that Salvatore won’t die, and Salvatore corrects him, “Everybody dies. It’s what you do before you die that’s important.”

I like this scene both for the content and the characterization. The episode hasn’t been subtle about Salvatore being concerned with the vineyard, but it does establish that he has a sense of urgency about fixing the problems with his wayward grandchildren, but doesn’t know how to do it.

After this Jessica runs into Steve and Paul. Paul introduces Steve, and Jessica asks if he’s on Paul’s football team. Steve laughs, and Paul hesitates, then says that Steve is an investment advisor. Whatever he is, he’s clearly not an investment advisor.

Salvatore then asks Jessica to come into his office. He’s upset because Thaddeus had called him and asked questions about the company that wanted to buy his winery, because Jessica told him about it. He then yells at her that his business dealings have nothing to do with the death of the hired killer.

Ordinarily, I’d take that to be a slip—that he shouldn’t have known Ben was a hired killer—but since he was recently talking to Thaddeus, it’s possible that Thad told him.

Jessica suggests that it might be related—that the so-called accident was clearly aimed at him, not at Tony. Salvatore angrily replies, “I don’t know what that New York bum was up to. The guy is dead. Who cares?”

Again, this is information that Salvatore shouldn’t know, unless Thaddeus told him, which he very well might have done. It’s also suspiciously bizarre. How could what the “New York bum” was up to not be relevant to his murder investigation?

Salvatore insists that Ben’s death has nothing to do with anything, and the people who want to buy the winery have nothing to do with anything, and in fact nothing has anything to do with anything, and Jessica should just go home.

Jessica leaves to pack her things and we go to commercial break.

When we come back from commercial break, Jessica finds Steve Ridgley sneaking around some room he’s not supposed to be in. She rushes away but Paul catches her before she makes it many steps and tells her that it’s not what she thinks, but he can’t tell the rest of the family. In a private conference Steve shows his credentials—it turns out that he’s a special investigator working for the football commission investigating gambling. There had been rumors that some of Paul’s teammates had thrown some games and Paul was working with Steve to find out if they were true, and if so, who was involved.

Jessica says that she now understands; when Steve heard that a mob killer turned up on the Gambini house, he thought that the mob might have hired a killer to put an end to the investigation. Paul then says that it doesn’t make sense that anyone would go to that much trouble to kill him. They could have killed him anytime, anywhere—he’s a proverbial sitting duck. (Which is a slightly odd metaphor because it is his frequent traveling that makes him accessible, but the point is that one hardly needs to lay months of groundwork to get at him to kill him.)

Jessica agrees, and then in a moment of inspiration says that the same is true of Tony. She doesn’t say it, but she knows of whom that isn’t true.

Clue face.

She excuses herself and goes off to confront Stella.

Just kidding.

After clue face, it’s the kiss of death for Jessica to walk in on you alone.

The odd thing, here, is that Jessica has maintained throughout the entire episode—at least since Ben Skyler turned out to be a hitman—that the real target had to be Salvatore. How she had a revelation of what she already knew, I can’t figure.

Jessica confronts Salvatore and he admits it. He researched all of Michelle’s boyfriends through contacts of his, and when he research “Ben Skyler” he found out who he was. He let Ben come because he figured that him being murdered might finally bring his family together. His health is bad and he only had a few months to live, anyway. He willed the winery to the entire family in equal portions, where none could sell unless they all agreed on it, and wrote up a letter explaining what happened in an envelope marked “To be opened in the event of my death”

Those don’t look like Angela Lansbury’s hands, to me.

Salvatore soured on this plan when Tony was almost killed, so he brought Ben down and gave him a very special wine—the first wine that Salvatore ever bottled. Ben’s palate was so dull he didn’t taste anything; neither the wine nor the poison. Salvatore remarks in disgust that he shouldn’t have wasted the good wine on Ben; he should have given him junk. (How a fifty year old wine wasn’t junk, he didn’t say. Most wines go bad after a few years.) He then asks Jessica to make sure that his family gets that letter and collapses. Salvatore was drinking wine while talking with Jessica and it’s implied, but not stated, that he laced his wine with poison as he was confessing to Jessica. Or possibly that he just kept the bottle of poisoned wine from when he murdered Ben and that’s what he drank.

The scene shifts to a hospital waiting room, where the family plus Jessica and Thaddeus are gathered.

That’s quite the hospital waiting room, even for the 80s.

After a bit, Fiona gets up and walks to Jessica (who is sitting next to Paul) and tells her that they all want her to know that, whatever happens, the family is going to fight to keep the winery. Jessica is very relieved by this, and Fiona continues that she’s been very selfish and never realized how much Marco was like his father—how much he loved the place.

Then the doctor walks in and says that Salvatore is going to make it. He’s asked for Marco. Marco and Fiona go off to his room.

Jessica and Thaddeus then talk, privately. Thaddeus remarks that there are parts of his job that he hates (that he’s going to have to arrest his friend for murder). Jessica points out that the only real evidence against Salvatore is his confession, and it’s fading fast in her memory. By the time the county prosecutor got around to questioning her, she wouldn’t be surprised if she’d forgotten it entirely. Thaddeus thinks on this and remarks that if Salvatore got himself a good lawyer, it would be six months, at least, by the time they got him to trial. By that time, it hardly seems worth the bother of the paperwork. Jessica says, “That was my thought,” and we go to credits.

Overall, I’d say that this was in the bottom half of Murder, She Wrote episodes. In many ways it suffered from the limitations of TV of its era. For example, Jessica is a close family friend of the Gambinis but we’ve never heard of these people before and never will again. Worse, from the perspective of consistent characterization, she is a dear family friend despite the fact that she spent her life teaching high school English in Cabot Cove, Maine, while Salvatore and Marco, if not necessarily their children, spent their lives growing grapes in California. Also, despite being a close family friend, she hasn’t seen them in a long time and this is the first time she’s seen the vineyard. There’s just no way to take this and the characters seriously. But television writers, in the 1980s, largely didn’t take their characters seriously. They were so focused on the individual episode that they generally were willing to sacrifice the characters for the needs of the moment. (I’ve read about this in books about TV screenwriting.)

Another thing typical of 1980s screenwriting was the focus on the drama of the moment. This was driven in large part by the existence of TV remotes and the (comparative) plethora of channels which had become recently available; it was important to always hold people’s attention so they wouldn’t flip the channel. Thus we get the nonsensical drama of Ben Skyler being killed right where Tony was almost killed the night before. It made for a great moment to go to commercial break on. It would really hook the viewer to not flip the channel, or at least to come back after a minute. But it made absolutely no sense.

Ben’s murder was premeditated and carried out at Salvatore’s convenience. Why would he do it in his private wine cellar and lock the door? He couldn’t really expect that the police wouldn’t investigate, and killing Ben in a place where only a member of the family could have done it was just asking for trouble.

The whole thing about Ben having been killed by “poison” was also badly done. That’s just not how cause-of-death works. Poisons kill people by some actual means, such as cardiac arrest, asphyxiation, etc. Cyanide, for example, (in high doses) generally kills by cardiac arrest. If you look at a corpse killed with a high dose of cyanide, you’ll find, basically, that they died of heart failure (I’m oversimplifying). To find out that it was cyanide, you have to run tests to detect cyanide in their body. And so it goes with other poisons; they kill by making some part of the body fail, so to the degree that you can tell how they died, you’ll find that they died of something-failure. It’s chemical tests for particular poisons that let you find out that the poison was in sufficient quantities in the body to determine that it was the poison that caused the whatever-failure.

This is why there are undetectable poisons—because there are no specific tests for the poison. It’s also why there are many detectable poisons that often go undetected—because no one thinks to test for that poison. This is why recognizing the symptoms of rare poisons was a somewhat popular subject in golden age mysteries—without knowing what to test for, the odds of finding it were essentially nil. Without knowing that the person was poisoned, it was very hard to prove that someone murdered his uncle to inherit the title and fortune since as far as anyone could tell, the uncle died of natural causes.

Here, all we have is that Ben Skyler died of “poison.” And this isn’t a detail. The kind of poison really matters; did it kill almost instantly or hours later? That’s going to dramatically effect questions like where was he killed and who did it?

That said, it won’t affect questions like, “how did he get into Salvatore’s locked wine cellar?”

Which is a question which Salvatore really should have asked himself before killing Ben there. It’s a question which should have been central to the investigation and was only dropped in favor of investigating Ben’s background as a mob killer because, I suspect, it would have led directly to Salvatore too quickly.

Also, why did a New York organized crime syndicate want to buy the Gambini winery so badly that they’d first offer a lot of money then send a hitman on a multi-month assignment to kill Salvatore in order to get it? If they just really want to make good wines, there are plenty of wineries in the finger lakes region of upstate New York that they could try to acquire. If they want to make money, making wine isn’t exactly a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s even less of a get-rich-quick scheme if you pay a high price for the winery, which is usually what happens if you make a very handsome offer and the offer gets accepted. So what was the idea?

And why would this crime syndicate pick a dumb hitman to go off to pretend to be Michelle’s boyfriend for months in order to get into the house? Jessica tried to explain it as Salvatore rarely leaving the house anymore, but it’s a big house with few people in it, not a fortress. I assume Marco and Fiona live there too, but Marco works in the vineyard, most days, and I’d tend to assume that Fiona likes to drive elsewhere. It wouldn’t be that hard to wait for Stella to go to the grocery store, or the beauty parlor, or somewhere, and then go into the house and push Salvatore down the stairs. Heck, it would be pretty easy to pretend to be a burglar and kill Salvatore when the old man caught the “burglar”. If he had a flair for the dramatic, he could have just shot Salvatore through a window then left a note saying, “In the old country you shot my father through a window before you fled. Finally, justice has caught up with you.” They might have thought a lot of things, but probably not, “let’s not sell to that eastern company because the crime syndicate that they’re a front for probably had Papa killed this way so they could buy it.”

Becoming someone’s boyfriend for two months is such an uncertain way to gain access to their grandfather, too. She could get tired of him and move on at any moment.

The character of the football investigator was an interesting plot thread, though it was only there for about seven minutes (by timestamps). That’s something of another issue with this episode—instead of front-loading possibilities then working through them, the episode tended to deal with one thing at a time. There was Ben’s mysterious identity, which was answered almost immediately. There was the question of what Michelle could tell us about Ben—which was absolutely nothing. Then there was the mysterious investment advisor, who turned out to be a football investigator two scenes later. Had these things been re-ordered—and had Michelle even had so much as a red herring to tell about Ben—it would have given us a lot more to chew on during the episode.

There’s also an issue that comes up in a lot of Murder, She Wrote episodes, which is that the murderer didn’t have much of a motive for the murder. Usually, though, it’s more that the murderer turning to murder is an over-reaction. This is excusable because we need a murder each week and human beings do occasionally overreact. In this case, it’s contrary to the murderer’s immediate and long term motives. Salvatore permitted the hitman to come because he thought that being murdered might help to solidify the family. OK. But when the hitman proved to be dangerous to others, why kill the hitman? Why not simply tell him to leave? Either he leaves, which makes him not a danger to the grandkids, or he kills Salvatore then and there since his cover was blown, which is what Salvatore wanted.

Then we come to the issue of what Salvatore wants, which is a major driver of the plot of this episode: that all of his descendants will spend their lives working on his vineyard. This is always portrayed as a noble thing, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with growing excellent wine on a vineyard and making a lot of money by selling it to people. There is just nothing especially wonderful about it, either. It’s simply a way to earn one’s living, and perhaps an art form. There are many ways to earn a living and many forms of art. The vineyard is his dream. To be fair, it’s also Marco’s dream. But if it’s not his grandchildren’s dream, that’s either the way things go or his fault, depending on whether God didn’t make his grandchildren to be wine makers or whether they had the potential to love making wines as he did and were never shown what’s good about it.

I suspect that the grandchildren taking an interest in the winery is related to Murder, She Wrote‘s theme that old things are still good. There was a generational disconnect which existed, and which older people partially blamed younger people for. The younger generation didn’t value the things the older generation did, and they should. Etc. etc. So I suspect it was enough that this had that structure; it was referencing a problem that most of the audience would recognize, so it didn’t need to be plausible in itself.

In thinking about what went wrong in this episode, it seems to me that a big part of it is that there were a lot of characters, but they were all wasted. The grand children had potential, but none of them were taken anywhere with it. Paul is somewhat dutiful but mostly uninvolved. Further, being a professional football player would have made him financially independent of the winery, but this never comes up. He neither seems to show interest in the winery nor disinclination for it; the closest we come is a moment when Thaddeus offers Paul a job as a deputy and Salvatore says no, he’s going to work in the winery when he retires from football. Paul says nothing, positive or negative.

Tony’s gambling problem drives a lot of yelling in the episode, and some lecturing and some sighing, but very little else. Tony isn’t emotionally connected to anyone else, except his father who is angry with him, so his gambling problem just kind of takes up space. I think it was supposed to provide an alternative target for the hitman, but Tony will drive up to Tahoe so that his gambling associates can beat him up, so it’s not a very realistic possibility.

Michelle is barely even a character. She’s in the story to bring Ben to the house. Apart from that and being the occasion of a bit of complaining, she ads nothing to the episode.

When we come to their parents, it’s no better. Fiona resents Salvatore and the winery, even though she married into it, then repents of wanting luxury for no reason we can see.

Marco is angry at his sons for bickering, angry at Tony for gambling, secretly angry at Michelle for not settlng down, and annoyed with Thaddeus for questioning Michelle when her boyfriend turns out to be a mob hitman, as if Thaddeus should just ignore the presence of a mob hitman. Other than a few lines here and there about being proud of his father, all he brings is negativity. Even the part where he’s praising his father, he does negatively: “When I die, I hope the only thing they say about me is, ‘he was the son of Salvatore Gambini’.” Granted, he adds “and that, ‘he was a credit to his father’.” Still, that’s not much in the way of positivity.

Also, when my children come to die, I hope that people will be able to say more about them than that they were my children.

Anyway, with all of these wasted characters, there wasn’t much time to do anything good. Though that’s only a partial excuse; what they had could have been better had they re-ordered it to produce some mystery.

So, I’ve pointed out a lot of problems with this episode; is there anything good to say about it?

Salvatore Gambini’s accent was a lot of fun and the actor who played him (Eli Wallach) played him quite well. The police chief, Thaddeus Kyle, was a fun character. He didn’t get a ton of screen time, but he was intelligent and humble. Murder, She Wrote could use more police chiefs like him.

Ummmm.

I’m having trouble, here. Most of the things that weren’t problems were merely… serviceable. You’d think a California winery would at least provide beautiful scenery, but all we get is an overview at the title card and a narrow path with greenery on the side during the horse walking. There are some overview shots of the house, too, but they’re nothing spectacular. So even the setting is merely serviceable.

Oh well. Next week’s episode is Benedict Arnold Slipped Here, set in Cabot Cove. That’s promising.

5 thoughts on “Murder, She Wrote: A Very Good Year for Murder

  1. Pingback: Murder, She Wrote: Benedict Arnold Slipped Here – Chris Lansdown

  2. Pingback: Murder She Wrote: Murder Through the Looking Glass – Chris Lansdown

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