On the first day of May in the year of our Lord 1988, the episode Deadpan aired. It was the second to last episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. (Last week’s episode was Showdown in Saskatchewan.)
We’re in New York for the opening of a play based on Jessica’s book. The play is called Mainely Murder, based on Jessica’s book Murder Comes to Maine.
We then meet our first character.
His name is Elliot Easterbrook and he’s a TV theater critic, and has an impressively negative tone. His first line is, “It has been said that the theater is a temple. If so, it is a temple which has often worshiped false gods. Only time and astute critical judgment will tell if Mainely Murder, which opens here tomorrow night, will honor the gods or, yet again, profane them.”
He goes on to interview some of the major cast members—the cast of the episode, not the cast of the play.
The first is Shayna, the producer of the play.
Elliot says that she has brought the theater such notable works as the musical biography of King Louis XVI titled Heads You Lose. He says it as if the play was terrible, but Shayna points out that it ran for 524 performances.
Jessica is also here. The Elliot remarks in his acid tones that Jessica looks just like one would picture a mystery writer from Maine to look.
Then we meet another character:
The young man is new to writing for the theater, but is the person who adapted Jessica’s book into a play. His name is Walter Knapf. Elliot asks how it was that Jessica, an experienced writer, allowed a neophyte to adapt her play. Jessica answers that Walter was a very talented student of hers. Being a protegé of Jessica’s makes it very likely that the police will suspect him for the murder that will happen this episode, if not outright arrest him for it, poor kid.
Elliot is confrontational, trying to pin Jessica down about predicting the play’s success. She says, “Isn’t it true that the only thing you can predict about the theater is that it is unpredictable?” Elliot replies, “Oh bravo, Mrs. Fletcher. You must have stayed up all night thinking that one up.” Jessica answers, “No, actually. Molière did it for me about 200 years ago.”
It’s a good zinger, but there are a few issues with it. Molière was, if you don’t know, a French playwrite and actor (I had to look it up to find out that he was also an actor). Googling, I can’t find that Molière ever said anything like this; quotes of this episode are the only things that turn up when you search for it. That’s not dispositive but what are the odds that no one has ever talked about this quote other than this episode of Murder, She Wrote? Especially since you can find pages of Molière quotes? Also, and this is a smaller thing, Molière lived from 1622 to 1673. At the time of this episode, the most recently Molière could have said this was 315 years ago. So Jessica’s zinger was made up and off by at least a century. Now the question is: was that intentional? Was Jessica meant to be better educated than Elliot and the writers used fake facts to portray that, or was she meant to be just to be a good actress who could pull off the authority to convince Elliot that he didn’t know a fake quote which he probably should have known? Both would work for their intended purpose, with the former just being a short-cut over real research to come up with a legitimate zinger. It would be interesting to know.
Anyway, the last part of this happens as we watch it on TV:
The camera pulls back to reveal two new characters. I’m going to get to them in a moment, but I find this very interesting. Why would the people who edit Elliot’s show leave this in? There’s no way that something as unimportant and likely to involve downtime that should be edited out as a pre-show interview would be broadcast live, so the presence of this exchange had to be a deliberate decision on the part of the editor. I don’t think that there’s really any way of defending it and it’s just a cute way of segwaying into introducing the new characters—a rival theater critic and his assistant. So, about them:
The theater critic—his name is Danny O’Mara—is the guy in the blue sweater vest. His assistant—Denise Quinlan—is the woman sitting in the chair. He writes a column in a newspaper (“The Chronicle”). Evidently he has a strong antipathy for Elliot. The scene began with him celebrating Jessica’s put-down (“Pow! Right in the kisser!”) and ended with him saying that everyone forgets what Elliot said by the time the woman is on to give the weather. The only reviews anyone remembers are Danny’s.
The scene shifts to a restaurant where Jessica, Walter, and someone we haven’t met before but whose name turns out to be Barney Mapost and whose job is publicist are having lunch. As they discuss how much Jessica doesn’t want to do more interviews Danny comes in and introduces himself. He professes himself to be an admirer of her work, by which he means her putting down of Elliot. When he hears that she will see a dress rehearsal of the play right after lunch, he suggests that—from what he’s heard—it would be advisable to make it a light lunch, his tone implying that the play is quite bad. He leaves, but his assistant reassures them that he’ll give them a fair shot. She then says she’ll see them tonight at the party. After she leaves, Jessica expresses surprise at inviting critics to the opening night party. Barny says that it’s Shayna’s idea, then says that they need to rush over to get to the dress rehearsal. I suppose it was a very light lunch indeed, since they never ordered.
Then we go to the dress rehearsal.
The scene of the play we come into has a farm set, and on it a witch casts a spell.
Spoil the bubble!
Make the haystack
The lights flash, and a pyrotechnic special effect at the top of the haystack fails.
It seems that Danny O’Mara heard correctly.
There is some humorous dialog where various people ask Jessica what she thinks and she tries her best to be diplomatic.
Then we skip to opening night. Walter is nervous and Jessica tries to calm his nerves. Danny O’Mara finds his seat as an announcer says that the part of the woodsman, normally played by Tony Jasper, will be played by Craig Donner. I must confess that I’ve never actually been to a broadway play (once, in middle school, I attended a school trip to a dress rehearsal of a broadway play, but I don’t think that’s the same thing). That said, do they really announce cast substitutions?
Elliot arrives late and Shayna personally ushers him into the play. He remarks to her, “I hope you don’t think by inviting me to your postprandial party you’ll color my reaction to your little play.” Shayna graciously replies, “No, but missing the first scene might,” and opens the door into the theater for him.
I wonder if the misuse of “postprandial” is intentional. “Postprandial” means “after a meal,” and usually refers to something happening right after a meal since human beings eat several times per day and so everything a person does, except in a famine, is normally not many hours after some meal. The opening night party of a play is going to be right after the play, not right after a meal. If anything, it’s likely to have food served at it because it’s been a while since anyone has eaten. “Postprandial” is not the word to use to describe an after-play party.
This reminds me of a joke my oldest son told me recently: “I use big words I don’t understand in order to seem more photosynthesis.”
So, is Elliot Easterbrook the sort of man who would use ten dollar words he doesn’t know the meaning of in order to impress people, or did the writers of the episode just get it wrong? Or did they just not care? In television in the 1980s writers tended to rate accuracy below everything else—it would be easy to imagine them mis-using a word because they figured that 99% of the viewers wouldn’t know what the word meant and would assume it was used correctly. This is actually a bit frustrating as it would shed more light on the character to know the answer. On the other hand, he probably won’t be alive for much longer, so it may not matter much.
We skip to the intermission, where we follow Walter on his way to the bar and pass various people who are complaining about how bad their day was. Walter takes it as a bad sign that no one is talking about the play. Danny O’Mara then walks up to Elliot Easterbrook and tells him, “all you TV blowhards know about theater is makeup and hair.” They trade insults for a while until Elliot leaves. Walter tells Jessica that he needs many more drinks that he just had (he brought Jessica white wine and had ordered, for himself, a “double anything”). He leaves, telling her that he’ll see her at the party.
The scene then fades to the party.
There’s some small talk, then a broadcast of Elliot Easterbrook’s review of the play. I question how influential his reviews can be if they’re are broadcast close to midnight, but in any event I think it’s worth quoting the review in its entirety:
It is always difficult to review a mystery without giving away the plot. This unpalatable witch’s brew is such a muddle of clichés and troll dialogue that it is impossible to figure out the plot. Neophyte playwright Walter Knapf at least has the excuse of inexperience. As for the cast, Vivian Cassell brings her usual long-in-the-tooth charm to the lead. And Barbara Blair shines briefly as a witch. Tony Jasper as the woodsman is appropriately wooden. If you’re looking for a good thriller, walk right by the Woolcott Theater. The only mystery about this one, folks, is how it ever got to Broadway in the first place.
The scene fades to later on with Jessica putting her coat on to leave. Shayna asks her to stay until the early newspaper reviews are out but Jessica protests that it’s after 1am. They then notice that Elliot Easterbrook has accepted the invitation to join the party, which everyone finds surprising. Walter then staggers in, drunk, holding an early editing of the next day’s newspaper. He proclaims that the play will run forever: Danny O’Mara wrote them a glowing review.
Mainely Murder is mainly magnificent, the one must-see of the season. This is a real audience-pleaser, just the kind of show a certain low-caliber, high ego TV critic is sure to hate. You know who I’m talking about. That Live at Five guy who thinks he’s smarter than you. If he hates this show, maybe you should let his TV station know you’ve had enough of his condescending crap.
Jessica’s reaction while Walter reads this aloud is interesting:
This review is indeed quite surprising. It doesn’t square with what O’mara’s warning to Jessica, nor with common sense.
Anyway, Elliot Easterbrook expresses outrage at this review and declares that “someone has to silence this undereducated, ill-informed windbag… permanently.” He then storms off.
The police get a call reporting that shots were fired and dispatch units to the location of the call. Two uniformed officers break down a door, then see the corpse of Danny O’Mara lying on the floor with Elliot Easterbrook standing over the corpse holding a gun pointing at the corpse. They never show the whole thing in a single shot, but I think that the most interesting part is how the gun is being held:
After the camera pans up to Elliot’s face, which registers minor confusion and surprise, we fade to black and go to commercial.
It turns out I was wrong about who was going to get murdered. It’s easy to imagine a lot of people wanting to kill Elliot. Who would want to kill Danny?
When we come back from commercial break, Danny’s assistant, accompanied by Jessica for some reason, show up at the scene of the crime. The detective for the case, Lieutenant Jarvis, is interviewing Elliot.
Elliot claims that he arrived only moments before the uniformed police officers and picked up the gun because he was worried that the assailant was still present. Jarvis isn’t buying it, so Jessica pulls him aside and points out that Mr. Easterbrook left the restaurant only moments before they did and they came straight here, so Elliot wouldn’t have had time to kill Danny. Further, if the shots were just fired, wouldn’t there be a smell of gunpowder and furthermore, why does Danny’s skin have a bluish tint?
Jarvis, who is at the end of a double-shift and exhausted, doesn’t have time to think about these things and directs that Elliot be arrested. As Elliot is being escorted to the police station, he rudely tells Mrs. Fletcher to mind her own business and to leave his defense to more capable hands.
The next scene is back at the theater, where Shayna and the director talk about how wonderful things are, largely thanks to Danny O’Mara’s positive review. There is also some discussion of a positive review by another critic. When Barny is asked if he’d read it, he replies that he wrote it. Writing columns for reviewers in their voice makes their lives so much easier they’re much more likely to give you positive coverage in exchange for saving them the time of doing the writing themselves. Not too much is made of this but it’s clearly foreshadowing of the only possible explanation for why Danny O’Mara wrote such a glowing review of such an awful play.
There’s also some discussion of Shayna wanting Walter to make more changes, and then he privately talks to Jessica to ask for help. She just wants to get back to Cabot Cove, but he reminds her of the theme in her book upon which this play is based—not walking away from injustice. So Jessica resolves to stay and figure out who killed Danny.
This scene is quite weird. I get that Jessica wants to get away from the play as soon as possible but this is the first time I can remember that she ever wanted to desert a place more than to solve a murder, even for a moment. Usually someone is trying to get her to leave and she’s refusing. It feels out of character.
The first stop in Jessica’s quest to satisfy justice is to go to the office at his newspaper. The scene at the newspaper opens with an interesting joke about the former theater critic that Danny replaced. He was a very gentlemanly reviewer and the best theater critic that the paper ever had, but after his stroke he couldn’t handle broadway anymore and so is reviewing television programs. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t often go in for self-referential humor, but this is certainly not the first time. In Steal Me A Story, a producer suggests to Jessica doing a show called The Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour, about the real-life exploits of a famous mystery author solving crimes. Jessica replies that she doesn’t write fist fights, bedroom scenes, or car chases, so who would watch it?
Like in that case, I think that this joke relates to the Murder, She Wrote theme of old things still being valuable. It’s a bit tangentially; the theater being so much more important than television isn’t going to be deeply relatable. Not many people born in the 1910s or 1920s (and hence be in their 60s and 70s in the 1980s) will have gone to shows on broadway, or even off-broadway. They might, as youngsters, have attended local plays before movies largely replaced them, but I doubt that they’d have remembered those as high art since they probably weren’t high art. People born in the 1930s and after almost certainly would not have gone to any meaningful number of plays.
The gentlemanliness of the former critic is also interesting. Supposing that he was seventy at the time of his stroke, and that this was five years ago, he’d have been born in 1913. The 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s were not a time people were gentlemanly—being modern was the big craze then. So his formative years would not have valued gentlemanliness. People might have tried to be gentlemanly in the 1940s and 1950s, and perhaps into the 1960s, so maybe he adopted it, but that was not a big thing in the 1970s. On balance, I’d guess that this aspect of him having been gentlemanly was pure wistfulness, without any direct reference in reality. That is, it was mere, abstract, “things were better back then”. (Of course, it can be simply explained as individual quirkiness, and need not be taken symbolicly.)
Anyway, Jessica pretends to be doing research for a new book, and pumps the editor for information. It turns out, though, that Danny didn’t come into the newspaper to write his column. He wrote from home. There’s an interesting bit where Jessica asks if it was picked up by courier, and the editor laughs and says that they’re all using computers, these days. O’Mara wrote it on his home computer and send it in via modem. The computers time stamp everything, so he can say that the review came in at 11:15pm.
Jessica next goes to visit Denise at Danny’s apartment. It’s a little odd that she should be cleaning up his effects at his apartment rather than a family member doing that, but it saves on time and casting, and Murder, She Wrote generally fits a ton into a fairly short time, to say nothing of having a cast so large they rarely get to develop a character in more than a few lines.
Denise shows Jessica Danny’s program from the night before, on which he took notes. Jessica looks it over and remarks that it’s odd that the notes are nothing like Danny’s review. Denise says that she didn’t have a chance to look at it, does so now, and remarks, “Well, this is weird. Why would his review be so favorable?”
This is a very strange question for Denise to make, seeing as how she was Danny’s assistant. Barney Mapost introduced her as “Danny’s right hand, his left hand, and entire brain.” She said that this was inaccurate and she was more like the guy who walks behind the elephant in the parade. Either way, it’s weird that she had no idea what he thought of the play since she sat next to him at the opening performance.
At Jessica’s request, Denise then shows her the original review which was on a 5 1/4″ floppy disk.
This is the same thing as what Walter read out loud the night before. Curiously, it contains no reference to Jessica, despite the director remarking in the banter I summarized above that Danny had given Mrs. Fletcher “quite a nice mention.” But there’s plenty of space on the screen below the text, and nothing there. Be that as it may, Jessica looks it over and remarks that it doesn’t square with Danny’s notes.
Denise replies, “I gather you don’t write on a computer, Mrs. Fletcher.” This makes no sense as a reply; writing on a computer doesn’t make people radically change their opinions of the quality of fiction. Instead of pointing that out, Jessica merely replies that she doesn’t, and far prefers her bucket-of-bolts typewriter. It’s noisy, but comfortable. Denise then says that she should consider switching, but Jessica refuses, saying that she’s heard too many stories of people pressing the wrong button and losing everything. Denise then demonstrates that it’s not quite that easy. She deletes the review from the disk, then undeletes it to show that things are recoverable.
Jessica, eagle-eyed as always, remarks on there being two files that were undeleted. They then look at the file which had been deleted before they started:
Denise is perplexed at the existence of this review, so different from the one that published. Why did he change his mind so drastically, she asks in a way that suggests she doesn’t have two brain cells to rub toghter? Jessica theorizes that whoever killed Danny O’Mara also killed his review.
The scene shifts to Police headquarters where Jessica gives his information to Lt. Jarvis. Jarvis says that the substitution of the review doesn’t rule out Easterbrook, but Jessica says that he was on the air giving his review of Mainely Murder at 11:15pm and she checked—it was a live broadcast. I find that more than a bit odd—who would watch a theater review at 11:15pm at night? And why bother broadcasting it live? That first part is probably more germane to the episode as a whole—how influential can a TV theater critic be if his reviews are broadcast live at 11:15pm at night? Granted, New York City is the city that never sleeps, but even so.
Anyway, in the conversation some weird details come out. The police got an anonymous call saying that shots were fired, but O’Mara was killed with only one bullet and no other bullets were found in the apartment. None of the other tenants ever heard any bullets being fired. And the coroner’s report indicates that O’Mara might have died earlier than he was found.
Jessica suggests that the killer must have been someone from the play, but Jarvis says that it’s likely that everyone can alibi each other at the party, and asks her to try to recall who showed up late. (Answer: Walter, but Jessica only realizes what she’s done as she walks out.) Jessica calls Walter from a pay phone at the police station but only gets his answering machine, and leaves a message saying that it’s urgent that she talk to him.
She then goes to see Elliot, who has quite an office.
Are we really to believe that a TV theater critic whose reviews are broadcast at 11:15pm at night has a corner office? Anyway, Elliot has his unpleasantness dialed up to 11, as usual. Jessica asks him if it doesn’t get tiresome being so tiresome, but he just replies in a tiresome way. They hit something of a detente and discuss the case.
Jessica wonders who wrote the fake O’Mara review, and Elliot suggests the director, since O’Mara had panned his last five plays. Jessica goes to talk to him.
The directory, though, is only interested in blaming Jessica for finding the real review of Mainely Murder, saying that now the play is doomed. I have trouble believing that a glowing review could do much to save a play as bad as Mainely Murder is supposed to be, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. The only thing that really comes up is that everyone was at the party, the whole night, except for Walter.
Jessica tries to find Walter at his apartment, but he’s not there. Jessica runs into Barney, taking down the quote from the O’Mara review. She all but accuses him of having written the fake review, but he replies that he never tried to imitate O’Mara because O’Mara wasn’t the kind of critic who appreciated being sent plugs. Walter is in the back of the theater working on rewrites. (I wonder why this theater would have office space for writers, but again this probably just a time-saving thing.)
Walter is saying that he put a lot of the original stuff back in and Shayna actually likes it. With all of the changes that went on, she doesn’t remember what she cut anymore! He thinks this will save the play. Jessica tells him to nevermind the play and to tell her where he was during the cast party. Lt. Jarvis walks in and says that the way he figures it, Walter was busy murdering O’Mara. He arrests Walter, and we go to commercial.
When we come back, Jessica and Jarvis are interrogating Walter in Jarvis’ office. Before anyone can say anything of substance, though, Jarvis sends for Mrs. Rizzo, who after some complaining says that she saw Walter in the hallway. She lives on the first floor of the building where O’Mara lived on the third. It was 11pm—she knows because the news just came on—and Walter banged on her door saying that he needed to speak to Mr. O’Mara. She told him that O’Mara lived upstairs, and Walter went away.
As a side note, I’m really curious how Walter was supposed to know what building O’Mara lived in. For that matter, why on earth did Mrs. Rizzo know that Danny O’Mara lived in her building, two floors up? A lot of people live in her building, and NYC is not a place where people get to know their neighbors, especially not their neighbors who live on a different floor.
Anyway, she leaves and Walter gives his version. He was hoping to find O’Mara and beg for mercy. When he couldn’t find O’Mara’s apartment he realized he was so drunk he couldn’t think straight, so he gave up and went out to get even more drunk. There is some general bickering, and a reference to a different casting for a part gives Jessica an idea.
She visits Martha Blair, who played the witch who, in the play, cast a spell to reduce a haystack to rubble. It turns out that she was romantically involved with Elliot Easterbrook in a very minor way. She had dinner with him, which consisted of four hours of him talking about himself. This was at Shayna’s instigation, so Jessica goes to talk to Shayna.
The conversation with Shayna doesn’t reveal much, but when she is previewing a tape of Elliot Easterbrook’s review in order to pull a few words out of context to seem favorable, it repeats the part where he said that Tony, as the woodsman, was appropriately wooden. This gives Jessica the clue she needs.
Jessica excuses herself to Shayna, saying that she needs to see a man about a play.
It’s interesting how Murder, She Wrote has a visual language all its own. The next scene has Jessica sitting (apparently) alone, on stage. We hear a door close, which means that Jessica has invited the murderer to her impromptu accusing parlor.
She calls out to him. It’s Elliot Easterbrook. She thanks him for coming, and he assures her that it is nothing more than curiosity.
Jessica explains how Elliot did it, though she frames it in a proposal for the plot of a new book. The setting is the theater, and the killer plans his crime meticulously. After the play he kills the victim, then two hours later puts in a fake call about gun shots in order to have the police arrive with him standing over the body and frame himself. Once the time of death is established to have been two hours earlier, he’ll be exonerated and it will be extremely unlikely anyone will look his way again. He created an alibi for himself by transmitting the fake review he’d planted to the newspaper from his own office, rather than from the victim’s apartment.
Elliot says that it sounds far fetched, but like a perfect crime. Jessica said that it would be, except that Molière was right—the theater is unpredictable. There was a last-minute cast change which Elliot didn’t know about because he came late. Thus he got it wrong in his TV review, but, critically, also in the fake review.
Elliot points out that even a fictional jury wouldn’t be likely to accept this as conclusive proof. Jessica agrees, but says that they would be willing to accept his TV station’s phone log. It shows a five minute call to the Chronicle at 11:15pm.
Elliot, crestfallen, says,”Even the finest works of art have their flaws. Congratulations, Mrs. Fletcher. The only thing missing is a motive.”
Jessica says that she’s wondered about that.
Elliot decides to tell her. It’s fascinating, so I’m going to quote it in full:
Imagine a young and impressionable writer who has his first play produced off-off-off Broadway. It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start. And imagine a critic from a second-rate newspaper trying to make a name for himself. His review of the play is devastating. So devastating the young playwright never writes another play. No, instead, he becomes a critic himself and vows to best his destroyer at his own game. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to eradicate the pain. Only one thing can do that.
At this point Lt. Jarvis walks in from the wings (Elliot had moved onto the stage, with Jessica) and announces his presence.
Elliot looks at Jessica in surprise.
The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.
The uniformed officers escort Elliot away. Jarvis remains and talks to Mrs. Fletcher. He asks how she knew that the TV station logged its phone calls. Jessica replies, “Well, if they don’t, they ought to.”
And on that note we go to credits.
This was an ambitious episode, so I think its many plot holes can be at least partially forgiven. That said, it has a lot of them. I think, for me, the biggest is that the key evidence—the evidence by which Jessica knew who the murderer was and the only evidence she didn’t make up when she confronted him—never appeared in the episode. At no point when the fake review was read or put on screen did it mention the actor who played the woodsman. This is unusual for Murder, She Wrote. They’re normally better about showing us all of the evidence (that Jessica doesn’t lie about—they could hardly show us that). It’s not like there was any other evidence to lose track of and no excuse can be made on account of time. They put up the text of the review a second time, so they could have put up the relevant section of the review instead of just repeating the part that Walter read aloud at the party.
There’s also the issue that the fake review failing to mention the cast change hardly proves that Easterbrook was the culprit. Anyone who wrote the fake review earlier in the day would have used the name of the actor who had been cast in the role, as would anyone who just didn’t pay close attention to the announcement, was in the bathroom, etc. Since the purpose of the fake review was to be discovered and cast suspicion on someone who would benefit from the play getting a good review it didn’t deserve, it’s not like there was a motive to get the fake review right. Mistakes in the fake review would draw attention to its inauthenticity, and thus help it serve the murderer’s purpose. So, not only did they not show us this evidence, it doesn’t really point to Elliot as the murderer anyway.
The part about Elliot Easterbrook framing himself is hard to know what to make of. On the one hand, framing himself with a fake time of death that will be disproved has some merit as a way of leading suspicion away from himself, but it only really makes sense if suspicion was at all likely to go his way. There was no real connection between him and Danny O’Mara, so there’s no reason why it would have. If anything, O’Mara seemed to hate him far more than he seemed to hate O’Mara. All clumsily framing himself did was connect him to the murder more than he would have been otherwise. That said, he was a narcissist with an obsession. It’s not entirely unbelievable that he loomed much larger in his own imagination than he did in anyone else’s and so he might assume he would be suspected because he assumed that everyone thought about him all the time.
That said, his approach to framing himself was riskier than the episode made it out. Estimating the time of death is not an exact science and it was so close to when he framed himself for that there was no guarantee that he would be exonerated. Indeed, all the autopsy report showed was that the time of death could have been hours earlier. “Could have been earlier” is not a slam-dunk acquittal. The transmitting of the review at 11:15pm would be a stronger alibi, but only if the falsity of the review was discovered. That only happened by accident, and Elliot was in no position to do it himself if no one else did it for him, so this instance of framing himself is particularly weak.
To be fair, though, given that it would have taken the police several minutes, at minimum, to arrive at Danny O’Mara’s apartment after getting a report of “shots fired,” holding that Elliot had just shot Danny would entail him standing over the body, gun in hand, for several minutes. That would be quite strange, to say the least. I suspect that a defense attorney could make a lot of that.
Perhaps oddly, I actually find the motive in this episode to be on the more believable side. Superficially, of course, it’s ridiculous. Who could want to kill a person because they wrote a scathing review of his play twenty years before? And yet, Elliot Easterbrook comes off as a man consumed by hatred. Especially as Dean Stockwell plays him, he is an Ahab character. He cares for nobody and nothing because he’s obsessed with his white whale. Indeed, the part about him dating the young woman who played the witch didn’t add anything to the plot but it did add some very interesting characterization of Elliot—he spent four hours talking about himself. A man who can spend four hours with a beautiful woman talking about himself is the sort of man who can resent a scathing review of his play to the point of murder, and hang onto this resentment for decades. Also, the time frame works well. A man like Elliot wouldn’t go for murder immediately. He would brood for a long time before going there. Having spent decades wrapped up in his hatred, trying and failing to destroy Danny O’Mara through lesser means—that might might work him up to the point of murder. Especially considering how, in his early fifties, he might be starting to reflect on how his quest for revenge deprived him of a wife and children. He would blame O’Mara for that, too. Most people would not react this way, but this sort of hatred is the kind of mistake a human being can make. There’s no such thing as a good reason to make a bad decision, so motives for murder cannot be evaluated on the basis of whether there was a good reason to commit the murder. They can only be evaluated on the basis of there being a human reason to commit the murder. Offended pride, nursed for a long time—that is a human reason.
There’s an interesting question about how this episode falsifies all sorts of details in order to fit things in. For example, there’s no way that a TV theater critic is going to do a live broadcast of his review of a new play at 11:15pm at night. Similarly, there is such a thing as the morning edition of a newspaper, but it doesn’t come out on the streets for purchase before 2:00 am. Mrs. Rizzo knowing where Danny O’Mara lived when she lived on the first floor of her building and Danny on the third is beyond improbably. In NYC people are extremely outgoing if they know who lives in the apartments right next to them. They have no idea who lives on other floors of their building. If Elliot brought the fake review on his own floppy disk, he would have either had to write the “real” review which accorded with Danny’s notes on his program or else he would have had to copy his fake review onto the floppy disk that Danny saved his review on. This would have involved copying it to the hard drive, then removing his disk and inserting Danny’s disk. Further, the name he gave the file relied on Danny misspelling his version of it. Or else he did some weird file renaming. None of which is impossible, but is oddly convoluted and I’m pretty sure was not intended by the writers since Jessica didn’t mention it.
Many of these things were important to the plot, and in fairly irreplaceable ways. On the other hand, many of them were just shortcuts. I think that it’s important to cut Murder, She Wrote slack on these sorts of things because it’s hard to cram so much into 48 minutes as it is. This is something that may apply to a short story, but does not really carry over into novels. Shortcuts are nowhere near as forgivable when time is not so precious. (A big part of what I seek to do in my reviews of Murder, She Wrote episodes is to see what can be learned from them to bring over to my novels; Murder, She Wrote was great in spite of most episodes having fairly large plot holes, so if we can figure out what made it great in spite of them, perhaps we can borrow some of that and have something even better when our novels don’t have plot holes.)
The way that Jessica and Denise find the deleted file may possibly be classed under the heading of “shortcut,” but I can’t help but think it could have been done much better. They segway from the review being irreconcilable with Danny’s notes on his program (to say nothing of common sense) to a demonstration of undeleting files without any kind of natural hook for the change of subject. It’s not even a single change of subject, either. Jessica complains about pressing the wrong button and losing everything, not about how easy it is to accidentally delete a file. Back in the 1980s it was common for computer programs to crash and far too many people didn’t save their work until they were done. File corruption on disk was also a not-uncommon problem. Undeleting a file doesn’t address either. The issue is not that they didn’t take the time to address all possible failure modes on a computer, but that they could have written what they meant in the same time. Instead of “pressing the wrong button and losing everything” Jessica could have said “accidentally deleting the wrong file”. And instead of the business with the program, Jessica could have just asked if Denise really liked working on a computer. I’m not sure Denise being caught completely off guard by Danny’s not liking the show is fixable, though. She sat through the play with him. How could she be under the impression that it was possible he liked it? Even if he didn’t talk about it and she never noticed a single one of his reactions, shouldn’t she have picked up on what he likes and doesn’t like in plays?
Overall, and despite the many plot holes, I think that this episode was a lot of fun. As I mentioned at the start, this was an ambitious episode. It contained a play, drama about the production of a play, and even a layer about criticism of the play. Also, while the story has plenty of plot holes, it also has things which stick together. For example, it actually makes sense that Elliot chose the play that he did to use for his murder. He needed a bad play, but it would help if it had a lot of money riding on it, as, presumably, Mainely Murder did because of J.B. Fletcher’s name would attract investors. I think that what really makes it, though, is the ending. Elliot’s explanation of why he murdered Danny was poignant. Some of this is up to the skill of the actor, of course, but the writing rings true. “It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start.” That is how an awful lot of writers starting out feel. And I think his ending, which probably should have been the actual ending, was great.
“The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.”
There is a sense in which this is Murder, She Wrote poking fun at itself, but there is another level to it. Elliot is just a man, and not, in truth, a special man. It is fitting that when he is caught, he is caught as other men are. The essence of sin, in a sense, is the refusal to recognize that one is man. But Elliot should, indeed, have known that.
Next week’s episode, which is the final episode of season four, is The Body Politic.