Murder She Wrote: J.B. As In Jailbird

On the twenty third day of October in the year of our Lord 1988, the fifth season of Murder, She Wrote opened with the episode J.B. As In Jailbird. (Last season ended with The Body Politic.)

The episode begins with Michael Hagarty (an MI6 agent) walking through the shadows in a dingy apartment building. He cocks his revolver, then knocks on a door and claims to be the maintenance man, here to fix a bad pipe. A sweaty man (“the Bulgarian”) sitting on the bed tells him to come back later.

There’s a bit of arguing and he tries a passphrase on Michael.

It may snow in the Sierras before the weekend.

This is proper spy stuff. Unfortunately, Michael doesn’t know the countersign, so he just keeps up with the maintenance man act. The sweaty man exits out the window as Michael kicks the door open. The man fires some bullets at the door, then goes down the fire escape. Just outside the fire escape is Jessica getting out of a car.

He man demands the keys from Jessica, but she doesn’t have the keys. When he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t give him the keys, Michael shoots him dead.

Moments later, as James Bond-inspired music plays, a police car drives up. Michael, hearing the sirens, runs away. The cops see Jessica standing over the corpse and arrest her.

The camera moves over to a front business where a British man named Lancaster berates Michael.

It turns out, though, that it wasn’t Michael who shot the sweaty man, it was “The Cobra”. No one knows who he is, and even this time Michael never saw him. His theory is that The Cobra doesn’t like loose ends, and the sweaty man was a loose end, so The Cobra tied him up when he panicked.

The subject then turns to Jessica. Michael ran into her at the airport and thought that she would be good cover for him leaving the airport, so he offered her a ride to his hotel. When Lancaster called him on his car-phone and told him about the meeting, he had no choice but to leave her in the car while he went in to try to fix the Bulgarian’s plumbing. Lancaster is worried that Jessica will talk to the press but Michael says that he’s taken care of that, temporarily.

The scene then goes to the police station where Jessica is waiting to be processed. Jessica talks to a Sergeant, who asks her who she really is. The real Jessica Fletcher reported her purse and luggage stolen at the airport. They book Jessica as “Jane Doe”. Jessica says that her nephew, Grady, will vouch for her.

The scene then goes back to the place with Lancaster and Michael. They are reviewing the case “from a damage control perspective.” In two days, Leonard Matoso will give a speech at Berkeley.

He’s an opponent of his African nation’s government, but he’s too popular for them to assassinate him at home. For some reason that isn’t specified, they can do it in America, however, “with clean hands”. I guess in America any number of people might want to kill him, whereas at home only the government would? Seems a bit backwards, but I’m not a spy. Anyway, this is why there are Bulgarians in this episode—to provide the hitman. Michael suggests that Matoso’s own people might be the ones who have hired the Bulgarians, in order to be the match which sets off the powder keg back home.

Be that as it may, the word from the Bulgarian embassy is that Cobra has accepted the contract. The Americans doubt the British information, and their official position is that their security is adequate for Matoso to come give his speech ad Berkley.

There’s another British agent in the room who’s somehow involved, though it’s not at all clear how. His name is Roger Travis.

He and Michael don’t get along. He implies that Michael killed the Bulgarian contact, while Michael says something about how he (the other agent) was supposed to be guarding someone that The Cobra killed, vaguely implying (I think) that maybe this agent is actually the Cobra. Michael ends up grabbing Roger by the lapels, and Lancaster threatens them both with disciplinary action to calm things down.

The scene shifts to the police station where Grady comes in to identify Jessica, but says that he’s never seen her before in his life. We fade to black and go to commercial break.

We come back to Jessica begging Grady to identify her, and he overdoes it on the denials. After he leaves, he talks with the Sergeant, who explains that she “iced a commie agent” and they have her figured for being an enemy agent.

The Sergeant, whose name is Nash, goes back to his office, where he meets another Sergeant, Joe Santiago, from the Miami PD. He’s here to extradite someone. While he was waiting in the office, he was looking over the file about the Bulgarian. It reminded him of another case that was like this, with a Greek national iced in an alleyway and a woman who looked a bit like their Jane Doe spotted at the scene. He asks to speak to her and Nash says that’s fine.

The scene shifts to Michael and Grady walking along a street and Michael asks how it went. Grady is upset and Michael explains that it’s for Jessica’s protection. He tells Grady a bit about how there’s an assassination attempt in the works and tells Grady to go home and call him if anyone comes nosing around about Jessica.

The scene shifts back to police headquarters where the two Sergeants are interrogating Jessica. Eventually she demands to call her lawyer. They inform her that her lawyer is here now and she can talk to him. Her lawyer is, of course, Michael Hagarty, under cover as a southern lawyer Derek Dawson. I wonder if he showed up and said, “Hi, I’m Jane Doe’s lawyer. We put tracking devices on all of our clients, which is why I’m here without having been called” and instead of blinking an eye they put him in a conference room and asked him if he wouldn’t mind waiting for a few minutes while they interrogate his client without him present.

Anyway, they’re talking, and after a bit Michael drops the act and fills Jessica in on the Cobra.

When Grady goes back to his apartment a strange looking woman is knocking on his door.

Her name is Glenda Morrison, she’s a reporter from “The Chronicle”. She had an appointment to do an interview with Jessica. When Grady indicates some recognition, she says that he might have heard of her from a series she did on the Afghanistan war, or the assassination of a Nicaraguan general. Glenda leaves her number asking for Jessica to call her immediately.

Back at the British spy warehouse, Lancaster and Michael are talking about Cobra. Michael says that the Cobra is too good, like he’s working with inside information. Lancaster mentions that The Cobra made a fool of him before in Kenya. The Cobra managed to blow up a bus full of police. Lancaster wonders whether that was the reason he was exiled to California. He intends to retire in three months, though, and the Cobra will be somebody else’s problem.

They’re doing a good job of spreading around suspicion of who The Cobra is, I’ll give them that. So far it could be any of Joe Santiago, Glenda Morrison, Lancaster, or Roger Travis.

Lancaster then gives Michael a message that Roger took from Grady. Michael goes off to get lunch.

Roger Travis then walks in and talks to Lancaster, saying that his source at the Bulgarian embassy said that the sweaty man definitely took the payment with him. Yet no money was found on the body. Travis says that this is a troubling contradiction if one believes Michael’s version of events. Lancaster warns Travis not to make accusations without hard evidence. They then discuss Jessica, but don’t really say anything of substance.

Michael meets Grady. Grady tells him about Glenda Morrison. Michael is dismissive at first, but then Grady says that he phoned the chronicle and they’ve never even heard of a Glenda Morrison. Michael asks to see the phone number she gave him. While Grady is fishing it out of his pocket, a car pulls up, a tinted window lowers, and a gun with a silencer sticks out of the slit at the top.

Michael notices the gun, grabs Grady, and dives to the ground. The gun fires but doesn’t hit anything and the car speeds away. We see that Grady and Michael are fine, then fade to black and we’re off to commercial.

So far, they’ve done a pretty good job with the spy thriller elements. Suspicion is everywhere and the tension is high.

When we get back we’re at the police station. Kevin Styles, special attorney with the State Department shows up and introduces himself to Lt. Nash. He’s there unofficially, and is asking about the situation. He says that they’ve told the Bulgarians that it was a non-political robbery gone bad. He’s also certain that he’s seen Joe Santiago before. He wonders if it was in Paris last year. Joe says that he was in Paris last year on some liaison work with Interpol, but he didn’t attend any parties, and he says that if they’d met, he’d have remembered. Styles asks Lt. Nash to get him a copy of the file, and not to tell anything to the press without running it by him, first.

Back in the jail cell, Jessica is examining the book she had been holding when she was arrested—she asked if she could have it back and Sergeant Nash was indulgent. She finds a postcard in it.

She’s interrupted in her investigations by Roger Travis, who’s dressed as a uniformed policeman. He talks to Jessica, identifies himself as British counter-intelligence, and asks her to testify against Michael, but she protests that she wasn’t working with him and didn’t see him do anything. Travis tells her that she’ll never see a penny of the half million dollars, but she has no idea what half million dollars he’s talking about. She threatens to call Sgt. Nash to talk this over with him and Travis sneaks away.

The next scene is back at the hotel where Jessica is supposed to be. Glenda Morrison comes to the door, knocks, calls out Mrs. Fletcher’s name, and enters. Michael then tackles her and pins her to the couch. She admits that she exaggerated her resume and she’s just a freelance reporter who was hoping to score an interview with Jessica Fletcher which she hoped to sell to Rolling Stone, but people usually aren’t interested in talking to freelance reporters writing on spec.

Back at the station, Jessica meets with Michael (posing as her lawyer) again, where she tells him about Roger Travis’ visit. There’s some speculation, but the big piece of info is that the money would not have been passed as cash, that would be too bulky. It would have been something like a claim ticket or a swiss bank account number.

Back in her cell, Jessica looks at the post card again, this time taking a close look at the stamp.

At Jessica’s hotel, Glenda Morrison is hanging out in the lobby and Grady is watching her. Lt. Joe Santiago comes in and asks the desk clerk for Jessica’s room. Glenda casually walks up to hear the conversation. He flips his badge and tells the clerk that Mrs. Fletcher reported a robbery at the airport.

Glenda follows him. Grady follows her. Music that’s as close to James Bond music without legally infringing on its copyright plays.

Joe looks around in the room like he’s trying to find something hidden, then notices Glenda and Grady. He pulls out his gun and demands to know who they are. We fade to black and go to commercial.

When we get back there’s a bunch of prevarication but not much that’s interesting, then Joe leaves. Glenda stays and there is some comedic bickering, as well as a scene where Donna (Grady’s wife) calls and hears the voice of another woman in Grady’s room, but of course there’s no chance to explain because Glenda tries to steal the phone to talk (she thinks to Mrs. Fletcher) and accidentally unplugs it. I suppose now that she’s comic relief, we can scratch her off the suspect list.

The next scene is back in Jessica’s jail cell. For some reason Kevin Styles is talking with Jessica.

She explains that she knows a lot of influential people in Washington and needs his help to get out of jail. She points out that if he goes to any bookstore he’ll see her face on the dust cover jacket. He says that he’ll do just that. He asks if there’s anything he can do for her in the meantime, if she wants fruit or anything to read, then notices that she has a book. He proclaims that he, too, is a Zane Grey fan, though he hasn’t read this one.

He examines it very closely with his back to Jessica for some reason, then hands it back to her when Sgt. Nash and a police woman come to the cell door. Styles says that he’ll be in touch and leaves.

The woman in the cell next to Jessica is about to go for her court appearance, so Jessica asks her to make a phone call to Grady. “You might even say it’s a matter of life and death.”

The next scene is back at the spy office, where Lancaster is feeding fish.

The music is about as sinister as the lighting.

Travis explains to Lancaster that he saw Jessica in the police station and it confirms his theory that Michael Hagarty is dirty. Lancaster points out that the interview, based on Travis’ description, provides exactly no support for this theory, but sighs and says that they should get this out in the open. He asks Travis to summon Hagarty, but he’s nowhere to be found.

We then go back to Jessica’s cell, where Kevin Styles returns. His manner is entirely changed. He says that he’s really rather pressed for time and wants the stamp. He pulls a knife out and tells her to give it to him. He adds that “we have your nephew” and if he doesn’t walk out of the cell now, and with the stamp, Grady will die. Jessica says that he’s very persuasive and that it’s in the toe of her shoe. She kicks it off and it lands across the cell.

He picks it up and as he stands up, Michael Hagarty disguised as the woman who used to be in the cell next to Jessica’s reaches through the bars and grabs Styles around the neck, points a gun at his head, and tells him to relax or the next sound he’ll hear is a .38 soft nose crashing through his brain pan.

In the next scene Jessica is being released, and Nash apologizes for the mixup. Jessica is very understanding and tells him that it wasn’t all his fault. Nash asks how she knew that the stamp was the payoff to the hitman. Jessica explains that she didn’t notice it at first but then it struck her that the cancellation marks didn’t run across the stamp, but rather the stamp was on top of the marks. (For those who have never sent a letter, the post office marks stamps that are used to prevent their re-use. The mark not appearing on top of the stamp showed that the stamp was never used to pay for the post-card being used.) So she took off the stamp and replaced it with another one. When Styles came to see Jessica, he was very interested in the book, and after he left, the postcard was missing.

Michael comes up and tells Jessica that all’s well that ends well, to which Jessica enthusiastically agrees. Michael then says that she’ll be at the airport in plenty of time for her flight, and Jessica says that she hates to put Michael to all this trouble. He replies that it’s no trouble at all, but he did promise his chief that he’d pick up some microfilm from an agent in Chinatown, it will only take a minute, and it’s on their way. Jessica then tells Grady to call a cab, and we go to credits.

Well. That was a weird episode to begin the season with. It was, at least, better done than the last episode that tried to be a spy-thriller (Murder Through the Looking Glass). Like a lot of spy thrillers, though, it made a lot of interesting promises and fell apart when it came time for there to be a payoff.

The person who turned out to be the Cobra barely had any screen time and only showed up after the second commercial break. None of the characters doing suspicious things had any payoff, not even a threadbare explanation for the suspicious things that they were doing. I suppose Lancaster is an exception in that (by default) he turned out to just have been embarrassed by The Cobra before and it’s a coincidence that the Cobra showed up here. I suppose that Roger Travis is another exception; we can conclude that he just groundlessly suspected Michael Hagarty because he’s overly suspicious and not concerned with evidence. But what’s the deal with Lt. Joe Santiago?

Did he really just leaf through a report that was on Lt. Nash’s desk to pass the time? Did he really think that a Greek killed in an alleyway in Miami and a Bulgarian killed in an alley in California were actually similar enough to warrant suspicion? Was there really a woman whose description by a cab driver was similar to Jessica’s? Why did he go looking for something in Jessica’s hotel room? So far as he knew it wasn’t Jessica Fletcher who was found with the body. What could he possibly have hoped to find in her hotel room? Why did Glenda Morrison wait in the lobby for Lt. Santiago when she’d never seen him before and had no idea who he was? Why did she listen in to his conversation? How on earth did a freelance reporter working on a spec article on Mrs. Fletcher for Rolling Stone Magazine get a key to Mrs. Fletcher’s room?

None of this is answered, and given the ending, it can’t be answered. It’s all fake mystery.

Not as mysterious, but still something that needs explanation: why did someone (The Cobra?) take a shot at Grady or Michael Hagarty? Which actually was it? If this was The Cobra who shot at one of them, how did he find them? If he followed Grady, how did he know how to do it? This was before Kevin Styles got a copy of the file on the case so he had no way of knowing that the woman in the alley was Jane Doe claiming to be Jessica Fletcher or where she was staying in the city. So how did he follow Grady? Or, if he followed Michael instead, how did he follow Michael? Why did he follow Michael? Why did he take a shot at either of them? How could the death of either benefit the Cobra in any way?

The setup of the episode also bears very little scrutiny. Why did the African nation hire an extremely expensive assassin to take out Leonard Matoso? Why did this involve payment being handled by Bulgarians? Why did the handling of payment by Bulgarians involve sending it through the Bulgarian embassy in America? Why was the Bulgarian embassy in America reporting its handling of funds for assassins to the British intelligence service? Bulgaria was never part of the USSR, but in 1998 it was still within the USSR’s sphere of influence and not exactly on friendly terms with Britain. Or was there supposed to be a British spy within the Bulgarian embassy in America?

For that matter, why did The Cobra shoot the Bulgarian who was supposed to pay him? The Bulgarian had no idea who he was, all he knew was a sign and countersign to recognize the guy he was supposed to deliver payment to. From his perspective, if the Bulgarian got away, he might still get payment when a new location for the handoff was decided on. If he shot the Bulgarian in the alley, it was extremely unlikely he’d ever receive payment because dead men don’t make handoffs. And how did he even know that the guy who just ran out of the fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him the payment? They were using a recognition code to meeting at a hotel room. Was he walking up and just assumed that a guy running out of a fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him payment, and so needed to be shot for some reason? Had he memorized the hotel layout ahead of time so he knew which fire escape window belonged to the hotel room he was meeting his payment at? And why was The Cobra there but didn’t pick up the payment? This may come down to the prop and special effects departments more than the writers, but we can see approximately where The Cobra needed to be:

He flinches as if he was shot in the back.
Not sure how, if the bullet made it out the front, it didn’t hit Jessica.

Based on the angles, The Cobra actually should have been in view directly behind the Bulgarian. We can see that there was no entrance wound on the man’s upper back in this shot before he falls over:

So that rules out a shot from above. It almost rules out a shot from behind, too. But if you look at how close he was to Jessica when he was shot, it would have been very hard to shoot from behind her (behind her would be in front of the Bulgarian). Above and behind her might work, but then he’d be in full view of Michael Hagarty.

And, frankly, whether The Cobra was above and behind Jessica or even higher above Michael and the special effects department just got this wrong, neither place makes any sense for him to be when his purpose is to pick up a payment. Taking a sniper position in case a British agent shows up at the hotel door and the courier flees out of the window seems counter-productive to the goal of getting paid.

My point, in all of this, is not to nitpick. My point is that the air of mystery and intrigue which this episode relied on was formed by the hints that all of these details gave. If you got rid of these details, or changed them into other details that didn’t need an explanation, you wouldn’t have much of an episode.

The ending was also extremely strange. Jessica spent the entire episode angry at Michael for getting her into jail and keeping her there. Then, after catching The Cobra, all is immediately forgiven. So much so that Jessica says that she doesn’t want to put Michael to the trouble of driving her to the airport. Huh? Forgiving this quickly isn’t like Jessica at all. Especially since Michael never expressed contrition or even apologized.

And speaking of Michael, what the heck was the ending where Michael was dressed up as the woman in the cell next to Jessica? How did he get there? Jessica indicated surprised to Kevin Styles that he was back so soon. Given that he was just walking to a bookstore to look at the dust cover of a book by J.B. Fletcher, she could not have reasonably expected him to take long. And Jessica’s message went by way of someone going to a court hearing, to Grady, who got in touch with Michael, who came to the police station and… what? If people can just waltz into the cells, it’s not much of a protection for Jessica. Did Michael confide in Lt. Nash and get his cooperation? Would a California police station really let a British spy into their jail with a gun on his say-so?

Overall, this was not one of the better episodes, but it did have good qualities. They did a good job of pacing the hints in the first half of the episode to create a lot of intrigue. They didn’t have to have the thing completely fall apart; whichever writer pitched “instead of paying off anything we suggested in the first half of the episode, how about we introduce a new character and he’s the bad guy, and once he’s caught we pretend that nothing ever happened?” didn’t need to be listened to. Either of Roger Travis or Lancaster would have been a much better Cobra. So, for that matter, would Joe Santiago. Glenda Morrison as someone working for the Cobra would have been a big improvement, and would also explain her garish makeup as a disguise to make her hard to recognize, like a lone ranger mask. (Lone Ranger masks work shockingly well, since we have a tendency to focus on details that visually distinguish someone from everyone we could confuse them with, and an obvious detail like a lone ranger mask or garish makeup would do that, resulting in not paying attention to any other features that the person has.)

What probably would have been even better would be for several people to be “the Cobra.” It would have explained how “the Cobra” was too good. Roger Travis and Joe Santiago working together as “the cobra”, plus Glenda Morrison as a helper, would have been a vastly more satisfying ending and far more interesting. It might have even allowed Lancaster to have done something useful—say, catching Roger Travis—which would have been a cool arc for that character. Lancaster was an interesting character.

Next week we meet Dennis Stanton, one of the better characters of Murder, She Wrote, in the episode, A Little Night Work.

One thought on “Murder She Wrote: J.B. As In Jailbird

  1. Pingback: Murder She Wrote: The Body Politic – Chris Lansdown

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