Murder She Wrote and Cabot Cove

I’ve often heard it said that Murder, She Wrote tended to be set in Cabot Cove less often later on in the series, so I’ve decided to go through the first season episodes and look at their setting:

  1. The Murder of Sherlock Holmes — Cabot Cove (8 minutes), New York City (84 minutes)
  2. Deadly Lady — Cabot Cove
  3. Birds of a Feather — San Francisco
  4. Hooray for Homicide — Hollywood
  5. It’s a Dog’s Life — Someplace in the South (Virginia?)
  6. Lovers and Other Killers — Seattle
  7. Hit, Run, and Homicide — Cabot Cove
  8. We’re Off to Kill the Wizard — Chicago
  9. Death Take s a Curtain Call — Boston, Cabot Cove
  10. Death Casts a Spell — Lake Tahoe (California/Nevada)
  11. Capitol Offence — Washington DC
  12. Broadway Malady — New York City
  13. Murder to a Jazz Beat — New Orleans
  14. My Johnny Lives Over the Ocean — Cruise Ship
  15. Paint me a Murder — Private Island (someplace warm)
  16. Tough Guys Don’t Die — Cabot Cove for a few minutes, New York City
  17. Sudden Death — A University somewhere other than Cabot Cove
  18. Footnote to Murder — New York City
  19. Murder Takes the Bus — A bus & bus stop outside Cabot Cove
  20. Armed Response — Texas
  21. Murder at the Oasis — Somewhere near Las Vegas, I think?
  22. Funeral at Fifty-Mile — Wyoming

By my count that’s approximately two and three quarters episodes that were in Cabot Cove in the first season. That’s a mere 12.5% of the first season episodes. I suppose you could argue that Murder Takes the Bus is a Cabot Cove episode since it has Amos Tupper in it, but Tough Guys Don’t Die doesn’t have Amos (or anyone else from Cabot Cove), so that would still only bring us to about 3.5 episodes or 16%.

I don’t know if Cabot Cove episodes ever accounted for a majority of the episodes of any season. There are good reasons for that, since twenty two murders a year in Cabot Cove would be too ridiculous to keep up, even if it was mostly out-of-towners coming in to get murdered. I think that the perception of Murder, She Wrote starting out in Cabot Cove has more to do with Cabot Cove being so picturesque and the characters in it more vivid. They were more vivid in part because we saw them more than once, so they were actual characters rather than stereotypes for quick reference.

Why anyone has the impression that the Cabot Cove episodes had been more common and became less common, I’m not sure. It may be a confusion with the experiments that were done with having detectives other than Jessica (in, if I recall correctly, Seasons 7 through 9), when Jessica appeared in fewer episodes. It may also be the assumption that things tend to degrade over time, so it would be more natural for it to have gotten worse. It may even have been the perception that Murder, She Wrote became lower in quality towards the end of its run and a probable cause being assigned.

Whatever the reason for it, it’s interesting that Murder, She Wrote started off barely set in Cabot Cove.

Science vs. Christianity

Having seen enough Bishop Barron videos where he says that polls show that people who leave the church frequently cite the “conflict” between “science” and “religion”, I’m thinking that I might make some videos on my YouTube channel about how there is no conflict between science and (orthodox) Christianity. This is a multi-faceted topic, though, so it will probably result in multiple videos.

Sub-topics include:

Most People Don’t Know Science: Probably the biggest issue is that a lot of the “science” which is supposed to contradict religion isn’t actually scientific, or isn’t modern science. (E.g. the idea that human beings don’t have a common ancestor isn’t scientific, or, if you can find someone who does propose that, has no evidence to back it up.) The scientific theory of evolution is widely misunderstood, as is quite a lot of physics, too. Etc.

Many People Don’t Know Christianity: A lot of people don’t know what would and would not contradict Christianity, anyway. E.g. the universe being 12+ billion years old doesn’t contradict Christianity, evolution doesn’t contradict Christianity, etc.

Models vs. Reality: Science, or what most people think of as science, consists in the making of models, not in describing reality as it is. Models can be useful while being inaccurate, just as the ptolemaic model of the solar system was quite useful for predicting the movement of the planets. A model having predictive power about a very narrow aspect of reality doesn’t tell you much about reality as it is.

Science Isn’t Engineering: A lot of people confuse science with engineering and think that engineering means that “science” must be “true”. In fact, a very narrow bit of theoretical science actually precedes engineering, rather than tries to explain it after the fact. Where it does, the parts which are demonstrated to be “true” are things like the theory of electromagnetism.

Epistemology: the nature of the scientific method is that all it produces are hypotheses, and these hypotheses have often turned out to be wrong in the past. Even scientific experiments are often badly misinterpreted until later, when they are retroactively interpreted correctly (or, more precisely, in line with our current preferred interpretation).

Rationality: Science presumes the world to be rationally intelligible, which only makes sense within a framework where human beings are made in the image of a creator who created the world according to a rational purpose. (This includes Judaism and Islam, and some variants of philosophical theism, e.g. Platonism or Aristotelianism.)

Religion as Bad Science Creation Myth For Religion: A lot of people think of religions in general as merely being bad science, i.e. as a way to explain the world around them. As if, to quote my friend Andrew, the Romans worshiped Janus the god of doors to explain why doors existed.

No One Actually Believes Science Anyway: E.g. Neck-down darwinism (“from the neck down, our bodies are evolved, from the neck up, all men are created equal”). No one holds that physical determinism (assumed in science) means that rapists shouldn’t be punished because they couldn’t help it. The point is that people know how limited science really is when they care to.

Scientific Methodological Assumptions Aren’t Science: Science is well known for what is sometimes called “methodological naturalism,” i.e. the assumption that what it studies is purely natural. This doesn’t mean that the whole world is natural, only that science is only looking at the parts that are. In like manner, the assumption that the laws of physics are the same throughout space and time is purely an assumption with no proof. The assumption that what we can see (detect) is all that exists, despite us clearly being at the wrong scale to see what electrons do in low-energy environments, does not make it so.

What other subjects should be included? (Please comment below.)

Update: I got a request on Twitter to go into depth on theistic evolution.

Making Progress on My Rocky Horror Review

As I mentioned a while ago, I’m working on a review of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (as a video for my YouTube channel, primarily, though as a scripted video I’ll post the script here, too), describing how it’s a morality play.

It’s coming along well. Almost finished… at 8500 words. It’s not brief, but I really like it so far.

I’m actually struggling a little bit at the conclusion because I think the deep dive into the plot and characters makes any conclusion almost superfluous. I think I might talk a little about why people sometimes miss that the movie is a morality play.

One real downside to larger projects is that they leave so little time for other things. Like, for example, I have a mystery novel that I should be writing. At this point, I think I’m going to have to take a few days off from work to get back into it. My backlog of stuff to do is a bit overly long for my own good.

Accurate Time

In the history of naval travel, it was easy enough to tell what latitude you’re at—just look at where the sun is in the sky at noon—but telling your longitude was actually a very difficult problem, and just as important as telling your latitude. In the 1700s the British government actually offered a serious cash prize for anyone who could devise a simple, practical way of figuring out one’s longitude. Ultimately, the winning strategy was a very precise clock, since if you know the exact time you can just look at your angle to the sun and calculating your longitude from that is easy.

The precise clock never actually won the prize, though. Why not turns out to be interesting, because the Longitude Committee was actually kind of reasonable in not awarding it.

In the 1720s clockmaker Henry Sully thought it would be possible to make a clock precise enough to do this. To give an idea of the problems to be overcome, watches were generally sensitive to temperature, which caused the metal in them to expand and contract, as well as other problems such as keeping time while being wound. Sully did come up with a highly accurate clock, but unfortunately his use of gravity to power it rather than a spring meant that the clock was only accurate in calm weather. Not a great plan for keeping time on seagoing ships.

In the 1730s John Harrison thought that he could do better, and worked on making more accurate clocks that worked even when jostled. Harrison developed several clocks over the next 30 years which earned enough prizes to keep working on his designs, but it was only with his fourth attempt, “H4”, finished in 1760, that he finally had a clock that would work. It was tested on several long sea voyages and found to be accurate to within a few seconds over the course of months, which translated into a longitude accuracy of about 10 miles. This was a fantastic result, and Harrison applied for the prize.

So why didn’t he get it? Well, it took six years to build H4 and it cost £400 at a time when an entire ship cost about £1,200 pounds. It worked, to be sure, but was it really practical? It was phenomenally expensive and took a very long time to build. Granted, his next sea watch, H5, only took about three years to build, this is still a very long time for skilled craftsmen to be working. There are only so many skilled watchmakers in England, after all.

To be fair, Larcum Kendall (another watchmaker) was asked by the Longitude Board to copy H4 and did so in far less than six years, though at a cost of £450. Kendall went on to make other, simplified copies that cost less money but didn’t work as well.

The other thing is that a competing methodology, the lunar distance method, was also being tried out at the time. It relied on having tables of extremely accurate measurements of the moon’s motion, which were made, and one could compare the position of the moon to the sun in order to figure out one’s longitude. It was tested and worked, though it was about a third as accurate as H4 (i.e. correct to within 30 miles compared to H4’s 10) and required difficult calculations to be carried out on board the ship. On the other hand, it was way cheaper and with the printing press having been invented back in the 1400s, the tables could be copied way faster than one per several years.

So what happened, that accurate watches won but Harrison didn’t win the prize?

Basically, Harrison’s watches were great but way too difficult to make and way too expensive to be actually practical. Some were in fact made. For example, James Cook used K1 (the first copy of H4 made by Kendall) during his famous voyages in the Pacific ocean. There aren’t records of many being made, though. What happened is what often happens in the adoption of technology—after a while, people got better at making them, and making them cheaper. This wasn’t all the development of watch technology, by the way. Metallurgy played a roll, for example, as metals with better properties were developed that allowed greater accuracy at lower cost.

That’s not to say that improvements in watch technology didn’t play a roll. In the 1780s, John Arnold developed a simpler design that, unlike Kendall’s simplifications, kept time as accurately. Once his patents expired in the 1790s, other watchmakers could copy his designs, bringing the cost of accurate clocks (or “chronometers”) down further. When chronometers cost between £25 and £100 pounds, their use became extremely common because they provided enough benefit (including ships not being lost at sea or running aground in the dark because they don’t know where they are).

So why didn’t the prize ever get awarded? By the time it was clear that chronometers were the winning solution to the problem of longitude, they had already been solving it for a while, and that was due to a lot of people bringing the costs down over time, bit by bit. There wasn’t any person you could really point to as being the one who did it.

That said, Harrison was not left empty handed. Over the course of the thirty-plus years he worked on the problem, he was awarded, in total, £23,065. Not bad at a time when a ship might cost £1,200.

This is often the way technology develops; one person comes up with the idea, another makes it work, and then an army of people make it practical. When we remember anyone, we tend to remember the guy who was the first to make it work. A lot of credit goes to the people who made it practical, though.

Which is not to say that we should feel sorry for the people no one remembers who made the technology practical. They were generally well paid for their labor, and if they rarely become rich, they usually can support themselves and their family in comfort, which is what most people labor for anyway. There are more important things in life than money and fame.

Cardboard Cutout Villains Are Realistic

I’ve been reading a very curious book, at the request of a friend. To save you a click, it’s the memoir of someone trying to become famous as a punk rocker and failing miserably (by which I mean that he failed and that he was miserable). While it’s been very painful to read because (so far) he makes no decisions that aren’t bad decisions and he mistreats approximately everyone he interacts with, it does also have some applications beyond the reasons my friend asked me to read it. In particular, it gives insights into what villains are like in real life.

When I was young, it was common for people to complain about villains being “cardboard cutouts.” They were there only to be evil, so the refrain went, and we never heard their side of the story. Why are they doing what they do? Why does it seem good them? Everyone is the hero in his own story, so why do these people think that they’re heroic? And so on.

This led to all sorts of stories in which the villain was sympathetic. Often, he was just a misunderstood good guy. When the protagonist of the story took the time to find out the villain’s perspective, he realized that there was a lot going for it, and instead of defeating him, a compromise could be reached. Maybe even a mutually beneficial compromise, where both parties were better off than if they were alone.

There’s a lot that can be said about this, and to some degree I’ve already said some of it. To some degree I think that this also appeals to modern laziness, which hopes that at bottom there isn’t really conflict, only misunderstanding, and so a little bit of talking things out will resolve all problems. What I want to talk about now, though, is that it’s just flat-out wrong. Villains are not always complex.

The guy in the memoir, at least as he describes himself, is easily recognizable as the bad guy in other people’s biographies. He doesn’t run an evil empire and he’s not the dictator of a small communist country, but he is the guy who makes the lives of everyone he’s around worse. He is sometimes violent (without justification) and often cruel. He adds nothing to other people’s live but does quite a lot of taking. Normally you see this character during the section of someone else’s biography where they improved their life by finally getting away from him.

In this book, we get his perspective. What makes it even more interesting, we get his perspective on events that we only know about because he tells us. We have no (practical) way of checking up on the stories he tells us. For all we know, he was much worse and the people around him much better than the version of events that he gives us. And what’s so very strange, and thus interesting, is that in his version of events, he comes off as the bad guy.

He offers no justification for the awful things that he does. Quite the opposite: where he should be putting the most effort into explaining away what he did and trying to make himself seem sympathetic, he expects the reader to be impressed with him. The only regret he ever expresses is over times when he did not lash out at people because it would have been imprudent, such as not attacking someone he was angry at because the guy was a friend of the guy who booked gigs at a venue, and he wouldn’t be able to book gigs there if he lashed out as he wanted to. Or when the guy he wanted to attack was just too big and strong.

Let’s take a made-up example because all of the real examples are too long: suppose there was a memoir written by a dog and he mentions a time when he drank from the toilet. The 3-d villain version would go something like:

When the level of the water in the toilet is too high, it angers the earth spirits who shriek in agony, which gives me a headache. I drank from the bowl in order to appease them, so that we might have peace in the land. I did not realize that the hind-leg-walkers wanted the water to mask the smell of their bodily functions.

The version that would be in the real dog’s memoir, if it was written like this memoir, would go more like this:

The stupid apes never let me drink from the toilet even though it was at a great height for me and the water was extra delicious. Then one day the morons left the toilet lid up, so I walked right up and drank the thing dry. !@#$ them and their trying to keep me from drinking what I want. When the smaller stupid ape saw me she shrieked so much I thought she’d fall over from not breathing. Dumb $#@!. Take a breath every now and then. It was so funny. I didn’t let them stop me from being me.

I do not mean, of course, that in all instances of conflict that one side is pure good and the other pure evil. It’s just worth noting, though, that cardboard cutout villains are, in fact, realistic.

Murder She Wrote: The Way To Dusty Death

In the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode The Way To Dusty Death. It is one of the greatest of the Big Business episodes, in the sense of being most about Big Business without knowing anything about business, especially big business. You can see this even in the opening card:

The episode is not set anywhere in New York City, or at least not in any of the buildings pictured here, yet what symbolizes big business better than lower Manhattan with its dominating skyline?

The title of the episode is, of course, a reference to MacBeth’s most famous solliloquy, said immediately after learning that Lady MacBeth had just died:

She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

MacBeth did murder for a kingdom. In this episode, murder is done for a corporation, setting it up as an ersatz kingdom. In many ways this will be the theme of the episode, which is what makes this episode the epitome of Murder She Wrote Big Business episodes.

Murder, She Wrote had an attitude towards big business which was typical of its time in Hollywood. It’s equal parts disgust, envy, distrust, and scapegoat. Businessmen were all, in the eyes of Hollywood writers, unscrupulous and greedy. In many ways they were written as jocks with big wallets instead of big muscles.

This episode will pay tribute to the play MacBeth in a variety of ways. For example, right after the opening credits, the first scene is a psychic rubbing a watch.

He foretells wealth and power for those bold enough to take quick and decisive action for it that most men would shrink from. I suppose having one witch instead of three can be attributed to budget cuts, and it being a man instead of a woman makes it an homage rather than mere copying. He’s telling this fortune to a woman and a man.

This is our Lady MacBeth for the episode (sort of). The episode’s MacBeth is played by a familiar face:

The actor is Richard Beymer. We last saw him as Sydney in The Days Dwindle Down. Here he’s Morgan MacCormack, an ambitious businessman.

The psychic goes on to say that Mr. McCormack must beware of a very determined woman whose will is even more powerful than his.

After the psychic leaves, the wife (whose name is Virginia, by the way) decides that the fortune means that Morgan will be appointed chairman (we’re not told of what, yet). As they debate this, the phone rings. It’s the chairman of the board of directors of Company Corp. He invites the couple to come to his house for the weekend. The chairman intends to make a big announcement. Virginia is certain this means that he’s going to resign and make Morgan the new chairman (because that’s how companies work in Hollywood—though, to be fair, in reality if a former chairman of a board of directors who is leaving under good circumstances and makes a strong recommendation, it is likely to be heeded by the board). The one thing she wonders is who is the determined woman with a strong will? Then we cut to this scene:

The episode strongly implies that the determined woman of strong will is Jessica, though I’m not certain that’s right, in the end. I’ll get to that in the episode analysis later. The woman to the left of Jessica is Lydia Barnett, wife of Duncan Barnett, the chairman of the board of directors of Barnett Industries. (You’ll recall that the king who MacBeth killed to take over the throne was named Duncan.) They are admiring Lydia’s garden when Duncan comes up:

When Jessica turns down the (joking) offer of being gardener on their estate because after all of the effort it took to tame her garden she doesn’t have the heard to begin again, Duncan remarks that Jessica is afraid of nothing, which is why he asked her to join their board of directors. This is slightly odd as it’s normally publicly traded corporations that have a board of directors and the board members of a publicly traded corporation are elected by the shareholders. (Granted, often at the recommendation of the top management of the company.)

Jessica has, apparently, been on the board for some time as she makes reference to the most recent board meeting. Also, apparently the company owns a paper mill near Jessica’s home town which Barnett wants to close and Jessica wants to keep open because its closure will put many of her neighbors out of work (the size and composition of Cabot Cove varies considerably with each episode).

We’re then introduced to two more suspects characters:

The guy on the left is Spruce Osborn, a competitor to Barnett, and the woman is Serena. These two are the first characters who don’t have any obvious analog in MacBeth. Lydia receives them ungraciously for some reason. She directs a manservant (“James”) to show Spruce to a suite that adjoins Duncan’s suite—it was her husband’s specific wish.

It comes up in conversation, once Spruce leaves, that he’s been trying to take over the company—he made Jessica “a very generous offer” for her shares. This really makes me wonder about the ownership of the company. If the majority of shares are owned by Duncan, then Spruce has zero chance of acquiring the company without Duncan selling to him. If Duncan owns a minority of the shares, it’s not his company. I don’t think that we’re ever going to find out because I don’t think that the writers ever thought it through.

The action moves to the tennis courts on Duncan’s estates. We meet another couple who have been summoned to this weekend:

The wife is Kate Dutton, and the husband is Tom Dutton. We also meet another “vice president” who is also a board member—the writers really don’t keep the corporate structure straight—Anne Hathaway:

The name is curious, as it’s another Shakespeare reference, though not to The Tragedy of MacBeth. Anne Hathaway was the name of Shakespeare’s wife. We know approximately nothing about her beyond her name, so in this case it really is the case that any similarity to real people, living or dead, are purely coincidental.

The scene moves to Jessica and Kate Dutton, who are sitting at a table drinking iced tea. Kate remarks to Jessica that she has trouble keeping up with modern women, and Jessica replies that she doesn’t think that modern women are really all that different. I suppose Jessica should know, since she is one.

I know I keep beating on this drum, but Jessica is always written as a big city character. She holds to no traditions and the only thing she disapproves of is getting in the way of other people’s fun. For all that Jessica is supposed to be from Cabot Cove, the only way to tell is that she frequently says it. Though not in this episode, as I recall. If this episode was the only episode anyone saw, they’d quite possibly come away with the impression that Jessica lives in New York City.

That aside, it was a strange remark for Kate Dutton to have made. You can find all sorts of modern women—in the sense Kate means—back in the 1920s. In the late 1980s she really should have been used to them since they were common enough when she was still a babe in arms. Kate doesn’t really defend her remark, though, she just shifts slightly and says that she could never keep up with Anne Hathaway. There’s a bit more discussion where Kate admits that the wives of senior executes go through all sorts of scrutiny and put on performances to help their husbands ascent the corporate ladder.

Another facet of big business, as written by hollywood writers, is that they really want to be writing stories about kings and dukes and court intrigues, and seem to figure that a CEO and vice presidents are basically the same thing, or at least are close enough. I don’t know that this is harmless; I’ve met people whose stupid politics seem to have been based on this sort of nonsense in TV shows. Of course, they also usually thought that kings didn’t have responsibilities, either, so possibly the bigger problem was that all they knew of anything came from TV shows, and I doubt that well written TV shows would have helped all that much for a person in such dire intellectual straits.

That evening, there is a party in formal dress outside of the Barnett mansion:

Duncan comes in talking with Anne Hathaway and his wife reminds him of his medication. He orders a selters with no salt and Spruce Osborn objects, telling the bartender to give Duncan a brandy. Duncan demurs, saying that his doctor only allows him one brandy—before bed—and that’s it. Then he finally makes his announcement. He plans to continue continue being the whatever-the-hell-he-is of Barnett Industries for a very long time. (The writers actually side-step what on earth he is by having him say “the rumors of my imminent resignation have been greatly exaggerated.”)

He then bids his guests a good evening, and retires for the night.

Virginia and Kate follow him and assure him that they’re delighted to hear that he’s going to remain king. He laughs in their faces, and continues on his way to bed.

The next scene shows Morgan and Virginia talking in their room about their disappointment. Morgan reassures his wife that time is on their side, and she suggests that they speed things up. Morgan is reluctant, but she resolves to do it.

We then see a spoon drop white powder into a brandy snifter while Virginia’s voice says that the only reason he can’t do it is that he doesn’t have the guts:

This is a bit of a departure from MacBeth, as in the play lady MacBeth only urges MacBeth to kill his king, she doesn’t actually do it herself. She only takes over after, in performing the coverup.

Though it is a small departure from MacBeth, it is a large departure from Murder, She Wrote. It does not, normally, show us who the murderer is before the investigation has started. This leaves us with only two options:

  1. It is not Virginia or Morgan who is poisoning the brandy.
  2. It is not the brandy that kills Duncan.

In a few seconds, we find out that it’s option #2.

The camera pans over to show that the TV is plugged in, but that doesn’t matter much. Interestingly, when Jessica comes into Duncan’s bedroom to comfort his grieving widow, the glass of brandy is still sitting on the night table. Jessica notices it, too.

They didn’t make this subtle, so we find out that the brandy didn’t kill him within moments of seeing it be poisoned. (I do suspect that there was a commercial break inbetween, so the writers would have expected it to be several minutes, rather than seconds. Also, there’s a short scene of Jessica reading a book, the night before, and the lights dimming for a bit, causing her to look at her clock.)

I’m really not sure what to make of this, because what’s the point in pointing us in one direction only to conclusively change the direction moments later?

There’s an interesting clue presented in the next scene. It’s some time later and Jessica is comforting Lydia (Duncan’s wife) while Spruce Osborn gives her his condolences. He says, “I just wanted to extend my sympathies, Mrs. Barnett. Duncan and I were adversaries, but I wish it hadn’t had to be this way.” Jessica asks, “had to be this way?” and Osborn replies, “I didn’t mean that the way it sounds.” I think that this is meant to be a red herring, though it suffers a little bit from the typical Murder, She Wrote issue of anything that’s too obvious being certain to be a red herring. Plus, you wouldn’t expect the murderer to make so obvious of a slip before anything has had a chance to go wrong.

Spruce makes his goodbyes and leaves with Serena, then Dr. Chatsworth says that Duncan probably suffered very little.

With his weak heart, the electrical shock killed him almost instantly. The doctor figures that he had a heart attack and in struggling to get out of the tub, he pulled the TV in with him. Now, this is the only shot they give us of the TV stand and the tub before things might have been moved:

(the TV stand is the dark wooden stand in the foreground) and it’s not great because of the foreshortening, but in a later panning shot they establish that the stand is a good three or four feet away from the tub. The cord is at basically full extension and is at least 6′ long, with the outlet being right next to the stand. If he had knocked it off of the stand, it would have fallen on the floor. He’d have had to carry it backwards several steps to be able to drop it in the tub. Granted, this isn’t the sort of thing one has an entire course on in medical school, but it does make me question the good doctor’s judgment.

Jessica asks if it could have been the other way around, and the TV could have fallen in the water before the heart attack. The doctor says that he supposes that it was possible it happened that way. Lydia then starts unburdening herself to Jessica, saying that she used to warm him about watching TV in the tub, and even gave him a stand because he used to perch the TV on the edge (confirming that the TV really was quite far away from the tub).

As Lydia gets more emotional, Jessica offers her a drop of brandy. She gestures over at the brandy glass, but it’s missing!

“Strange, I thought I saw a glass of brandy there.”

It is helpful to point out that the glass of brandy is missing, but it is more than a bit strange to offer someone brandy from an already poured glass when you don’t know who the owner of the glass is. Even if she presumed it to be Duncan, “would you like to drink the brandy your freshly dead husband poured for himself but never got a chance to drink?” is not a question I would normally expect Jessica to ask.

I suspect that the problem is that this is not something that they can be subtle about, precisely because it’s a TV show, and a TV show from the late 1980s. That caused two problems which made subtlety difficult.

The first is specific to the 1980s: televisions didn’t show detail well, especially because so many people watched TV on broadcast television and so static was an issue in addition to the relatively low resolution of TVs at the time. As a result, if you wanted viewers to see things clearly, you had to be cropped in fairly closely on what you wanted them to see. As you can see above, to show us that the brandy glass is missing they have to zoom in. In these close-cropped shots, you can’t tell where you are within the room; if they merely showed an empty night-stand we might reasonably think we’re just being shown a different night-stand.

The second problem is more general to television: continuity problems abound in TV shows, so we might also reasonably conclude that a missing brandy glass which the script doesn’t mention was just a continuity error. If you compare the shot of the white powder being poured into the brandy glass with the shot of the missing brandy glass, you can see that they’re not in the same place relative to the lamp, they’re not next to the same lamp, and they’re not next to the same wall. (If you compare to wider shots of the room, they’re not even in the same room.)

Technically, the scene of the powder being poured into the brandy glass could have been meant to take place in an entirely different room, but that doesn’t make sense with either the plot or with the way the scene with the powder was shot. After the powder was poured, the spoon was used to stir the brandy very quietly, as if to avoid detection. Who would bother to quietly stir a glass of brandy in the privacy of their own room, before carrying it over to Duncan’s room? Who would switch brandy glasses and thus have to get the level very close to perfectly accurate, not to mention having to take the trouble of wearing gloves while carrying it or else wipe it afterwards? It was clearly meant to be lacing the glass that Duncan had already poured himself (and told the assembled crowd about at the party, earlier). Yet if you look at the subtleties, the details are all wrong, except for the glass itself. Heck, even the room wrong—in Duncan’s room the bottom 3′ of the wall are a dull green color with dark wood baseboard and a beige carpet, whereas in the scene with the powder we can see a white wall with white baseboard and a tiny amount of green carpet. (You can see the wall-to-wall carpet and baseboard in other shots of Duncan’s bedroom.) So we’re left with two possibilities: the person poisoning Duncan’s drink acted in an absurd manner, or there were continuity errors. My money is on the latter.

Regardless of which way you choose to interpret the different rooms, stands, and lamps, the fact that it’s an open question makes it difficult to rely on subtleties in TV shows. The writers have to work anything the audience is supposed to notice into the dialog, or at least into the plot—such as having a character pick something up and examine it. It could have been done more naturally than offering the widow her dead husband’s glass of brandy he didn’t get to drink, but I think it is more forgivable when one considers the necessities of TV shows, especially from this era.

Anyway, Morgon interrupts Jessica’s observation that there had been a brandy glass on the table by expressing his condolences, then asking to borrow Jessica for business. He informs her that he’s called an emergency meeting of the board of directors for that evening. Jessica is surprised that it’s tonight and asks if that isn’t a little hasty. I can’t imagine why she’d think it would be hasty—Duncan is very clearly dead. It would be one thing if he were lost at sea, or in the woods, or anyplace that he might still be alive and in consequence presuming him to be dead could be hasty. In this case, the doctor has given a death certificate. Also, the board of directors is less than a dozen people. It’s not like there are thousands of members of the board, many of whom will not be able to arrive for days. There’s nothing to wait for that could make this hasty.

Instead of pointing any of this out, Morgan merely says “perhaps” but that there are things that the board must decide before the market opens on the morrow, and that this tragedy is all that Spruce Osborn needs to stage a takeover. How this could help Spruce Osborn to stage a takeover is never mentioned, probably because there is no way for it to help that. Takeovers consist of buying shares from people who own them, not in riding up to castles with armies before the castle has had time to prepare and before they can be sure of who will support them during a siege. Duncan dying is not going to make a large number of people instantly willing to sell, especially if Duncan owned the majority of shares anyway. I think that this is probably just best understood as the need to elect a new king before the French seize on the moment of disarray to invade. There would actually be some truth to that necessity and possibility.

Morgan says that he understands that it’s short notice and that Jessica is very busy and he will understand if she can’t make it. She says that of course she’ll be there and he very clumsily tries to talk her out of it, saying that it will be very boring. Jessica points out that they’ll be choosing a new chairman of the board, and he guiltily admits that they will. If he was trying to lose her vote, he couldn’t have done a better job.

We then get an establishing shot of the king’s castle:

I mean, of the Barnett industries office building. Morgan and Tom Dutton are at each other’s throats, especially Tom Dutton. When Jessica arrives, Morgan welcomes her, and strangely Jessica says that she doesn’t expect to be able to help much, since she doesn’t know much about business. This is a complete change from her earlier stance of it being critical that she be there because they will be electing a new chairman of the board. I suppose that complete change makes Morgan’s complete change of reassuring her that her input will be valuable (“it’s people like you who keep us honest”) at least intelligible. Why any of this happened, I cannot tell.

Then the final board member shows up:

His name is Q.L. Frubson, the former assitant secretary of the treasury (of what, we’re not told; but he makes a point of saying that his boss was the one who was indicted, he resigned without a blemish on his record). He’s played by Ray Walston. Walston was in a ton of things (he has acting 155 credits on IMDB). I knew him best as the judge from Picket Fences, though he wouldn’t do that until 1992. Here, he plays a professional board member who is gruff and doesn’t want to be here. He arrives complaining about the travel to get here and how he as to take a 2am flight to get to his next board meeting the next day at the next company (whose name he can’t recall).

Jessica suggests that they begin with a moment of silence in Duncan’s memory, but Frubson objects saying that there is nothing in the rules of order about moments of silence, and besides Duncan would never have observed one himself. Given that he had to refresh his memory about what company he’s in, it’s curious that he seems to have known Barnett personally.

During an interlude where Jessica speaks confidentially with the secretary, it comes out that Duncan had been taking digitalis since his heart attack, and took two pills every day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Jessica calls the doctor and asks if it would be possible to find out if he had been given an overdose of the medication. The doctor says that it would, but the test needs to be done soon. He hangs up to order it.

It would be a bit odd if Duncan had been poisoned by brandy that we know he didn’t drink, so I’m not sure what’s on Jessica’s mind, here. It would not have been easy for anyone to have poisoned Duncan after dinner when he wouldn’t be likely to eat or drink anything before bed except that brandy.

I want to take a moment to look at the shot of the doctor when Jessica calls him:

Jessica opens her purse before calling, as if to pull out a paper and look up something. It strikes me as a bit odd that the doctor gave Jessica his home phone number, but perhaps she managed to wrangle that out of somebody else, and made a few calls and we’re only seeing the last, successful one. What I find more interesting is the setup. The whole thing just oozes eurdite authority. There’s the bookshelf filled with old books, many of them bound in leather. There’s the high backed chair, the table with tasteful nicknacks, and of course the jacket worn over his dress shirt which is only unbuttoned at the neck. Who, in 1987, gets home after a hard day of work, takes off only his tie, and puts on a jacket to relax? In 1887 Sherlock Holmes might do this because (1) no clothing was particularly comfortable at the time, knit cotton jersey not being common yet and (2) without central heating, indoor jackets were useful for comfort in the cool of British evenings. I really love how antique everything about this shot is except for the electric light and the telephone. It really fits Murder, She Wrote well.

The first order of business is to elect a new chairman of the board. Morgan and Tom each vote for themselves plus each gets one other vote. Anne Hathaway abstains, Frubson votes for Anne Hathaway, and Jessica doesn’t know what to do, so the vote is postponed. Tom and Morgan begin courting her for her vote, with Tom going first, over takeout dinner in the chairman’s office. We get the backstory that Tom has been with the company since he was seventeen, and has been everything from mail boy to factory foreman. Duncan as good as promised him that he would take over at some point.

After they’re done, they walk into Morgan telling Frubson that he knows why Frubson gave his support to Anne and he won’t let Frubson get away with it. Morgan then apologizes to Anne saying that she’s qualified but he’s only being realistic about the market’s perception of a chairwoman. Anne tells him that she understands. It makes no sense that Morgan waited this long to say this to Frubson, given that he wasn’t waiting for privacy to say it. The viewer needed to see it, though, so it’s one of those cases where we just pretend that no one is doing anything while the camera is away. Frubson excuses himself to go call the airline to change his flight.

Jessica forgot her sandwich in Duncan’s office, so she goes back to get it. She walks in on Frubson talking to Spruce Osborn on the phone. He doesn’t notice her as she walks in, but when he finally notices her he pretends he’s talking to the airport. This scene fades to an establishing shot of the next day, on what I’m pretty sure is a different building than the one we saw at night:

It’s hard to be absolutely sure that this is a different building, since the shot at night was not exactly a 4k HDR shot, but at a minimum the angle is very different. That said, I’m 99% sure it has a different number of windows per vertical column. This gets to what I was talking about before—that a problem television has is that you can’t trust visual details because they may simply be a lack of continuity. Frankly, it’s actually doubtful that the outside establishing shots were shot for this episode; if they weren’t straight-up stock footage, they may well have been shots gathered on an expedition (seasons before) to get some b-roll to be used for establishing shots on other episodes. At the time of shooting, they may never have been intended to represent the same thing at all.

(A curious example of this reuse of footage for a different purpose is in the movie Terminator 2, the closing shot of a car driving in the dark over which Sarah Connor gives her closing narration in voiceover was actually shot on approach to the hospital, earlier in the film. It lacked any detail to give away that it wasn’t Sarah and John driving away from where the T-1000 hunted them, though, so it was used in a way to suggest that. TV, with lower budgets than movies, tended to be even more economical about these sorts of things.)

In short, when writing a TV show you can’t expect the viewer to look closely at shots to find clues because the entire nature of television shows is that you don’t want the viewer looking too closely.

Inside the building, the board is still in the board room arguing over who should be the chairman of the board. Jessica gives one of her moral scoldings that might have had some weight if she ever disliked anything besides unpleasantness. (See the conclusion to Murder She Wrote: When Thieves Fall Out.) The upshot is that Tom moves to make Morgan temporary chairman for ninety days. Anne Hathaway, who is the only one really selling the idea that they’ve been up all night, moves that they make the motion unanimous, and everyone agrees, though Frubson is very reluctant to do so.

This is one of those issues with TV, btw, that all of the people who are, theoretically, completely exhausted are all being played by actors who got plenty of sleep the night before the scene was filmed. It’s not very important to the plot, here, but it sometimes is (as in the case of drunks played by sober people). It’s related to how Movies Are Intrinsically Misleading. It actually gets worse later that day, though, when the people who should be even more tired are now all completely wide awake.

Jessica comes into Morgan’s office and talks to him about his accusation to Mr. Frubson the night before. She did some digging and it turns out that Frubson served on four boards of companies that had been taken over by Spruce Osborn. Morgan assures her that he’s going to get Frubson off of the board as soon as possible. How, I’ve got no idea, since that’s not really how boards of directors work, but who cares? This episode isn’t really about corporations.

In the next scene Jessica walks into a room where Anne Hathaway and Tom Dutton are talking in a conspiratorial manner. Anne says that she agrees with Tom, but can be of most use to him if she keeps her nose clean. He insists that she can “get those proxies signed”. Why he thinks this, I’ve no idea. Proxy solicitation is the sort of thing that proxy solicitation companies do. It’s labor-intensive work to try to convince shareholders to have someone be their proxy in shareholder voting. A vice president/member of the board of directors isn’t going to have any special ability to “get proxies signed,” unless she happens to be personal friends with a major shareholder. Who, incidentally, is likely to be Duncan’s widow. At least if the suggestions that Duncan held a controlling fraction of the shares of his company are true, it would basically be up to Lydia to determine who is on the board of directors, so you’d expect the members of the board to be sucking up to her.

Jessica asks for directions to Spruce Osborn, and for some reason Anne knows his home address. Jessica goes and visits him. He tells her that if she’s come to sell her shares, he’s no longer buying, and has withdrawn his bid. Jessica asks him about Frubson, and he admits that Frubson is his man, and because Frubson was unable to complete his mission, he has withdrawn his bid. He sold his Barnett Industries stock this morning, before the news of Barnett’s death got out. He does plan to buy it back if the stock goes low enough. I don’t really follow the logic, here; nothing Frubson could have done would have resulted in Osborn wanting to not sell his stock prior to its value dropping because of the news of Duncan’s death. In fact, as far as I can tell, Frubson’s mission was to prevent a new chairman from being elected, which would, presumably, make the stock plummet even more. That would give him even more incentive to get out of the stock, not less. I really hope that the writers of this episode kept their money in bonds, or gold, or pork bellies, or something that they understood at least a little bit.

Jessica accuses Osborn of killing Duncan (not in those words) and Osborn said that if he had wanted to win, he would have. His advice to Jessica is to look at who did win.

The next scene is of Morgan talking to Virginia about how Jessica knows what they did. He realizes that she must have seen the brandy glass before he took it away. Again, this is strange because it’s just rehashing how they didn’t kill Duncan. Given how pressed for time Murder, She Wrote is, it seems like a waste of time. There is a callback to the fortune teller from the opening, when Morgan identifies Jessica as the woman with a will more powerful than his. Perhaps it was to keep that opening alive? But why? We’ve (pretty) clearly established that Morgan and Virginia didn’t kill Duncan. Maybe this is an attempt at a red herring?

Jessica talks with the doctor on the way into the Barnett house for the funeral. The digitalis test is taking a long time, so instead Jessica proposes counting the pills. The doctor only needs to call his office to find out how many Duncan should have had left. He goes off to do that and Jessica talks with Lydia. When Jessica tells her that she thinks it was murder, Lydia tells Jessica that she knew that Duncan was having an affair with some woman. The doctor comes back and tells Jessica that four pills are missing, and that would have been sufficient to induce a heart attack. Lydia exclaims, “then it was murder!”

Kate Dutton, who was just walking into the room, drops the vase of flowers she was carrying when she hears the word, “murder.” Jessica and the doctor go up to look at the hot tub, and Kate follows them. She tells Jessica that the night Duncan died she passed by his room and heard voices coming from the hot tub. Duncan was in there with Serena—the girl who came with Spruce Osborn.

Jessica and the doctor examine the hot tub area and Jessica finds a gold charm.

The next scene is at the close of the funeral. Some guy (who later turns out to be police Lieutenant Grayson) comes up and gives the results of the digitalis test—there was no overdose of digitalis in Duncan’s system. They ran the test twice just to be absolutely sure.

At the reception at the house, Jessica sees Serena go up to Duncan’s hot tub to look for her missing charm. Jessica follows Serena and confronts her with it. Serena admits to being in the hot tub but claims that she and Duncan never did anything, and Jessica concludes that Duncan had Serena insinuate herself with Spruce to gather information on him, which she admits.

Jessica then goes off to find Morgan to accuse him of attempting to murder Duncan. Morgan denies it but Jessica blackmails him and Virginia admits it. She talks with Jessica privately (and promises to deny everything she will say). She begins by telling Jessica about their psychic’s prediction to be ware of a woman with a powerful will. Jessica asks her about what happened because she’s more interested in figuring out who did kill Duncan than in proving that Morgan and Virginia only tried to. It turns out that Morgan was going to do it but was scared off by the sound of a woman’s voice coming from the bathroom. Jessica remarks, “Oh, yes, Serena.” Virginia doesn’t know, however, because it was impossible to identify the voice with the water gushing and the door closed.

The remark, “the door closed,” gives Jessica the critical insight. Cue clue face:

Jessica then sets the trap to catch the murderer:

The guy is Lieutenant Grayson. (I had to look him up on IMDB.) They mention him elsewhere in the episode, but he got exceedingly little screen time. They go to where Kate said she heard Serena, and Jessica asks if she’s sure that it was Serena. Kate is absolutely positive. Lt. Grayson then uses his radio to tell people in the hot tub to start talking, and we hear muffled voices. Kate says that the door was slightly open that night, and they slightly open the door, though the voices are still too muffled to identify.

Kate then says that she actually saw Serena. Unfortunately for her, Serena left by the connecting door, as Duncan had placed Spruce (and thus Serena) in the room right next to his. The only way she could have known that Serena was there was if she were hiding in Duncan’s room, waiting for Serena to leave.

Kate, confused and scared, said that she doesn’t know what Jessica is talking about, this is obviously Serena’s voice. The Lieutenant leads the way, and it turns out to be the doctor and Anne Hathaway.

Kate tries to blame Anne, though that makes no sense whatever and Lt. Grayson says that Anne has an airtight alibi.

Kate then breaks down, saying that she didn’t mean to kill Duncan. She only wanted to talk to him. It was so unfair the way she had been treating Tom. She begged him to give Tom a chance and his only response was to ask her to adjust the horizontal hold on the way out. (For those not familiar, analog TVs had timing signals that controlled what information was on which line; they could be manually adjusted with dials because the timing signals were not always picked up on properly by the television, especially if there was interference.) As she adjusted it for him, she got angry and threw the television in.

Curiously, in the flashback she walks several steps over to put the TV in the far side of the tub. This is actually consistent with where it was found, which is almost surprising. I wonder why they put it so far from where the stand was, though? The character had no real reason to do it, and I can’t even think of why the TV crew would want the prop there instead of closer.

Interestingly, Kate says that she’s not sorry that she did it. You only get one of those exclamations in about one out of ten Murder, She Wrotes, if that. “He was a horrible man and he just used people. He’d find good men, and just use them up.”

The final scene is at the Barnett industries corporate building. I think that the building in the establishing shot is a a different building yet again, making that three different buildings in three establishing shots of the same building:

As I said, you really can’t trust details in a TV show.

Curiously, we actually get a fair amount of closure on the non-murder plot in this episode. Anne Hathaway is voted chairman of the board, nominated by Tom Dutton. Jessica commends him because it had to be hard, and Tom replies that there was no other choice, with Morgan’s resignation. He would just be a liability, and he doesn’t think that he’s going to be around much longer. Anne tells Jessica that the paper mill is going to stay open. Jessica says that it’s very public-spirited of Anne, but Anne replies that it’s just a business decision. They’ve bought three magazines and her figures show that if they can make their own paper, they will save a lot of money.

Jessica says that the company seems to be in good hands, and Anne gives Jessica her word that it is. “I’m a very determined woman.” Jessica smiles—possibly connecting this with the psychic’s prediction she was told about—and we go to credits.

All things considered, this is a very strange episode. It derives a certain amount of inspiration from The Tragedy of MacBeth, but not really enough to be called an homage. It doesn’t take any of the real insight into human nature from MacBeth, which is what an homage should do. It doesn’t even much steal any of the plot from MacBeth, either. All in all, it’s about as related to MacBeth as Murder She Wrote: Night Of The Headless Horseman was to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I suppose it was a bit much to expect more, but there was a certain amount of promise in the beginning.

One thing that I will give this episode is that it was beautiful. The major locations were luxurious and opulent. Duncan’s home was delightful to look at, the board room had beautiful wood paneling and excellent furniture.

The plot, itself, is fairly basic; a rich man was killed in order to take what was his. The setup was a bit complicated but the mystery itself was relatively simple. Since we can rule out Morgan and Virginia, the only other suspects were Lydia (Duncan’s wife), Spruce Osborn, Serena, and the Duttons. We can rule out Spruce because he’s not the sort of man to do his own dirty work just to complete one more business deal that wasn’t that important to him. We can rule out Serena because her only motive would be… I don’t know. I can’t even think of a motive. Maybe doing Spruce’s dirty work, except that wouldn’t even make sense. So we can cross her off too. As far as I can tell, she was only in this episode in order to have someone in the hot tub with Duncan shortly before he was killed.

Other than the Duttons, that only leaves Lydia. She’s unlikely since she starts off seeming like an old friend of Jessica’s, but that’s not impossible. Old friends of Jessica do occasionally murder people in Murder, She Wrote. She’d have been a good choice in terms of being the least likely suspect, since the entire episode pointed to a business reason for the murder. If Lydia killed Duncan because she was enraged at his infidelity, that would be a reasonable motive and a great way to foil expectations. The real problem was that she just wasn’t enough of a character in the story. She’s a loyal wife in the beginning and seems to have affection for her husband. After that, she’s a grieving widow in about two scenes. Granted, Kate Dutton didn’t have that much more screen time, still, we did at least get some of her motivations. We really have no idea what motivated Lydia.

Actually, it’s a bit worse than that. We really have no idea what Lydia’s relationship to anyone was. She and Jessica speak to each other in affectionate ways about gardening, but there’s no indication that the two actually knew each other before that day. She barely talks to her husband, but does show some concern for him, at least enough to remind him to take his medication. She also cared enough to be jealous of Anne Hathaway. On the other hand, she slept in a separate bedroom and was sure that Duncan was having an affair with someone.

Those last two are a bit strange, actually. I’m pretty sure that she slept in a separate bedroom because it would have been near-impossible to have Duncan murdered in his hot tub if Lydia slept in the same bedroom as her husband. The justification for it we were offered was that Duncan’s idea of relaxing was to listen to stock quotes before going to sleep, which is fair enough. Wanting to go to sleep at different times is a legitimate reason to sleep in different rooms, though Duncan could easily have watched TV in a recliner somewhere before he walked off to bed, which makes one wonder if this was less about simple practicality and more about the state of their marriage.

The part where Lydia was sure that Duncan was having an affair with someone, though, really needed more explanation. Why was she sure of this? Why did she even suspect it? This was the last substantive thing that Lydia ever said in the episode, though. She was interrupted by the doctor coming in, and her only other line in the scene—which is the last scene she’s in—is her telling Kate not to worry about the dropped flowers. I suppose Lydia not getting any closure on her character doesn’t matter all that much with her character never having been developed.

I do want to consider the character of Serena a little bit more, as it doesn’t really make sense either. She was only substantively in one scene, where it’s revealed that her airhead demeanor earlier on was merely for show. She was actually a spy for Barnett, who had planted her as Spruce Osborn’s girlfriend in order to gain information. Completely unexplained was how she and Barnett knew each other. Since she invokes copulating with Spruce on the night of Duncan’s death as an alibi, this would make her a prostitute as well as a spy if she’s being paid for it, and if not, what terms could she possibly be on with Barnett to do this for free? If she was being paid for it, though, why would she undress to get into the hot tub with Barnett in order to convey the information she was being paid for? In 1987 she wouldn’t have had a cell phone to call him to relay this information but landline telephones were easy to come by. She would hardly have moved in with Spruce having only started dating him a few weeks before, so she’d have her own telephone, too. Even if she didn’t want calls to Barnett to show up on her telephone bill for fear of Spruce finding out (somehow), in the late 1980s pay phones were plentiful. There was absolutely no reason to meet Barnett clandestinely at night in order to relay the secrets she acquired, to say nothing of getting undressed to do it. On the other hand, she was very clear that she and Duncan never did anything physical, and had no reason to lie about this. No matter how you slice it, I can’t make out a motivation for her to go to the lengths she did to spy on Spruce Osborn or why she was in the hot tub with Duncan in order to tell him about it.

To some degree I suspect that she was in the hot tub with Duncan only in order to give Kate a way to give herself away. Which brings me to how Kate gave herself away.

It was very curious to have Kate drop the vase when the word “murder” was spoken. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t usually foreshadow the murderer in that way. This is the first way she gave herself away, and I don’t really know what to make of it. On its own, it doesn’t prove anything, but it does make one feel more like she was built up to as a murderer. I’m undecided on whether it’s a fair way of doing it, though. Ambiguous evidence should really be more about things said or done that are related to the murder, not merely to feeling guilty. I suppose that this could be meant as being related to MacBeth, where Kate, and not Virginia, is the Lady MacBeth being eaten by guilt. It’s a bit of a one-off, if it is, though.

The more substantive way that Kate gives herself away is by telling Jessica about hearing Serena in the hot tub with Duncan. There is some reason for it, though not a great reason. In theory she could want to try to frame Serena for Duncan’s murder. I don’t know that this would have seemed all that plausible, though. Serena had no motive and Kate’s testimony is the only evidence that Serena was there (so far as she knew). Even stranger is that she had no motive to actually succeed in framing Serena; all she could have cared about was diverting suspicion away from herself. This is important because, had she been more careful and merely said she thought it was Serena but couldn’t be sure, she wouldn’t have been caught. She could have said that it sounded like a young woman and Serena was the only young woman in the house. She could have said she heard a woman, but couldn’t tell what woman. Jessica even gave her an opportunity to say that she didn’t hear clearly, but Kate expressed certainty that it was Serena. Her conviction that it was Serena did her no good, and proved her undoing.

It’s also a bit curious that she broke down and admitted to the murder with extremely little evidence against her. She said that she was certain that the re-creation voice was Serena, but it turned out to be Anne Hathaway. Had she expressed surprise and then said that she isn’t certain at all, now, because clearly she’s not as good at identifying muffled voices as she thought, she would still have gotten away with it.

It’s always unfortunate when the thing which catches the killer is something that they did afterward, and not a piece of evidence about the murder, itself. This is no exception. Heck, until Kate confessed, not only could Jessica not prove that it was her, Jessica couldn’t even have proved that Duncan was murdered.

Duncan is also a curious character in this story, by the way. He is initially played as affable, but is quickly revealed to be cruel and eventually to be immoral. He invited a bunch of people up to his house at short notice just to get their hopes up in order to enjoy dashing them. He hired or otherwise influenced Serena to prostitute herself to Spruce Osborne in order to spy on him for corporate secrets. In the end, Kate’s description that he was a cruel man who took good men and used them up seems entirely plausible. Which takes this even further away from MacBeth.

Then there’s the subject of how much the writers of this episode misunderstood how corporations work. Heck, they couldn’t even keep CEOs and Vice Presidents straight with chairmen and members of the board of directors. Boards of directors are not the same thing as senior management. Also, public companies can only be purchased in a hostile takeover if a majority of their shares are available for purchase. If Duncan owned a majority of the stock in his company, Spruce Osborne couldn’t have dreamed of taking it over. If he didn’t, he couldn’t have told Spruce Osborne that the company wasn’t for sale.

Oh, and the chairman of the board of directors is not a position for life. Duncan couldn’t announce that he’ll never leave. Well, unless he was the majority shareholder, in which case the board of directors were people that he simply voted onto the board himself, and thus would be yes-men, not corporate climbers. They’d be people like Jessica and Q.L. Frubson—outsiders who did very little, selected mostly for prestige.

It is possible to take the line that this is a murder mystery, not a corporate documentary, so verisimilitude doesn’t matter. There is a sense in which this is correct, but it only goes so far. First, it is possible to get things far more correct than they did here while maintaining the plot. Many of the mistakes were just straight-up laziness. Worse, getting this stuff wrong makes it harder to follow the plot. If a man was killed by a computer programmer and it turns out that the janitor did it because his janitorial work isn’t mopping floors but is actually programming computers, this would be cheating. Bleating, “but it’s just a work of fiction, who cares if janitors don’t really program all the time!” would not excuse it, any more than it is excusable to make perfectly harmless substances poisonous or to have somebody travel two hundred miles an hour on a highway in order to get around their alibi. Since no one’s relationship to anyone else makes any sense in this episode, it’s more difficult to figure out who is and is not a suspect. Would Spruce Osborne murder Duncan in order to seize his company? Who knows? In real life that wouldn’t be possible, but maybe it’s easy in this episode. Would Anne Hathaway try to get Duncan to divorce his wife who gave him no children so she could give him a male heir so his company won’t fall into civil war after he dies? Maybe, given how little the writers understand business. Could she have killed him so that their illegitimate son could inherit the company? Why not? Given that reality is not a tether, here, the sky is the limit!

(There’s also the issue that some poor, unfortunate souls learn about business from TV like this, and so become astonishingly badly informed. I don’t think it’s fair to put too much about general education on the shoulders of television, but it is another reason to not make pointless mistakes.)

Ultimately, this was an ambitious episode that didn’t work. It was beautiful, and to that degree it was a lot of fun, but it was confusing and a bit infuriating in its sloppiness, and Jessica only caught the murderer because the murderer was stupid after the fact. The references to MacBeth were mostly dropped once the episode got going and neither served to make the episode better nor to give any insight into the play. Not that it really could have; a play in which the murderers mentally fall apart is approximately the opposite of a murder mystery.

I called it the greatest of the business episodes, and yet in many ways it’s one of the worst of the Murder, She Wrote episodes. To some degree, those are the same thing. Murder, She Wrote did worst when episodes had any form of business in them.

PSA: Use Genghis Khan To Avoid Godwin’s Law

Since we live in, as the comedic show Futurama called it, the Stupid Ages, where an astonishing number of people are willing to admit the evil of only truly extraordinary cases, it is very tempting when trying to have a discussion of a moral subject to invoke Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. Unfortunately, Mike Godwin ruined this by coining Godwin’s Law. If you’re not familiar, Godwin’s Law states:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

Godwin claims that he set out to try to reduce the incidence of glib Nazi comparisons, but I think that his main supporters are people who really don’t like the ability to clearly and unambiguously point out an instance of evil. This is a different time and place to when Godwin coined it, but certainly the majority of times I’ve seen it invoked is as a defense against thinking.

It occurred to me recently, though, that Genghis Khan works approximately as well as Hitler for a person who did what is (almost) universally acknowledged to be great evil while he thought that he was doing good. He’s not interchangeable with Hitler in all contexts, but he is in an awful lot of them. Where he is, you will probably save yourself some trouble while trying to stimulate thinking. Since he’s not quite as well known as Hitler, though, I do recommend always mentioning that he raped an awful lot of people. That will insure that people will think of him in the correct frame of mind.

(Note: this way not work as well in Mongolia, but you probably won’t need to do this as much in Mongolia anyway.)

Atheists and Morality

When I was young, I heard a fair amount of argumentation that “atheists can be just as moral as Christians,” and in a very theoretical sense—and neglecting the duty of piety to God which an atheist must necessarily transgress—there is a sense in which this is true. As time has proven, though, it’s an irrelevant sense.

There are two possible meanings to “atheists can be just as moral”, though they end up in the same place. The first meaning is that an atheist can, through practice and effort, form virtuous habits according to whatever theory of morality he holds, and continue in these virtuous habits all the days of his life. This is true, especially for people who become atheists as adults, since adults tend to be fixed in their habits relative to children. Habits formed in youth are, certainly, possible to keep even if the reason for them has been rejected. It is not easy for such an atheist, since the continuation of his habits will have only the support of his prejudices and not of his intellect, but it is certainly doable. At least so long as he doesn’t face temptation. Upper middle class bachelors, with cheap hobbies, few wants, and no family obligations, will in fact tend to be harmless until they return to dust.

This misses is that there is more to morality than simply being harmless, or even than simply being “a productive member of society”. These are fine things, but human beings were made for greatness, not for being somewhat more convenient to their neighbors than absolutely nothing would be. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, because of the second possible meaning.

The second possible meaning of “atheists can be just as moral” is that they can be just as moral, according to their own moral standards. If this sounds good to you, consider that Genghis Khan thought that pillaging, raping, and murdering were heroic actions and that he was a really great guy for doing them. Being moral according to your own moral standards—assuming you’ve done your best to ensure your moral standards are correct—may possibly be sufficient to make you saveable by the salvific power of Christ on the cross atoning for the sins of the world, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t being immoral according to the correct moral standards.

To say that an atheist can follow his own moral standards is, in fact, to say that he is liable to be immoral precisely to the degree in which his standards differ from real morality. It is no answer to say that he will approve of himself while he fornicates, adulterates marriages, and murders. It is no answer to say that he will only murder the people he believes it’s perfectly fine to murder, or that he will only murder people he declares aren’t human beings before he murders them. Approving of his evil actions doesn’t make him less wrong, it makes him more wrong.

When the famous enlightenment philosopher said, “there is no God, but don’t tell that to the servants or they will steal the silver,” it is no answer to say, “perhaps, but they will not think that it’s wrong to steal the silver while they steal it.”

This does bring up something of a side-note, which is sometimes talked about in this context: people who believe that God sees everything and punishes wrongdoing in the afterlife are more likely to think that they cannot get away with a moral transgression than are people who think that no one will catch them now or later. There is something to this, since the feeling that someone will know what you do is a support to doing the right thing. This is not the entirety of morality, however. People can habituate themselves to virtue such that they do not need this support in order to do the right thing, i.e. so that they can do the right thing even if they don’t believe anyone will know, merely because it is the right thing to do. Which brings us back to this second point: that does no good if the person’s theory of right and wrong is wrong.

If someone’s theory of right and wrong is wrong, he will not just do wrong (that he approves of) when no one is looking, he will also do wrong when everyone is looking.

Many atheists of the late 1800s and early 1900s took great offense at the idea that an atheist could not recognize moral standards. All people know right from wrong, they indignantly said. That modern atheists are busy villifying those older atheists for not living up to the different moral standards of modern atheists tells you what you need to know about this silly claim.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether atheists can, through effort and practice, create virtuous habits and stick to them even if no one is looking, until the day they die. History tells us, if common sense didn’t already, that they will alter their moral standards before then. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time and temptation before they form new habits accordingly.

Murder, She Wrote & Stereotypes

Murder, She Wrote has been accused of being formulaic, sometimes in very funny ways, but that’s not really true unless you construe the formula so generally that a show with a genre must be formulaic. (On that subject, you might want to read Writing Formulas and Formulaic Writing and In-Genre Fiction is Dull Outside of It.)

What people are really referring to is that Murder, She Wrote generally used very clichéd characters. Writers, businessmen, police detectives, lawyers, real-estate agents—these were all variants on the standard cliché of them. Businessmen did business and they cared about numbers and money, especially if the numbers represented money. Real estate agents were always desperate to make sales, no matter what. TV actors were always full of themselves and demanding. (When I say “always” what I really mean is “almost always.) There was a reason for this, though.

Once you subtract out the commercials, an episode of Murder, She Wrote were approximately 45 minutes long (once you subtract the coming attractions, intro sequence, and closing credits). That’s not a long time to tell a complicated story, and if—as I’ve done recently writing episode reviews—you pay close attention to how many plot elements there are in a typical episode, you’ll discover that they’re actually quite densely packed. Once I started describing and analyzing all of the plot elements, it started taking me about a week to review one. This comes from the need to establish why Jessica is present, to give several people plausible motives, to do some basic investigation to uncover clues, and to throw in a red herring or two. Once you consider how much needs to be done, it becomes clear that there just wasn’t much time for characterization.

The characters in Murder, She Wrote were not, in the main, clichés because the writers had no creativity. I don’t want to oversell this; the writers were TV writers. They churned product out on a tight schedule and were not, for the most part, brilliant people. However, they did tend to flavor their characters in creative ways, if sparingly. What they were really doing was using clichéd characters in order to save time. We’ve all seen the characters they’re referring to a hundred times, generally more developed in those other places. Even if not more developed in those other places, a hundred variants on the same idea fleshes it out in our imagination. This is shorthand.

Had Murder, She Wrote used really original characters in each episode, the episodes would have had to be two hours long. That is, they would have been movies.

This shorthand is also part of what makes Murder, She Wrote a kind of comfort food. We’re familiar with all of these characters; we’ve spent a long time with them and now we’re seeing them again. Sometimes even played by the same actors we’re used to watching play them in the old days. This isn’t really a coincidence, it’s part of the show’s theme that old things are still good.

Prime Day Cometh

I recently got a notification that Amazon’s “holiday,” Prime Day, is coming this summer. This amuses me on several levels.

The first is that Prime Day is actually two days long. So far as I know, this isn’t a sundown to sundown thing, either. Amazon just has their own special definition of “day.”

Also, for those who haven’t heard of it, Prime Day is basically Amazon trying to make up its own Black Friday which no one else celebrates. In theory is is a “day” on which there are all sorts of amazing deals, such as usually are only found on Black Friday.

At least based on previous prime days, there aren’t any amazing deals to be had, at least not on anything that anyone wants, or in comparison to what items normally sell for. There is a certain amount of removing all discounts in the days leading up to Prime Day so that re-applying the ordinary discounts can be claimed to be a sale, but that’s not exactly impressive. There are, of course, the occasional significant markdowns on overstocked items, but if one pays attention those always come up from time to time. If they’re still doing it, those are available year-round on Amazon’s “gold box”. I once got a very nice kitchen knife for $20 that way. (I think it may have been overstocked because the factory forgot to sharpen it and it couldn’t cut a paper towel out of the box. Since one has to periodically sharpen kitchen knives anyway, this wasn’t exactly a big deal to me.) A “day” dedicated to buying things at basically the same prices but with more fanfare than normal isn’t very exciting.

Which actually brings me to Black Friday. There was a short time when Black Friday sales really were a thing, large box stores offering exceptionally deep discounts on some items in order to lure people into the store, at which point they would start doing the rest of their Christmas shopping while they were there. As the saying goes, though, while you can fool all of the people some of the time, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and competition from other stores combined with awareness that it would be better to hold off on one’s other shopping until the crowds weren’t of quite such deadly sizes rendered the practice of huge discounts on attractive items economically untenable. And whatever can’t go on forever, won’t.

Black Friday is already passing into the sands of time. Cyber Monday never really became a thing. I find it quite funny that Amazon is trying to invent a pretend holiday which Amazon can own based on holidays already on their way out.

Missed One

In my previous post about the taxonomy of atheists, I realized that I missed one: the atheist who hates human nature. This is probably more commonly known as the atheist who wants to be immoral, though they amount to the same thing. The example which comes to mind quickest is Bertrand Russell.

I wrote about Bertrand Russell a bit in my post about his famous teapot argument. The short version was after seeing how stupid his teapot argument was, and knowing that he was a well educated man, I knew he had to have an ulterior motive and so I knew that he was a bad man. And briefly looking up his biography turned up that he was a serial adulterer.

This sort of atheist is not limited to those who wish to contravene sexual morality, though that may be the most common form of it. People who wish to be something other than they are can also fall into this trap, since it amounts to hating God for giving them the nature that they have and not the nature that they want. People can hate God for giving them the wrong hair, or the wrong skin, or making them short instead of tall. It will, of course, be most common where people think that they can do something about it and God is standing in their way. That is why you see this more commonly with morality, since somebody who believes that he should be, by nature, a bigamist, will tend to think that if he simply practices bigamy he will be what he wishes to be. And, indeed, if our nature was our own creation, he would be right. If God exists, however, essence precedes existence and he is what God made him, regardless of what he’s futilely trying to remake himself into.

This, by the way, is why the life history of people trying to make themselves into something that they’re not is always extremely depressing. I’m currently reading the biography of a guy who was certain in his heart that he was a rock star—and he absolutely hated reality for disagreeing with him. The harder he pursued his delusion, the angrier he got at everyone around him. This is really what Sartre was talking about when he said, “hell is other people.” If you take the existentialist position seriously (that existence precedes essence), other people will be hell because, being just as real as you are, they will inevitably prove that the essence you’re trying to give yourself is a lie.


The argument for God’s existence from contingency and necessity is not very long, so there aren’t many ways to attack it. Mostly they consist of holding that reason doesn’t actually work. However, one of the more reasonable approaches is to question whether anything is contingent. The traditional approach looks at whether something exists at all points in time, but since time is so mysterious this can be questioned simply because anything regarding time can be, despite our direct perception of time. But we also dichotomy perceive our free will, and yet determinists exist, too. Perhaps a way of helping such people is to look at space rather than time. If a thing does not exist at all points in space simultaneously, it is clearly not necessary since there are places where it is not anything at all – the places where it isn’t. If a thing exists in one place and not another, it’s existence in the one place and not another must be contingent on something other than itself. If that thing is not necessary, then it must be contingent on something else. There cannot be an infinite chain that doesn’t terminate in something necessary, or else there would be nothing at all since no contingency would be fulfilled. That necessary thing all (reasonable) men call God.