June 14 2024

CSI Files

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Review: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation–‘Coup De Grace’

7 min read

The CSIs labor to get to the bottom of the shooting of a police officer–by a fellow officer.

Synopsis:

Officer Danny Finn responds to the sound of gunfire in the parking lot of fast food restaurant White House Burgers and takes down an armed suspect–who turns out to be a fellow officer named Scott Johnson. Witnesses at the scene cry out that the shooting was racially motivated, and say that the final shot was fired when Johnson was already down on the ground. Doc Robbins examines the three bullet wounds in Johnson’s body noting that the fatal shot went through his heart–but that he can’t tell if Johnson was upright or prone when the shot was fired. Finn defends his actions, but his partner Donna Grayson didn’t see the final shot and the 911 operator plays back a recording of Grayson’s call in during the shooting–in which Finn can clearly be heard saying, “I’m taking him down, that black son of a bitch.” Brass angrily interrogates Finn, noting that Johnson was his trainee five years ago–and filed complaints against him. Finn insists he didn’t recognize the man–and that he didn’t know who Johnson was when he fired his gun.

Sara joins detective Carlos Moreno at a local high school where a teen boy is dead. One of his fingers is gone, leading Moreno to suspect he was a snitch. Sara finds nine-millimeter casings at the scene, and blood drops leading away from the body, which she believes belong to his killer. Nick and Langston go over Johnson’s phone records and see he received several calls from someone named Anthony right before he was shot. Nick calls the number and the phone Sara recovered from the dead teen rings–Anthony is her John Doe. The tox screen on him comes back negative, indicating he wasn’t doing drugs, and his mother insists he wasn’t involved with any gangs. Using a gang database, Moreno and Sara are able to pinpoint the gang that killed Anthony: the D-Street Killers. When the casing from the bullet that killed Johnson is found in the vicinity of Finn’s police car’s location, the CSIs realize he did indeed fire the final shot from near the car. They recover another casing from where Johnson was shot, and recover traces of grape jelly and a print from it, but get no hits in AFIS. The print proves to be a match to a little boy from the restaurant, who found the casing after the shooting and tossed it away. Brass tells Finn he’s cleared, but tells the hot-under-the-collar cop he won’t be cleared for duty until he talks to a department shrink.

Langston brings Johnson’s father to the station, where they cross paths with Finn–who gets in his car and fires his gun into his mouth. Sara and Moreno find the D-Street Killer who murdered Anthony, with a bullet in his butt courtesy of Johnson. The D-Street Killer opened fire on Scott and Anthony at the White House Burger. When Finn took Scott down, Anthony fled–and the D-Street Killer caught and killed him for talking to the cop. In the morgue, Langston notices bruises on Finn’s legs and gets the team to return to the fast food restaurant where the shooting went down. He realizes that Finn’s vision was impaired, confirming the cop’s claim that he didn’t recognize Scott Johnson when he shot him. “So where’s the bad guy in all of this?” Nick asks. No one is able to answer.

Analysis:

Racial tensions simmer in the latest CSI outing, which doesn’t break any new ground but avoids going over the top into out and out melodrama. The old school cop whose racism is so deeply ingrained that it doesn’t even register consciously with him, the downtrodden folks who recognize racially-charged incidents when they see them but don’t have a lot of faith in getting it right, the good kid who avoids gangs and drugs and ends up paying with his life for talking to an undercover cop–these are all elements we’ve seen before in other stories, but the episode handles them deftly. Jack Blessing as Danny Finn and Adina Porter as Denise Devine, a worker at the fast food restaurant and the mother of the boy who picks up the bullet casing, are particular standouts. Blessing gives Finn conviction while Porter (whom many might recognize as Tara’s mother Lettie Mae on True Blood) imbues her character with a world-weariness that isn’t so complete that it keeps her from pointing out a wrong where she sees it.

Though the phrase “coup de grace” is uttered a bit too often, much of the episode hinges on whether Danny Finn fired the fatal shot at Scott Johnson from his car or standing over him. Was it, as Danny claims, a case of an officer responding to hearing gunfire and acting as he believed best, or did he decide to finish off a suspect he referred to as a “black son of a bitch” because his prejudice took over? Langston argues that it wasn’t racism that made him fire in the first place–that the initial decision to fire was made too quickly, in less than a third of a second. Indeed, it’s something of an impossible situation–a cop comes across a man firing at someone. Who is the man? Why is he firing? If he’s not in uniform or flashing a badge, most people wouldn’t make the assumption that he’s a cop. Johnson certainly wouldn’t have time to identify himself as a cop to Finn, if he even noticed the man.

At the end of the episode, Nick asks, “So where’s the bad guy in all this?” and indeed, it is a question without an answer. Finn’s racist attitudes are nauseating, but it becomes clear throughout the episode that he wasn’t gunning for Johnson specifically–and though he may not have liked the man, he wouldn’t have shot at him if he’d realized who he was. Finn saw a man firing a weapon and made the assumption most of us would: that that man was dangerous. Johnson certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong–he was firing at a gang member. The one genuine bad guy–the gang member–is caught at the end of the episode, thanks to a bullet Johnson hit him with. The shooting was a no win situation for all involved, a collusion of bad timing and bad luck rather than actual poor decisions being made.

Though the episode is incredibly well written and tells a great story, it typifies the problem CSI has been having lately–difficulty connecting with the audience. With so many forensics shows on television, ultimately what draws viewers to one show over the another is the characters. The Mentalist was a breakout hit last year because of the lead character’s appeal. NCIS is drawing in big numbers in its seventh season because viewers have really taken to the characters on that show. CSI had the same appeal in its early seasons–quirky Grissom, brash and ballsy Catherine, simmering Warrick, easy-going Nick–the characters on the show were a big part of the reason the show became such a hit. People wanted to see crimes solved with science–and they wanted to see these people solve crimes with science. Though science might be the star, the ratings decline in the wake of William Petersen‘s departure proves that it’s not the only star. The characters are important, too.

Petersen might be gone, but Catherine, Nick, Greg, Brass, Doc Robbins, the lab rats and now Sara are still around… albeit in the background. The problem isn’t so much that Laurence Fishburne‘s Langston is so prominent in the foreground–it’s that it feels like there’s not that much going on with the other characters. Brass gets a few nice scenes in the episode, but they’re not that far outside the norm, save for his outburst that he put his credibility on the line for Finn. This is a case of one cop shooting another–how is affecting Brass, given that he went through something similar in “A Bullet Runs Through It”. Paul Guilfoyle does a great job with the material he’s given, but it feels like there should be more of it, like we should see this case having more of an impact on him. And what about the rest of the department? We get to see reaction from the community, but not much of one from the characters who really count to the audience: the team.

Enrique Murciano of the late Without a Trace shows up as a detective, but he’s not given much to work with either, which seems a waste given that he was a regular on another CBS crime drama. Even Langston doesn’t get that much to do here, besides reference the study on racism, and of course, provide the final realization that Finn’s vision was impaired. He’s also the last person Finn sees before he shoots himself, something that he brings up to Nick in the lab. It’s a comment that indicates that Langston is still adjusting to his new job–that death, particularly violent death, isn’t something that he’s become used to as part of the job yet.

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