Talking Movies

June 22, 2011

The Morpheus Solution

I’d been waiting to see the resolution of the cliff-hanger of season 10 of CSI: LV before finishing this piece; only for Deadline.com to announce, on the very day that the first episode of season 11 aired on RTE, that Laurence Fishburne would not be returning for season 12…

This is a pity, because the writers did a creditable job of solving the Morpheus Problem. To recap, CBS undertook research to see why fans weren’t reacting well to Laurence Fishburne replacing William Petersen. The response, “We’d like to see Ray in more of a leadership role”, was code for “We’d like to see Morpheus being Morpheus…” Grissom had passed the torch to criminology professor Dr Ray Langston, but explicitly invited him to apply for the Level 1 CSI vacancy. Catherine Willows became the new supervisor of the night shift while Fishburne waltzed into first billing, but as the new rookie. Ray’s medical background allowed him attend autopsies with coroner Dr Robbins as Grissom did, before the writers outrageously jump-started a new dynamic by having Ray and Doc Robbins go on a road-trip to fight crime – while listening to their beloved blues records. Some Morpheus was added to the mix as a baffling case was solved by Ray’s knowledge of ancient Greek history and philosophy. But the real problem was that Fishburne was too big a screen presence to play the lowest ranked person. I asked if Ray could really take on a leadership role without wreaking chaos on the internal logic of 9 seasons of CSI?

The first episode of season 10 saw the writers use some neat tricks and some wilful blindness to solve this conundrum. A nice gag saw Morpheus Ray kung-fu kicking a man thru a glass window in a bullet-time pan around the entire lab as it was raided by Russian mobsters stealing a corpse from the morgue in the cold open. The episode then played out the events leading up to this daring raid and we learnt in conversation with Ecklie that Ray had taken many classes, “You’ve had quite the busy summer … You’re already two courses over your training allotment for the year”, “I know, and that is why I paid for them, and took my vacation to do them”, and so is promoted to Level 2 CSI in record time. Indeed we actually see Ray at this start of this dialogue training himself to recognise knife-wounds in a remarkably Zen manner, before later selflessly volunteering for a boring assignment when Greg whines about being pulled off a celebrity car-crash.

That incident where Greg pulls rank on Ray on being reassigned before Nick restores order is pivotal. Lauren Lee Smith’s Riley has quit, and Ecklie upbraids Catherine for Greg’s insubordination, “This is a discipline problem. I’m beginning to think that Riley was right about you”, “What is that supposed to mean?”, “You didn’t read her exit interview? I put it on your desk! Just read it!” Riley had scathingly questioned Catherine’s ability to lead, but the returned Sara Sidle suggests that all Catherine lacks is a No 2 as good for her as she was for Grissom, and so Nick is promoted to assistant supervisor. The re-introduction of Sara restores one of the missing trinity that the show had lost in quick succession (Sara/Warrick/Grissom) and her intervention encourages Catherine to let her subordinates have the freedom to improvise, and Ray immediately does just that, cryptically promising his superior, “I’ll tell you if I can prove it”, as he searches for the subcutaneous bruising that proves the celebrity car-crash was a staged murder; by the ever wonderful Garrett Dillahunt’s shady private security operative Tom O’Neill. Ray’s determination solves this case, suggesting that this mental re-shuffle of their characters by the writers has had its desired effect.

The introduction of Dr Jekyll at the end of this episode was a bold move, echoing as it did the only previous season-arc villain (The Miniature Killer in season 7) by giving Langston a villain who was his own particular nemesis. Just as season 7 had seen an increasingly obsessed Grissom build a miniature model of his own office before taking a teaching sabbatical as the case got to him, season 10’s arc storyline became the increasingly obsessive struggle between Dr Langston, the hospital administrator who’d been conned by an Angel of Death surgeon back East, and a demented surgeon given to performing grotesque farces of lethal unnecessary operations, like tying a victim’s organs up in a bow, or giving someone a second appendix. Dr Jekyll is as about as disturbing a killer as you can get on network TV. Actually given that Showtime’s loveably twisted Dexter ran screaming from using the villain Dr Denko from Jeff Lindsay’s second novel Dearly Devoted Dexter for their second season he’s probably about as disturbing a killer as you can get on TV period.

The writers also cleverly introduced another Grissom parallel. Nick tries to talk Langston through guilt about the shoot-out at the end of season 9, “It was killed or be killed Ray, it’s a terrible situation to be in, you can’t let it bother you”, “It hasn’t been bothering me, and that’s what’s been bothering me”. Langston became increasingly haunted by the thought that he shares his father’s genetic predisposition to violence. This fleshing out of his character brought him twice into conflict with unsuspecting and uncomprehending DNA expert Wendy, and paid off wonderfully twice; when it led to a flashpoint with a surgeon in a hospital whose face Ray slammed into a wall after one taunt too many about the superiority of surgeons to administrators, and when it pointed a huge finger of suspicion at Ray in the penultimate episode of the season as possibly having murdered a journalist investigating Dr Jekyll, or even actually being Dr Jekyll himself unawares. All this beautifully invited comparison with Grissom, who was also in denial of his own genetic predisposition – to deafness.

In addition Nick and Ray formed a partnership that effectively resuscitated the old Nick/Warrick dynamic, while also cleverly guaranteeing Ray an ‘in’ to the most interesting cases. The penultimate episode replicated Grissom’s suspension from a high-profile case in the season 1 finale, and then saw Nick break that to run the investigation from Ray’s house, just as Catherine had done with Grissom way back when. Fishburne wasn’t stepping into Gary Dourdan’s shoes though but using his own persona. An early episode in season 10 involving a possible racist white cop killing a black cop saw Ray walk into the CSI lab’s rest-room during a heated discussion. Ray was the only black person in the room but he unexpectedly eased a scene suddenly fraught with racial tension by saying racism didn’t come into play in split-second shootings. He then tried to stop the suicidal white cop killing himself at the end of the episode. It this all-encompassing compassion that more than anything else links Ray to Grissom, so that serial killer Nate Haskell in the finale asked Ray what happened to Grissom, and was convincing when he sagely muttered “You’ve replaced him…”

Fishburne like Petersen is now the quiet heart of the crime-lab, quietly comforting all who need counsel.

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