The Closer Pt 2 (Seasons 5-7) : Relationships,Trust & Ethics
Welcome to Advanced TV Herstory’s conclusion to the excellent series The Closer which aired on cable TV’s TNT channel from 2005 to 2012. You may recall that a few months back, I posted a podcast that took a long hard look at the show’s first four seasons.
Today, we’re going to pick up where we left off and examine the last three seasons of life in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes Division. The seven season show enjoyed a tremendous consistency of characters, so the formula of actors and roles remains almost the same. Instead, the latter half takes advantage of the stability that comes with a high-performing team and brings the viewer to situations that involve trust, ethics and the drive we all find in ourselves to advance our careers.
The Closer stars Kyra Sedgwick and a host of fine actors including J.K. Simmons as Chief Pope, Corey Reynolds as Sergeant Gabriel, Robert Gossett as Commander Taylor, G.W. Bailey as Lieutenant Provenza , Michael Paul Chan as Lieutenant Tao, Raymond Cruz as Detective Sanchez and Tony Denison as Detective Flynn.
In seasons five, six and seven, other characters take on greater importance: Brenda’s husband, FBI agent and later FBI liaison to the LAPD Fritz Howard played by Jon Tenney. We enjoy the return of her parents, played by Frances Sternhagen and Barry Corbin. We also get a chance to meet Kyra Sedgwick’s daughter in real life, Sosie Bacon, who guests in four episodes as Brenda Leigh’s niece Charlie.
The biggest addition to the series emerged in the second half, in the form of Captain Sharon Raydor, played by Mary McDonnell. McDonnell is an accomplished actress with credits on the silver screen, TV and the stage. She received two Academy Award nominations – one for Dances with Wolves and one for Passion Fish, and was nominated for an Emmy for a guest role on ER.
By the end of the series run, Captain Sharon Raydor’s role in a total of only one quarter of the episodes has a profound impact on Deputy Chief Johnson’s career and her outlook on life. McDonnell consistently delivered a middle-aged, accomplished police captain line for line, scene for scene to Sedgwick’s.
After their first encounter, when we are first introduced to Captain Raydor who has to play an adversarial role (most of the time) to the Major Crimes Division, the viewer is left to wonder where the larger story arc is going for these two Alpha Women. Is the LAPD big enough for both of them?
Following the complex, high profile cases of the Major Crimes Division and its tenacious leader, we’ll take a look at the relationships and challenges that ultimately result in Brenda leaving her post for another opportunity. The series The Closer is spun off to Major Crimes, so there’s more good drama with light comic relief on TV even today.
Look upon the first four seasons as the Good Old Days. We were introduced to Deputy Chief Johnson and witnessed her team of seasoned detectives storm, norm and perform under her leadership. Johnson modeled team-based communications, delegation of responsibility, accountability and diligence through the entire series.
Real life, real world surveys show that there are certain traits employees look for in the person who leads them. The top ones are honesty, ability to cooperate, dependability, and competence. Deputy Chief Johnson scores well in 3 out of the 4 and is known to cooperate well so long as she’s got a voice at the table for strategy and execution.
It’s a great show, so it’s difficult to NOT get too deep into the plot lines that carry over, even as minor plots, without spoiling the experience for a viewer. So instead, let’s look at how season 5 takes us home with Brenda more frequently than we’d gone in the first seasons. We’re also taken a bit more into her mindset. The frequent themes of trust, ethics and drive pop up in both places.
Well into her 40s, Sedgwick as the show’s producers and the writers take us on the fast-paced, long days of Deputy Chief Johnson, who has shown no sign of letting up, in terms of her tenacity or appetite for investigating major… and sometimes minor crimes.
Brenda is still happily married to Fritz. While the marriage seems strong in spite of them having to work so closely together in high-stress situations, there is a healthy give and take from both of them – which is usually Brenda taking and Fritz giving.
However, the last few seasons also delve into Fritz’s alcoholism and his commitment to sobriety. This requires Brenda to trust something she can’t see and also accept him for his word and storytelling of the man he was and how he behaved prior to his seeking help. Detective Flynn’s admission of alcoholism and 15 years of sobriety also gives Brenda the opportunity to continue learning about something that seemingly had never touched her life before she met Fritz.
It’s pretty standard for police dramas to refer to alcoholism and in fact feature a prominent character who struggles to maintain sobriety within a law enforcement career.
Introduced early on in the series, Brenda’s parents WillyRae and Clay from Atlanta continue to provide a little seasonal comic relief as well as the subtle symbolism that Major Crimes is a family. Most moments it seems the only trait Brenda shares with her parents is an accent. They are chatty, unfocused and absorbed in their retirement. Other women might be embarrassed. Not Brenda. In front of her team, she accepts and shares her parents’ love and support.
When her niece Charlie comes to stay, we feel the purpose may be for the writers put to bed any notion Brenda had of having a baby. Her maternal instincts are tested and she passes. Her time with Charlie helps her role play in a way that makes her a more compassionate in the interview rooms.
Charlie, a teenager with an attitude who has tested Brenda and Fritz’s patience to the limit, is in Brenda’s car getting dropped off at a high school she’s temporarily attending. A shooting erupts and Brenda is rattled by the added responsibility she feels for Charlie’s well-being. She doesn’t know or trust Charlie well enough to be able to anticipate her actions. But Brenda sees it as a convenient opportunity to find out.
With the assignment to remain with Jake at the hospital, Charlie is left up to her own devices and forms a bond with him.
Charlie leaves the hospital with Fritz and the boy’s parents still haven’t arrived. The boy’s condition crashes and Brenda finds herself in an unusual position.
Brenda experiences responsibility across the generations and also managing her own expectations of who her niece is. Initially pretty judgmental, Brenda settles down with Charlie enough to provide a safe and memorable stay in LA, but not a permanent one.
Brenda and Fritz send Charlie back to Atlanta, to Brenda’s brother and his wife.
Over time, we see Brenda’s maturing judgment at play in how she handles cases, witnesses, suspects and victims. The writers prepare plots that play into that a bit – homeless youth, gangs, chronic poverty, illegal immigrants who work domestic jobs in LA and various aspects of the entertainment industry that bring out the worst in people.
Unlike Law and Order SVU, The Closer features no prosecutor from the district attorney’s office as a recurring character in plots. Such a professional, focused on the end-game of courtroom based justice, would have been another layer of conflict to Brenda and Major Crimes getting the job done.
Presumably, one of the reasons Brenda was hired into the LAPD was to pre-empt cases going to court by garnering more confessions. This puts incredible pressure on Brenda to follow the rules of evidence, know constitutional law and develop a logic path toward achieving an iron-clad confession.
For the LAPD, it might be more economical to put away confessed criminals, however it’s enough of a specialty that the viewer begins to understand it comes at its own cost – questionable ethics and justice.
The show hit the jackpot and took on the subjects of ethics and justice when they brought on veteran actress Mary McDonnell to serve first as foil then as trustworthy colleague to Deputy Chief Johnson.
McDonnell plays Captain Sharon Raydor who is the ranking officer in the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Department.
Her job is to investigate any incident involving an officer who has shot or killed someone, an officer who is the subject of litigation or criminal charges or an officer who has been accused of a lapse in professional conduct. For Major Crimes and its fast-paced handling of high profile cases, Raydor has practically been assigned her own desk.
Let’s revisit the formula that was necessary for the success of Cagney & Lacey. Okay yes, it’s important to say the obvious, that Cagney and Lacey were partners and were supposed to collaborate, from Day One, to get the job done. The two characters needed to contrast in as many ways as could be realistic. One was sloppier with procedure, one more detailed. One was married, one wasn’t. One was blonde, the other brunette. One took risks, the other was more measured. One was interested in advancing her career, the other was satisfied with her status today, but was perhaps interested in moving up in the future.
Was I describing Cagney and Lacey or Deputy Chief Johnson and Captain Raydor? Both and that’s precisely why, with great acting, we rooted for both pairs to prevail.
In 2008, it was reported in a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that large local police departments such as the LAPD were comprised of only 15 percent women, but that’s the largest percentage among police departments. If you’re looking for women in law enforcement, you’ll find higher numbers in the U.S. Forest Service – nearly 16%, the FBI – 19% or the Office of the Inspector General – 25%.
Over the seven seasons, we only see Deputy Chief Johnson in her uniform a few times, Captain Raydor maybe once. It may never been known whether this show, featuring strong women characters, proved aspirational for teenage girl or young women viewers, thereby resulting in their choosing careers in law enforcement. I’m guessing the answer to that question can be found in the two actresses’ fan mail.
There’s not a lot of bond visible between the women – less than we’ve seen with other lead women on cop shows. But in spite of the low level conflict that underscores their encounters, they control their behavior pretty well. That’s a departure from a lot of what is on TV today. Particularly with the advent of reality shows, we’re totally accustomed to seeing women who are competitive with each other resolve their differences or salve their aggressions with verbal volleys of insults, threats and ugly language.
Now remember, throughout the entire show’s entire 7 season run, few women ever appeared as victims, witnesses or suspects who really tested Brenda’s mettle. They usually weren’t as clever or educated and more disposed to some level of irrational (or at least signaling weakness in Brenda’s eyes) behavior – acting on virtue, honor, tradition, religion, pride or an ill-conceived shot at getting rich quick.
So among her all-male team and mostly male stable of people to interview, Brenda Leigh Johnson had her persona nailed down and it has yielded success.
But by Season 7, Raydor is tasked with overseeing activities in Johnson’s division to ensure the work meets professional standards and does not take on more risk for future litigation or complaint.
Sharon Raydor, as a career peer with a rank just below Brenda’s, brings the powers of observation and logic to her job.
McDonnell on Raydor
Brenda is about the detail, Sharon is about the big-picture.
So no, even in Season 7 when Sedgwick and McDonnell share more screen time than in earlier seasons, they are not partners like Cagney and Lacey. But their relationship – being on the same team and all – requires a level of trust comparable to what we’d expect police personnel to require of each other.
Paley Center McDonnell
Now remember, Assistant Chief Pope had brought Deputy Chief Johnson to LA to lead the Major Crimes Division from Atlanta, partly to get Johnson out of her department’s ethics investigation. LA represented a fresh start for Brenda Leigh Johnson. However, between sheer volume of the caseloads and the interwoven cases that accrue in six year’s time among gangs and known criminals, she’s learned the culture of the streets and mastered how to incur confessions that send a criminal directly to sentencing.
For a results-driven organization, Brenda Leigh Johnson’s Major Crimes Division is unmatched. However, the ethical edge gets pushed more after each major case. Shortcuts are assessed for their risk, favors get called in and Deputy Chief Johnson’s reputation for interrogations that deliver confessions is now legend in LA.
Captain Raydor is a fly in that ointment. And she’s a soft-spoken fly who delivers her point or order with a measured pace. She dresses more conservatively than Brenda does, but they both have longish hair, fit body shapes and similar choices in pantsuits. Perhaps the most key difference is that Raydor’s interest in keeping Brenda out of hot water exceeds any interest Brenda Leigh has in Raydor’s career.
It takes an outpouring of honesty by Sharon Raydor to Brenda for her to get that point. There’s an opening for the post of Chief of the LAPD and it becomes clear that Assistant Chief Pope isn’t the only person studying the application.
Brenda is not too interested in navigating the internal politics necessary to think about how her day to day performance might impact her candidacy. Pope learns of her application and initially isn’t supportive. Then he reveals his own insecurities about the process.
Million to 1
When the shortlist for police chief is announced, it contains Brenda’s name and not Pope’s. Raydor goes into overdrive to help Brenda prepare.
Raydor pep talk
Of course Brenda is too involved with all of her casework to care much about preparing, at least not to the standards Raydor expects. This conversation, right before the final interview, reveals that the two women may never be competitors – they don’t have the same goals.
Final prep talk
This is as close as we get to a chat in the women’s room ala Cagney & Lacey. Otherwise, Deputy Chief Johnson and Captain Raydor’s relationship isn’t like that.
Back in the squad room, it’s Captain Raydor’s job to audit the work of the entire Major Crimes Division, the all-male detective team view her initially with the same skepticism they did Brenda. They return to a condescending, sarcastic tone, not convinced for a minute that Raydor understands their work.
She earns the team’s respect over time. Raydor reminds them of her role, which is to uphold department standards and investigate police actions when necessary. Over time, she uses those special powers to aid their investigative work or represent their actions to higher ups. She also earns their respect with her willingness to step up to a challenge.
Yet it’s precisely the diversity that both women among a field of men, bring to their jobs within high level law enforcement leadership – that make them effective. Raydor’s thought processes are similar to Brenda’s – though a bit more conservative. Raydor studies Brenda’s interrogation techniques and performs capably on her own. It makes you wonder whether Brenda was a phenomenon because of her distinct skills and training or from sheer novelty, as a woman in a male-dominated profession with CIA training on her resume.
Raydor stands with Brenda throughout the uncertainty of department leadership and succession. In the last season, Chief Pope is named Interim Chief of the LAPD, which prompts him to act more conservatively and demand higher scrutiny of the high profile actions of Major Crimes. This would be his second chance at becoming police chief and he isn’t going to let it slip through his hands.
S7 E19 unsigned complaint
Brenda struggles to perform and lead in an environment where she is required to follow every rule to the letter and as well as navigate the political whims of a large bureaucracy. Raydor, with an eye on the big picture, counsels Brenda more than once.
S7 E11 Unorthodox
Chief Pope’s demeanor leads the viewer to think that at any moment, he’s going to throw Brenda under the bus. After seven seasons, we begin to learn just how much trusting her team has become a key element in Brenda’s success. She thinks of Pope as a member of her team, but his actions and criticism of her causes her to question their shared loyalty.
This is heightened as the story arc reveals that the division likely contains a person who is leaking information to adversaries. The leak is referenced throughout many episodes and Brenda denies the possibility, then procrastinates on acting on it and can’t really bring herself to even have a plan by which she isolates and assesses each member of her team. Anything short of full loyalty and trust is unthinkable.
She begins to recognize situations where leaked information would be particularly harmful and utilizes Fritz’s FBI position as a work-around. Ultimately, it is Captain Raydor who uncovers the leak. It’s revealed late in the last season and leaves Brenda with a sense of relief that her unshakable trust was not in error.
These last three seasons are a slow walk through the elements of professional relationships that make a workplace memorable and successful. Her leadership is affirmed through her team’s performance and their outright commitment to the positions they hold. They are united and versed in their mission and even Buzz, the media specialist on the team who is not a police officer, saves Brenda’s life. A suspect makes it through a number of body searches yet is still able to get a gun inside the interview room. Buzz sees the suspect on the room’s video feed brandishing the gun, waiting for Brenda to return.
By the series final episode, writers have wrapped up every loose end with a brilliant pink bow. There certainly was ample time to do so, as it was Sedgwick who said during the filming of season 6 that she wanted the show to end with the contract.
So writers had the time to lay the foundations of a psychological thriller plot line, yet they still delivered comic fun. Moreover, they brought the sometimes heartless, driven character of Brenda Leigh Johnson to the epiphany that life is short and we spend far more time with our co-workers than with our family members.
Also by The Closer’s last episode, it was clear that the show had developed a loyal following. On YouTube today, there are all sorts of video compilations – the work of fans, most of whom are women, where clips involving Brenda and Raydor together or individually, are set to music. In most cases, the music is a pop song of women’s strength, sung by a woman. Followers have found the empowerment in the subtle relationship of two fictional characters.
Some people spend hours strategizing their fantasy football team, others compile video and put it to music as a tribute to two breakthrough women characters. The emerging generation of feminists get it. Eye contact, fashion or even Brenda’s ready stash of candy and ding dongs in her desk drawer – the importance of these details, developed and polished over seven years – is received loud and clear by the female … and likely male, fan base.
In both real life and in character – Kyra Sedgwick and Brenda Leigh Johnson were heading for burnout by the last season. Sedgwick lamented the demands of the job heading into the final season. In that time, McDonnell became even more accessible to the media for promotions of The Closer. Her character and the conflict it brought to the show was the news hook and she consistently delivered the deeper analysis of how the show fits into TV Herstory and mirrors to some degree women’s experience in the workplace.
Indeed, the police detective genre featuring strong women on the force remains alive and well. We’ve just traced its DNA to Cagney & Lacey and identified a new standard on which future shows can and should build.
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory uses audio from the show, of which all seven seasons are available on DVD. The poor quality sound interview with Mary McDonnell was a quick interview at the Paley Center in LA, done as part of the show’s big tribute event at the center. Great content, poor quality. Background music is by Daizie Mae and comes from the excellent source Free Music Archive.
Let me know what you’re thinking about content and quality or ideas for future topics by posting comments at iTunes or the Libsyn hosting site or by emailing me at AdvancedTVHerstory@gmail.com. Find the podcast on Twitter, the handle is TVHerstory.
Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.