Cold Case (“The Runner”)

Season 1, Episode 5
Date of airing: October 26, 2003 (CBS)
Nielsen ratings information: 14.08 million viewers, 9.1/14 in Households

Maybe it’s happening because I have about two decades of television under my belt and in my eyeballs, but I am starting to really get emotionally involved in some of the cases of this television show I watch about twice a month. When Lilly united Diane and Sammie at the very end of the episode, I was thinking about pushing a tear out of my eye, just to remember the fact that Joe Washington truly was a wonderful young man, who may have gotten off the tracks as a teenager, but got his act together and really decided to help someone. But as it’s always the case, the past catches up to everyone, and Joe had to pay with his life for that past, which meant that the person he wanted to protect was never able to be protected. Joe may have been the murder victim in this episode, but Sammie’s life was also destroyed. She was also killed at the train tracks on at fateful day in July of 1973. “The Runner” didn’t just pull his little revolver to put three bullets into a young police officer, but he also took apart the life of the little girl inside the car, who just wanted to get out of this neighborhood.

You remember killed cops with alcohol.

I guess it’s the right kind of story for a show like COLD CASE, which looks like it might have found the strengths of its stories already, but doesn’t know what to do with the characters and whether to give them back stories. Five episodes in and I know nothing about the lead detectives on the show. Five episodes in and I know more about each individual victim of the episodes than the main characters, which I don’t know was intended or not (giving the guest characters all the back story while the central characters go home empty, so that COLD CASE is switching around the formula of how to write television?). It certainly makes the stories of the episode more emotional and impactful, which by itself is a very intriguing thing. It tends to show though that a television writer has to sacrifice something to make either the story or the characters count in an episode. COLD CASE sacrificed the central characters, which is a move no other television drama has done, making COLD CASE a very unique show.

Consider me surprised that the events in 1973 weren’t filled with racism, let alone with the premise of a poor black neighborhood being ruled by a local drug kingpin. There was no racism to be found, as Joe was a respected police officer and the events happened in a black neighborhood. But there was certainly an amount of poor black people in this episode, although the writers did manage to cut this story as quickly as possible — pretty much after Detective Jeffries mentioned that you get born in this neighborhood, you die in this neighborhood. Would the story have been more impactful if Sammie’s character arc had been developed more during the final act of the episode? She put herself into the world of drugs (something that is by itself a dramatic story already — picking up a needle like that just because she wanted to play with Joe and his friend), and then she was almost raped by “The Runner,” let aloe had to witness a murder, which she conveniently did not tell Lilly about when she delivered the tape recorder. Between Joe’s murder and now, Sammie must have gone through hell and back, just to fall back into hell again, which is one hell of a story to tell when you write for dramatic television. It’s a story I would have preferred over Joe’s story, but I guess CBS was not the right network for Sammie’s back story to be fully lit under a row of spotlights.

You investigate murders by running alongside the suspect.

I was also happy that this turned out to be another episode having decided not to play with the “red herring” trope. That Sammie was not Joe’s secret lover was pretty much obvious, and that “The Runner” would have something to do with Joe’s murder also seemed clear. The writers stayed away from turning to villains who had no reason to be in the story, and they always stayed “local” — as in, within the neighborhood the story was set, within the set of characters the writers have established for the episode. I still have no idea if that way of COLD CASE storytelling will keep going for all seven seasons, but for right now it makes for an impressive crime procedural that is more an anthology series about the same detectives solving crimes rather than a television drama with characters you care about week to week.

Victim/perpetrator rate: A man has killed a man, which makes this episode the first time COLD CASE had a person kill a victim of the same gender. The victim rate is Men 2-3 Women, the killer rate is Men 4-1 Women.

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