Welcome back to The Creative Life Adventure.
(My previous essay, Our Brothers Keeper, reviews Seasons 1 and 2 of Miami Vice.)
After a stellar first two seasons, personnel changes caused a noticeable drop in quality in the NBC series Miami Vice for Seasons 3 and 4. There’s still a lot to like about the stylish war on Miami crime fought by Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) and Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson), along with their supporting cast of Lieutenant Martin Castillo (Edward James Olmos), Gina Calabrese (Saundra Santiago),Trudy Joplin (Olivia Brown), Larry Zito (John Diehl), and Stan Switek (Michael Talbott). The honeymoon is definitely over for us viewers, however. While Jan Hammer’s brilliant scores were still present most of this time period, with increased reuse of previous music cues and increasing compositions from John Petersen during Season 4, the tone of the supplemental music became a little darker, as did the sets and fashions. Dick Wolf became a co-producer in Season 3 and a co-executive producer in Season 4. Best known for creating the Law & Order franchise, much of Wolf’s Law & Order style is clearly visible in Miami Vice during these seasons. While previous Vice staples of drug dealing, weapons trafficking, and prostitution were still present, episodes were more frequently based on diverse contemporary issues Americans were seeing in newspapers and evening news broadcasts. The Season 3 premiere, “When Irish Eyes Are Crying,” is a good example, with Liam Neeson playing an Irish revolutionary buying weapons in Miami. (The episode includes a symbolic break from previous seasons when Crockett’s beloved Ferrari is blown up.)
Some of this topicality is welcome. “God’s Work” (S4E6) explores the HIV/AIDS crisis and sexual identity in a surprisingly thoughtful manner, considering how much of the country was still in the dark about AIDS in 1988. “Death and the Lady” (S4E3) reminds us how much the pornography industry has in common with mainstream entertainment practices, particularly in a misogynistic attitude toward women as interchangeable resources. The series also charts the changing nature of the drug trade, such as the chemist who produces a form of synthetic cocaine in “Better Living Through Chemistry” (S3E8) and trafficking in black tar heroin in “The Good Collar” (S3E5). The dark side of U.S.-style capitalism, a land of limited choice and economic oppression, is explored in “Knock Knock…Who’s There?” (S3E21) and “Child’s Play” (S4E5) (which also considers the dangers of easy access to firearms). Tubbs makes important comments regarding discrimination in “Indian Wars” (S4E15). Other such attempts, despite good intentions, are weakly written and simply don’t work, such as “Viking Bikers from Hell” (S3E22) and “The Big Thaw” (S4E4).
Tropes of westerns are effectively incorporated into the series even more so than in the earlier seasons. In “Viking Bikers from Hell” (S3E22) the villains ride motorcycles instead of horses. “El Viejo” (S3E7) brings an actual Texas Ranger to Miami in the form of Willie Nelson. “The Afternoon Plane” S3E17) loosely parallels the plot of High Noon (1952), when Tubbs finds himself in an island village where nearly the entire population is sympathetic to the criminal. “The Cows of October” (S4E12) is more overt, borrowing Ennio Morricone’s music from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) and visually referencing another Sergio Leone western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
Several themes established in the first two seasons continue throughout Seasons 3 and 4. For example, the series reaffirms its indictment of Reagan administration corruption, including the consequences of Reagan’s violent engagements throughout Central and South America. “Stone’s War” (S3E2) was a reminder that we still hadn’t learned the lessons of Vietnam and drew parallels with the Nicaraguan Contras. “Cuba Libre” (S3E14) is equally steeped in history, referencing the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and intriguingly presenting an anti-Castro extremist as the villain. Other episodes. like “Forgive Us Our Debts” (S3E11) and “The Cows of October” (S4E12) offer more straightforward examples of federal corruption. But authority corrupts at all levels, including locally, as we see in “Walk-Alone” (S3E4) and “The Good Collar” (S3E5).
The Sisyphean nature of law enforcement is even more evident in these seasons, and it affects the entire ensemble cast. Tubbs experiences the realities of prison life in “Walk-Alone” (S3E4). Trudy sees the long-term effects of crime on its victims in “Hell Hath No Fury…” (S4E17). Gina faces the ethical dilemmas, and consequences, of undercover work in “Blood & Roses” (S4E19). The struggle is so relentless, it crosses generations, as in “El Viejo” (S3E7), with a weary Crockett asking, “We never get even, do we?” Tubbs’ response: “You can’t, man.” Again in “Blood & Roses” (S4E19), Tubbs observes during a stakeout that all the houses look the same; for all their risk and sacrifice, nothing seems to change. And, just as with Rodriguez’ death in Season 1, the death of Larry Zito in the two-part “Down for the Count” (S3, E12 and E13) is a poignant reminder to take nothing for granted because no one is truly safe. The episode also shows us the Zito/Switek partnership in a way most viewers hadn’t considered, as important a bond as that between Crockett and Tubbs.
The Crockett/Tubbs partnership, for me, is always the heart of Miami Vice. After becoming fully established in the first two seasons, these two may argue or disagree in Seasons 3 and 4, but we never really doubt the strength of the partnership. In “Theresa” (S3E16), Tubbs doesn’t hesitate to find and save Crockett’s girlfriend after she overdoses while Crockett is forced into an undercover assignment. When Tubbs appears to go off the rails in “Red Tape” (S3E19), Crockett addresses him as “partner” because that relationship is stronger even than friendship. And when Crockett’s co-workers offer half-hearted congratulations after the surprise announcement of his pending marriage in “Like a Hurricane” (S4E8), Crockett turns to Tubbs for the truth, because friends might lie to save face but his partner will remind him of the tough questions that need to be asked.
And it’s a good thing they have each other, because the stress and monotony of law enforcement continue to make for a monastic existence, where the closest bonds are with fellow detectives and conventional family members are nearly non-existent. (We had nearly forgotten Crockett’s son until the character is revisited in “Child’s Play” (S4E5).) “Killshot” (S3E3) explains the dangers to immediate family, when the brother of a customs agent is manipulated and ultimately killed by drug traffickers. “The Afternoon Plane” (S3E17) is another good example, where Tubbs’ girlfriend is forced to risk her own life when the vice detective is targeted by the last member of the Calderone family. Like “El Viejo” (S3E7), this facet of life also crosses generations, as we learn in “Heroes of the Revolution” (S3E24) that Gina’s own mother was killed by one of Castro’s soldiers in a power struggle that never seems to end.
“Heroes of the Revolution” (S3E24) also, like a number of episodes, places events in Miami in a larger context. Cuba is perhaps most prevalent – it’s not possible for two countries so close together to remain isolated – but “When Irish Eyes Are Crying” (S3E1), “Duty and Honor” (S3E15), and “Baseballs of Death” (S4E14) reflected events in Ireland, Vietnam, and Chile, respectively. And “The Big Thaw” (S4E4) linked the eternal street source Izzy (Martin Ferrero) with representatives of a Japanese corporation, significant because Japan’s economy was the envy of the world in the 1980s, and with the country of Brazil, which, according to the episode, had no extradition treaty with the U.S.
While the writers generally did a good job of integrating all of the cast (Crockett and Tubbs don’t even appear in the prologue of the Season 3 premiere), in many ways Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett became the emotional center of the series. In episodes like “Shadow in the Dark” (S3E6), “Forgive Us Our Debts” (S3E11), and “Child’s Play” (S4E5), Crockett displays a stronger emotional attachment to the cases than his peers. These and other episodes form a kind of ongoing decline in the character’s mental health. “Theresa” (S3E16) not only demonstrates how far the Vice squad detectives will go to help troubled individuals, but enforces Crockett’s downfall and paves the way for his Season 4 marriage to singer Caitlin Davies (Sheena Easton) beginning in “Like a Hurricane” (S4E8).
The marriage episodes are the most significant in leading up to Crockett’s immersion in his Sonny Burnett cover identity at the end of Season 4, but they are also some of the most problematic of the series. These episodes, collectively, feel like an extended dream sequence. Look how easy it is for both us and the characters to forget Crockett is even married during the interim episodes. The entire storyline feels like an alternate life dreamed by Crockett or Burnett. Easton, as Caitlin, even sings “I’m starting to lose touch with my reality” in her final appearance. “A Bullet for Crockett” (S4E20), while largely a clips episode, feels like a “real-life” entry to the Sonny Burnett storyline that begins with “Mirror Image” (S4E22), while Caitlin’s death in “Deliver Us From Evil” (S4E21) concludes the fever dream of the better life that got away. It’s possible that Caitlin’s death at the hands of Frank Hackman (Guy Boyd), the killer who duped Crockett into helping him escape death row in “Forgive Us Our Debts” (S3E11), represents a karmic rebalancing, the payback for Crockett’s assault to coerce a witness into confession in that earlier episode. And Crockett’s further suffering, a suffering that radiates outward to his partner and colleagues as well, must be further cosmic retribution for his assassination of Hackman in “Deliver Us From Evil” (S4E21). Crockett’s break from reality at the end of Season 4 does what none of the series’ previous events could do – break the partnership between the two detectives.
There’s little direction for this to go but even darker in the fifth and final season. Despite their weariness and solitude, however, the vice squad’s nobility remains intact. They never stop believing in the redemptive potential of the individual. In “The Good Collar” (S3E5) and “Streetwise” (S3E10), the detectives go out of their way to protect individuals on the verge of throwing away their futures. In “Badge of Dishonor” (S4E18), a corrupt detective from another department uses her ill-gotten gains to fund a homeless shelter. Tubbs commits to seeing that her trust fund remains intact so the good part of her work will continue after she is killed in the line of duty. The money may have come from nefarious deeds, but no opportunity should be wasted. In another indictment of the wayward Reagans, the detective bitterly, and honestly, points out that “freedom fighters,” the Nicaraguan Contras in which the Reagan White House invested so substantially, were getting better treatment than our country’s own citizens.
That, as much as anything, represented why we needed Miami Vice. We, the nihilistic masses, don’t just need to be protected from evil, but delivered from it. Our never-ending need for salvation is the real mission of Miami Vice. And while the series tends to amplify the often unfounded fears of urban life so prevalent in the 1980s, they also remind us that the danger doesn’t just come from foreign shores. The greatest threats often come from within. And only time will tell if our protectors survive the freefall of Season 5.