87) Subway (Homicide: Life on the Street)

Homicide was designed to be a dirty, accurate, police procedural set within the inner city of Baltimore. Part of this was that, instead of previous shows where detectives and police deeply empathized with all of their victims, most of the characters on this show had been fairly inured to violence, to the point that sometimes it became hard to really invest themselves in the situations. The cast of this episode isn’t the full roster, but still a sizable share: Detectives Pembleton, Lewis, Bayliss, and Falsone (Andre Braugher, Clark Johnson, Kyle Secor, and Jon Seda).

This isn’t the whole cast.

The style of the show was as rough as the subject matter, including its famous;y sharp jump cuts. It usually is considered a more realistic version of Law and Order (with which it shares a cinematic universe). However, despite the emotional distance that the detectives often had, some episodes allowed them to be more involved in the plight of the victim. This one is an intense example of that.


HomicideSubway1In this episode, Vincent D’Onofrio plays John Lange, a man who gets trapped between a subway train and the platform wall. Trapped in the sense of “his lower body is now facing a different direction than his upper body.” Despite that, the pressure from the subway car is keeping him from bleeding out or dying of shock. That’s how the cast finds him. For the first part of the episode, no one is exactly sure what happened. Either someone bumped both Lange and another person, or another person pushed him, or he pushed another person and fell in the process, or it was just a pure accident. But, no matter how it happened, Vincent is going to die. So, if someone is responsible, it’s murder. This episode puts forth one of the greater questions that is bound to arise in a murder case, “what would the victim say if they were here?”

HomicideSubway2Now, a man who knows he’s going to die can react in many ways, ranging from feeling pointless to feeling freedom. If that man is on television, he’s usually going to go through the 5 stages of grief, per the Kübler-Ross model. Lange goes quickly through denial, and mostly sticks to anger. In a moment of regret, he tells the crew that his girlfriend is jogging by the waterfront and asks them to go get her so he can say goodbye. Unfortunately, this was before everyone had a cell phone while jogging, so they never find her. As this goes on, the cast start discussing how they would each handle death if they knew it was coming, like Lange. Their answers range from sensible to sarcastic, but they all agree that it’s a horrifying situation.

As the pain finally starts to hit Lange, he starts to ask the EMT for drugs, and is denied, because, even though they have him listed as “deceased,” they’re going to try to use airbags to push the train away and get him out. In other words, they’re denying him comfort because of a false hope.

Eventually, the police determine that he was in fact pushed by someone intentionally. It wasn’t someone out for revenge or money, though. It was just some crazy guy who liked to push people in front of trains. Realizing that this means Lange is going to die for no reason, the detectives decide not to tell him about the murderer.  After the detectives try to comfort him, however, Lange figures out that he was murdered, and that for some reason, the detectives don’t want to tell him. Rather than be angry, he simply says “I’m OK,” and dies.

Literally. No. Motivation.


The entire episode is a discussion of both death and the nature of how the victims of a homicide would act if they could see the investigation afterwards. The problem is, it also gives us the harsh reality of death: It’s often for no good reason. People can understand a rival, or a spurned lover, or a foreign power, but it’s tough to realize that you may well just be murdered by some random guy who felt like it. It’s even tougher to recognize that, but not let it change who you are, but that’s a part of life. The episode is well written, well performed, and the ending will leave you speechless. But, to give you an idea of how important it is: Vince Gilligan would later steal the idea (and admit it) to make the X-Files episode “Drive,” which also featured a character who knows he’s going to die, so his morality starts to slip. During the writing of that episode, he came up with idea for another show featuring the star of “Drive,” Bryan Cranston. That’s right, without this episode, Breaking Bad wouldn’t exist.


PREVIOUS – 88: Will and Grace

NEXT – 86: Gargoyles

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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