BACKSTROM Debriefing: Ring of fire (starters)

Backstrom cast

This week’s episode of Backstrom isn’t nearly as dark — visually or tonally — as last week’s pilot, but that doesn’t make our resident misanthrope any less of a jerk. Especially not when his sworn enemies, in the form of two hunky firefighters, show up to stir up all kinds of childhood baggage in “Neverett.” There are fires and fights, and we can finally tell Backstrom to go fly a kite.

In a welcome change of pace, the episode opens not at a murder scene, but at the vestiges of a Point Grey house fire, which is deemed arson, yet still falls under the purview of the Special Crimes Unit, because the family being smoked out of their home makes this attempted murder. However, lest you believe that the lightened work load would make Backstrom cheerier, he’s confronted not only with the fire department’s arson investigator Samantha Orland (Angelique Cabral) with whom he immediately quarrels, but with Nick (Matt Battaglia) and Sam D’Agostino (Eddie McClintock), firefighters who happen to have been the bullies who terrorized him as a child — and haven’t really grown up in the intervening thirty years. It’s a tempest in a vodka bottle, which means Backstrom is even more prone to skirting the rules to prove a point.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

That point, apparently, is that the D’Agostino brothers are deliberately starting the fires to loot the homes when they get called to put them out. Not surprisingly, he meets resistance by the team, namely by Gravely, so he splits them up: Team Backstrom is backed by Almond, while Team Scooby (I made that up) is comprised of Gravely and Niedermayer. Backstrom is obsessed with proving the D’Agostinos are behind everything, while the earnest youngsters use psychology (Niedermayer) and spite (Gravely) to expand the investigation’s horizons. Ah, could hijinks be afoot?

Well, sort of. Predictably, Backstrom isn’t beyond falsifying search warrants to nail his foes, but interestingly, Almond not only turns a blind eye to his shenanigans, but supports them too. It’s an angle I really enjoyed: it would be so easy to make him the seasoned by-the-book precinct “elder,” considering he’s so far acted as the voice of reason and has the preacher-in-his-spare-time act going for him. So I like that he’s got a bit of an edge — that he’s ultimately after the truth, and if they have to use white-out to forge legal documents to get to it, he won’t say no. He could rightfully berate Backstrom’s methods, but instead he rolls with the punches, and it creates a fun dynamic.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

And punches there are: after finding a dead canary in a rookie’s locker at the fire house, pinning him as the weak link in the D’Agostino code of silence, Backstrom returns with a valuable watch and surreptitiously plants it on Sam in a fight he provokes, as evidence of theft. It’s enough to bring Sam in for questioning, where Backstrom needles his former tormentor about spying on Nick hooking up with Sam’s girlfriend back in the day. He might not have enough to hold Sam, but his work is done — as soon as he’s released, Sam pummels his brother, because boys will be boys, even when they’re closing in on middle age.

The rookie from earlier (David Carzell) shows up at Backstrom’s house, er, boat, to confess he knows the D’Agostinos are in fact stealing from the homes they save. After he leaves, Backstrom seems to be having a heart attack, but it becomes clear once he’s in the ambulance that it’s a false alarm — though not before the paramedics, who happen to be friends of the conniving firefighters, defibrillate him as payback and dump him in the middle of nowhere. (Could it have actually been a panic attack instead? If so, what brought it on?) In comes Almond to pick him up off the bus bench and offer him a drink and some wisdom, and Backstrom realizes that he’s giving Gravely and Niedermayer too hard a time about the case. He might be correct about the robbery, but they’re probably right about someone else being behind the actual fires.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

So, he has a sort of mea culpa in front of his co-workers, begrudgingly, and admits he “wasn’t totally right.” Everyone is aghast at his admission, but as they discuss the case (and which parts Backstrom isn’t “totally right” about), they figure out that the only word they have to go on about how the fires were started is Orland — and that she’s also the common link between all the fires they’ve been investigating, right back to suspected original incidents in Seattle, from where she happened to be transferred. She is using the unit’s attempted murder investigation to cover her tracks, and almost gets away with it. They find her casing her next target, and Backstrom lets Gravely arrest her; he’s got bigger fish to fry — like finding the mysterious “Bella” the D’Agostinos stole from him, whose location he weaselled out of them in his latest visit to their station.

With Valentine in tow, Backstrom heads out of town to a run-down garage. It turns out “Bella” isn’t the decrepit car stored inside, but instead a huge orca-shaped kite Backstrom built himself as a boy. In a complete about-face, Backstrom takes Bella out for a spin in a nearby park, acting every bit the youngster he was when he last saw her. Despite Valentine’s warnings about potentially killing himself if he actually runs to get her flying, Backstrom is enchanted with his lost love, and it’s both endearing and befuddling, because it’s a side of the detective I definitely didn’t expect to see, at least not this early on in the series.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

It leaves me wondering just what the story is behind Backstrom’s curmudgeonliness. It’s obvious, throughout this episode, that at one point there was a young man filled with awe and wonder, but life chipped away at that. The story with the D’Agostino bullies gives us some insight: after all, getting shoved off bridges and having your scrotum stapled to your leg just for ratting out the neighbourhood pranksters to your sheriff dad would undoubtedly leave some scars, emotionally and physically, and I would assume that sets the pattern for the rest of his life. Like last week, we see that Backstrom’s grown up in the shadow of his renowned father, and it’s isolated him from his peers presumably at every stage of his life. I was surprised by how taken I was by Backstrom’s reaction to his kite, which is probably a whole metaphor I can’t even begin to scratch, and I want to know more about what happened to that person.

On a related tangent, I certainly caught the moment where Valentine, who is equally baffled by his landlord’s (ahem) demeanor, asks Backstrom if he’d build him a kite too, which is obviously something a father would do for his son. That is definitely where their story is heading, right? Along with the implication of a “family resemblance” from the pilot, we’re in for a Maury reveal at some point, I’d imagine. I’m curious about why Valentine is the only person Backstrom isn’t totally antagonistic towards most of the time, so I look forward to exploring their dynamic, too.

Similarly, I was fascinated by Backstrom’s rainy confession to Almond, on that bus bench, genuinely wondering what he was doing wrong. (“Everything.” Ha!) Again, it’s a little strange to me that we’re getting these moments of self-awareness so early on, since the entire premise of the pilot seems to be that this is a crusty, selfish, loathsome man is hard-pressed to reveal anything of himself. Yet here, he’s pretty open with both Almond and Valentine, and it almost feels like it’s too soon in the series’ development to jump into that. Which I know makes no sense, because as a viewer we should see growth and explore what makes these characters tick, and I’m glad that we are in Backstrom, but it just seems like we skipped half a season compared to the characterization in the pilot. That being said, I’m kind of all for it, because this version of Backstrom is much more compelling as a whole than the unrelenting jerk from the last week. It doesn’t exonerate his behavior in the least, but the fact that he’s acknowledging that he screws up makes it so much easier to stomach for me, because at least we know now that he knows he’s wrong.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Which brings me to my next point: one of my quibbles last week was that it almost felt, to me, like the rest of the cast condoned Backstrom’s abhorrent behavior, but along with the somewhat toned-down version of his dickishness, we’re now seeing people fight back more. For instance, when Orland asks Gravely why she puts up with him if he hates women so much, she agrees that Backstrom is a complete ass, but argues that it isn’t women he hates, it’s everyone. It’s a small step, but the conversation revealed that at least his coworkers don’t accept his attitude either. Add the fact that his deliberately-inflammatory comments were much less frequent this time around, and I think the edges are being smoothed out with both the character and the show itself. Moreover, I definitely appreciated that we got a few less “I’m you” scenes, and that one of his marks (Sam) rightfully expressed confusion at the schtick, too.

As a final aside, I really liked that the case this week wasn’t a murder! I was actually curious, after watching the pilot, if the show could branch out crime-wise, since they are a “Special Crimes Unit,” and not strictly-speaking a homicide division. I’m glad that seems to be where they’re heading! I feel like that gives the show potential for a wider range of stories, and they’re not boxed into the same process week after week.

Though I enjoyed the pilot, I’m pleased Backstrom is already demonstrating that its focus is on its characters. I hope we learn as much about Niedermayer’s love of philosophy, or Gravely’s unlikely assignment to the unit, or how Nadia ended up in the Portland PD of all places, too.

Other odds and ends:

  • Angelique Cabral as a pyromaniac? I didn’t see that coming! So happy to see her here, though sad that I don’t think she’s going to be able to come back with that ending…
  • How did Backstrom end up living on that boat, anyway? I mean, it’s not even a houseboat. It’s a dark, dingy, probably very smelly boat.
  • I can’t help making Bones comparisons, so here it is this week: I totally see the parallels between the car conversations on Backstrom and the ones on its sister show. Niedermayer and Gravely got the bulk of it this week.
  • Speaking of which: I like that the writers are already exploring the different pairings they can make with this cast. (Like Niedermayer and Gravely investigating on their own, or Niedermayer and Valentine undercover at the store, or Backstrom and Almond going old-school.) It’ll be interesting to see if they can integrate Nadia into any of these scenes in the future, too. (I’m still not totally clear on what her role is.)
  • Okay, I lied, another Bones moment: Sully (McClintock) gave up yachting to become a firefighter! Also, didn’t they do the “firemen rob the homes they save” plot years ago, too? (Then again, so did Orange is the New Black, so it’s not like it’s a totally unique concept.)
  • (Also: I kept imagining the D’Agostino brothers as the McPoyles from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Heh.)

What did you think about the second episode of Backstrom? Are you enjoying this ride, or did this kite fail to launch?


Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

3 Responses to BACKSTROM Debriefing: Ring of fire (starters)

  1. Cassidy says:

    This episode worked much better for me than the pilot. Finding out that it was actually the fifth one they shot wasn’t surprising, since there was so much development. (It’ll be interesting to see how they go back to those, I’m assuming, rougher eps.)

    Based on this ep, I think the show will settle in the lighthearted tone, but maintaining the occasional cynicism. Backstrom is still unlikeable but I can see what they are going to do… and I kind of really like Valentine. (And the secondary characters, in general.)

    Anyways. Great recap! As I said last night, Polaha also played a fireman on Bones so it all comes full circle. (And that yachting ref had to be a callback lalalalala.)

    • Nels Nels says:

      I think this was more the tone I was expecting too, so I’m glad it’s moved towards that.

      I had no idea this was actually the fifth episode shot, but now that you mention it, that makes so much sense! No wonder I felt like this was more like a mid-season development than a second episode!

      I like Valentine too! He reminds me a lot of Felix on “Orphan Black.”

      I’d totally forgotten Kris Polaha played a homicidal fireman on “Bones”! Ah, it’s a small world isn’t it?

  2. […] because he really is his best self with his brother, as much as he can be. Just like with the kite earlier this season, Backstrom lets his guard down without even realizing it, and shares his […]

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