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TV Recap: Lie To Me’s “Better Half”

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As the title suggests, this week’s Lie To Me explores relationships—what makes them and what breaks them. The A and B stories’ themes connect very well, but the real kicker is the way Cal’s case reflects his life—in particular his relationship, past and present, with his ex-wife, Zoe (an excellent Jennifer Beals), who shows up in his office with a case and perhaps a more personal agenda. As the team sorts through cases of murder, arson, and manslaughter, the question on everyone’s mind seems to be: What does Zoe want?

We’ve heard about Zoe before, with enough rather bitter little asides from Lightman to suggest he’s not yet over this break up. “Better Half” confirms that suspicion, from Cal’s first glimpse of Zoe lounging in his office. I’ve been a bit worried that Lightman’s character is a little too controlled and competent—we need to be invested in whether he gets cases solved, even though we know of course that’s the point of the show. It’s a hard line to walk, but this episode was an excellent step in the right direction. From Zoe’s teasing opening line about Cal no longer liking women in masks, Cal is off balance. His opening line to her captures his focus for the show: “Why are you here?”

Jennifer Beals as Zoe Landau and Tim Roth as Cal LightmanThe ostensible answer is to help Zoe, an assistant US Attorney, solve a difficult arson case. The wife’s mother died in the fire and a witness says a television reporter was seen fleeing the scene. The problem? The witness is the family’s five year old son, so there’s a credibility issue. The team gets to work, sorting through the lies, half lies, and possible implanted memories. Torres is astonished at Zoe’s relationship with Cal, first because of the flirty overtones and then because of the bitter undertones. Zoe correctly identifies contempt in a photo of a suspect, and with a glance at Cal, says she’s quite familiar with that one.

She also has a bit of an issue with Foster, wryly responding, “Ah yes, Gillian,” and “She’s calling” to Cal when Foster indicates she wants to talk to Lightman privately. To Zoe’s resentment, Foster is Cal’s confidante and she sees her role as getting him to see past his desires to face the truth. Gillian makes him admit that he’s usually a mess by the time Zoe leaves his life again, and she only enters when she’s between relationships. Cal fights this contention, but rather half heartedly. He hasn’t yet asked Zoe how her relationship with Roger, her boyfriend of a year, is going.

Cal’s relationship with Zoe is really the A story, as the arson case fuels his conversations with Zoe on why their marriage failed. Cal, Zoe, Foster and Loker have to probe all the relationships in the family, and of course find secrets and betrayals in all the dark corners. The writing beautifully allows the focus to slide from the case to Cal and Zoe’s marriage after every interrogation. As Zoe takes over the Lightman Group’s offices as if she owned them, Foster tries to establish some boundaries, tartly asking if the office still has a receptionist to announce visitors. But she’s playing a losing hand, because Cal sees no boundaries himself.

When Cheryl, the mother in the family whose house burned, confesses to an affair with Garcia, the suspected television reporter, she falls under suspicion herself, as does her husband Frank, who has a mountain of debts. Both spouses manage to convince Cal they are innocent of the arson, but the guilt of the affair strikes a chord with Zoe and Cal. Lightman answers his ex-wife’s unasked question of why he never had an affair during their marriage by saying he didn’t want to hurt their daughter and sex was never an issue between them. He then has to ask Zoe why she didn’t—and her first response is simply, “Because you would have known.” The answer is not exactly the most ringing endorsement of her commitment to him, but one that gets to the core of her resentment of him. Just to keep things complicated, her next response is more ambiguous, as she tells Cal she wanted to kill him, but she never wanted to hurt him. Which answer has the real emotional weight?

Zoe and Cal then have to interview Garcia and his wife, and his wife admits she knew about his affair, but says, “Marriage is about figuring out how to get through when things change.” Again, the interrogation slides from the suspects to Zoe and Cal as Cal accuses Zoe of changing and leaving him instead of figuring things out. Zoe exposes the main issue of their marriage as she tells Cal she didn’t change—she just got tired of living with a man who had to know everything about her and who grabbed on to every passing emotion as significant. Bitterly, she tells him, “Let me tell you, sweetheart, there’s such a thing as too much honesty is a marriage.”

Torres’ case explores the flipside of that contention. She has to find out if gangsta rapper Caden killed a member of a rival group. Torres and a police detective meet Caden, who is in full rap style, surrounded by beautiful woman and full of insolence. But as soon as he is in private, Caden shows a very different face, clearly upset over neighbourhood friend Dante’s death. Loker susses out that Dante was gay and Torres’ suspicions then move to rival rapper Little Sid. However, he too has a public face and a private one, and not only is his rivalry with Caden for show to sell albums, so is his ostensible homophobia. In this world, everyone has a face for public consumption that is very different from the private one. And that duplicity costs Dante his life and Caden his love.

Another talk with Caden reveals he loved Dante and was planning on making their relationship public. The problem is homosexuality does not fit well into gangsta culture and Caden’s cousin and manager, “B,” knows coming out will cost everyone their luxurious lifestyle. He killed Dante because for him, the luxurious life is the prize they have been working for and worth any amount of duplicity. But Caden refuses to accept that view. He wanted to end the duplicity in his life and gain a lover, even if he lost fans. For Caden, there is such a thing as too little honesty in a relationship.

On the A case, Zoe’s honesty comes under scrutiny as she disregards Cal’s belief Frank was honestly surprised by his wife’s affair with Garcia and did not set the fire. Lightman realises his ex-wife doesn’t consider his professional advice vital to the case, so she came to him for a personal reason. Zoe finally confesses her relationship with Roger is not on the rocks—it’s heading the other way. Roger proposed. Cal is shocked at the idea of Zoe remarrying, and their daughter Emily is shocked that Zoe took so long to tell Cal.

Emily shows Cal that parents cannot protect their children from issues in the marriage—she sees far more than either Cal or Zoe want and always did. And what she sees is Zoe is not at all sure about Roger’s proposal because she’s not at all sure how she feels about Cal. His daughter’s perceptiveness lets Cal see Frank and Cheryl’s daughter knew about her mother’s affair and lied to her brother about Garcia setting the fire. But Cal still doesn’t know who set the fire—or what to do about his own daughter’s revelations.

The arsonist strikes again and Cal puts together the final clues to the case: Garcia was having another affair with the wife in this second couple, and his furious wife set both fires in revenge. The final montage shows the many ways relationships can handle lies. Garcia and his wife’s life has completely fallen apart. Frank and Cheryl pull together for their kids and look like they will make it. The second family is relieved to split up. Caden is heartbroken at losing his chance to live a truthful life with Dante. And Cal?

He and Zoe have a very polite conversation during which Zoe says she enjoyed working with Cal and what they have isn’t all bad, and Cal says that if Roger is what makes Zoe happy, he and Emily will make it work. It all looks very civilized and mature—until the final shot of Zoe leaving a bed with Cal still in it—and Emily coming home in time to catch them. Oops.

Lie To Me is picking up steam with every episode, and most of the energy comes from complicating our picture of Cal and of the place for lies in relationships. Caden’s lies may have kept him from having the life he wanted with Dante, but Cal’s desire for total truth torpedoed his own relationship just as surely. Whether there’s a middle ground for Cal remains to be seen, as the episode ends with the same question with which it began: What does Zoe want?

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About Gerry Weaver

  • Clare

    Gerry:

    I just stopped in briefly today to browse your recap; I’ll share my comments a little later!

    I was really surprised to see the new website appearance and layout today! I do find it a bit hard to navigate… might take some time to get the feel.

    “Better Half” was a really interesting episode.