It's been so long since Lie To Me graced our television screens, you can't blame some fans for thinking FOX had canceled the show. But in a flurry of publicity, the drama came back on Monday for the second half of its second season and "Beat The Devil" showed what departing show runner Shawn Ryan brought to the series and why it was necessary.
The A story regarding Cal and a possible serial killer was taut and gripping, while the B story needed a little zip, though at least both stories gave us much appreciated character development. Overall, it was a solid return for the show, with Roth and guest star Jason Dohring giving us a truly chilling cat and mouse game.
With Lie To Me having had such a long break in the middle of the season, the writers realised it would not come amiss to hint at the themes they intend to explore in the next 12 episodes. Both the A and B story in "Beat The Devil" deal with skepticism about the science of lie detection and what the potential is to go wrong. Cal, and, to a lesser extent, Torres, explore what impact an emotional involvement has on interpreting the science. And with Cal's case in particular, we are left with some troubling questions about what drives him.
The episode follows the usual formula of the team breaking into two pairs to investigate two different cases. Cal and Gillian deliver a lecture to a university class taught by one of Cal's former professors, Helen, who we soon find out had an affair with Lightman when he was her student. Cal's back-story becomes very relevant to his present when he tries to show up a bright young and skeptical student in Helen's class and instead appears to be thoroughly bested by the young man.
The student, Martin, throws down a gauntlet to Cal when he questions Cal's assumptions and then observes, "Or, you're looking for things to prove deception, so you find them." Martin embodies the kind of skepticism we've seen Cal face before, but this time, he's no straw man Lightman can dismiss with a sharp retort and astute observations. Instead, Lightman looks to have egg on his face as he loses a $200 bet that he can tell when Martin is lying. However, what Lightman has in fact picked up is that the stakes of their game are much higher. He thinks Martin is a psychopath and most likely a serial killer.
However, despite the university actually investigating the case of a missing female student, Cal not only can't convince the dean he needs to pull in Martin for questioning, he finds both Helen and Gillian are suspicious of his motives. Both women think Cal's emotional history with Helen is clouding his judgment and he's really jealous of this very bright young man's sexual relationship with Helen. To Cal's frustration, Martin is not only following in his footsteps in his romantic life, he's also very good at reading and manipulating people. The character is a worthy opponent for Lightman, and Jason Dohring is excellent at portraying the complex layers of Martin as he switches between charm and the kind of evil that enjoys waterboarding young women before killing them and burying them in the forest. When the men clash, we believe Cal has trouble rattling him.
This kind of high stakes cat and mouse game that is driven as much by Cal's issues as the science is exactly what this series needed and too often lacked in its first season. Shawn Ryan's contribution as show runner was to bring character development to the fore and to trust the audience to follow the embedded lie detection science. Roth articulated in a recent interview what had been missing, when he said, "I want to know the background of these guys; I want to know how they relate to each other. I want some kind of background history that I can sprinkle into the scripts." In "Beat The Devil," the writers give Roth lots to work with, and he is an actor who knows how to capitalise on emotions above and below the surface.
Cal's motivations for trying to nail Martin on one level are obvious—he truly believes this guy is a killer who will strike again. When Lightman proves he has been one crucial step ahead of Martin, instead of behind as he seemed, we are relieved. But the writers do not neatly resolve all the questions raised about why Cal is so invested in besting the young man. At an earlier point in the episode, Martin challenges Cal by saying, "You're going to lose this game." Cal denies it is a game, but his opponent retorts, "Sure it is. You enjoy it as much as I do. I see it. You're leaking joy."
While Lightman may not define what he's leaking as "joy," exactly, he is leaking emotions all over this case, as both Helen and Gillian also sensed. The barely controlled rage in his voice when he yells at Martin, "You owe me $200, you bastard!" suggests how very much Lightman does not like to lose. Given that the episode suggested that the science he uses is not always accurate and is influenced by an emotional investment in the case, I think the writers have set up a thematic arc this season for Cal: what happens when he is wrong?
Of course, the episode also touched upon Cal and Gillian's possible romantic feelings for each other, though clearly that is going to be a very long arc, a decision I support. Helen's experience with Cal drives her to tell Gillian, "He is not someone for the long haul. Just keep your distance or you could find yourself a very lonely woman." Gillian appears to take this advice as she gently refuses a dinner invitation from Cal. With the small but important relationship development between the two, the back-story on Cal and the raising of significant character issues, this story line very successfully works on multiple layers.
The B story involving Loker and Torres is not as successful, though the presence of Howard Hesseman makes the case more engaging than it has a right to be. The actor is always likable, which helps us to care whether he will lose his job over possibly seeing a UFO. But the story is lightweight, going over tried and true ground without adding anything to a typical government cover-up scenario. It picks up the most when the writers deftly intersect it with the A story, shaking Torres up as she misses any pointers that the young man trying to pick her up is a serial killer.
Shaking up Torres works to shake up the B story in a very welcome way, as she has been positive Hesseman's Hickson is a crackpot. She is forced to reassess how sure she is about her abilities, and Hickson's reassuring advice that people are all complex and can honestly be many contradictory things isn't as reassuring as he hopes: if that is true, just how accurate can the science of lie detection be? Torres may have been right about what she sensed about Hickson and Martin in the moment, but she was wrong in the big picture. I think this issue resonates very well with Lightman's problems in the A story.
Loker's role in the B story is to show how far he has come since season one. His initial setup was a character who refuses to lie in any way, which is a nice concept but doesn't allow much scope for the kind of grey areas that make a character interesting. In season two, we again see Ryan's fingerprints on the series as Loker realises he can't have such a black and white approach to a shades of grey world. He's come a long way from the guy who blew the whistle on a client in "Depraved Heart," not caring that innocent shareholders would lose all their money. Here, he accepts he has to work with the Air Force's lie to find a middle ground to save Hickson's job. Despite the overall lack of tension, there is some nice character development in the B story.
However, the series has always had an issue with Cal's case being much more interesting than the second case, and new show runners Cary and Graziano will have to grapple with this as much as Ryan did. The character development for all members of the team helps, but integrating the whole team into one case, as in "Blinded," is still the most successful tactic to date. The slightly limp second case is all that keeps "Beat The Devil" from a solid A+.