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TV Review: Lie To Me – “The Royal We”

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This week’s Lie To Me focuses on the kind of character-based drama last season’s FBI setting didn’t allow. The episode carefully lifts layer after layer away from cycles of abuse kept in motion by blocked or distorted communication. The nuanced story avoids a neat good guy/bad guy scenario and instead looks at pain from a number of different angles. There are no clear winners or losers in “The Royal We,” just damaged people.

The episode opens with the first case of blocked communication. Cal is up at four in the morning, pacing the kitchen and not really in the mood for Emily’s question as she joins him: “How’s the book going?” The book is not going anywhere, as Cal can’t get past a smart ass first line: “Let there be Lightman.” It’s cute but it deflects from the purpose of the book and for some reason, Cal is having real difficulty defining what his book is about.

Fortunately, he finds lots of ways to divert himself, first by setting his sassy new deaf assistant Sarah, whom he suspects Foster set to spy on his writing efforts, to do an unspecified “red dot” program at Loker’s desk and then by crashing Foster’s beauty pageant case.

Cal Lightman, Megan and Laura CrossCal despises beauty pageants, but anything is better than facing his book. He finds this one a bit more interesting than he expected when he talks to Megan, one of the contestants, and realises she seems to be silently signalling for help, though with what he’s not sure. He does notice Megan’s mom seems to be a poster mom for an overinvolved parent living through her daughter. Before he can pursue whether this is the cause of the pain he sees in Megan’s face, Megan steps forward with an allegation of abuse against Mr. Fletcher, one of the other parents.

Nothing is quite what it seems, however—Cal knows Megan is communicating something, but he’s not sure it’s abuse at Fletcher’s hands. Nevertheless, she is a damaged little girl in enough pain to want to die. The question is: why? Megan’s mother, Laura, wants to cover over the whole incident, so Megan—and by extension herself—can stay in the pageant. Foster picks up on the way Laura uses the royal “we” when she talks about Megan—and that she really means “I.”

Cal interviews Fletcher and realises he may not be guilty, but again there is some kind of blocked communication, because the man knows more than he is willing to say. He denies molesting Megan and suggests Laura knows why Megan might have it in for him. Cal believes him enough to call in Wallowsky to keep the investigation off the official books so the man’s life has a chance of not being ruined. Wallowsky gives him 24 hours to get to the bottom of things before the paperwork has to be official—Cal can only block the official communication trail for so long.

He brings in Megan and her mother, so that Megan can tell her story to Foster while Cal and Laura watch. Megan describes her abuse, to her mother’s horror. Both Cal and Foster realise Megan herself is not in pain at that moment—she’s enjoying herself. And what she’s specifically enjoying is her mother’s distress. Cal realises she is an emotional vampire, drinking in other people’s pain to distract her from her own.

And there’s no lack of pain to keep her going. Fletcher’s case gets even more damning when two more girls come forward with allegations of abuse. Cal brings in Wallowsky to take custody of Fletcher’s daughter, DeeDee, and the agonized man finally reveals his secret: he had been having an affair with Laura when Megan came on to him, causing an altercation when he refused to go along with her. Megan fed off the subseqent pain in her mother when Fletcher backed away from her and in Fletcher as he worried about what Megan intended to do.

Torres finds old footage of Megan at a previous pageant in which the girl deliberately tripped herself so she lost the competiton. Her glow of satisfaction confirms to Cal this girl has no interest in winning the crown, but rather to frustrate her mother’s desire to live through her. Her mother’s pain is the prize—but the writers do not allow us to fix any quick labels on anybody. Cal points out a child this disturbed was most likely shaped by an upbringing of constant criticism and lack of love. Torres can’t resist pointing out to Cal he’s been treating Loker in much the same way.

The issue of blaming the victim is raised again as Fletcher confronts Megan to tell the truth about their encounter. Laura is furious at the idea Megan may be lying—but an interview with the two girls who added their abuse allegations to Megan’s strongly suggests she is. The girls’ interviews not only have word for word similarities to each other, their language strongly resembles Megan’s version of the molestation. Cal is again faced with communication that obviously means something, but not what the surface meaning implies.

Lightman’s investigations have halted the pageant and called into question Megan’s involvement in it, facts he realises have taken away Megan’s ability to hurt her mother. Megan is desperate to inflict pain on someone in order to cope with her own, so she takes matters into her own hands and disappears. Lightman decides to kill two birds with one stone and sets up a sting with Wallowsky as she appears to arrest Fletcher in front of an angry mob of neighbours. An upset Loker shows up to help Cal, since he no longer has a desk at the office, and the two have a stare off as Loker unsuccessfully tries to resist giving Cal back a pen he took from his desk. The interaction is nicely loaded so we know the testing of boundaries involves much more than the pen.

As Wallowsky exits with Fletcher, she loudly announces DeeDee is in the hospital, likely from self-inflicted wounds. Cal’s suspicion that Megan is in touch with some of the other girls in the pageant proves to be true as Megan turns up at the hospital, with the intention of emotionally twisting the knife in DeeDee. She finds Cal instead, which is fine with her. The writing beautifully examines the different layers to the girl, as she regards Lightman as both her victim and her saviour. She tells him she doesn’t need him to arrange help for her, because he is her help. And if he reveals anything about what she’s done, she’ll do to him what she did to Fletcher. Cal reveals the sting as he sweeps back the cubicle curtain to show Wallowsky and Laura listening, horrified.

But Cal is still aware Megan herself is hurting and that he must, indeed, save her. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t understand exactly what needs to be done. He gets the final clue from DeeDee, who gives him a diary Megan had shown to her and the two girls who lied. The diary contains a painful story of abuse and the wording is exactly the same as Megan’s story. In a well done twist, Cal realises the diary is Laura’s. Megan’s mother has been trying to live her daughter’s life to avoid the hurt in her own, while Megan had been feeding off the pain in her mother’s diary in a bid to hide from the harm of her mother’s parenting. It’s a delicate balance destined for disaster.

With all her support mechanisms stripped away, Megan finally opens herself to her feelings and decides to end it all, with the added benefit of her suicide causing her mother pain for the rest of her life. Cal finds her perched at the end of a beam high above the floor, ready to jump. Knowing he has to reach her, he draws on a part of his own experience he tries to keep locked away—the suicide of his mother. Quietly but convincingly, he tells Megan his mother killed herself and he’d been angry and in pain, but he’d eventually moved on. And her mother would also move on.

The moment between Megan and Cal is beautifully done, with both actors communicating the damage they suffered from their mothers. The girl describes her life with Laura, who swung between constant criticism and deep despair, either over or under parenting. Lightman realises the best offer he can give to Megan to stop her from jumping is to give her another plan to hurt her mother. In a typical Lightman move, he tells her that he’s particularly good at hurting people.

Cal Lightman, Laura and Megan CrossCal’s plan unfolds as Megan competes in the pageant under her mother’s competitive gaze. She loses—and is clearly happy that she did. Laura is devastated—but not as devastated as she will be when her daughter tells her she knows about the diary and what happened to her mother. The extent to which Laura needs the pageant to avoid her own feelings is illustrated as she plaintively responds to her daughter’s refusal to do any more pageants by asking, “Did he do this to us?” Megan finally calls her on the use of “us,” and Cal leaves the two separated by space but finally communicating with each other. In tune with this delicately nuanced story, there is no sense yet of catharsis, just of two people finally bringing painful secrets to the surface.

Loker and Torres have their own subtle dance they do with each other. Lightman and Foster’s relationship has the two sparring with each other, each daring the other to come out and say things usually buried deep in their teasing and arguments. In contrast, Torres circles Loker much more delicately, torn between her own loyalty to Lightman and her desire to help Loker feel appreciated by his boss. Loker reacts to Cal’s insulting gift of his desk to Sarah by not only joining Cal in the field without asking, but also by stepping up his search for a job. To Torres’ consternation, she realizes Loker is very serious as he contemplates taking a job at the Pentagon, not coincidentally Cal’s previous employer.

Loker is passive aggressively working out his anger at Cal and Torres suggests he may be misreading the entire situation. She thinks Cal’s actions with the desk were a signal to Loker it was time for him to join Cal in the field, that he was ready to give up the desk. It’s not clear whether Loker is open to her reading—he may need to hear from Cal what his plans are, rather than having to infer them via newly hired staff moving into his space.

That newly hired staff is a joy to the viewer, if not to Loker. I’m really enjoying all the new additions, from the harried office administrator to Sarah’s calm and swift repartee to all Cal’s jabs. Not only does she pass his teasing test with aplomb, she passes the red dot test, too, correctly knowing not only the number of dots but also what they represent. She’s getting a crash course of the kind of hazing Loker is undergoing, but she’s much more unfazed by it. Cal is, of course, intrigued rather than annoyed.

The episode ends with a scene recalling the first one. Emily correctly diagnoses her father’s frenetic teasing as covering over a bad day. He decides to tell her that he had to speak ill of his mother—which Emily again correctly identifies as meaning her father admitted he was angry at his mother’s suicide. She tells him she understands because she would be angry at him if he ever left her that way. The door finally opening to a conversation Cal has feared would be too painful, he reminds his daughter his mother was ill and her despair was not her fault.

Older than her years, Emily senses Cal’s writing block was probably related to his blocked emotions and now is the time to for Cal to figure out what his book is really about. She writes a forward to the book, dealing with the difficulty of being the daughter of someone who knows—or thinks he knows—what she’s thinking. She’s on the right track. The last scene shows Cal writing his first sentence, this time with no smart breezy remarks. Instead, he goes for a very raw beginning, admitting how little he really understands, especially in the people close to him. The book will not so much nail down his knowledge as show how complicated emotions really are.

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About Gerry Weaver

  • Mike

    This show did not appeal to me when it was first introduced. Just seemed a little too “gimmicky”. However, after looking at it in a little more depth, and discovering that there really are these rare “human lie detectors” in the world, I now find it fascinating. I hope it continues for many years.

  • Gerry

    Mike, I had the same concern when it first aired. I knew I really liked Tim Roth but thought the show might be a bit too high concept and have a hard time spinning out the focus on the science once the novelty wore off. I think the writers have come to grips with the problem and found a nice balance between the science and the character driven plot. Let’s cross our fingers the show gets a back nine order.