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TV Review: Lie To Me‘s “The Best Policy”

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After last week’s strong episode, I was psyched for this week’s Lie To Me. The writers are revealing more layers to all of the team members, which helps immensely in building and maintaining interest in who is lying and why. This week’s entry focuses on the “why” with both cases, and at the same time illustrates the cost of knowing too much.

Foster and Loker use psychology to appear to lose a one-upmanship game with a foreign diplomat in order to save a young American citizen from execution, while Lightman tries to figure out where his priorities lie when a case involves one of his closest friends. In contrast to most of the episodes this season, the secondary story is actually the riveting one, while Cal’s case suffers from not being complex enough or morally ambiguous enough to completely engage me in his dilemma. Nevertheless, the case does show the personal cost of spotting lies and gives some interesting background on Lightman.

The B case grabbed me from the cold open, as brother and sister Marcus and Nicole Braden (Brian Norris and Jessie Lande) drive along in a foreign country later revealed as Yemen. Marcus has pulled a surprise spring break visit to his sister and he’s brought along another surprise — some hash. Apparently Marcus failed to read up on drug laws in Arab countries following Islamic law, because the penalty for trafficking is death. Nicole, who works in Yemen, is only too aware and her terror as she and Marcus are pulled over by military officers for a spot check is palpable. Marcus is still clueless, but a video later released with his and Nicole’s confessions reveals that he soon joined her in fear.

The State Department is negotiating for the young people’s release, a negotiation made difficult because they cannot get a read from the Yemen negotiating team on which demands really need to be met and which are negotiable. Black and white issues of innocence and guilt or even rescue are not driving this situation, as Foster quickly susses out. She realises the American team has been dealing with the wrong person on the team — the highest ranking diplomat used a lower ranking man to deliver the demands as a way to confuse the Americans from getting a good read of the situation. But he is not able to stop himself from always entering the room last, a way to show dominance in Arab culture. The chief American negotiator, who hasn’t been especially open or friendly to Foster or Loker, is grateful for the new information, but not grateful at all his own lie about trying to get both hostages back with equal vigour has been exposed. He snaps to Loker that he’s being paid to analyse the other team. Loker establishes the theme of “The Best Policy” when he simply says they expose the lies where they find them.

The title of the episode would seem to suggest telling the truth would be the American team’s best policy to getting both prisoners freed. But in this case, the “why” of the lie is the most important part, rather than the “what.” Foster calls in Lightman for a consult on the Bradens’ speech patterns and Cal realises Nicole’s confession follows a military protocol on how to show one has not been broken by the enemy. She’s a spy with information on American safe houses that her captors must not get. The military has to get her released before the Yemen government figures out how valuable she is. As far as the State department is concerned, Marcus is expendable because the secrets are not.

This case drew me in, because I emotionally did not like the State Department official, but logically I could see the dilemma he faced. The “why” really does complicate everything, and Foster is pulled two ways as she both sympathises greatly with the Braden parents in their desperation to free both their children and acknowledges that Nicole’s secret knowledge ups the ante on her release. Fortunately, Loker’s comment on Deputy Ambassador Rafid’s (Waleed Zuaiter) need to puff himself up as a dominance ploy suggests a way to manipulate him to Foster.

She sees that in this diplomatic game, the appearance of dominance is as valuable a commodity as weapons. On her counsel, the American negotiator offers Rafid a State dinner with himself as the VIP, seated at Obama’s side, in exchange for both prisoners. Rafid decides the power he will gain from this public recognition of his status is worth Marcus’s release — never knowing he was actually playing a much higher stakes game. Again the “why” of the offer is more important than the “what” — and the truth of the offer obscures the more basic lie the State department is concealing. Nevertheless, this case allows everyone to win something, and all the players retire satisfied.

Lightman and BuchananI wasn’t nearly as pulled in to Cal’s A story, as it is obvious from the start his friend Jeffrey Buchanan (D.W. Moffet) is hiding something important as he asks Cal to help him identify which chemist broke into pharmaceutical company Ribocore as part of a plan to steal a formula of a new insulin drug in order to produce a knockoff. According to Buchanan, the knockoff drug has now been secretly produced, but is not based on the correct formula and therefore causes strokes in patients. He needs to help his friend Erica Vandeman (Alexa Fischer) of Ribocore find the leak and get the knockoff drug off the market. Cal agrees to help, and Torres is the pleased recipient of a glimpse into Cal’s past, as Buchanan laughingly tells her Lightman was an accomplished and frequent liar at Oxford when they were at school together.

Unsurprisingly, the friendship between the two men soon becomes an issue in the investigation. I wish the setup had been a little less obvious, because I spent much of the episode waiting to find out what Buchanan was concealing, rather than thinking Cal was betraying his friend by doubting him. Like the Yemen case, there are truths concealing lies concealing truths, which is a nice thematic tie in, but Cal’s unpacking of the nesting dolls to try and reach the final one carried less punch, because it was too obvious he had to sift through the lies and as each one was exposed, the morality didn’t seem to me to get much more ambiguous.

Lightman and Torres soon ferret out the guilty chemist but are taken by surprise to learn she didn’t break in to her company to steal the formula, but rather to build a case against the Ribocore drug as causing strokes. The knockoff drug has been correctly made — the original has dangerous side effects. Cal has to confront his friend to ask about an apparently concealed study that shows the problem, and to Torres’ surprise, he is rather diffident at doing so. Given Lightman’s usual bulldog tenacity at going after the truth, it is interesting to see Lightman so conflicted. We have actually seen him conflicted before, though, as the writers remind us by having him notice Foster ignore yet another clue about her husband’s infidelity. Torres confronts Lightman about his refusal to get involved and let Foster know, seeing as she is a friend. Lightman angrily tells her it is because she is his friend that he is staying out of things until Foster asks him to get involved. There are rules to friendship, especially when you see too much. What Torres can see that Cal would rather not is his friendship with Buchanan is testing the same rules.

Lightman interviewing suspectsCal goes to Buchanan to let him know about the buried study. His friend denies knowing about it, but says it is obviously a flawed study and proves nothing about the real drug. He asks Lightman to let him investigate and to Torres’ astonishment, Cal agrees. When Torres points out the obvious conflict of interest in letting the man who brought them the case run it, Cal asks her how many people in her life she really trusts. She guesses about six. Lightman says when she gets to his age, it will be three. Buchanan is one of his three and he won’t give him up without being very sure of his complicity in a cover up. In another nice thematic tie in, Cal is being torn between loyalties like Foster was in her case.

However, I had little sympathy for Buchanan when he claims the source of his guilt is an affair with Vandeman, not the suppression of a damaging drug trial. The affair clearly affected his handling of the approval of the drug when he was at the FDA, so it’s not as if the affair was a completely separate matter. He may not deserve to go to jail, but his hands are not clean in how he professionally handled himself. Given that, I had little difficulty agreeing with Lightman’s call to set his friend up by concealing a bug on him and allowing the FBI to overhear a meeting between Buchanan and Vandeman. I was nowhere near as conflicted as I was over how Foster should handle the Yemen case, and that didn’t strengthen this case.

The bugged conversation reveals Buchanan was telling the truth about his innocence in regard to the suppressed study, while Vandeman is definitely guilty. The end scene has some nice ambiguous layers, the kind I was missing through most of this case, as Lightman shows his friend he is saving his professional reputation by pretending Buchanan was a willing participant in the set up. But in doing so, Cal makes Buchanan appear to have deliberately set up his lover, something he did not do. Buchanan is very angry at Cal for not trusting him enough to ask him to participate, but at the same time, he is also angry that his lover now thinks he betrayed her. He hasn’t yet processed one position doesn’t really allow the other.

Buchanan echoes Cal’s earlier conversation on the rules of friendship when he bitterly tells Cal he used to be one of the people he would have done anything for. Cal says he would have lied to protect to Buchanan if it had been necessary, but his friend no longer believes him. If I had more sympathy for Buchanan’s position, I would have really liked this examination of the nature of betrayal, but I don't really feel Lightman did betray his friend. As soon as he knew there was a dangerous cover up involving deaths, he lost the option to let things lay. He had to act and he tried to protect his friend at every step. Losing a friend is painful, but I think Cal unambiguously is on the moral high ground. Foster tells Cal much the same thing and says that Buchanan will come around, eventually.

Their ending scene was the most interesting part of this story and makes up for the lack of real ambiguity in the rest of plot. Cal’s experience with Buchanan has left him much less certain of the rules of friendship. When Foster, facing another evening alone because her husband is “working late,” asks Cal if he wants to have dinner with her, he says no because he has something to do. Surprisingly, what he has to do is confirm his suspicion of her husband’s affair. Lightman has decided to do something other than provide a shoulder to lean on, breaking the boundaries Foster has established. With the mess his friendship with Buchanan is in after their boundary breaking, it seems unlikely Lightman’s decision with Foster will escape messy fallout. But as this episode showed, following the rules doesn’t always feel right. In all of the story threads in this episode, it’s a matter of contention when telling the truth is the best policy and when lying is.

Lie To Me continues to get stronger as the focus shifts from explaining the techniques of lie detection to using them to expose the complicated morality of lie detection, and that shift has given viewers some wonderful character development. I can’t wait to see more of how Lightman morphed from liar to lie detector and how he fits into Foster’s life.

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About Gerry Weaver