Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween, 2015: Brimstone: "It's a Helluva Life" (1999)

“It’s a Helluva Life” is one of Brimstone’s (1998 – 1999) finest episodes, a playful and often moving variation on the classic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.  Only here, Detective Stone (Peter Horton) is the one who gets a tour of his life... in this case by the Devil and a lookalike angel, both played by the delightful and acerbic John Glover.

In “It’s a Helluva Life,” Stone unexpectedly spots his wife, Rosalyn (Stacy Haiduk) during his pursuit of a bank-robbing Hell escapee, and then debates with the Devil about the arc of his life. 

The Devil suggests that Stone was always been a bad, irredeemable man, destined for eternity in Hell, and then reminds Stone (via flashbacks) of the time he framed a notorious criminal for drug possession. The Devil also shows Stone his continued neglect of Rosalyn, and reveals how Stone started down the dark path as a young boy.  In one vision, Stone sees how his father's own bully-like ways were passed down to him.

But then an angel shows up and reminds Stone that the truth is not nearly so black-and-white as the Devil suggests, and that Stone’s final chapter on Earth is yet unwritten.   The Angel takes Stone back to his first meeting with Rosalyn, decades earlier, and reminds him how their love began at the Policeman’s ball in 1980.  Finally, the Angel suggests that Stone boasts “a divine purpose.”

Once more in Brimstone, the nature of good and evil is explored in a significant and nuanced way.  In “It’s a Helluva Life,” the audience is once more asked to countenance shades of gray.  Is it right to bring a known criminal to justice by manufacturing evidence against him if that is the only avenue to make the populace safe?  Can we forgive a boy for his adult trespasses because he was mistreated by an abusive father?    There aren't any clear-cut answers.

What this episode truly discusses is this: what is “evil” in human nature really about?  Can it ever be mitigated or forgiven because of extenuating circumstances (like intent, and upbringing)?  

Or, contrarily, is evil but a deed which once wrought, cannot be undone. Once you have committed evil, does that act of evil forever shade your future?

For instance, The Devil suggests to Stone that even the “thought” of evil counts, because it poisons the soul. Yet the Angel contradicts Satan, and suggests to Stone that “Universal law,” essentially is open to the idea of mitigating circumstances.  I’ve written it before in these blog reviews, but the magic and genius of Brimstone is the way it explores moral relativism within the confines/context of a dramatic universe of absolutes. God and the Devil exist, and so good and evil must exist in their purest form.  But how man chooses navigates the universe involves shades of gray.

I believe that “It’s a Helluva Life” is the finest episode in the Brimstone canon because it breaks established formula and doesn’t focus intently on the hunt for the Hell convict of the week.  

Instead, Stone’s choices -- and Stone’s nature as a human being -- are at the core of the drama.  We learn a lot about his history in this story, and Stacy Haiduk  delivers a great performance as the tragic and winsome Rosalyn.  She comes across as beautiful in spirit and form in this episode, and the scenes in which Stone delivers emotional hurt upon her are almost unbearably painful to watch, because we know where they are both heading.  

Perhaps above everything else, “It’s a Helluva Life” reminds you to cherish those you love in the time you have on Earth, because that time could be unexpectedly cut short.  In the fast hubbub of life, it’s all-too easy to let a hurt go unacknowledged.  Here, Stone is burdened with regrets and paths not taken, and there's no easy way forward.

I admire that “It’s a Helluva Life” is emotionally moving without being schmaltzy.  In large part, this is because Horton underplays Stone’s revelations, always keeping the character’s emotions close to the vest.  But the schmaltz factor is also reduced because John Glover is so damned good as the Devil, forever puncturing any moment that threatens to become pretentious.  Glover gets a great line here about Stone and “zooming” away on the Highway to Heaven.  In that moment, the series truly lives up to its nickname: Touched by a Devil.

With only two episodes left to go in its abbreviated run, Brimstone hits a high-point with "It's a Helluva Life."

1 comment:

  1. John,

    You don't even have to get me started on how brilliant this episode is from beginning to end. Although a short lived series, Brimstone remains one of my top 5 series of all time. The work between Horton and Glover is phenomenal. Add to that the atmosphere and overall eeriness you get in many of the episodes, just brilliant.