Original Air Date: Mar 21, 2010
Amanda – Senior Reviewer
Nick Vera: Clown. Smart-aleck. The guy who can always be counted on for a wisecrack. But in art, as in life, such characters are often deceptively deep. In the tour de force that is “Flashover,” Vera is given his due, and the music of Pink Floyd sets the stage for one of the most heart-wrenchingly awesome episodes Cold Case has ever produced.
The episode begins with a man fleeing a house fire in 2006, and then, this month, he’s seen in a prison yard. A gang of fellow inmates descends on him like piranhas and stab him, and he bleeds to death on the spot. Meanwhile, Vera’s driving drunk, seeing flashbacks of the same fire, and of himself interrogating the same guy. His drunkenness and distraction get the better of him, and he has an accident. He’s okay, but he calls Lilly with a chilling message: he thinks he might have killed someone.
When Lilly arrives, Vera’s long gone. She tells the officer to report it as a car stop, not an accident, and when he reluctantly agrees, she and Scotty take over the investigation. There’s no evidence Vera hit anyone, and Scotty theorizes Vera took off trying to duck the DUI. Knowing it’s a lot worse than that, Lilly tells him about the message Vera left. She doesn’t want to tell the others, but Scotty’s sure Kat and Jeffries would want to know. They then head to Schmitty’s, Vera’s favorite watering hole.
Schmitty remembers Vera well, saying he’s become a regular. He recalls an incident last week where a man came in shooting his mouth off. In a flashback, we see a guy blaming Vera for his brother’s death, and Vera yelling back before Schmitty tosses the intruder. Schmitty has no idea what it’s about, but remembers seeing Vera looking at crime scene photos recently.
Meanwhile, Jeffries and Kat head to Vera’s place, which looks it could be featured on “Hoarders.” In addition to the mess, they discover that he’s failed his physical (which he told Jeffries he passed), and smashed up his adorable wedding photos. Upon finding the crime scene photos, Kat remembers seeing those same pictures a few weeks ago, when she caught Vera taking a “table nap” on top of them. She recognizes them as arson photos and learns from the name on the back that it’s the 2006 case of JD Billingsley. Jeffries doesn’t remember working with him on the case, but knows who would have: the fire marshal, Ray Crawford.
Crawford fills Scotty and Lilly in on the horrifying details: Joe Don Billingsley (is that a great redneck name or what?) was convicted of murdering his two little boys in an open-and-shut arson case. Crawford recalls combing the scene with Vera and explaining to him the concept of a “flashover,” a simultaneous ignition of all combustible material. Joe Don, who was going through a divorce and had custody of the boys that weekend, was allegedly asleep on the couch, but Crawford points out that he had no burns on his feet, and that there were pour patterns near the boys’ charred bed. The theory was that Joe Don set the fire to spite his ex. Crawford hasn’t seen Vera lately, and he has no idea Joe Don had a brother. Kat finds Joe Don’s file: he was convicted and sentenced to life at Rockford, where he died last week. Jeffries has also found Travis Billingsley’s record, mostly for DUI and resisting arrest. “Looks dumb enough to go after a cop,” Scotty theorizes.
What everyone needs most right now is an untimely visit from a pompous jerk, and we get that in the form of Doherty, who’s waiting for Stillman with the news of the wreck, the missing car, and the detectives’ coverup. All of this is brand new information for Stillman, but he says he’s on it. Doherty gives him until the end of the day to find Vera, then threatens to get the house in order if Stillman doesn’t do it first. That doesn’t sound good.
Meanwhile, Travis tells Lilly and Scotty that he wasn’t picking a fight with Vera, he just wanted him to accept responsibility for Joe Don’s death. He claims he has proof of his brother’s innocence, and recalls visiting Vera in the squad room three months earlier to persuade him to reopen the case. In a flashback, Travis insists Joe Don didn’t confess, but Vera begs to differ: he told his tale to a cell block snitch. Travis argues that the snitch has been proven to be unreliable, and asks point blank if Vera ever got Joe Don to confess. It’s clear from the look on Vera’s face that he didn’t, but he covers it with a sarcastic agreement to take another look.
Back at the office, Kat’s learned that Vera went to visit the snitch, who’s back in jail for a meth habit. Just then, Stillman comes up to her and Jeffries, demanding to know where Vera is. They’re evasive, and he threatens their own badges. Jeffries fills him in on the Billingsley case, expressing concern for his partner’s recent state of mind, and Stillman tells them to find him before does any more harm, “especially to himself.”
Kat and Jeffries then go chat with Julie, Vera’s now-remarried ex-wife, who’s still as adorable as she was the last time we saw her. She says Vera came by that morning, and she was thrown by his arrival, since they hadn’t spoken since the divorce. In wonderfully powerful flashback, Vera tells her he doesn’t know why he’s there, but he felt like he needed to see her. She can’t talk, though, because she’s busy getting her two young children ready for school, and Vera watches all this wistfully, clearly remembering their years-long struggle to have kids of their own. By the time she’s got the munchkins under control, Vera’s gone.
Lilly and Scotty, meanwhile, hit the big house to talk to Squirrel, the appropriately named snitch, who’s amusingly evasive with the detectives. They don’t find him as entertaining as I do, though, and threaten to tell the last homicidal maniac he flipped on that it was him. “What kind of cops are you?” Squirrel demands. (Considering some of their recent actions, I’d say that’s an excellent question). In a flashback, Squirrel then recalls telling Vera three days ago what Joe Don told him back in 2006: he lit the place up with gasoline to spite his ex-wife; if he couldn’t have them, then neither could she. Squirrel insists Joe Don wanted both kids, “the little girl, too.” Oops. Vera pulls a Scotty and smashes Squirrel’s face into the table, saying that Joe Don didn’t have a little girl. Squirrel is amazingly nonchalant about the whole thing, both with Vera then and with Lilly and Scotty now, but mentions Joe Don crying himself to sleep every night and writing letters to some “crackpot scientist.”
Kat and Jeffries are next seen at the remains of Joe Don’s old house, where Vera’s cell phone has been recently traced. Jeffries tries to call him…and hears a phone ringing nearby. He pulls Vera’s phone out of some shrubbery and realizes that the last call Vera made was to him. In an unnerving message, Vera tells Jeffries that it’s been great working with him. Uh-oh.
Back at the office, Stillman scolds Scotty and Lilly for covering up the accident, then asks where they are. Lilly says they’ve traced calls from Vera to Joe Don’s ex-wife, Jeanette, and also to the aforementioned “crackpot scientist,” Goran Petrovic, a chemical engineering professor at Temple who’s their next stop. Goran recalls Vera coming in the day before with the scene photos, and he’s shocked that it was ruled an arson. A fire marshal’s instinct is no match for scienctific evidence, and Goran says this finding completely ignores it. We flashback to him explaining to Vera that the burn pattern isn’t indicative of arson. The point of origin, it appears, was the kitchen, and he then explains that, in a flashover, the temperatures are so hot even firemen won’t go inside. He adds that, since fire burns upward, Joe Don wouldn’t have burned his feet, and that his opening the front door let in oxygen that just made the fire worse. Ouch. Looks like Joe Don may have been telling the truth. Goran explains to the detectives that a fire like this is often caused by faulty wiring.
Meanwhile, Kat and Jeffries talk to Jeanette, who’s none too pleased to be reliving this nightmare. She explains that Joe Don drank too much and couldn’t hold down a job, and was furious when she left him. She couldn’t believe he’d do such a thing, but everyone convinced her, including Vera, who stopped by yesterday asking about the wiring. She recalls telling him that the lights always flickered, but the landlord was too cheap to fix anything, then asks why he’s asking. Vera hesitates, then tells her it’s possible Joe Don didn’t set the fire. Jeanette is incredulous, saying the neighbors saw him standing out on the street while the kids burned to death, and can’t believe he wouldn’t go back in to save them. She explains to the detectives that Joe Don, fed up with the recurring electrical problems, finally called an electrician, and their landlord hit the roof.
Lilly and Scotty visit with the landlord, Bela, who says Joe Don was a problem tenant. He denies any electrical issues, insisting that Joe Don frequently overloaded the circuits. Bela proclaims his handyman, Jorge, excellent, but Scotty and Lilly point out that he never fixed anything. They’re interrupted by Jeffries, who’s received a call about a suicide jump two blocks from Vera’s apartment. The detectives rush to the scene to find a tarp covering the body of a 40ish white heavyset man. UH-oh. Lilly lifts the tarp, there’s a tense moment…and then Scotty realizes it’s not Vera. Looks like the promo monkeys misled us! In this case, that’s a very good thing.
Back at the office, Doherty talks to Stillman again, and we finally learn the reason Doherty’s been harassing him all season: he’s still angry with Stillman for arresting his screwup son, Matt, fifteen years ago. In recent weeks, however, Doherty’s come to realize that Matt, who’s since turned his life around, probably needed that stint in jail to straighten himself out. He then wisely tells Stillman to do whatever it takes to get Vera back in “serviceable condition,” including psychiatric treatment, and even firing, if necessary. It’s the only way, he insists. I hate to admit it, but I think he might be right.
Meanwhile, Kat’s learned that Vera got into a fight with Crawford a mere fifteen minutes ago, and when Scotty and Lilly get there, Crawford’s still upset that Vera questioned his expertise. In a flashback, we see Vera insisting that there was no residue from accelerant, and the fire wasn’t arson. Crawford’s sure it was, but Vera insists on Joe Don’s innocence, pointing out that he couldn’t get a confession out of him even after a 48-hour interrogation. Crawford reminds Vera that Joe Don was a drunk, going through a divorce, and mad at the world; Vera says he’s been all those things; that doesn’t mean Joe Don killed his kids, and he didn’t deserve his fate. Crawford’s sarcastically sympathetic, then tells Vera to live with it, but Vera insists they have to make it right. Joe Don’s parents and ex-wife still believe he killed the boys. Crawford still doesn’t care, Vera charges him, and firefighters have to break it up. (I wonder if this will affect the next police-fire softball game).
Lilly, having zeroed in on Vera’s desire to make it right, finally finds him standing in the rain in front of Joe Don’s parents’ house. She orders him into her car and reassures him that he’s a good cop, but he needs help. Vera tells her about Julie and the two kids, and says he’s happy for her, but he always thought that’d be him. He recalls that, at the time, all he wanted was a family with her, and when he saw the boys’ bedroom, he overreacted, completely unable to understand why anyone would just let his own children burn to death. He says he went after Joe Don day and night, looking for that one little slip to prove he was lying, but it never came. Joe Don tried to tell him he was innocent, Vera says, but he never heard it.
In a gut-wrenching flashback, we see Vera relentlessly grilling Joe Don about why he didn’t go back in, insisting he had plenty of time. Joe Don says the fire was too hot, and he tried, and we see flashbacks of him doing exactly that, breaking out windows and trying to find another way in. “I don’t believe you,” Vera finally says, and Joe Don tragically accepts that there’s nothing he can say that will make him. Vera tells Lilly that he mistook cowardice for guilt, and he needs to make it right. His courage summoned, he rings the doorbell and tells Joe Don’s parents and brother that he has new evidence in the case…but they just slam the door in his face. Ouch. The montage shows the detectives cleaning up Vera’s apartment, Julie and Crawford reminiscing, Vera closing the case and seeing Joe Don standing there glaring at him, and then Vera turning in his badge and gun to Stillman. A stunned Jeffries looks on, then follows him out. Wow.
Cold Case has done many great episodes over the years, and this one ranks right up with the best of them. Jeremy Ratchford proved what an outstanding (and under-used) actor he’s been in this whole series, particularly in the interrogation scene with Joe Don, which also holds the distinction of being one of the only scenes in the show’s history to melt my heart of stone and make me cry. I also loved the way they incorporated all the loose ends from previous episodes, like the physical and the “table naps,” similar to what they did in last year’s also-excellent “Officer Down.”
So that’s my TwoCents, but I’d love to hear yours. Did you rank this episode with the greats? When did you figure out that Joe Don was innocent? Do you think we’ve seen the last of Nick Vera? Leave your TwoCents in the Comments section. I’ll get to them after a much-needed snuggle with my son.