With Halloween around the corner, NBC’s The Player tried for a holiday episode with “The Norseman.” While the theme kept the installment from being as meaningful to the overall series as it could have been, the adventure delivered the expected chills while also not forgetting to keep leaving clues to the real story that this show is trying to tell.
But before we get into the slaying, let’s address that huge phone call. Alex is analyzing it, looking for a clue as to the whereabouts of his wife, when someone shows up uninvited at his apartment – his niece Dani (Courtney Grosbeck). He knows something’s up since she’s just decided to arrive from Phoenix without her mother, but agrees that she can stay for a few days.
As he gets called in to work, Cal is meeting with Agent Nolan (a returning KaDee Strickland) to discuss the case files she handed to him the first time she was here, and the fact she’s got surveillance photos of Alex in her other hand. In them Cassandra appears again, still obscured just as she was in the photo given to Cal by Justin Foucault’s girlfriend. Dots are being connected.
Cassandra’s already figured out that Dani is at Alex’s apartment thanks to social media, but that’s not why she’s called him in. Mr. Johnson is already hard at work with a few boxes’ worth of cold case homicides, which The House believes are the work of a serial killer going back to 1996. The pattern of victims corresponds with the Norse Pagan calendar, hence the moniker. “So this guy’s a wannabe Viking priest,” Alex quips before being tasked with stopping the killer before midnight on Halloween.
We should probably also get the headless corpse out of someone’s pool, too. Cal’s already at the crime scene when Alex arrives to check out the latest victim, and the two guys take the opportunity to find someplace to have their very overdue conversation about what our hero is doing. Alex tells his BFF that he appreciates the concern, but also that he’s working for some very serious people. “They don’t play well with others, but they have the resources,” he admits, while persuading Cal to let him help with the case.
Cal’s been on this one since he was a rookie cop in 1996, and he wants to get this over and done with already. He gives Alex the name of a potential suspect – Bron Torvald – and the clue that the victims are apparently found online. While Cassandra does some cyber-sleuthing, Mr. Johnson has discovered that Agent Nolan is searching for Cassandra, and calls Judge Samuel Letts (Richard Roundtree). Letts confirms that Johnson himself is a former Player, and agrees to have Nolan reassigned.
Oh, and Dani’s gotten arrested within what, a few hours of arriving in Vegas? Alex lectures her about shoplifting, but gets interrupted by a call from the Occam, as Cassandra’s found the Norseman. He leaves Dani to think about what she’s done with a hilarious “Welcome to the criminal justice system” before dashing off to try and catch the killer before he can claim his next conquest.
Alex arrives at another party just in the nick of time, and gets into a fight, but a gun will always beat an axe. The duo take a tumble off a railing, before a wounded Norseman staggers off and is greeted by Cal and a half-dozen LVPD officers. But the man behind the mask isn’t Torvald, so is he the real deal? While the cops try to identify him, Dani gets out of custody, and we get the slow-motion shot that gives away the fact that she’ll be the next ‘date’ on this creep’s list.
But first, we have Uncle Alex playing family peacemaker, trying to convince Dani that her mother still loves her even though they don’t get along. He gives his niece a necklace that belonged to Ginny in a moment of adorable bonding. But things are about to get less adorable: Letts calls Johnson to tell him that he can’t boot Nolan to Siberia because she’s “protected.” He wants an emergency meeting in Chicago.
And the Norseman tells Cal that he’s Torvald’s brother and that he killed Torvald, just before coughing up a lockpick so he can bust himself out of this joint and get on with kidnapping Dani already. Wow, LVPD security is about as bad as the FBI security on Blindspot. At least Cassandra has eyes on the precinct and can tip off Alex that the bet is back on. There hasn’t been a precinct shot up this badly since the “Fallen Heroes” episode on Homicide: Life on the Street.
How did this go so badly wrong? Alex and Cassandra try to figure this out once the smoke has cleared. Cassandra points out that the Norseman needs a victim with a very specific set of qualities, just as she also catches the guy snatching Dani’s booking file. These two facts make Alex very angry, and he dashes off to inform his niece – but the Norseman’s already in his apartment, and he grabs her while they’re still on the phone. Yeah, he definitely needs better door locks.
Our hero jumps on his motorcycle and uses the tracker he covertly stuck on that necklace he gave Dani earlier to close the gap. He asks Cassandra to call the police, but she refuses to do so citing the rules of the game, so Alex just falls into a massive hole and gets himself in a world of hurt (literally and metaphorically). While the Norseman gives his manifesto to Dani, Alex climbs out of the hole and jumps the guy, getting himself slugged a lot.
Cue Mr. Johnson, who appears and says that since it’s after midnight on Halloween, Alex has won the bet and that he and his niece should leave. Once they’ve gone Johnson proceeds to bust out his box of tricks and dismantle the Norseman with the same brutal skill he showed just last week. He was not kidding when he said he was offended. Also, this is still a guy you never want to cross.
Hours pass and Cal arrives thanks to an “anonymous tip” to find just the severed head and hands of the Norseman waiting for him, just like the bones he was sent all those years ago. It’s a gross form of closure, but it’s closure as Alex drives his niece back to Phoenix while only explaining that Johnson is someone he works with and “someone very good at his job.” Dani, who’s found out there are worse things in life than fighting with your mother, gives him a hug before she leaves.
To button the whole thing, Johnson finds Agent Nolan at the bar and tells him that he knows she’s protected, “but not protected as much as you like.” She needles him to see what he knows about the disappearances of all these special ops guys, so obviously she knows who he is, too. Sadly, he does not throw her through a window. He just tells her that if they were to see each other again, that would be “unfortunate,” and goes to haunt Alex.
That’s because Johnson wants to ask Alex about the mysterious phone number, which Alex also gave him. He explains that after doing some searching with facial recognition software, he captured footage of Ginny getting out of a car with a mystery man two days ago at Miami International Airport. Where the hell is she now? Well, that’s a question for another episode.
Holiday episodes of TV series are almost never a good idea. That’s because in imposing a holiday theme (whether it’s Halloween, Christmas, or whichever), they tend to go down certain paths and thus limit the story that can be told. “The Norseman” is no exception. Its main plot is exactly what you’d expect from a Halloween episode of any drama show: the serial killer, the dose of creepiness in the mutilated bodies and carved skulls, the heavy metal music. This wouldn’t have been out of place on Law & Order.
But for The Player to make this storyline work, it has to also make certain concessions. It’s hard to shake the feeling that if this wasn’t Halloween, this storyline wouldn’t have happened. It functions well enough within the framework of its show, but it never seems like it’s something that fits. The shots of beheaded corpses, while brief, are more graphic than this show normally goes for. And the writers, in servicing the story, have to make some different choices.
Having Dani appear, while it does provide some entertaining moments of bonding, seems less like a natural fit and more like placing her in Las Vegas so that she can be abducted and therefore creating another justification for Alex’s involvement in the episode. The slo-mo shot of her leaving the precinct and being spotted by the Norseman is the kind of on the nose hint that The Player never goes for, and she comes off as a character who’d be smarter if she didn’t need to get kidnapped for the episode to work.
Speaking of her abduction, The Norseman being able to get into Alex’s apartment is unintentionally funny, given that Johnson has done the same thing multiple times (including again here). How not secure is this place? And having Johnson show up to rescue Dani and Alex, while awesome in so many ways, can also be perceived as a quick way to wrap things up.
With those criticisms conceded, the writers also need to be commended for doing their absolute best to make things work with what they’ve got. They find opportunities to create unique and entertaining scenes, while also throwing in a few moments that do the absolutely critical job of keeping the ongoing storyline moving. Why “L.A. Takedown” didn’t work was because it added nothing to the puzzle; even though “The Norseman” is hamstrung by the Halloween theme, it still provides valuable information that makes watching it worthwhile.
This episode is the first one where we get any sort of information on Cal’s backstory. We learn through Alex that he was a rookie when the Norseman’s killing spree began in 1996, meaning that he’s been on the force for almost 20 years; this is a veteran cop and someone who has lived life, as opposed to a lot of cop characters on TV who feel like they’ve only got a few years under their belt and are overwhelmed by whatever is going on around them. That’s another plus for the casting of Damon Gupton, who has that stability and presence. He’s a pro, and these facts remind us that Cal is, too.
What’s great is that the show seems to be allowing Cal to take the lead on the investigation into The House. Agent Nolan is present, but mostly she’s just been giving him information, and he’s doing most of putting the pieces together. This is crucial, because Cal is the series regular and the one who should be handling that important storyline. You never want to hand a fundamental component of any show’s mythology to a guest star, especially when you have a main character that serves the same purpose. Particularly in this case, because Nolan is a one-dimensional character who can exit any time now.
And finally, after several episodes of tense exchanges, it’s truth time between Cal and Alex. Obviously Alex can’t confess everything to his best friend, but there’s only so many times Cal can ask that question before A) it becomes time for an answer and B) it becomes repetitive for the audience. Alex needs to give Cal something, and he does here, conceding that he’s working with some dangerous folks if not the actual nature of his employment. The fact that the scene happens is constructive for the story, and the manner in which it happens – that Alex takes the initiative by bringing Cal somewhere they can talk without being overheard by Cassandra – is constructive for that friendship. It shows that Alex respects Cal enough to make that conversation happen, as opposed to having him wait until he’s forced into having it.
The Player has really crafted a great friendship between these two with little moments such as those. The easier, and more dramatic for TV route, would be to have Alex continue to hide things from Cal until the situation came to a head. But by pushing the issue, it allows Cal to be a smart character, and not a clueless cop. And by having Alex give him something if not everything, the writers are saying that they care about this friendship and want it to be meaningful. It’s a real bond, instead of the usual stereotypical “hero and best friend” situation where you never really grasp the depth of friendship that’s supposed to exist. These two guys really do seem like they go back this far (presumably at least 1996, for Alex to know Cal’s history, unless it’s come up in past conversation somehow).
Aside from Cal, we also learn a few things about Mr. Johnson. Though Wesley Snipes mentioned it in our interview, this is the first in-show confirmation that Johnson is a former Player. It certainly sounds like he’ll be heading back to Chicago, where as we know from his dialogue with Eric Roberts’ character in “The Big Blind,” he’s got some history. And there’s a telling line in Alex’s dialogue with Dani where he concedes that Johnson is really good at his job, suggesting that there’s at least a begrudging respect forming. These two will never be buddies, but they’re starting to get on the same page.
That’s an interesting thread to pull at. Alex makes very clear in the pilot how he feels that he and Mr. Johnson are on totally opposite ends of the spectrum, and Johnson isn’t really Alex’s number one fan either. There’s a huge line drawn between them. Yet here we are six episodes in – what would have been the show’s halfway point – and while that line’s still there, they’re getting closer to it. When you have to work with someone, you get to know them, and in getting to know each other they’re learning about each other and realizing they can’t as easily dismiss one another as they would have liked.
It’s important to note that this is happening without The Player sacrificing the integrity of either character. It’s not turning Alex into some sort of bad guy, as would be the easy temptation with the show, and it’s not pretending like Mr. Johnson was really a nice guy that we just met on a bad day. Alex still has his morals and Johnson still has his rules, but they’re seeing commonalities and that’s the evolution of an interaction between two people. Alex can still totally throw him through that window, but he’s going to be much more well-informed when he does it.
And despite the predicament her character is forced into, there’s some really fun bonding between Courtney Grosbeck – in her first real appearance since she was briefly introduced at Ginny’s funeral – and Philip Winchester. You definitely feel like these two are family, and while Dani is written like another reckless teenager, she’s at least a character that the audience can enjoy having around. We don’t just care about her because we’re told to. That’s important, because we have to also not want her to be beheaded. Plus, any character that allows Alex to bring out his funnier side is always welcome.
But we always have to come back to the ongoing mystery of how the game works and what it has to do with Alex’s past, and “The Norseman” still finds a way to get that in there. It’s as simple as Cassandra’s response when Alex asks her to call the police for Dani, when she corrects him to say that it’s “not our game, the game.” That sentence and the way Charity Wakefield delivers it is so telling about her character. She’s saying, without literally saying it, that she doesn’t necessarily agree with the rules but she has to follow them. You get the feeling that if it were up to her, she’d have called the cops.
As we’ve mentioned previously, there’s a subtle growth in this relationship as well, where audiences can hear and see in Cassandra’s reactions to Alex’s predicaments that she cares about what happens to him – whether it’s because she has compassion for him, or because of her past friendship with his ex-wife Ginny, or a combination of both (probably both). Even though she’s the least used main character in this episode, that scene is still vastly meaningful. It reminds us that just because she’s The Dealer doesn’t mean she’s an emotionless robot. She has feelings, and the more we learn about her the more you realize that her speech to Alex in the pilot about doing good was likely genuine.
The other big clue in “The Norseman” is in Johnson’s eleventh-hour (or is it thirteenth-hour?) appearance, saving Dani and Alex from the killer. There are three things that the audience should have taken away from that one moment. Number one being that it is possible for Alex to win a bet on a technicality – all that it said was that he had to stop the Norseman from taking another victim before midnight, not that he had to actually stop him entirely. This is splitting hairs, but it almost certainly could work to his advantage in the future. It opens the door for him to bend the rules a little, like “You told me to stop the bad guys from stealing the money, but you didn’t say I couldn’t give it to the orphanage,” or things like that.
(By the way, Alex as a player, while entertaining, hasn’t had the best track record. His first bet he actually lost except for the ‘double or nothing’ wager, and he wins here on a technicality. It makes you wonder if the gamblers have a certain quality control threshold that they aspire to or if they just don’t care as long as there’s action.)
Number two is that there can be an episode in which Alex is not the one to save the day. While you can argue that Johnson doing the deed is a bit of a deus ex machina, it’s probably a bigger step forward in terms of the show’s credibility to at least illustrate that Alex is not the end-all of the show. It shows the audience that every episode isn’t going to end with Alex beating the bad guy. Especially with a new series, you always want to steer away from predictability, and having someone other than Alex get the win keeps the show unpredictable.
Number three is what the rescue says about Mr. Johnson. There are a number of possible motivations for him showing up and there is no way of knowing which, if any, are the right ones. He could have done so out of compassion for Alex and Dani; like Cassandra, while he’s not a great guy, he’s still human, and maybe he doesn’t want to see a fifteen-year-old die. He could’ve done so out of a business interest, simply because Alex is his Player and he’s preserving the game by making sure the Player stays alive. Or it could be as simple as what he mentioned in the first act: he doesn’t like this guy, and he wants to personally get the kill.
Any one of these could be the truth and they all could be. No matter which one you go with, getting involved is beneficial for Johnson. He protects his Player, does a good deed and gets rid of a 20-year-old problem. But again, The Player is also planting that seed of doubt in the audience’s mind: what does it take for him to get directly involved with a bet? Is it just when it’s helpful to him, as it was in last week’s episode when the problem was personal? Or might there be another situation later down the line when Alex needs his help, and he genuinely comes in as a reinforcement? We don’t know, and it goes back to the constant unpredictability that this show maintains.
Then there’s the Ginny situation (because there is always an update on the Ginny situation, usually in the last scene of the episode). Now she’s in Miami with a mystery man. Johnson says the footage was found two days ago, and it’s hard to imagine Alex waiting to analyze that phone call, so it’s a safe bet that there’ve been roughly 48 hours between the end of “The Norseman” and the end of “House Rules.” Kudos to The Player for keeping her on the run and fast.
It’d be a little bit dumb if she continued to sit right in Alex’s backyard without being found, and by needing to re-locate her, that enables the show to push that to the side if need be. We don’t need to have a clue to Ginny’s whereabouts every episode to make a good episode, and it has to be hard for the show to keep coming up with reveals every week. While it’s going to give Alex more angst, that keeps the storyline going while also giving the series some breathing room.
Make no mistake about it, “The Norseman” is a Halloween episode with all the trappings and themes that entails. But even so, The Player still finds a way to stick to the basic elements that make this show so great, and why it’s such a shame that it isn’t catching on with audiences. Will a themed episode post the numeric gains that NBC is looking for? Probably not as much as a regular one, which could be a key misstep for the show since this is the first episode to air after the reduction in episode order. But it’s still an episode that this show and its fans can be proud of. Now who knows what they might have had in store for Christmas…
In case you missed it, check out our interview with The Player composer Dominic Lewis about how he creates the music for the series.
The Player airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.