‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ – ‘To the Boy in the Blue Knit Cap’: Bye, Bobby

“Law & Order: Criminal Intent” came to the end of its run (probably) last night, and I have some thoughts on both the series finale and the series as a whole coming up just as soon as I show you my pinball machine…

“Let’s go.” -Goren

For 90% of its running time, “To the Boy in the Blue Knit Cap” didn’t feel particularly finale-like. Nor, for that matter, was it an especially compelling episode of “Criminal Intent.” It wasn’t so much ripping a story from the headlines and twisting it as ripping off a story from a movie that was already ripped from the headlines, and tweaking it just enough that Sony couldn’t sue. So, for instance, we got James Van Der Beek playing Justin Timberlake playing Sean Parker, and even holding court on a nightclub balcony made up to resemble a scene from the movie. And as the episode checked off the various “Social Network” scenes and characters it needed to mimic, there wasn’t much room left for Detective Goren to do his twitchy, invasive, always effective investigative technique. It felt like an episode where Goren and Eames were besides the point, and that’s an unfortunate move to make in what was planned as their last appearance ever.

Then came the last five minutes, with Goren going for his final mandatory therapy session with Dr. Geisen, in which she got to sum up the various psychological problems “Criminal Intent” fans got to know so well over the last decade, accompanied by old footage of Vincent D’Onofrio looking tightly-wound (but otherwise mostly unchanged from how he appeared back in 2001). It was, in a way, redundant – again, if you’ve been watching the show for a while, you have a pretty good idea of what makes Robert Goren tick and what ticks him off – but at least it had a finale feeling to it: Thanks for watching, folks! Here’s a little trip down memory lane before we wave goodbye!

Ultimately, Goren chose to stay in the job that’s consuming him, and to go with Eames to another crime scene, and there was a nice ambivalence to the moment. At first, he seems reluctant to get in the car with her, then smiles once he’s seated. It could be him accepting Geisen’s advice about letting his anger go when he’s on the job, or it could just be Goren putting on a show for his partner and friend, even as he starts to ponder the idea that he doesn’t want to do this anymore.

Because Goren has lost his badge several times in the past – including the show’s penultimate season, fronted solely by Jeff Goldblum – it likely would have felt repetitive for the show to have him quit. (It also would have made it that much harder to get USA executives to change their minds and perhaps order another season; as it is, ratings for this final year were strong enough that I wouldn’t be shocked to see the show continue in some form, if they can get the budget tightened up even more.) But it’s been clear for a long time that the job isn’t healthy for Goren, and as someone who watched the show off and on for years, entirely to watch D’Onforio play this role, I’d like for him to wind up happy. If he can somehow do that while still working cases, great; if not, the show’s (probably) over anyway, so it’s not like I’d be deprived of seeing him conduct any more interrogations.

It’s funny how the “Law & Order” mothership came to quickly treat every single character as replaceable (many times over), while the two long-running spin-offs have been so driven by the personalities of their original stars. When D’Onforio became physically incapable of working a full season anymore, I remember how angry some fans got about the episodes that didn’t feature him – even though they were built around original “L&O” star Chris Noth. And I know a lot of “SVU” viewers are antsy about going into the new season with no Chris Meloni and with Mariska Hargitay possibly taking on a reduced role.

Dick Wolf liked to say of the original series that the format was the star. That was clearly never the case with “Criminal Intent.” If you were watching, you were watching to see D’Onofrio erase the personal space between himself and that week’s villainous guest star, to see Eames and whoever was running the Major Case Squad at the time stand back and marvel at how Goren’s mind worked, to see Goren and Eames bring their two chief suspects in for interrogation and find a way to turn them against each other.

Because the character exists under the “Law & Order” umbrella, Goren’s likely not going to be remembered as a classic TV cop in the way that Columbo, Kojak, Sipowicz or Pembleton are. But it was a terrific role, and a terrific performance, for a very long time. And if the final episode was largely a dud, it still feels right that D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe got to return for this final season to say a proper goodbye.

What did everybody else think?