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Taking a break from his search for a cure, David finds refuge in the great outdoors when he works as a school gardener and befriends a 10-year-old who is either accident prone or the victim of child abuse.
I read the one-sentence summary of this paragraph and just thought “Oh no, the Hulk smashes child abuse.” For three episodes in a row The Incredible Hulk has courted controversy by approaching very sensitive, real-world topics and framing it as an action story starring a giant green man. I appreciate television that takes risks and does not shy away from hot-button issues, but there is the question of appropriateness. As a young series that focuses on what Hulk can smash it seems like there is no right way to go about it. While neither Ricky‘s take on the mentally challenged nor Rainbow’s End dealing with Native Americans was a tragic failure, neither really clicked with me as the right way to handle those topics. So here as Hulk takes on a child abuser I really wondered how this would play out. As always I hoped for the best, and as the others before it excelled in some respects while failing in others.
The episode opens and David (Bill Bixby) is working as a groundskeeper at Lincoln Elementary School in Lincoln, Nebraska. Given that David has forged his identity in every city, has no social security number, and no background I am concerned about the level of care these children are receiving. I would hope background checks would be mandatory for workers at a school, especially one with young children. But this episode has some big issues to deal with, so if to do so requires a leap in logic about how David got his job at a school I will let it have that “gimme”.
David is tending to the school’s garden accompanied by a sweet, somewhat happy version of The Lonely Man theme when he comes upon student Mark Hollinger, sitting alone and crying. David notices cuts on the boy’s arm and, thinking Mark was recently hurt and that’s why he was crying, David takes him to Mary Walker, the school’s nurse.
Mary tells David that Mark is accident prone and often has these types of injuries, and David points out that accidents cause scrapes and bruises, not “multiple contusions.” The nurse brushes off David’s concerns. Her face shows a modicum of guilt, but she says “my job is to patch the cuts and bruises, not to worry about how they got there.” David doesn’t force the issue, he just smiles smartly.
After school Mark runs up to David, and David buys the boy an ice cream. Someone needs to teach Mark “stranger danger” as you never take food from strangers. As they eat David asks about Mark’s hobbies and his friends, trying to get at the root cause of Mark’s injuries, but Mark doesn’t get it, just saying he doesn’t have many friends and usually plays with his dad. David eventually asks outright about Mark’s bruises. Mark insists he got them falling down and David doesn’t push. He just knowingly tells Mark if he needs a friend he’ll be there. (A strange man offers to be a special friend for a young boy! Stranger danger!)
Mark then asks where David lives, and David takes him to his apartment (stranger danger!), and it’s a very nice place for a gardener on the run. Spacious, glass french doors, really extravagant. I think David should be living someplace more humble and saving his money for a rainy day when McGee comes knocking, but, again, this episode is not about David. If David lived in a shack it’s unlikely Mark would want to move in with David, which he asks to do. He hints around, asking David if his sofa folds out into a bed, saying how David’s apartment could easily hold two or three people which David takes as a sign of trouble at home.
David says “I imagine your mother and father are very worried about you” and I think “Yeah, if they knew he was sitting on a sofa that turns into a bed in the home of the newly hired school groundskeeper.” If I didn’t know David was the hero of the series I honestly think this episode would be a story similar to Dudley and Arnold at the bike shop on Diff’rent Strokes.
David walks Mark home where David is introduced to Mark’s father Jack, who sees the injuries on the boy and asks how he got them. The look on David’s face says he thinks Jack is putting on a show, as do I. As does Jack, I think as Jack invites David in for a beer and David accepts.
The inside of Jack’s home is the height of suburban 70’s style. I swear when I was growing up my parents had the exact same furniture, if not the upholstery, as the Hollingers — the same gold sofa, the same dark wood frame chair. It’s uncanny, and I wonder if every house in the 70’s had those pieces. I keep checking the walls for a giant wooden fork and spoon.
Chatting with David, Jack seems to put the blame for Mark’s injuries on his wife Margaret. He says she works nights and is very stressed, and that it is hard for her to be a mom and hold a job. David takes the bait and immediately shifts all suspicion to Mark’s mother, going so far as to track Margaret down at her job at a convenience store. Under the guise of a customer David starts casual conversation, but in under a minute he starts to accuse the woman of beating her son. He starts first through implication, “Mark gets hurt…a lot…and no one seems to know why.” When that doesn’t illicit a response David puts it bluntly “I think Mark’s being beaten.” Margaret is shaken and asks him to leave.
But being a good employee she first has to ring up David’s purchase. When Margaret hands David his change he gets a good look at the large, dark bruise on Margaret’s hand. David smiles smugly, knowing now that Jack is beating them both.
At this point I think Bixby is playing this wrong. He’s too full of smiles when this is a topic not able to be smiled about. He shouldn’t be smug when he’s shown he’s proven right, he should be upset that he’s right. Instead he just smiles this fish-eating grin. And then he goes home? He doesn’t go to get the boy, he doesn’t call the police, we just jump to the next day and David is back at work. He couldn’t wait a moment to confront Margaret, but he then can go home and get a good night’s rest? It’s poor writing and likely poor directing not telling Bixby the right way to portray Banner in these moments, and it’s keeping me from thinking David is the right person to be getting involved. I think someone needs to get involved, but not the newly hired gardener of the school.
The next day David sees Mark at school and claps the boy on the shoulder, causing the boy to wince. David looks down Mark’s shirt (Stranger danger!) sees another round of injuries, and takes him back to Mrs. Walker. The injuries are so severe this time that the nurse writes Mark a note and sends him home. When David again pushes Mary to report the abuse the nurse confesses she wishes she could help, but at her last job she reported a parent for abuse. No one would corroborate Mary’s story, the family denied it, and she ended up losing her a job. David asks if anyone from the school can talk to Jack and the nurse replies “Why don’t you?” It’s not a come-up, it’s an honest suggestion, and one that David appears ready to take.
We then follow Mark home. He is coming home late, having spent the day alone. He tries to enter quietly and sneak into his room but Jack calls him in. The musical score by Joe Harnell sets a menacing tone, taking Jack’s fairly flat line deliveries of “You’re late again” and turning them into the most ominous of threats. When Jack sees a note in Mark’s pocket showing that Jack was sent home early Mark is even more upset, but he’s not shouting, he’s aggravated. He says “You get more out of hand every day. What do we have to do to teach you to behave?” and I think a beating is coming, but no, not yet. Margaret sends Mark to get ready for dinner.
But Jack sits there stewing, and a story about a boy saving his father’s life in a plane crash is what sets Jack over the edge. I’m not sure why that story is what does it, but we see Jack is pushed to the edge by the thought of a father being saved by his son. Jack’s face gets red, and he leans forward agitated.
Jack asks Mark to bring him a beer, and Mark is afraid. Margaret tells Jack to wait for dinner, but Mark demands the beer now, and he demands Mark bring it to him. Mark opens the beer and walks tentatively, taking baby steps towards his demanding, red-faced father. Jack continues to bark orders, getting irate, saying insane things like “you don’t like to help me do you” and making Mark put it in his hand.
Mark is shaking and at the last second he drops the beer. I saw that coming from the moment Mark popped the tab off, but I suppose Jack did too. Jack didn’t want to get a beer, he wanted to give a beating. Jack starts to shout and he’s turning even more red; it’s the human equivalent of a Hulk-out. If he had been gamma irradiated he would have white eyes, but instead he just kicks the beer and starts to chase Jack through the house. Presumably he is hitting Jack, but we don’t see it, just hear it.
Truthfully this scene is well done. The actors, at the extreme reach of their limited range, do a good enough job of selling the emotion of the moment, aided greatly by Harnell. More, the dialogue is a bit odd but it shows the pathos and the pain of abuse. This moment was one I feared would either be too soft or over the top, but they hit the right note here. You feel for the victims, and more than any episode before I want Hulk to show up and put a stop to it.
And he will. We cut outside to see David walking up to the house. Hearing the screams he knocks on the door, trying to interrupt. Margaret answers and tells David to go away, but Jack comes and tells the gardener to mind his own business. When David doesn’t appear ready to take that suggestion Jack shoves David who falls backwards over a railing, falling several feet.
I’m sure the physical violence from Jack will make David Hulk-out, but no! David is just fine. Standing, David sees a neighbor across the street working in his yard, but when the neighbor witnesses the violence in the Hollinger’s yard he starts to hustle indoors. David catches up to the man and asks for help, but the neighbor refuses saying “That Hollinger is crazy.” David tries another neighbor and gets the same result. When the neighbor refuses to open the door David can take no more. We get white eyes.
And what white eyes we get! It’s an extreme close-up of the contact lens Bixby wears and it’s white, tinged with green. Really impressive on DVD. I recommend you see that frame!
Hulk-Out #1 We cut inside and see Jack terrorizing his family. He shoves Margaret to her knees by her shoulders, showing us how Mark got the bruises on his shoulder. Jack then lifts Mark off the ground and slams him into a wall.
Then Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) slams into, and through, the opposite wall. Coming in, Hulk stalks towards Jack who stands in the dining room, frozen to the spot where he was beating his son. Hulk flips the dining room table out of the way and Jack forgets about beating his son, cowering from Hulk. Hulk lifts Jack off the ground as Jack lifted Mark. Jack tries to punch the green beast, and Hulk throws him through some shutters that cover an indoor window, throwing the man into the kitchen.
(I thank Hulk for destroying that 70s bastion of style, the shutters covering interior windows in a home. Do they even make houses with interior windows any more?)
Hulk then turns to Mark, and Margaret is yelling for Hulk to not hurt her child. But Hulk is there to help, not to hurt. He picks up the boy and flees the house, with Margaret shouting “don’t take my baby!”
Hulk takes Jack to a studio backlot that is supposed to represent Lincoln, and he’s chased by the Keystone Cops. It appears the cops have Hulk cornered but when Hulk doesn’t comply they start to move in. With some wacky disco music a chase scene begins. It’s totally out of place to have in this episode, but Hulk flips a pick-up in the street causing all the police cars to crash. Their cars hit fire hydrants and they don’t even bother to pursue on foot instead just radioing for back-up. Mark helps Hulk escape the cop’s view.
When out of sight, Hulk transforms back into David in a unique way, the best reverse transformation of the series. Mark and Hulk walk in shadow, and through a series of obvious fades Hulk grows smaller and eventually becomes David, still holding hands with Mark. While the fades were obvious, it is the closest thing to a “morph” that the 70s could do, and with the actors walking instead of standing still, covered in shadow to hide bad make-up effects, it shows a full-body transformation in a way the series has never done before.
Mark now is one of the few that know David’s secret, and he says he wish he could change too. Obviously Mark wishes that to fight back against his father.
The next day David calls Mary over to his apartment. She asks about the green monster, David replies that the only monster is Mark’s father. He tells the nurse that he found Mark walking on the streets the night before. He brought Mark back to his apartment to protect the boy from his father. (Mark spent the night in the groundskeeper’s apartment? STRANGER DANGER!) David asks the nurse again to go to the cops saying “There’s more important things than losing one’s job”. Mary rightly asks why David doesn’t go, and David says “because I have considerably more to lose than my job.” Mary asks if David is wanted, and David says “Something like that”.
David asks Mary if she’ll talk to the police if he can find one other witness to corroborate Mary’s information, and Mary agrees, so David goes to see Margaret. But National Register reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin) has gotten to Margaret first. David hides from the reporter and hears Margaret tell McGee that Hulk beat her son and her husband. Of course a giant green man who’s wanted for murder is the perfect scapegoat for any unexplainable injury.
But the clock is ticking. Jack (Hollinger, not McGee, and I’m frustrated that there are two people named “Jack” in this episode) is in the hospital for observation to ensure the Hulk didn’t seriously hurt him. David tries to convince Margaret to go to the police for Mark’s sake. He informs Margaret, and maybe the audience “There are laws against child abuse” and says he is afraid their lives are in danger from Jack’s beatings. Margaret says “it doesn’t happen very often, only when Jack loses his temper.” Ut-oh.
More dialogue continues and it becomes obvious that the writers are trying to draw a parallel between the anger Jack feels that causes him to beat his son and the anger David feels that causes him to become the Hulk. That is an incredibly bad decision. Hulk is our hero in the story who took the battered child and saved him from the abuser. To draw parallels like this, to equate our hero to a wife-beater and child abuser, is in extremely poor taste. More, it paints our hero as a bad guy who is half a step away from beating children! It was an ill-conceived parallel that should not have been explored as it was.
Margaret gives the abused story “He doesn’t mean to do it, it just happens” and David says Jack needs psychiatric help before he kills one of them. This is the beginning of David’s “message” for the episode. David doesn’t see child abuse as a crime, he sees it as a disease. While Margaret and Mark are worried that Jack will go to jail, David tries to convince them that Jack doesn’t need jail, he needs a hospital. I am not an expert on abusive situations, and I am certain that therapy is part of any attempt to break the cycle of abuse, but the oversimplification here is off-putting. More, we watched as Jack tortured and beat his wife and child. Sorry Jack, you are now a loathsome individual who I don’t want to see helped. I want to see you go to jail. I don’t want to see you helped, I want to see you punished. You didn’t try to shoot a horse, you beat your family. You are past the point of no return; you are irredeemable.
But not to the writers and, thus, not to David. David preaches the benefits of the hospital, while Margaret gives the standard, cliched, tearful responses. Finally she says “Give me some time” and David agrees. He tells Margaret to meet him, Mrs. Walker, and Mark in the gym after school.
When school ends David challenges Mark to some basketball. While playing twenty-one David tells Mark that the two of them, plus Margaret and Mrs. Walker, need to go to the police. Mark asks if his father will go to jail and David again starts preaching the benefits of medical care for abusers. But Mark is on my side–he wants his father to go to jail. He says if his father doesn’t get locked up then he’ll just come back madder and start all over.
David then becomes an apologist for the abuser. David says “Your father doesn’t want to beat you, he just has a problem” trying to explain child abuse as a mental illness to the child. While I think on the one hand it’s important for the boy’s self-esteem to know that his father doesn’t hate him specifically, it’s again not right to say these things. It’s one of those times I think David needs to shut his mouth and just wait for this to be handled by someone who won’t be packing up and abandoning everyone at the top of the hour.
But David is so busy telling Mark about the social programs for child abuse he doesn’t see Jack come in the back door. Jack hears David telling Mark about these programs and the man changes from child abuser to adult abuser as he starts to pummel David. Jack lands punch after punch to the stomach, the face, throws David into a wall, and finally thorws him through the double hinged gym doors.
It’s just a shame he was too busy beating David to notice the white eyes.
Hulk-Out #2: Behind the doors Jack cannot see David’s transformation, and it is one moment required but not believable. Rather than pursue David through the doors, Jack calls for the man to come back and get more of a beating. But it’s not David that comes back through the doors.
Hulk smashes through the gym doors and stalks at Jack. Like any good bully, Jack backs away in fear from Hulk, but Hulk keeps coming, demolishing gym equipment in the process.
Jack turns to run but Hulk catches up, grabs Jack and slides him into the wall. Cornered, Jack tries to fight. He punches Hulk repeatedly but Hulk just growls and pushes him back into the wall. Jack continues to attack but Hulk just keeps shoving him back, bullying the bully.
But Jack is starting to break down. He’s having memories–memories of a belt whipping across. Jack has memories of his own father beating him with a belt, and starts to project images of his father onto Hulk. Jack soon breaks down crying “please don’t hit me daddy” and bawls on the floor. He calls for Mark, sobbing apologies to the boy, and I think we’re now supposed to think Jack is redeemed and will get the help he needs. But I still hate the man.
In the coda we see David, looking sharp in a new black turtleneck he must have spent his security deposit on. He is at Mark’s house with Margaret and Mary. Margaret happily says “the hospital says Jack will be back in less than a month!” The way she delivers the line makes me think of a housewife telling the benefits of an appliance. The hospital is sold as a “set it and forget it” solution. They also show Mark is healthy, having him babble about what he’s learned about the subconscious and repressed memories that caused his father to hit him.
Everyone is beaming with smiles, everyone is happy.
Mary and Margaret tell David “are you sure you don’t want to stick around and talk to the reporter about the green man? You could get your name in the paper” but David demurs.
Mark tries to get David to stay a bit longer by challenging him to another game of twenty-one, tossing David the ball. David throws it one-handed and, swish, makes a perfect shot. Saying “I better quit while I’m ahead” he throws his tan coat over his shoulder and walks off down the road as Mark watches on from the lower left corner of our screen.
Like David with Hulk, I am torn in two regarding this episode. On the one hand I admire A Child in Need for daring to cover such a hot-button, real-world issue as child abuse. The scenes of the abuser and the portrayals of the abused were, for the most part, convincing and done in a sensitive manner. In an era where such topics were not often discussed, it would serve to raise awareness with children and adults who enjoyed the show. Had this show come a decade later I have no doubt that it would have ended with Bill Bixby, out of character talking straight to the audience, giving an 800 number for a crisis center for the abused, saying “If you or someone you know is the victim of abuse, don’t hesitate. Call now.” It is very possible that the airing of this episode did raise awareness, and who knows, perhaps one or more abusers were made to stop by people reacting to this episode.
But on the other hand the episode oversimplifies the entire problem of child and spousal abuse. The episode ends with everyone smiling, almost giving a thumbs-up to the camera. This is Hulk‘s idea of a happy ending, but truthfully in a situation such as this there are no happy endings, especially not this quick. There needs to be time for healing.
Yes, I’m asking for some realism in a television show about a puny man that transforms into a giant green rage monster. If they are going to tackle serious issues like child abuse, they cannot treat it with the same comic-book style they treat their hero. It, again, is the appropriateness of the forum for such a serious issue. If you cannot handle it seriously because “that’s not what this show is” then this show is not the proper medium to discuss serious topics.
Bixby’s portrayal of David just irks me this episode. I like David when he’s smart, I hate David when he’s a smug know-it-all, and in this episode he’s definitely the latter. His little smiles, his knowing glances, his proselytizing how doctors can cure abuse, it’s a bit too much to bear.
As for Hulk, his scenes were good. Both times I felt Hulk was really in the right place at the right time. I felt bad for Mark and his mother, and I wanted to see Hulk smash the abuser.
It’s not a perfect episode, it didn’t astound me with its handling of the subject matter, but I admire the episode for doing what it did back in 1978. A very mild recommend.