Brenda Leigh Johnson can still make killers talk.
She cajoles, she yells, she soothes. She bluffs about plea deals and lies about evidence. She’s a walking weekly reminder to always shut up and call a lawyer.
Since 2005, “The Closer” has been basic cable’s proudly cerebral, bitingly funny police procedural. Kyra Sedgwick won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her work as the steel-spined, CIA-trained interrogator with a closet full of floral prints to match her syrupy Southern accent.
TNT is winding the show to its conclusion with six final episodes this summer, when we’ll say goodbye to the LAPD deputy chief with the work ethic of a piranha and zero instincts for office politics.
At the end of the first season of “The Closer,” Brenda had stepped on so many toes that her boss, Will Pope (J.K. Simmons), arranged a group apology session. “I’d like to say,” Brenda began, “how sorry I am that I was unable to ignore your general level of incompetence.” The contrition went downhill from there.
But the show has just kept getting better as justice has become more personal for Brenda. When she can’t get her confession, the evidence is tainted, the witnesses are numb with terror or she has no jurisdiction, Brenda finds a way.
We watched her send pedophiles to be brutally beaten in lockup. She arrested a Tijuana cop under a false name so that he would be killed in county jail. Even the Russian mob did some dirty work for her when red tape prevented her arrest of an informant. Don’t cross Brenda.
The moral tipping point in the series came when Brenda, handcuffed by an ill-advised immunity deal, abandoned a gangbanger named Terrell Baylor in a crowd of revenge-minded Crips, only the final chapter of her complicity in his death. After “The Closer” had placed viewers squarely on Brenda’s side for six seasons, seeing her arrange a death so matter-of-factly was a conscience-shaking icewater bath.
Baylor’s death came back to bite Brenda’s Major Crimes squad in the form of Peter Goldman (Curtis Armstrong), a resourceful attorney working for Baylor’s mother and tapping a leak somewhere in the team.
“It doesn’t matter what you think you know, it only matters what you can prove,” he admonished during a damning litany of her dirty little secrets. Brenda’s hands shook in fear as she listened, realizing she came off on paper like a dirty cop who deserved to be taken down. And maybe she is. “The Closer” isn’t finished asking that question.
When we last left Brenda, she had wriggled free of Goldman’s federal lawsuit, using the kind of ethically creative maneuver she was in trouble for in the first place. But complaints against Brenda, as well as the source of the leak within Major Crimes, are still front and center as the show returns.
Thankfully, she can still lean on her husband, Fritz (Jon Tenney). Brenda has always been the unabashed “taker,” but Fritz, while nurturing, is forced to put her in check often. She exploits his position as an FBI agent and ruins his cases to make her own. He stores up his anger and lets it out in self-righteous rants. She hides her emotions from him. They’re working on it.
A classic episode with a shocking reveal, the first of the final six, “Hostile Witness,” puts Brenda nose to nose with the killer who got away. Phillip Stroh, a defense attorney by day and rapist by night, got the best of Brenda in Season 4 and left her seething.
Stroh, played with chilling panache by Billy Burke, has been lying low, but he hasn’t had a crisis of conscience or gotten conveniently sloppy. “The Closer” isn’t the kind of show to let its heroine tie up her loose ends as she smugly rides into the sunset.
Also bothering Brenda is the LAPD’s structural quicksand, with Pope distracted by his own attempts to be permanently named chief of police. After Brenda’s court testimony causes a mistrial, Pope decrees that a district attorney will supervise all of her cases from the beginning.
“He’s saddling me with as many baby-sitters as possible,” Brenda frets. She isn’t too fond of the deputy DA in question, either — seems the prosecutor is laser-focused on results above principle.
“Win, win, win, that’s all she cares about,” Brenda grouses. “So competitive.” (Her self-awareness is still somewhere at the bottom of that giant purse.)
Seeing Brenda lock horns with authority figures is nothing new — her struggles with Capt. Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell) eventually morphed into a career-saving partnership. It’s the drama in Brenda’s personal life that sends her spinning as the series draws to a close, and Sedgwick’s performance is heart-wrenching. Fans should make sure to watch every episode this summer until the very last moments.
And Brenda’s team, including the hilarious Flynn and Provenza (Tony Denison and G.W. Bailey), isn’t going anywhere — most of them will be working on the spinoff “Major Crimes,” which TNT will unveil Aug. 13. Maybe they can even take down Phillip Stroh. Then again, TNT didn’t share the final episode with reviewers. Maybe Brenda still has time to find a way.