Back in the ’80s, I followed Miami Vice religiously. My parents and I tuned in every Friday night, and my best friend and I obsessed the stories Monday mornings at school. It showed me the potentials of TV, and even film, more than anything else in my coming-of-age years. ’80s movies were embarrassingly bad, and what Miami Vice did on TV was usually leagues ahead of the film industry. It brought a dark edge to the small screen, music-driven sequences and amazing art direction. If by some standards of today’s golden age of TV it shows its age, in other ways it holds up very well. As Sam Hawken says:
“These days it’s nothing to have a cop show where the heroes are deeply flawed individuals caught up in morally compromised situations that often end badly. Before Miami Vice, though, this never happened. And cop shows never displayed any surfeit of style, which Miami Vice completely has. If you were to update the fashions from the ’80s to the 2010s and up the resolution to 1080p, Miami Vice would still look good compared to other programs on television. I might even argue that the datedness of the clothes and the clunky retro feel of an analog age make the show even cooler now than it was then.”
The show was predictable in one way only — its brooding nihilism, which got darker each season. You could count on things going to hell, and good people suffering terribly, and bad guys often winning. But inside that governor plots could go anywhere.
The show’s 30th anniversary prompted me to do a marathon of the five seasons and write up this retrospective. Out of the 111 episodes, here are my 20 picks ranked in descending order.
1. Red Tape. Season 3, Episode 19. In some ways I see Red Tape as the proper climax of Miami Vice. After three seasons of nihilistic injustices, one of our heroes snaps and goes rogue. This is what Mirror Image tried at the end of season four, but Crockett’s amnesia was absurd; he should have become a criminal by conscious choice. Red Tape does everything right. Tubbs is fed up with cops selling each other out and walking into bomb traps every other warrant, and so throws his badge in Castillo’s face. He then joins the underground scum, and while it’s all an act to catch the baddies, I remember being fooled by Tubbs’ fury. We never find out exactly what happened: Did Castillo exploit Tubbs’ anger and put him undercover from the start? Or did Tubbs initiate the operation as a rogue (as it appears), to which Castillo later gave his blessing? This is a perfect episode in every way. It ends on the tragedy and hopelessness that defines Miami Vice, but with Crockett and Tubbs resigned to getting by on whatever small victories they can salvage.
2. Little Miss Dangerous. Season 2, Episode 15. This was my first Miami Vice episode (talk about being spoiled), and was it ever a milestone. I was so stunned by it that I just sat in bed afterwards, staring at my TV as if it had personally affronted me. Reviewer Sam Hawken nails it: “The story is pitch black and all hope and happiness is sucked into its gravitational pull and crushed. It’s brilliantly written and slickly directed, and it’s the most nihilistic episode I can think of. Its message is that trying to help others is a pointless and futile gesture, and that the world is a horrible place in which innocence is crushed.” Remember, this was the ’80s, when cop shows were optimistic and the good guys always won. Miami Vice inverted that formula from the get-go, but Little Miss Dangerous dismantled it entirely. To this day I can’t think of better use of music over a TV sequence than Public Image Limited’s “Order of Death”, as Tubbs lies handcuffed to the bed screaming, while Jackie works her crayon ritual, disrobes and blows her brains out.
3. Evan. Season 1, Episode 21. Many consider this the best Miami Vice episode of all time, and you can certainly make a case for it. It opens and shuts on Peter Gabriel classics, has a strong gun-running plot, and the direction is flawless. Those aren’t even the best parts. The story is about personal conflict, between Crockett and an old academy friend (Evan, who now works for the AFT) who both refused to stick up for a third friend who came out gay and ended up killing himself. Evan was the raging homophobe, and Crockett the silent one who didn’t know how to cope. He still doesn’t, and as a result almost destroys his friendship with Tubbs. Evan remains forceful after all these years — even in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, the subject matter resonates in spades — and the emotional scene between Crockett and Tubbs outside the gas station (see right image) is one of their best ever.
4. Death and the Lady. Season 4, Episode 3. The masterpiece of season four is about a critically acclaimed erotic film that is actually snuff. It explores the sex industry in a way not seen since Little Miss Dangerous — with backroom whores, peep shows, porno films — and exploits Crockett’s self-righteousness in a way not seen since Forgive Us Our Debts. His moral outrages had a curious effect on me, often making me swing against the grain of the story. His judgmental attitude towards artistic violence still leaves a foul taste in my mouth. That’s not a criticism of the episode; Crockett is a naturally annoying character and brings out the worst of liberal sanctimony. Gina is the reasonable one when she suggests that Glantz’s erotic performance art isn’t half-bad. Snuff goes too far, obviously, and the final scene is priceless: Glantz gets away with his crime, and Crockett slaps him up the stairs, asking if that titillates him, excites him and turns him on.
5. The Savage. Season 3, Episode 15. I remember watching this episode and thinking Miami Vice was in a golden age. The stories were consistently good around this time, and The Savage put the spotlight on Castillo who is my favorite character. I should note the problem with the Vietnamese guest star who plays Castillo’s old acquaintance from the war. His English is terrible, and there are scenes where you can’t understand a goddamn thing he’s saying — and he says things that are very important. Watching the DVD today with subtitles makes me wonder how I ever made sense of the plot back in the ’80s (probably only by watching my VHS tapes over and over again). In any case, the story is a ripper. It’s about a political assassin who always kills a string of prostitutes over the course of six evenings before taking out his target. He first did it in Vietnam back in ’72. Castillo is determined to catch him this time in Miami, and puts the vice team on 12-hour shifts, canceling their days off, in order to catch the psychopath.
6. Payback. Season 2, Episode 19. This classic involves mystery, backstabbing, and the brutal toll taken on undercover cops. It’s carried on the suspense of who is framing Crockett and why, and the clues unravel at the right moments. It’s also a poster-child for the show’s unorthodox narrative style, as it ends with nothing resolved on Fuentes’ side of the story. But the drug dealer isn’t what Payback is about. The dirty cop is, and the awful things he has been driven to by the stress of his job. That turns out to be a commentary on Crockett’s own hell. In this story he is manipulated left and right, put through the ringer by internal affairs, and barely escapes being killed by Fuentes’ thugs when his cover is blown. It was back in a season when he still had hope, but I sometimes think of Payback as the starting point of Crockett’s real disillusionment.
7. Smuggler’s Blues. Season 1, Episode 15. So much is packed in this episode and yet it never feels rushed. It starts with explosions in Miami, then follows our duo overseas to a drug deal in Cartagena, where Tubbs gets thrown in jail, and he and Crockett barely escape the country under a hail of gunfire. Back in Miami, more double-crosses await: Trudy has been kidnapped, and Tubbs is dealt the shittiest hand at the bridge rendezvous. If he throws over the suitcase, Trudy is dead; and if he doesn’t, she’s dead. So he throws himself over too, to buy a few extra moments. Even after all these years, these scenes make me sweat. Smuggler’s Blues is pure classic, with not a moment of screen time wasted. It’s no surprise that elements from it were recycled in the (disappointing) 2006 movie remake. It marks the point where Miami Vice started getting really good, in the last third of season one. No episode prior to this one places on my list.
8. Victims of Circumstance. Season 5, Episode 16. This penultimate is to season five as Evan is to season one. In the tragedy of Evan, Crockett could find a glimmer of light in a shitty world. Now he’s burned out, and the world is confirmed as an undiluted hellhole where the innocent get shat on without exception. Victims is blistering, bloody, and nihilistic to the core; the vice cops have become little more than referees in the criminal underground instead of law enforcers. The plot of a Nazi war criminal pays dividends in such a context, as Holocaust witnesses are gunned down in restaurants and nursing homes, with plenty of collateral. The scenes of Hans Kozak going crazy in his bedroom and waving a knife at the door are among the most creepy of the series (especially with the haunting “Severance” by Dead Can Dance playing over it). Villains, for a change, don’t get to gloat in the end; everyone goes down under fire, saints and scum alike. For Crockett and Tubbs, by now, it’s just another day in Miami.
9. Honor Among Thieves. Season 4, Episode 16. Weird plots intersect in this demented gem. It’s a good example of the heights season four was attaining around the abysmal soap-opera episodes of Crockett’s wife. A serial killer is snuffing teenage girls, cutting open their bodies and filling them with pure-grade cocaine; then dressing up the corpses as dolls. The purity of the cocaine indicates that an elite drug lord must be involved, which happens to be the network of criminals Crockett and Tubbs are deeply undercover with. Castillo cannot investigate the cocaine-doll killer too closely without compromising Crockett and Tubbs — though it turns out he doesn’t really have to. The drug lords, appalled at the way their reputations are being tarnished by association with the serial killings, decide to take the law into their own hands and hunt down the killer themselves. Crockett and Tubbs assist them (doing their own police work as vigilantes), and after a shocking twist participate in a rogue trial by which the drug lords dispense “justice” to the killer. This episode is woefully underrated.
10. Shadow in the Dark. Season 3, Episode 6. I wouldn’t see Manhunter until years later, so in my mind the Hannibal Lecter story derives from Miami Vice rather than the other way around. Shadow is about a psycho who breaks into upper-class homes and enacts bizarre rituals. He approaches the homes prayerfully, and in the kitchens pours flour on himself before eating raw meat from the frig. At first, he leaves the sleeping families alone, but with each home his rituals take him closer to the bedrooms. Crockett becomes a Will Graham (as in the current Hannibal series), obsessing the killer and trying to think like him to predict his next move, and goes crazy himself in the process. If you’ve never seen Manhunter (or the current season of Hannibal), this episode comes across as brilliantly conceived, and it’s as dark as Vice gets. I watched it many times in the ’80s, and I’m destined to forever think of it as the true inspiration for Harris’ “Red Dragon”.
11. Out Where the Buses Don’t Run. Season 2, Episode 3. If I were ranking by critical approval, this would place at #1. It appears on various lists of the “greatest TV episodes of all time”, and got Emmy Award nominations. But it does have a problem which tends to be passed over: the cartoonish depiction of mental illness. Weldon is basically a circus freak, making faces and falsettos, and the psycho melodrama hasn’t aged well. But his baggage still drives a powerful story: years ago Weldon secretly killed a drug lord (Tony Arcaro) who escaped justice; unable to cope with murdering someone, he has created an alternate reality in his mind where Arcaro is still at large in Miami, and he leads Crockett and Tubbs on wild goose chases. The final act earns its legendary status, the sequence set to Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”. The reveal of what lies buried in the walls of an abandoned house retains power on repeat viewings. Out Where the Buses Don’t Run is considered a masterpiece for good reason, though it sits outside my top ten for the mishandling of Weldon’s breakdown.
12. Line of Fire. Season 5, Episode 6. In the manure swamp of season five, Line of Fire proved the show still had fire. I missed it when it first aired, since I quit watching Miami Vice after the Crockett-amnesia fiasco. I recall my best friend raving about this story of a punk rocker who blasted Ministry songs at full volume, and whom government officials were trying to kill to prevent him testifying in court. It moves like a juggernaut. Crockett and Tubbs get recruited to protect the kid against the numerous hit men, hiding him first in a hotel room and then on Crockett’s boat out in the glades when the location is leaked. And just when it seems that goodness will barely prevail (the shoot-out scenes are amazing by even Vice’s standards), comes the furious twist that one of the officials who hired Crockett and Tubbs is actually in on the conspiracy, and shoots the kid in the end anyway. It was the reputation of this episode that brought me back into the Miami Vice fold.
13. Sons and Lovers. Season 2, Episode 22. I don’t like most of the Calderone episodes, which makes me unpopular with Vice fans. It’s not that Tubbs’ backstory isn’t compelling, because it obviously is. But Brother’s Keeper and Hit List are weighed down by the stylistic deficiencies of season one; like all episodes before Smuggler’s Blues, they haven’t aged well. And the less said about The Afternoon Plane the better; that one has the opposite problem, being an exceptional dud in the otherwise superb season three. But in-between these came the smash Sons and Lovers. It contains the most distressing scene of the series, where Angelina and her baby (which is Tubbs’ baby too) are strapped down in a hostage situation and blown sky-high by Angelina’s sadistic brother. I still find this a very upsetting episode to watch. It’s solid drama and well scripted.
14. Forgive Us Our Debts. Season 3, Episode 11. My parents and I were poleaxed by this episode, and we argued about it at the dinner-table for days. Until the last few minutes it plays like a boilerplate Hollywood screed against the death penalty. Hackman is a dangerous killer, but he didn’t commit the crime for which he was found guilty (shooting Crockett’s old partner in front of his family); so it becomes a predictable last-minute race against the clock to produce evidence that will exonerate him. Which the righteous Sonny Crockett does, busting his tail against every impossible odd. Except it turns out that Hackman really did kill Crockett’s friend, which he smugly reveals to Crockett as he comes out of prison a free man. No one saw that twist coming back in the day, and everyone who wasn’t already became pro-capital punishment on the spot. That’s what happens when you cross liberalism with nihilism.
15. The Cell Within. Season 5, Episode 13. Season five is controversial enough, but this episode is widely despised, even by the hard-core apologists. Granted the ludicrous premise, it works as a Lynchian psycho-horror piece. Tubbs pays a house call to Jake Manning, an ex-convict who has seemingly reformed and written a book on rehabilitation. It turns out his idea of that consists of abducting people and confining them in his home which he has turned into an elaborate prison. He torments and executes these “criminals” around sermons of retributive justice, which Tubbs is forced to watch. Martin Scorsese loved this episode so much that he paid homage to it in Cape Fear (in the opening shot, one of the books in Max Cady’s reading pile is The Cell Within by Jake Manning). So I’m in good company against the haters.
16. Baseballs of Death. Season 4, Episode 14. This episode fights for the honor of best music. It doesn’t win — it’s impossible to beat Little Miss Dangerous and Out Where the Buses Don’t Run in this category — but it does earn the bronze medal. Whenever I hear Shriekback’s “Running on the Rocks”, I relive Crockett’s speedboat chase that ends in a massive CBU explosion. (Baseballs of death are CBUs, or cluster bombs, made illegal in many countries because of the danger they pose to civilians, not to mention friendlies.) Ernesto Guerrero is one of Vice’s most terrifying villains: a fascist killer who disdains 99.99% of the world’s population, and thinks he has some kind of genetic immunity from the law. I’d expect this from a Pinochet official, but there’s something else, something subterranean about this guy that freezes my testicles.
17. The Home Invaders. Season 1, Episode 19. Tubbs is out of the picture (on vacation in New York), but no matter, this is a Castillo episode and does he shine. The vice team gets called in to solve a string of robberies in upper-class neighborhoods, and Castillo puts the homicide lieutenant to shame for sloppy detective work. He solves the case almost single-handedly and in a completely non-contrived way. What makes this episode stand out is the terrifying nature of home invasions. In a show where drug deals and prostitution scandals are the usual fare, it’s jarring to have crime brought literally home for a change. Shades of A Clockwork Orange, and the home invaders even torture children — off-screen granted, but still an example of the way Miami Vice went places no one else dared.
18. Viking Bikers from Hell. Season 3, Episode 22. Reactions to this one range from open scorn to closet admiration. Well, forget the closet, I’m an open admirer. Keep in mind that John Milius wrote it, and if you consider his Conan the Barbarian (1982) a masterpiece as I do, then chances are you’ll love Viking Bikers. The conceit of a motorbike gang with antiquated codes of honor and revenge — and whose leader craves the paradise of Valhalla — locks into the tone of Miami Vice, especially the increased nihilism of season three. The show writers usually avoided epilogues in favor of abrupt endings, but this one has a wonderful epilogue after so much violence, in the hospital as Tubbs recovers from being shot. The sun is coming up, and he and Crockett exchange subdued lines about the world’s ugly purposelessness, and how they as cops aren’t much better than those they take down. This should have been the finale for season three, no question.
19. Definitely Miami. Season 2, Episode 12. The second season is known for style over substance, and Definitely Miami is the purest example of this approach. Two plots run in parallel. In one, a crime lord wants to turn state’s evidence, but he will only do so if he’s allowed to see his sister face-to-face; she is hiding in witness protection and doesn’t want this, because she fears he will kill her at first opportunity. In the second, Crockett’s atrocious judgment of women lands him in trouble with a drug dealer played with relish by Ted Nugent. If neither story is profound, they work wonderfully in tandem especially at their climaxes. The sister ends up stabbing her brother — in front of an entire police force — while Crockett is out in the desert dodging bullets with a briefcase. It’s a wild ride, the aesthetic is perfect, and you can almost feel the 100-degree heat.
20. Down for the Count. Season 3, Episodes 12 & 13. I’m not a fan of the double-episodes. Brother’s Keeper, The Prodigal Son, and Freefall are massively overrated. Season three lands the exception. Zito’s death is powerful, and it’s appropriate that it comes in the middle of the series’ run (they are episodes 56 and 57 out of 111). I remember the funeral scene at the start of part 2 choking me up, and Corey Hart’s “Blind Faith” still resounds to Jan Hammer’s credit; his ear for music was genius. The tragedy is worked around a complex gang plot in which people die left and right, and Crockett and Tubbs have to constantly switch gears. It hits an insane peak in the second half when a Las Vegas crime lord arrives in Miami, determined to teach the other crime lord the meaning of turf. In this mess of a three-way war between the cops and two rival gangs, Switek just wants revenge for Zito.
The following episodes either (a) came very close to making my cut, or (b) would have certainly made my cut back in the ’80s but for whatever reasons haven’t aged well. I don’t attempt to rank them; I just list them in chronological order.
Rites of Passage. Season 1, Episode 16. Tubbs and Valerie had great chemistry together, and I still love this story. It’s very sad. Valerie’s younger sister runs away from home, becomes an upper-class prostitute, gets killed… and Valerie goes vigilante.
Bushido. Season 2, Episode 8. This one has depreciated beyond my expectation. Or maybe I just thought I loved it back in the ’80s, being a Castillo episode. Today it just doesn’t seem impressive.
Yankee Dollar. Season 2, Episode 13. Of all the Miami Vice episodes, this one straddles the divide between greatness and mediocrity with exact balance. The script is smart and keeps you guessing who is betraying whom, and even ends at one point with Crockett and Tubbs on opposite ends of a buying deal selling to each other, while the drug dealer casually reveals he knew their game all along. The opening scene is also a favorite of mine (the death of Crockett’s girlfriend to the song of “Par Avion”). In other ways, the reach of this episode exceeds its grasp.
El Viejo. Season 3, Episode 1. I really resent omitting this one from my list, and came close to bumping Down for the Count. But Zito’s departure had to take precedence. It’s an excellent story about a Texas ranger who comes to Miami to avenge his partner killed in a drug deal.
Stone’s War. Season 3, Episode 2. Back in the day I would have put this in my top five. The script is top-notch and the suspense never lets up. The problem is that it feels less like Miami Vice and more like an Oliver Stone screed — damning Reagan for his support of the Contras in Nicaragu. That’s a political message I can warm to, but it doesn’t do much for me anymore in the context of Miami Vice.
Walk-Alone. Season 3, Episode 4. Another intense story that used to be a favorite. But it’s ultimately just a prison break. For all the violence Tubbs is subjected to, it comes across today as strangely boring.
The Rising Sun of Death. Season 4, Episode 9. I remember loving this and was confident that it would make my cut. I mean seriously, how can you go wrong with yakuza crime families and ritual suicides? (Not to mention Trudy looking smoking hot as an exotic dancer.) But today the story feels somehow less than the sum of its part — which is too bad since Castillo has a big role.
Too Much Too Late. Season 5, Episode 111. Like Rites of Passage the story explores family pain and tragedy with the Pam Grier character (Valerie). This was one of the four “missing episodes” from season five. The other three were just silly, but this one was actually censored for portraying a 12-year old girl who gets raped and then kills her mother for allowing it to happen in order to feed her junkie habits.