The Virtues of Miami Vice: “Smuggler’s Blues”

For five seasons, Metro-Dade vice squad detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs cruised the neon-soaked streets of Miami as soldiers in a seemingly endless war on drugs, guns and prostitution. For Deadshirt, writers Max Robinson and Jake Arant hit the pavement and dig into the very best episodes of Miami Vice.

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Episode: “Smuggler’s Blues”

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser

Written by Miguel Pinero

Max: Welcome back gentle readers to another installment of The Virtues of Miami Vice. This week: We’re living Life in the Fast Lane while simultaneously trying to Take It Easy with “Smuggler’s Blues”, a VERY important episode from Miami Vice’s first season. Jake, are you ready to uhhhh check into the metaphorical Hotel California

Jake: Damn, dude. You blew through those Eagles jokes fast! This is a hell of an episode, absolutely definitive for the first season. Crockett and Tubbs turn in their badges and go undercover in scenic Cartagena, dragging a laid-back smuggler pilot into the crossfire with them! Max, this episode has it all!

Max: This episode finds Crockett and Tubbs facing off against a mysterious man who blackmails drug smugglers with threats against their loved ones. I like that our heroes are very out of their element this whole episode: traditional criminals they understand but here they get actual deathtraps thrown at them. It’s SAW before SAW but also about bricks of cocaine!

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“Smuggler’s Blues” is notable for two reasons: 1) Michael Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice movie draws HEAVILY from this episode, even reusing whole lines of dialogue 2) The Eagles’ own Glenn Frey (may he rest in peace) is the episode’s special guest star and his presence hijacks the entire episode. This one is so nuts.

Jake: Glenn Frey’s big-time hit song “Smuggler’s Blues” is where this episode gets its name, and it plays almost in its entirety. This song is actually super badass, and has the distinction of being drunkenly demolished by yours truly in an NYC karaoke bar. It’s not even the only song Frey contributed to the show’s soundtrack! It’s a fitting tune, because this episode is full throttle espionage and violence all the way through. Max, you can practically smell the sweat and cigar smoke in this one. Glenn Frey (God rest his soul) proved to be a hell of an actor, I think! He has some great, manic scenes in this.

Max: Miami Vice is really good at stunt-casting and Frey’s performance as Jimmy Cole is interesting because he’s both a totally out of place Poochie-type (INTRODUCED PLAYING HIS GUITAR IN AN AIRPLANE HANGAR) and the kind of weird grungy scumbag this show loves. Frey’s introduction is so weird too because it’s treated with the gravitas of a intercompany comic book crossover.

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Jake: He’s blast in this. He’s built up as a capable dude and as soon as shooting starts he devolves into full blown panic, SCREAMING that he hates violence. He chews the scenery magnificently. This episode is so much fun because it is a series of perfect builds of tension and release, with every smoky confrontation devolving into an over-the-top gun battle or a ridiculous machismo pissing contest. It’s a really good Tubbs episode, too! He takes the lead in the undercover drug deals, smoldering with barely contained rage while the camera dotes on platters of cocaine and submachine guns. A scene that’s particularly good is when the actual “deal” goes down in the middle of a graveyard, a solid two minutes of cheesy crime tension with zero dialogue that segues into a great airport shootout.

Max: I dug the use of “Crockett’s Theme” in this scene. Jan Hammer’s score such a crucial part of the winning formula of Miami Vice and it’s a quick thoughtful scene in an episode of people kind of sweatily running from gunfire.

Jake: Oh, definitely. Jan Hammer’s work on this show is legitimately groundbreaking, and the placement and pacing of it in this episode makes it easy to see how it influenced lots of other media, even recent stuff like Drive and Hotline Miami. This episode works so well because it’s not near as much of a downer as lots of the others. It has only a handful of quiet melancholy moments, notably a scene of Crockett and Jimmy sharing a Lucky Strike and talking about their mutual involvement in the Vietnam War. The rest of the episode pumps, and the fun feeling about it is that despite the danger and the unpredictability, it’s really another day at the office for Crockett and Tubbs. It’s a delicious concoction of action, tension, double crosses and flaring tempers. It’s what makes so many episodes feel like a mini-movie, something that most TV shows of its era could only dream of achieving.

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Max: It’s easy to see why they co-opted so much of the plot of this one for the movie, it *feels* very cinematic even by this show’s standards. We should probably talk about the third act climax, wherein poor Trudy (here undercover as Tubbs’ ‘wife’) is strapped to a radio-controlled bomb while tied up in a trailer. I’m reminded a lot of Lethal Weapon 2’s equivalent scene, which is superior if only because it involves Danny Glover trapped on a toilet for hours. 

Jake: It’s damn near impossible to argue with that. Olivia Brown is phenomenal as Trudy in this part, doing some incredible physical acting that gives the entire scene the very palpable sense of tension it’s supposed to have. Between that and Hammer’s score, the final standoff between Tubbs and the masked bomber on a drifting speedboat is pretty intense to watch! Capping the whole thing off with a melancholy acoustic rendition of “Smuggler’s Blues” is an emotionally satisfying end to a great episode. It’s really a shame that Frey didn’t return in any later episodes, though he was originally slated to.

Max: The reveal at the end of this episode that the masked blackmailer was THE SAME COP from the opening of the episode who was flippant about acceptable losses is a trademark Miami Vice “the blurry line between cop and criminal” flourish.

Jake: Absolutely! It’s not Vice without a taste of that troubling moral ambiguity. Overall, this is just about the perfect episode of Miami Vice and a great jumping-off point for somebody who doesn’t wanna sit through all the exposition of the pilot. To this very day when I’m looking to get lit up and watch Don Johnson sweat all over the place, this is my season one go-to. Max, as always, it has been an absolute pleasure.

Max: Likewise Jake. Let’s end this installment with the 80s Pepsi commercial that acts as a quasi-canonical sequel to this episode and involves lots of schtick.

IN TWO WEEKS: “RITES OF PASSAGE”

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