The Virtues of Miami Vice: “Rites of Passage”

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, writer Max Robinson and Jake Arant hit the pavement and dig into the very best episodes of Miami Vice.

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Episode: “Rites of Passage”

Directed by David Anspaugh

Written by Daniel Pyne

Max: Hello and welcome to another installment of The Virtues of Miami Vice. This week, Jake and I continue looking at the show’s first season with “Rites of Passage.” This is my favorite episode of Miami Vice, for reasons up to and including the fact that Pam God Damn Grier is the special guest star as NYPD homicide cop Valerie Gordon.

Jake: Oh man, how can you beat Pam Grier as a guest star?! And in such a volatile and powerful turn, to boot. Max, “Rites of Passage” is a heavy episode, the bitter hangover to the raucous fun of “Smuggler’s Blues.”

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Max: “Rites of Passage” is a beautifully constructed episode, with an opening that essentially foreshadows how the last ten minutes of the show are going to go down. We watch as Valerie’s sister Diane falls into the clutches of a local two-bit pimp David Traynor (JOHN TURTURRO) just as David’s latest “it” girl washes up on a Miami beach. Right off the bat, “Rites of Passage” creates a real sense of menace and dread.

Jake: The pacing of this episode is very, very good. Diane’s downward spiral into drug addiction and prostitution with sinister people is a tense backdrop to the blossoming renewed romance between Tubbs and Valerie (characters who hadn’t seen each other in years). Max, for an episode with such a simple premise, we’re treated to a number of scenes that are again definitive for the series, and one of the bleakest endings of any on the show. What makes this episode magic?

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Max: For me, I really admire how “Rites of Passage” sidesteps many of the storytelling issues of Miami Vice tends to run into. This is a rare Tubbs-centric episode of the show and by virtue of that, Johnson gets to play Crockett as more of a supporting character. The moment when Crockett has to call Tubbs late at night, likely knowing he’s with Valerie, has so much pathos for such a perfunctory transition.

More than that, though, it’s very important that Diane’s spiral and eventual murder at the hands of Traynor are Valerie’s story. Miami Vice uses dead women as a frequent plot device, but “Rites of Passage” puts Crockett and Tubbs in a position of surprising helplessness. Not only do they fail to save Diane, they fail Valerie too.

Jake: Absolutely. The show is very strong in situations like this, ending everything on a very hollow, melancholy note. Pam Grier’s acting chops play a big part in making this episode work, I think. She shines as the lead, and her eventual vigilante crusade that ends with her killing the two men that killed her sister is legitimately unsettling. Speaking of unsettling, this episode’s token big famous music montage is one of the best of the season, maybe even the entire series.

Max: Holy shit, yes. We’ve discussed how good this show is at musical montages and here it feels like they finally perfected the science. Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is a somewhat out of left field choice for a song to pair with a really emotionally resonant scene but, guess what, this entire sequence is fucking devastating. The way it cuts between Tubbs and Valerie in bed together while Traynor’s muscle breaks into Diane’s room to kill her with a fake drug overdose, it purposely evokes these very contradictory emotions. 

Tubbs and Valerie are unaware of what’s happening on the other side of town and, watching this, it’s excruciating knowing that this is the moment where everything ends between them. The desperation in his voice Lou Gramm sings “I want to know what love is/ I want you to show me” really keys into the kind of profound grief of this scene.

Jake: The whole episode is excellent, but that scene alone is what makes this it required Miami Vice viewing. By this point the show has hit its stride both narratively and stylistically and perfected the mixture of popular music and celebrity guest stars that made it so groundbreaking. It’s also quite important in the canon of the show itself, as Pam Grier’s Valerie becomes a recurring character and important figure in Tubb’s narrative.

Max: I can’t say enough good things about Pam Grier in this episode. There’s an effortless strength to the women Grier plays onscreen (in everything from Scream Blacula Scream to Jackie Brown) and most of this episode is Valerie carrying the immense burden of her sister’s disappearance on her shoulders. And when Diane is killed, it’s really shocking that Valerie (who told Tubbs she wanted Traynor brought in by the book) snaps. Valerie avenges her sister’s death but at an unimaginable cost. Grier is the kind of actress who can deliver a line like “Read me my rights” and make it hurt.

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Jake: More than once throughout this show, a fellow officer will snap or turn dirty, often as a way to highlight the immense pressure that they are under. It is never illustrated more effectively or soberingly than it is here, and like you said, Max, the key to it is making the focus of the episode that character as opposed to a brief foil for Crockett and Tubbs. It’s always such a bummer to watch this one, but damn if it isn’t the perfect mix of mesmerizing and important.

IN TWO WEEKS: “THE MAZE”

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