Farewell to the Character Who Made Me Stop Watching CSI

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 26 2012 11:37 AM

Character Studies: Catherine Willows, CSI

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Actress Marg Helgenberger at her Hollywood Walk of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Although I haven’t watched CSI in five or six seasons, I took in the two most recent episodes so I could bid farewell to Crime-Scene Investigator Supervisor Catherine Willows, who exited the Las Vegas crime lab surrounded by teary co-workers on Wednesday night.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. Follow her on Twitter.

She was the reason I quit the show all those years ago. I didn’t have any problems with Marg Helgenberger’s acting—I always liked the way she expressed an appropriately muted enthusiasm about the things she had to put up with on the job—it was the Olympic decathlon of troubles and traumas the show’s creators saddled Catherine with that eventually made me throw in the towel.

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Unlike Law & Order, CSI has always given its characters odd little traits—the guy who likes bugs more than people, the woman who’s secretly screwing the boss, the dude with the gorgeous eyes. But Catherine was saddled with a plague of locusts rather than a stray tic or two.

CSI is set in Las Vegas, so being a slender, attractive woman of a certain age, Catherine’s back story as a former pole dancer was perhaps to be expected. She was also, we were told, the daughter of a single mother who had earned her living as a cocktail waitress. Still relatively credible. She had once been married to Eddie, a rock musician, and was raising their daughter Lindsey alone, which was conceivable. Then Eddie was murdered and Lindsey broke bad, getting into fights and being picked up by the police... Well, I guess one thing could lead to another.

When she was in her 40s, Catherine discovered that shady casino mogul Sam Braun was her biological father—a bit of a conflict for someone tasked with investigating crime in a town built on gaming… but, you know, we don’t choose our families. In Season 7, Sam took a bullet and died in Catherine’s arms.

And that was when I reprogrammed my DVR.

Catherine’s final two episodes were staid by her usual standards: She was shot in the stomach, had her wound cauterized in a no-tell motel with a friendly whore’s curling iron, went into hiding in the club where she once “worked the pole,” and was betrayed by a childhood friend.

Maybe one day it will be possible for a network procedural to feature a female lead in her 50s who isn’t a former stripper whose husband and father were murdered and whose only child narrowly escaped death. But not yet, apparently.

Previously in Character Studies: