**Warning, this post contains moderate spoilers for tonight’s episode of Major Crimes.**
Procedural crime dramas aren’t typically the venue for three dimensional gay characters and nuanced coming out stories. The popular TV genre tends to focus more on the case of the week than character, but this season TNT’s Major Crimes is finding a healthy balance between the two.
The spin-off of The Closer is currently in its second season with high ratings and a weekly plethora of whodunit criminal cases dissected (and solved) by Captain Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell) and her team, comprised primarily of characters carried over from The Closer like Detectives Provenza (G. W. Bailey) and Flynn (Tony Denison).
And then there’s Rusty.
Initially brought in for one episode at the end of The Closer, the troubled teen (played by Graham Patrick Martin) was carried over to Major Crimes as a regular character. (As he’s a major witness in a murder case, he’s been living with Raydor under protective custody.) Rusty’s orientation has been thus far unclear, but his past as a homeless a teen prostitute has certainly raised questions.
Rusty is heavily impacted by the crime in tonight’s episode, “Boys Will Be Boys” (written by Jim Leonard and out Executive Producer James Duff). The episode revolves around identity in that a 13-year old murder victim named Michelle. It’s quickly revealed that is a physiological male with gender dysphoria. We also learn that her family members are suspects– and they display various levels of acceptance with Michelle’s gender dysphoria. Rusty may not be involved in the solving of the crime, but he’s around enough to realize that the question of identity is something he can very much relate to.
In one scene from the episode, Rusty discusses the case with Raydor’s estranged husband, played by guest star Tom Berenger. Here’s how EP and episode co-writer James Duff describes the scene:
The transgender child’s father gives her dresses and Rusty’s like ‘why didn’t you just put a great big target on her back?’
‘Raydor’s husband responds, ‘I think it was very brave of her to wear those dresses. Sometimes it’s as dangerous trying to hide who you are as it is wearing something outlandish. And people can’t always hide who they are as you probably know.’
Rusty looks at him and says ‘why do you say that?’ And Sharon’s husband has to struggle to come up with an answer because obviously Rusty believes he isn’t, in some ways, batting on our team. And that’s a great moment for his character.”
Wisely mirroring real life, Rusty’s coming out has not been easy or fast as is evident by the recent plot point of Rusty taking on a girlfriend, which Duff said would only confuse things more for the teen. “He’s going to ask this girl to come study with him and things are going to get serious between the two of them because she really likes him and he doesn’t know how to handle it.”
In playing Rusty, Martin said there is a reason behind everything the character is doing. “Rusty’s never had normal, but he strives for it. I think it’s the driving force behind everything he does,” Martin told us from the show’s set during the filming of this episode. “Last season when he realizes his mother isn’t coming back…it’s devastating and now ‘how do I make this normal?’ and Sharon really presents that for him. I mean she’s a fantastic mother. She has been a mother and so it’s just kind of like making this life, this new life work, I think.”
But more is coming this season, and an upcoming case also affects Rusty more than may initially be seen on the surface. “We come across a case of sexual abuse that really begins to unravel him,” Duff said. “When you have sex as a younger person, when you’re 15, 14, 13, boys think they want it, and boys will go after it, but it leaves a scar. It’s like violence. Because while our bodies are physically ready for it, emotionally we are not. And in sex with older men, which is what [Rusty] was doing on the streets, as he’s fond of saying, he was a teenage prostitute. And he has repressed memories [and] his repressed feelings about that come back to haunt him and end up desolating him. And he’s trying so hard to be normal and be a good kid and it’s more than he can handle. It’s actually more than virtually any child can handle.”
Rusty’s story certainly isn’t the norm for a television crime drama. “It was an awkward thing to put at the center of a procedural,” admitted Duff, who co-created The Closer and created Major Crimes. “But it served so many values at once because I think it helps to humanize the lead, Sharon, her character. And it gave her a challenge and a chance to see another side of herself.”
Martin agreed and added that Rusty has also found family figures in the variety of detectives that Raydor manages. “Sharon is the immediate family member, but by association,” Martin said, “Provenza is definitely a father figure and Rusty kind of has moments with each of the cast members and everyone takes this kind of protective role over him.”
Duff said that Rusty’s story is one that has taken him back to his own past. “It’s really put me in touch with the calamities of my childhood,” he said. As a teen, Duff was trying to figure his sexuality out and went to someone he trust for help – a priest. “I thought I was being incredibly brave by going and talking to him about it because I didn’t know what else to say. And he told me that the reason I was having these feelings was because the devil wanted me. I was a devout Christian, and Jesus loved me, and he wanted to separate me from Jesus so I all I had to do was pray. And if I prayed hard enough, the temptation would be taken from me. So I prayed like mad for months, on my knees, in my bedroom.” Needless to say the feelings didn’t go away (though Duff told the priest they had so he wouldn’t go to his parents) and he now realizes “that’s how intensely I did not want to be out of the norm and out of my religion, really.”
And as for what is coming with Rusty throughout the rest of the season, expect the Philip Stroh case (the one in which Rusty is the star witness) to continue to pop up. This will put the teen, and perhaps those around him, in a not-so-safe place. “I can tell you that yes, he is in danger. It’s not just smooth sailing,” Martin teased. “Throughout this season it really comes back to haunt Rusty, and Philip Stroh is not just silent in a way.”
Major Crimes airs Mondays at 9pm on TNT. Fans can also live tweet with Duff and cast members during tonight’s episode.
The cast of Major Crimes recorded an anti-bullying video for GLSEN. Check it out below.