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Was Henry Spencer a Good Father?


By Steven Christopher McKnightPublished 3 months ago 6 min read
Corbin Bernsen as Henry Spencer

Graduate school is rough, so to distract myself from the eighteen pressing deadlines, I’ve been on a Psych binge for the past several weeks. I just watched the third movie for the first time; somehow I missed it when it came out. So now, in the quiet interlude between finishing one series (emptiness, despair, directionlessness, nothing standing between me and the responsibilities of graduate school) and starting the next one, I find myself desiring to dive deeper into the characters that made my formative years so colorful, and my current years so adept at procrastination. Namely, one character whose arc I am always willing to praise is that of Henry Spencer, protagonist Shawn Spencer’s father.

I will answer the question posed in the title of this article immediately: Henry Spencer was a good father. As the show progressed, he continued to be a good father. In the movies, he is a good father. In the flashbacks, he is a good father. Henry Spencer, though a man of many faults, takes on the role of the patriarch of the Psych cast, and does a damn good job of it. Not only that, as the show unfurls, and aspects of Shawn and Henry’s relationship and history come to light, the good intentions of Henry Spencer’s harsher parenting strategies come to light, and we see Shawn forgive and understand the steps Henry took to raise him.

Upon my last rewatch of the show, I am struck by how immensely wholesome the flashback sequences are. Sure, there are flashbacks where Henry is punishing young Shawn—catching him in a lie, for instance—but in equal parts, there are moments when Henry is teaching young Shawn valuable skills that save Shawn’s life and reputation on more than one occasion. Shawn is forced to take a polygraph test to prove that he’s psychic? Turns out Henry taught him how to pass a polygraph test when he was young. Shawn’s been kidnapped and stuffed into the trunk of a moving car? Well, would you look at that! Henry Spencer taught Shawn exactly what to do in that situation! Even in more abstract terms, the viewer can see lessons that Henry taught him resonate with Shawn throughout the series. One of my favorite moments in the whole series is when, during the epidemic episode, Shawn chooses to confess his feelings to Juliet and falls back on an upside-down cereal box as a metaphor—a metaphor which, in his youth, Shawn was introduced to by his father. Henry is a strict parent, but only because that’s the only way he knows how to help Shawn be successful. In the end, his methods worked, and Shawn does a significant amount of good as a result.

In the third season, the viewer learns that the underlying source of a lot of Shawn’s spite for his father is his separation with his mother Madeleine; throughout Season 1, Shawn loathes his father because he feels like Henry abandoned Madeleine, taking the house and everything that came with it. At the end of the Season 3 premiere, Shawn’s mother tells him that the divorce was her idea, that she received a job offer far away from Santa Barbara, and that she felt the need to abandon Henry. In that moment, Henry becomes a significantly more sympathetic character; he would rather become the object of his son’s spite than let his son hate his ex-wife. Everything Henry Spencer does throughout the series, he does out of love for his family and those close to him; it just doesn’t feel like it’s out of love because Henry has cultivated a strict, rigid exterior that, as it falls away, gives way to a crotchety old man.

I could write an entire article about Psych’s third season; it simply does not miss. But I will choose to gloss over that in favor of Season 4. This season sees the second part of the Yin/Yang trilogy—I could write a full article about that as well—in which Henry, so as to get the chief to allow him to accompany his son on a race to catch Mr. Yin and save Abigail, accepts a standing job offer to become chief consultant at the Santa Barbara PD. Through the series, Henry puts himself and his reputation in harm’s way for the sake of his son, whether it’s jumping under the docks to help his son cut Abigail loose before she could drown, or accompanying Lassiter on a mission to save Shawn from a pair of kidnappers. In the very first episode—though some theorists might say that Henry came clean, but begged Chief Vick to play along—we see Henry lie to Chief Vick and assure her that Shawn is, indeed, psychic. His life and reputation do not matter: Henry’s superobjective throughout all of Psych is, as unwilling as he may seem, to be a father to Shawn.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Henry’s relationship with all of the other characters. Gus grew up knowing him, so of course Henry treasures and protects him, even if he’s a little hard on him sometimes. (See: Henry’s reaction to Tap Man.) In return, Henry acknowledges that Gus is the most important person in Shawn’s life, and will always be the first to remind both Shawn and Gus of this whenever one of them (usually Gus) gets frustrated at the other. In the first movie, Henry rushes to the defense of Juliet, and in Season 7, Henry goes so far as to keep Juliet’s stepfather from getting killed in Mexico. Henry’s relationship with Lassiter is the most vital one out of all the main characters: If Gus is like a brother to Shawn, then Lassie is like a son to Henry. Lassiter originally treats Henry with disdain, but as Lassie becomes both a father and Chief of Police, he learns to value Henry’s experience and wisdom. Lassiter allows Henry to be a father the way he wants to; divulging wisdom that a mature person can take in. Lassiter’s daughter, in the third movie, echoes young Shawn in the flashbacks, and only Henry, who has been through raising a child like that, can give Lassiter the immensely specific guidance that Lassie needs as he struggles with his own recovery. Lassie goes so far as to even inherit the old Spencer residence; Lassie and Shawn are brothers in all but blood.

There is so much to break down about Henry Spencer; I’ve hardly scratched the surface. That being said, I have never seen a more wholesome character having been developed. Henry, despite being outwardly coarse, is at heart an immensely loving, often lonely, highly desperate human being, and a vital part of Shawn’s story arc throughout the series is him learning to see that. I am so excited to see what happens to the character in the upcoming fourth Psych movie!


About the Creator

Steven Christopher McKnight

Disillusioned twenty-something trying to meander his way through this abject mess of a world. Aspiring garden hermit. Future ghost of a drowned hobo.

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