I keep using the phrase “Mark Strong is a good actor” in these reviews at least partly to reassert that he’s being asked to portray an inconsistent, nigh-unplayable character.
Halfway through tonight’s episode, “The Way Things Are,” Frank’s quest to track down Katia finally sees him find her on a Chicago street, and his reaction is both true to the ridiculous naiveté he’s been saddled with, and completely disconnected from the realities of the plot. Frank knows Katia’s involved in Brendan and Joe’s dirty dealings (whatever they were). Frank knows that Joe helped Katia fake her death to get out from under the danger she’s in and that Joe told her never to show her face again. Frank knows from events earlier in the same day that Katia is scared, and that she doesn’t want to see him. And yet he simply tromps up to her on the sidewalk with an expectant look in his eyes, hugs her, and asks, “Why didn’t you call me? Did you get my messages?” as if she just stood him up at the movies. I mean, Frank set fire to her house and watched it burn with the determined expression of a man possessed and now he’s shuffling his feet and stammering like a prom date once he’s found her?
It’s hard not to share Katia’s obvious frustration with Frank when she asks, “Then what?” to his entreaty that she come with him because it’s clear neither he, nor the writers, bothered to figure out something so basic. When Katia finally blows Frank off, asserting he was “just another trick,” it’s unclear whether she’s telling the truth or lying to keep him safe, but either way, it’s unrealistic that Frank would be so poleaxed one way or the other. If Frank were a convincing character that is.
It’s the same reaction Frank has at the beginning of the episode when he tracks her down via her sleazy webcam gig—a breathless, “Katia it’s me, Frank. I can’t believe I found you.” When his image blinks on screen it’s with the puppy dog eyes of a sap, and not the cold, hard eyes of an obsessed Detroit cop who’s been searching the world for his lost love. Not the eyes of the guy who gave Joe a beat-down and then burned down Katia’s house to hide evidence. Nope—this is the Frank who blundered into a Canadian hotel room looking for his hooker ex-girlfriend, was improbably crestfallen when she didn’t turn up, and then got clobbered by a pimp in a bad suit. In short, this is not the complex, vital lead character of a quality drama. Which is sort of a problem…
Another problem is the fact that Low Winter Sun keeps losing its center. Is it Frank’s obsession with Katia? Is it the fact that Frank and Joe murdered a guy and now have to cover up their involvement? Is it James Ransone’s Damon and his attempts to make himself a player in the Detroit criminal scene? The show certainly debuted with the focus on the middle one, but with each episode it becomes clearer there’s no one steering the ship, narratively speaking. Scenes pile up on top of scenes, storylines proceed independent of each other, transitions are almost nonexistent, and the actors are left playing catchup, their efforts to build up some sort of weight continually undermined by the show’s lack of drive.
One example of this comes early in tonight’s episode, when Joe’s trying to enroll his daughter in Catholic school. (Joe and his rebellious daughter! Who wanted more of that plot? Anyone? Hands?) Lennie James manages to wring some character into the scene, but, as has become typical with nearly every “dramatic” moment in Low Winter Sun, it’s like he’s working against the clock. Trying to get his daughter into the school he attended as a similarly troubled kid, Joe gets three minutes to: chastise his daughter, argue his case for admission to the priest/principal, argue against the sacrament confession for eight-year-olds, compliment his daughter (“she’s a better person than me”), whip out a check for the full tuition, and chastise his daughter again on the way out—and while it’s not that this deeply uninteresting storyline merits more screen time, the sketchily-drawn, breakneck pace of these scenes forces the actors to try and impart some spark of life before their time abruptly ends. James is fine here, but it’s like the scene’s on fast forward and he’s scrabbling for opportunities to impart something before he’s cut off. This narrative choppiness recurs in a later scene when Damon, upset at the death of his friend/henchman last episode, is seen standing in an alley. Maya comes out, asks if he’s okay, he breaks down crying, end of scene. Like so many precipitate transitions on the show, it leaves the sequence stranded on its own and viewers unconnected to the emotion we’re intended to experience.
Meanwhile the plots march on, with Joe teaming up with/deceiving detective Dani (whose unending array of skeptical looks finally leads her to do something about Frank and Joe’s lies at the end of the episode), and Damon trying to make peace with both of the Detroit criminal godfathers he’s ripped off/offended. And while it’s about time the two main storylines began to draw a little nearer to each other, their execution serves to illuminate how generic they are, and how little use Low Winter Sun makes of its setting.
While its current status as white America’s urban criminal boogeyman is no doubt exaggerated, there’s no debate that Detroit’s crime and violence are rampant and systemic. But in Low Winter Sun’s Detroit, its problems can all be traced to the machinations of a pair of stereotypical crime lords with colorful personae one step away from characters in old Warner Brothers gangster flicks. “Greektown” is run by the purringly evil foreign-y godfather Skelos, while all black criminals answer to cadaverous, avuncular Reverend Lowdown (Ron Cephas Jones), who dandles babies on his knee at barbecues and, in this episode, interrupts a walking interrogation from Frank to warn a neighbor that his crabgrass is getting out of control. And that’s it. Sure, there are lower-level hoods like Damon and his crew running around shooting each other, but their violence is only a result of their desire to become cartoonish crime lords themselves. Maybe that’s why the Detroit PD seems to consist solely of Frank and Joe’s one unit. An exaggeration? Maybe—but if creator Chris Mundy and company intended their Detroit to rival The Wire’s Baltimore as a living, breathing character against which its story plays out (and it’s clear they did), then they have failed. This is The Wire envisioned for network TV—it’s a dilettante.
When Frank meets with an informant in an abandoned school, it provides another example of Low Winter Sun’s reliance on what some of you in the comments are calling “ruin porn” to add weight and authenticity to its world. Helping the snitch move a couch he’s planning to steal, Frank and the man take a seat, their words echoing in the decrepit gymnasium floored with clacking fallen tiles and wallpapered with graffiti, and while the location is undoubtedly real, the effect is decidedly false. One of the series’ central failings is its inability to portray its Detroit as a genuine, lived-in city. For all its carefully-placed local beers, landmark restaurants, and carefully-chosen dilapidated buildings, Low Winter Sun is a tourist in this infamous, once-great metropolis, its nondescript cop show action playing out in “generic American crime city” and its protestations of residence obtrusively effortful.
- The opening scene with Katia’s sordid new life being interrupted by Frank’s sudden appearance on her webcam is the sort of “WHAM!” opening Breaking Bad does so effectively. Only here, lack of imagination and execution render it inert.
- Thwarted, Frank walks past a painting of a lone man standing against an abstract background, where the camera holds for a long moment. See? That’s Frank! He’s the lone man! And the world is… abstract, I guess. Symbolism!
- Pet peeve alert!: Frank visits a computer geek with a bribe of flavored coffee… only there’s clearly nothing in those coffee cups! Empty coffee cup acting! Especially when the coffee is a gag—you’re pointing right to the coffee cups and then waggling them around so we know there’s nothing in them! AAARG!!
- Despite the store clerk’s assertion that everyone paws over his porn mags, Joe decides to impound them in order to check for prints. Okay, first—ew. Second, pulling prints from week-old magazines in order to identify the people they already have on tape in order to put them in the same neighborhood where a murder was committed which you’re trying to connect to the murder you committed to get yourself off the hook? Joe’s “hey, there’s a sink!” plan is still the flimsiest piece of conspiracy plotting so far, but this is a close second.
- I’d suggest that the porn mag idea was a cynical ploy to drop some unnecessary titillation into the show if the nice clerk hadn’t thoughtfully censored the boobies and such with day-glo cutouts labeled “adult!”
- “This ain’t a b-on-b crime that’s gonna go away.” Like his offhand talk of “Mohammed Bin Whoever-the-fuck” last episode, Frank’s casual racial stereotyping here at least allows some contradiction, however slight, to his character, some indication that he, indeed, is a real, street-weary cop and not the unrealistically noble figure he’s too often made out to be.
- The character remains a cipher, but Damon’s shell-shocked vet henchman Nick (Billy Lush) is uncharacteristically riveting in the sequence leading up to the shooting of Poppa-T. The effectively harrowing sequence is self-contained and well-directed (by Stefan Schwartz). It’s like a great short film, capped off with an affectingly expressive performance and an abruptly shocking capper. The problem is that this character is a sub-plot off of a sub-plot, and while Nick’s actions will no doubt have a ripple effect throughout the series two main stories, the visceral drive here serves to point out just how fuzzy and flabby those two stories have become.