J (Finn Cole) / TNT

Here’s one thing “Dead to Me,” the fourth episode of Animal Kingdom, offers that I didn’t expect based on its first three episodes: an honest-to-God Biblical reference—especially one coming from Pope (Shawn Hatosy), the live wire of the Cody family. But there it is, from his mouth to J’s ears as he is about to take him into a cemetery to find the grave of J’s late mother. Specifically, he refers to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation that arise from the first four of the seven seals that block off a scroll in God’s right hand—and he then mournfully wonders aloud to J if the four Cody siblings are modern equivalents of the horsemen. J’s not the only one shocked by such a rumination coming from Pope, but it does cast of a heretofore unexpected light on the character, suggesting a greater self-awareness of the brothers’ immorality than anyone might have guessed going into this episode.

Perhaps Pope is feeling especially introspective that night because it is his birthday—a milestone for which his brothers try to shower him with celebratory activities ranging from a paintball game at the Cody house to a skydiving session to, finally, an evening out at a strip club. One of the episode’s most intriguing scenes takes place at that strip club: a tense private lap-dance session between Pope and a stripper in which, instead of getting a lap dance, Pope—who, thanks to his recent prison stint, has gone three years or so without having sex with a woman—orders the woman to turn around, face the wall, and repeat the words “We can’t, Andrew” while he penetrates her from behind. In addition to offering Shawn Hatosy’s finest bit of acting on this series thus far, his initial tentativeness and gradual build-up toward growing sexual confidence made viscerally palpable in his tremulous physical gestures and line deliveries, the scene carries the tantalizing implication that Pope gets off on a sense of forbidden danger—a suggestion that could partially explain his irrational behavior.

Pope (Shawn Hatosy), left, and J (Finn Cole), right, in Animal Kingdom / TNT

Maybe, deep down, all the Cody boys get off on danger, thus explaining their criminal lifestyle. But it’s an inclination that will be clamped down on if they push it too far for their mother’s liking. That is exactly what Smurf (Ellen Barkin) does early on in “Dead to Me” when she begins to suspect her sons are doing jobs behind her back. This leads to the series’ most potent glimpse to date of Smurf at her toughest: She uses a method usually intended to signal her arrest to the boys—sending a text message reading “CUTBACK” to them—in order to get them all into the same room and confront them about her suspicions. If the previous two episodes suggested the impending fall of the Cody family, “Dead to Me” dramatizes an attempt at a (temporary, at least) course correction, one that works when Baz (Scott Speedman) finally fesses up to both Craig’s drug smuggling down in Mexico and Pope, Deran and J’s construction-business robbery, the latter of which he learns about during the aforementioned skydiving session.

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That skydiving scene deserves a brief mention here, and not just because of Pope’s question to Baz after he reveals the robbery to him as to whether Baz is really upset that they pulled off the job at all, or just that Pope & co. scored more money from it than Baz and Craig. There’s something faintly comic in seeing these heavily macho characters take their fight out into the air as they’re skydiving, tussling each other as they’re falling from great heights. Though Animal Kingdom has so far not proven itself to be a “comedy,” per se, one can sense something like black-comic bemusement toward these people’s machismo not just in that scene, or in the previous episode’s closing scene of Pope getting into bed with Smurf, but also in that line in the pilot when Craig cautions J (Finn Cole) from buying orange Nike Dunks because “those are just gay.”

Craig (Ben Robson) and Deran (Jake Weary) in a skydiving fight in Animal Kingdom / TNT

Speaking of J, he is the one Cody who isn’t a part of that skydiving scuffle. Instead, he, having overheard a private conversation between Smurf and Baz that Baz’s girlfriend, Catherine (Daniella Alonso), has been sick recently, decides, macaroni-and-cheese dish in hand, to pay her a visit at Baz’s home. The gesture isn’t entirely selfless, however. Pope’s birthday also corresponds with that of his recently deceased mother, and after the implication of Smurf’s bombshell to J at the end of the preceding episode—that Baz may well be his unknown father—J is looking to know more. Other than seeing a photo or two of Baz and his mother together, though, he doesn’t learn too much, especially when Baz returns home and exposes the limits of his affection toward J by throwing him out of the house with all the zeal of an intruder invading his safe space.

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Still, based on what Catherine does reveal to him about how Smurf basically cut his mother off from the family’s money as she was about to turn the corner on her drug addiction, a fuller picture of Smurf’s ways of controlling her family is beginning to emerge, with money being at the heart of it. It’s telling in that regard, then, that money is how Smurf becomes suspicious of her sons’ off-the-books activities—specifically, how they seem to not be asking her for as much money as they usually do. Money, it turns out, is her ultimate bargaining chip. When she threatens to cut her sons off from it, notice the sniveling ways these glorified mama’s boys react with panic at the prospect of not having any more of it flowing into them. Which brings us back to Pope, who appears to be the most aware of this method of control and the most conscious of trying, to some degree, to fight her outsize influence. “Some of us aren’t looking to suck off Mommy’s tits for the rest of our lives,” Pope said to Deran after the robbery in the previous episode. In this way, Animal Kingdom is revealing itself to be a portrait of a family in which the offspring are stuck in a particularly insidious case of arrested development.

Stray observations

  • In a couple of scenes, we see some random shirtless guy walking around the Cody house and making affectionate gestures toward Smurf. It appears she has a penchant for sleeping around—perhaps important considering the fact that all of the Cody sons are borne from different fathers.
  • That brief moment in the second episode in which that chemistry teacher seemed to be hitting on J was possibly no fluke after all. In “Dead to Me,” after she discovers both he and Nicky (Molly Gordon) sharing a joint, she shoos Nicky off…and then takes a drag of the joint before asking J if he wants to come with her to a surfing event. This is a rather curious thread, of which I’m somewhat dreading how it will play out.
  • Speaking of J and Nicky, that confused confrontation between the two on account of the watch he presented to Nicky as a gift, then stole back after the failed robbery in the pilot episode, and then returned didn’t exactly materialize as I expected, since she apparently bought J’s line that the gift was the only precious thing of her mother’s he still owns.
  • Another intriguing plot thread to watch out for: Craig’s snap decision to steal from his drug dealer after he finds her on her bathroom floor after having overdosed on heroin. She survives, but not before she expresses her desire not only for finding out who stole from her, but for Craig to kill the person responsible. It’ll be interesting to see how Craig squirms his way out of that pickle.
  • In that aforementioned graveyard scene with Pope and J, Pope offers another sign of a possible dark side to Baz, saying “Baz has a way of getting what he wants” when J asks him if he was close to his mother.
  • “I gave her too many chances,” Smurf cuttingly says to J in the episode’s final scene. Alas, I will not be getting any more chances after this week to dive into the finer points of Animal Kingdom; as a result of changes coming to TV Club’s television coverage, I will no longer be doing weekly reviews of Jonathan Lisco’s series. Shame, too, because I was finally not only getting used to this whole weekly-review thing, but also becoming at least a tad more engrossed in this show’s gritty and perverse world.

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