After a relatively formulaic, albeit entertaining series premiere, “Safe” immediately establishes Sneaky Pete as something much more intriguing. The cold open that kicks off the episode is the key here. It’s a dizzying, complex, intense first scene, and it’s a statement, both in terms of aesthetic and storytelling, that the show needed after such a shaky premiere.
As “Safe” begins, we’ve flashed back three years to the first time Marius encounters Vince. In a meeting facilitated by Eddie, Marius plays the confident huckster to Vince’s over-confident mobster. Of course, neither man knows exactly what the other is capable of, but that’s half the fun of this scene: we know they end up turning on one another at some point, and we’re just waiting to see how and why it happened. What seems like a surprise meeting organized by Eddie reveals itself to be so much more, as Eddie and Marius stage a walk-out in order to get Vince to pony up $100,000 for a card game that night.
What’s so wonderful about this cold open is that it feels like a better representation of what Sneaky Pete is interested in doing over the course of this season. We get a better sense of the episodic structure, and how all the stories and backstories will interweave with one another. The most obvious, and perhaps the most intriguing structural choice represented in the cold open is the purposeful withholding of information. The first scene is stuffed with little pieces of information that, without the context provided later in the episode, make no sense at all. It’s clear that Eddie and Marius are playing Vince, but the larger context escapes us. All we’re left with is questions: Why does Vince want Richard’s phone, and how did he know his passcode? What’s the ultimate goal of having Vince buy in to the game? How, and why, does the plan go south? “Safe” sets up these questions early, and the reward is in seeing them answered in drips and drabs as the episode rolls on. You can’t build a whole series around “aha” moments, but ”Safe” finds a way to use them in order to start constructing the season’s overarching narrative.
“Safe” weaves quite the complicated mystery out of that cold open, and Sneaky Pete is better off for it. While Marius and Julia’s plan to get more money out of Abraham’s court appearance comes with a lot of rote, familiar storytelling, everything surrounding it feels more inspired. “Safe” is essentially unraveling a number of mysteries simultaneously. At almost any point in this episode we’re pondering more than a few questions, like how did Marius and Eddie’s plan to con Vince fail? How will Marius/Pete and Julia secure some much-needed cash for the family business? Who’s Charlie and why does everyone speak about him in hushed tones? Who is Carolina and how does she know Pete? Who’s this mysterious Katie and what role does she play in Pete’s past? Sneaky Pete certainly runs the risk of juggling too much mystery at once, but what’s remarkable about “Safe” is how it all eventually comes together. “Safe” presents a blurry vision that comes into focus over time.
More than anything, it’s Marius who’s slowly coming into focus. “Safe” does a good job of telling us more about our “protagonist,” showing that perhaps his life of crime has resulted in many people losing their lives, both figuratively and literally. Here, we learn that Marius had some sort of relationship with both Carolina, who’s now Vince’s right-hand woman and lover, and Katie, a former con partner who’s now a suburban housewife with a loving husband. When Marius jokes with her about playing a part and conning the man she’s married to, Katie swiftly chastise Marius for his narrow, reductive view. She criticizes him for not seeing that she has a better life now, one free of the drama and danger that came with Marius and the criminal lifestyle. What Sneaky Pete is crafting here, both in terms of the introduction of Katie, as well Marius’ intensifying bond with the Bernhardt’s, is that for all the talk of being a victim of circumstance, Marius might actually be an agent of chaos. He’s so incapable of seeing outside of himself—he’s never disconnected from the perspective of a con man—that he can’t see anything as authentic. For Marius, every action and conversation is just a front for some deeper betrayal, so when he comes up against earnest people in his life, like Katie and Julia and even Taylor, he’s baffled or suspicious.
Essentially, Marius is already beginning to question himself. On the one hand, he’s doing some productive introspection and clearly wondering if he’s taking advantage of a decent family in the Bernhardts. On the other hand, once he finds out from Carly that there’s $150,000 from a previous bail bond stashed in a cashbox somewhere, he’s back to thinking about how he alone can benefit. Marius is capable of empathy, but his selfishness almost always wins out, at least in the early going. So yes, he can aspire to catch Abraham with Julia, weasel their way into getting more bond money, and give the collar to Taylor, but that doesn’t mean Marius isn’t ultimately looking out for Marius.
The question that “Safe” ultimately proposes though is, how far will Marius go in conning the Bernhardt’s? Will he really screw over a family that’s struggling to make ends meet? Will he really stab Julia in the back, even after she opens up to him about how difficult it’s been as a single mother while still having to see her cheating ex-husband? Sneaky Pete wants to know just how selfish Marius is. Judging by the broken people left in his wake, from Charlie to the real Pete, his selfishness knows no limit.
- So, it initially looks like Audrey has hired a P.I. to keep tabs on Pete, but then she mentions him doing the job until he “pays what he owes.” That sounds an awful lot like Vince, not some sweet, innocent comment from a grandma living on a farm. I’m also willing to admit that ever since The Americans and Justified, it’s just natural for me to think that any unassuming Margo Martindale character is hiding some darkness.
- I really like the way “Safe” establishes the mystery of who Charlie is. It pays off in spades in that final flashback scene, where we just know that Charlie is going to get shot.
- Also, how good is Cranston in that scene? He flips from quietly menacing to openly menacing in no time.
- Another cool little moment: Marius using Richard’s phone as a way to send coded messages to Eddie. Alas, Hush Puppy, which is a real, angry dog, doesn’t let him escape.
- Martindale gets to play with a really great monologue in the last section of the episode, threatening Abraham’s mother with a story about how nobody can predict the end of their story, using Joe Paterno and Bill Cosby as examples. It’s the kind of evil, charismatic tone that she perfected throughout the second season of Justified.
- Speaking of Justified, it’s very strange to see Jacob Pitts as a long-haired lawyer/dirtbag ex-husband.
- Turns out that the “thing you did in Wichita” is code for “pretend to have sex with me.”
- I’m still not sure that Sneaky Pete is able to balance all of its various plots, as “Safe” is an extremely busy episode. That said, the structure of “Safe,” and the narrative intrigue that comes with it, is a step up from the premiere.
- The essence of the feud between Vince and Marius: Vince gave $100,000 in seed money for the game, but it was all a con planned by Marius. The idea was to have Marius pay for his own con, meaning he would have sunk $100,000 into the party while also losing his cash when the cops show up to bust the game. Didn’t quite work out that way though.