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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Southland: “Heat”

Illustration for article titled Southland: “Heat”
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Correct me if I’m wrong, but Southland has gone to the “it’s too hot in Los Angeles” well before. I understand the correlation between temperature and crime—it’s been established many times over—but Southland has used the weather as a backdrop at other times over the course of the series. The Santa Ana winds were a part of what may be the show’s finest hour—and the more I think about it the more I see that focus as a means of establishing that the cyclical patterns of weather also apply to police life. Certain eventualities are unavoidable as a police officer: getting shot at, making a mistake on the job that causes and innocent victim, or losing a parent.

The heat affects everyone: It makes citizens a bit more predisposed to crime, and it agitates police officers, making them more susceptible to argumentative or curt behavior. Cooper doesn’t need help to come off as ornery, but Steele takes issue with the way Cooper handles an aging veteran driving his car onto a golf course and crashing into a sand trap. Steele wants to cut the guy a break, and pulls out the old, “you’d understand if you’d served,” line that’s supposed to make Cooper feel inferior to Steele’s service. When they respond to a call later in the day and find the same elderly man, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, dressed in his military uniform, it only makes Steele more pompous.

But Steele is all talk. When a routine traffic stop turns into a shootout, Steele cowers behind the car and leaves Cooper to fend for himself. In the military, with some semblance of a mission, Steele can function in a chaotic environment. But as a cop, trying to protect people, he doesn’t understand the rampant discord throughout the city. He finds it maddening, but Cooper just throws his “you don’t have to convince me,” right back in Steele’s face and takes his badge. The message is clear: Not all officers can take the heat.

At the beginning of the series, Ben’s superhero act came off naïve, as though he’d eventually realize that he couldn’t do everything and save everyone, fixing each person along the way. But after essentially murdering a criminal and planting evidence to help make it look like self-defense, he’s lost all moral high ground. Sure, Chad Michael Murray’s Officer Mendoza is a piece of shit for lying about a shooting in order to collect insurance money. But Sherman is the one who takes up the cause, organizing a barbecue, badgering Sammy about donating some of his hours to Mendoza to cover medical costs, and then taking it upon himself to go after the gang Mendoza says shot him.

Against his sergeant’s orders, Ben tries to be the hero again, intervening at a child’s birthday party to squeeze the father for evidence on who shot Mendoza. That guy pins it on a rival gang member, and earns retribution—Sammy and Ben respond to the birthday party, where the guy’s kid has been shot. All of this traces back to Mendoza’s lie, but if Ben didn’t have that hero complex, there wouldn’t be an innocent victim. As Sammy says when he confronts Ben at the hospital: “This was never about Mendoza. This was always about you.”

But Ben and Mendoza’s confrontation is pretty one-sided, where Sherman only affirms that he believes he’s better than Mendoza, and Mendoza reels off a monologue about how cops put their lives on the line—literally, in Cooper’s case tonight—and they aren’t taken care of accordingly. It’s not like the LAPD should pay Southland and TNT for the PR—it shows officers leaking privileged information to the press for money, kidnapping suspects, abusing prescription drugs and alcohol on the job, planting evidence, and getting away with homicide. But the show does make a strong argument that those inner demons take root and fester because of how horrific the job can be and how comparatively little thanks they get from ordinary citizens. Cooper, as usual, has the perfect retort to a thoughtless woman who objects to Cooper and Steele getting ice cream. It’s that attitude that Southland deftly turns into sympathy for one of the most hated law enforcement institutions in the country.


Until the final five minutes of the episode, Lydia and Ruben’s plot is the weakest this week. They have a fairly standard murder investigation, but what makes it stick out as unsettling is how they comically banter about the boxer wife killing her trainer husband, burning the body, then dumping the charred remains along the husband’s usual hiking route. It takes barely any effort to put the heat on the wife, but it takes Lydia a significant amount more effort—thanks to those early morning workouts, no doubt—to subdue the woman when she runs and puts up a fight.

But those last five minutes: Ruben walking up to Lydia in the bar; Lydia’s face when she sees the flashing lights; Lydia watching her mother, dead, wheeled out on a gurney.


It’s not the biggest shock in over a season—that would be the episode that ends with Cooper bleeding out and Lucy Liu shoving a documentary camera last season—but it’s the most emotional gut punch since Nate was murdered in the street in front of Sammy a few seasons back.

I always appreciate the ambition of a show putting a season finale or penultimate episode moment right at the beginning of a season. It signals that the show wants to live up to the challenge of writing how it works out. Lydia already felt adrift as a mother, more committed to her job, exhausted whenever she went home, defiant toward Ruben when he judges her for using formula. And Lydia immediately shoots Ruben down when he asks if she needs help—from him, from the baby’s father, anyone. But at the end of the episode, Lydia is alone, holding her son, staring into a world without her mother for the first time. She wasn’t that big of a factor this season, but Lydia’s lived with her for years. I hope this moment is the catalyst for something great with Lydia this season.


Honestly, I’ve wavered significantly on the grade for this episode because of the comparatively weak Lydia/Ruben plot. But that final scene emphasizes how cops can suffer tragedy at any moment, and it goes a long way toward erasing the earlier shortcomings. That crushing moment shows that these officers and detectives need to be able to enjoy the brief moments when the pressure and darkness relents, and maybe sit with a “girlfriend” once in a while to enjoy a cupcake.

Stray observations:

  • A nice little display of police politics tonight, as a city councilman’s aide steps into Mendoza’s hospital room at the beginning of the episode, and gets an earful from Sammy and Ben about using a cop for a publicity stunt photo op.
  • HOLY SHIT Moment of the Week: Not too many nominees this week, but that shot of Sammy and Ben returning to the birthday party, and realizing it’s going to be the kid who’s shot, is the kind of wrenching manipulation Southland does better than almost any other show.
  • “I don’t sell drugs. I’m a prostitute.” The short vignettes of idiotic criminals offer much-needed levity to Southland; it just wouldn’t be the same without the frequent bits of humor.
  • Sammy is being incredibly annoying with his child custody ordeal. Yes, it’s a terrible situation, and his ex-wife is a horrible human being, but when all he does is yell on the phone and complain to Ben, it’s hard not to look at it from Sherman’s perspective.