In the most well-known and beautiful scene of Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, Conrad’s reliable stand-in Charles Marlow (narrator of Heart of Darkness) talks with the titular sailor Jim, and opines on humanity’s impossible quest of the ideal: “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns—not true? No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.” As Ursula Lord writes, “this passage is simultaneously pessimistic and bravely accepting of the challenge of life itself.” I would argue that Southland takes up this same sentiment, immersing every officer in a dark, destructive element, and watching as they move about, trying to keep the darkness at bay.
“I let you go through, ‘cause I knew I couldn’t fix you.”
Mentorship and partnership play huge roles on Southland. TO’s looking after boots, cops looking out for each other on the street—but often times officers struggle with bringing that same fiercely loyal mentality home with them. And each of the four principal characters—Lydia, Sammy, Sherman, and Cooper—struggle with building that kind of stability in their family life, or come from places where that was impossible. The force is their family, whether they know it or not, the place they feel most comfortable. They’re like soldiers who return home and can’t reintegrate into society. Once that uniform comes off and they transition out of the mental state required for their job, they labor with helplessness. It doesn’t matter if Sherman offers to help Sammy get clear of Internal Affairs, or Ruben offers to help with Lydia’s son, or Cooper gets his painkiller addiction under control. They all have their own personal demons pressing down, holding them firmly in place, able to cope with a high-stress job but unprepared for normal everyday life, even with the help of those around them.
“Well, if you know that it’s in a haystack, why not keep looking?”
Southland operates through the power of attrition, building anecdotal scenes on top of each other, building to breathtaking action releases. Cooper and Lucero respond to a loud confrontation at a daycare center, where a lesbian couple dressed their daughter in a shirt with a picture of two women kissing, which another mother finds inappropriate. Lucero and Cooper talk about homosexuals—Cooper gets in a nice jab at Lucero for watching Dancing With The Stars. Much like Lydia’s cases involving mothers or their children last season, Cooper has been involved in a fair number of cases where he connects with a child in parental fashion. The big action sequence of the night—a child trapped in a wagon, in a puddle, near downed power lines electrifying the whole area—provides Cooper the chance to intervene again, driving his car into the water, pushing away that deadly water, in order to rescue the kid. Once again, it emphasizes the lack of lasting connection, of legacy, that he will leave behind.
Even if the scenes connect, with Ben talking a jumper down off a bridge, then proceeding to search the guy’s parents’ house with Sammy, the thread gets cuts when the officers leave and move on to more work. The focus is always on the daily work, moving from scene to scene, and leaving the cleanup to someone else. Southland doesn’t need to see the cases through, just depict what part the beat cops play in that process, and how the cumulative effect of everything they deal with steamrolls their ability to manage.
“I could be a better cop, but without all the collateral damage.”
Of course one of Dewey’s daughters becomes a cop, and of course she’s inherited the trademark Dudek wit, able to verbally spar with her father in a room full of other officers and hold her own. But Dewey’s daughter represents the naiveté of a rookie, with the idealistic view that their generation, with the knowledge of watching the older officers wrestle with off-duty problems, will be able to both engage in the difficult work, achieve success, and stay above the fray. If there’s one thing Southland shows, it’s that very few officers, detectives, or supervisors, make it out unscathed.
“You think I’m one of those square cops that you can fuck with?”
Ben Sherman has fully transformed from the naïve deer in the headlights staring at a dead body in the pilot to the exact kind of arrogant officer he professed to hate. He’s comfortable planting evidence, lying about events to protect a fellow officer, and to him, these are noble acts, getting criminals off the street and protecting a good cop. But Sammy still has his conscience nagging at him. He has the video of the incident with Tami, he feels guilt for his lie, but Sherman is all-in on his decisions. Nothing can be wrong, nothing can be taken back: he is infallible, able to stare down his painter girlfriend’s criminal brother. But for all that bravado and toughness, he can’t control everything, and his unwavering belief in his own authority and invincibility will not go untested.
Sherman is charismatic, and when the chips are down, he’s a dedicated officer willing to put his life on the line for his fellow officers—at least the ones he likes. But it only took one kid with a gun who didn’t give a shit to murder Nate Moretta in cold blood in the middle of a crowded street. Tempt fate enough times with a corrosive attitude, and danger will come.
“Tell me it was worth it.”
A toothless hooker’s retirement party is a strange place for a revelatory monologue, but that’s exactly what triggers Sammy. He’s racked with guilt over lying—despite the obvious fact that he’s broken the law before, kidnapping and then picking up stolen money. Apparently this is just a bridge too far for him, as he struggles to explain to his son that he can’t lie about biting other kids, that “good boys don’t lie,” while knowing in his heart that these actions change him. But he’s willing to make that sacrifice for the betterment of his son.
“Who says I don't lose hope?”
Lydia and Ruben yet again draw the short straw, investigating the murder of a transient man. This guy had the great luck and extreme misfortune of meeting a wealthy man who decided to buy the homeless man a new pair of expensive Timberland boots, basically a target on his back to anyone else. I can remember a Law & Order episode about murder among the homeless that turned the incident into a grandstand moment on how society treats these people like they’re invisible.
Southland backgrounds the societal implications, focusing on Lydia’s persistence and Ruben’s indifference. When Lydia talks to Ruben’s daughter on camera for a class project toward the end of the episode, she may as well be lecturing her partner when she says, “If it were your loved one in this stack, wouldn’t you want me to keep looking?” That determination makes Lydia a good detective, but that kind of dogged focus can lead to unnecessary obsession. There’s a reason she mentions four new casebooks on her desk after putting one in the archives: there is always more work to do, and not enough time or resources for everything. But Lydia still gives more than enough, so much that perhaps she needs to lean on her son’s father for help.
“I used to pray you’d kill yourself.”
Cooper’s father has remained in the shadows ever since Cooper appeared at his parole hearing, insisting that his father remain incarcerated. But now he’s dying, and a priest comes to see John in order to convince him to make peace before it’s too late—and also the small matter that Cooper’s father is withholding a church donation on the condition that his son visits. Lydia’s visit to a death row inmate a few weeks ago held significant weight, but it was introduced out of the blue, a one episode drop-in. Cooper’s final confrontation with his father carries all the information previously revealed about his family life, and puts it in the room with them. Even the earlier argument involving the lesbian couple in the nursery hangs here.
Cooper’s father gets in one final twist of the knife, insulting Cooper’s manhood, his inability to “give [Monica] what she deserved,” and it’s clear that he didn’t really want to make peace, but stick it to the son who purposefully ensured he would die in prison. And as a final barb, he rasps out an epithet at John, the crowning achievement of a disastrous father, but Cooper turns that hatred, that monstrosity, into a defiant act of rebellion and silent resolve. Cooper’s final words to his father can’t be heard, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t simply whisper, “I’m gay,” and then walk straight out of the building without ever looking back, leaving a despicable man to die the painful, unrepentant, lonely death he deserves.
“You were like a god to me.”
In the final ten minutes, Michael Cudlitz and Gerald McRaney earn Emmy consideration. Cudlitz has always been dependable and compelling as John Cooper, but as the show has contracted its cast and made him the center of more stories, he’s stepped up to the challenge each time. He’s the best actor playing the best role in the best season of Southland so far. If this is indeed the final season, Cudlitz deserves a Kyle Chandler sendoff. And McRaney turns in his best scenes so far, totally unashamed to put his whole body on the line for the performance.
When Cooper drags Hicks through his house and chains him up, it threatens to make the character into a monster again, a hypocrite of the highest order exerting painful and degrading punishment on an old man. This is an officer who trained new officers with an iron fist of discipline while high out of his mind on painkillers, lecturing the man who trained him, knew his flaws the best, on when he’s gone too far over the edge. To contrast, Dewey has many demons, none of them fully dealt with, but he doesn’t go around trying to protect or save anyone. It’s all he can do to keep himself upright and ticking.
But when the day is over and Cooper returns to talk, Hicks finally relaxes and lets the walls come down. He still harps on about the police department treating the officers like shit, chewing them up and spitting them out, but then gets personal. He couldn’t properly comfort his wife when she was dying, all his old contacts stopped communicating, and now he’s old and alone with his drink.
Except John Cooper steps in and balances the first half of that scene with an equally moving and simple story, about being a young cop—Sherman at the beginning of this series, or Dewey’s daughter—seeing a crime scene, feeling the fear, and then seeing Hicks roll up, and knowing everything would be okay.
Hicks’ speech suggests that nobody has pressed this far or listened long enough to hear any of these things before, and Cooper cares so much for his idol, his surrogate father, that he goes to violent and illegal lengths in order to make Hicks realize just how much he means to him. The close-up on McRaney as he tells the whole story, as Cudlitz responds, and the two men fold into each other, one in comfort, the other in shambles, is a prolonged moment of heartbreak.
Southland depicts the way the stress of being a police office in Los Angeles transcends generational divides. The academy teaches unflinching control, but it cripples its officers with the very skill that makes them able to do their job best.
- Southland won a Peabody Award today, which is fantastic news. While I think the show deserves awards recognition, and Michael Cudlitz in particular has delivered a performance worthy of an Emmy nomination for two seasons now, I’ll take Southland receiving an award that recognizes “excellence on its own terms” instead of industry popularity.
- Now for the bad news: Regina King took a role in a pilot for next season. As with Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy, it’s in second position to Southland, but this appears to be the death knell for the show. TNT waited way too long to renew it last year, so who knows if that’ll happen again, but the show has been avoiding cancellation for so long that this strong season would be a fine capper to the whole story.
- HSMotW: I brought this back for Sammy and Ben searching the Jumper’s house. “He shot the fucking dog, too?”
- A sign that this show is definitely set in Los Angeles: the guy who drives by on the bridge yelling for the guy to jump.
- One detail that stuck in my mind: the disarray of the morgue Lydia and Ruben take the businessman to in order to identify the homeless man’s body. Another sign of just how decrepit the resources are for the police, even in big metropolitan areas.
- Next week: Shaquille O’Neal guest stars as a cop who knows Cooper from back at the academy. Hey, the dude is charismatic as hell, so maybe it won’t be as terrible as it sounds.
- I cover both Southland and Psych on Wednesday nights. They both were in production on this current season at least nine months ago. And yet somehow both shows made a passing reference to the same Chuck Norris movie, Missing In Action, in the same night. What are the odds of that?