The pilot of Southland used Officer Ben Sherman as a window into the world of the LAPD. In its initial incarnation on NBC, and subsequent second and third seasons that brought the episode count up to equal roughly one season of network television, we follow Sherman’s training under the cruel and drug-addled tutelage of John Cooper. The show followed other characters that all linked storylines with each other, including Sammy and the other gang detectives, Lydia and Russell, but the new-to-the-job eyes belonged to Ben, and as initially conceived he was the audience surrogate. That pilot setup has slowly drifted away from a central character into a more balanced ensemble, except when it comes to the opening flash-forward scenes, which focus on any character.
This fourth season has been structured completely differently, breaking into three major partnerships: Sammy and Ben, Cooper and Jessica Tang, and Lydia and her unborn child—I can’t really count Lydia’s case as a partnership, since Rueben didn’t appear tonight or in several other episodes. As such, the rotating focus of the episodes through the five main characters who rarely interact with each other or cross over partnerships, creates a delicate balance that shouldn’t be tested by the need to feature a character. If “Thursday” is in fact the series finale of Southland, then perhaps it’s logical that we end on another step in Ben Sherman’s career—but tonight I noticed that leftover, story-framing device and felt more than ever like it needed to be kicked to the curb like all the stray characters who didn’t make the cut for the fourth season.
This finale is jam-packed with excellent cinematography, dynamic framing and staging, and stellar one-off scenes of conflict. Sammy has his best scene of the season, pleading from his hospital bed for Ben not to go after Ronnie in the streets. It turns out he just has a broken arm, but his impassioned pleas of solidarity to Ben—sympathizing with how much he’s “seeing red” about that pimp that came after them, while getting in details about Nate without giving too much away—made Ben pushing his partner away all the more callous. Ben takes everything into his own hands, and ignores every warning from his temporary partner Lou Diamond Phillips (the guy is in two episodes, I have no idea what his character name is—he’s Officer Lou Diamond Phillips).
We know what kind of cop Ben Sherman is now. He’s the kind of cop who meticulously cleans and repeatedly disassembles and reassembles two guns: the one he carries, and the one he plants on a pimp in order to justify a murder with no witnesses (or at least that’s how it looks now). I still can’t quite figure out why Ben cared so much about this one case, what about it ate away at him until he got too involved in a giant downward spiral that could’ve gotten him fired and nearly got Sammy killed. He gets the 13-year-old girl off the street and off to Corpus Christi, but just like everyone else, Ben bent the rules, gamed the system, and now has no moral ground to stand on. Southland doesn’t revel in making its characters tragically flawed, but now every major character except Lydia has committed a crime that never fully comes to light—and Lydia is still on shaky moral ground with how negligent she was with her pregnancy.
For the first time this season, it didn’t bother me that Lydia was again dealing with a case that resonated with her decision about her child. That’s because unlike every other episode where she explored some facet of parenthood—be it coping with a difficult child or arresting a pregnant woman—Lydia actually made progress in her though process. She told her captain about her pregnancy, then immediately argued that she should stay on a homicide involving a man who threw lit cans of gasoline at a woman and her children before shooting the mother.
After a breathtaking and brief scene where Lydia questions a young child almost completely covered by bandages for severe burns, she can’t continue. After being knocked to the ground as a field officer and nearly stabbed through a bulletproof vest, this is where Lydia draws the line. That felt unbalanced, but despite being too little too late, it’s progress, and the most self-realization the writers have given Lydia this season. Her monologue to her captain when she turns in her doctor’s form exemplifies everything that has been missing from Lydia’s character since the middle of the season. She’s finally moving, deciding, taking action, meeting with the father of her child—not to reconcile but just to deliver the news—and then moving on with her new life, alone and empowered once again.
For me, the unquestionable MVPs of this season have been Michael Cudlitz and Lucy Liu as Cooper and Tang. From their initial rapport in the première to the standout episode “Legacy,” everything was going just fine. Then, Tang proved to be just as fallible as any other member of the LAPD. Cooper continues to sulk about what he can’t prove about the orange tip of that toy gun—sullen and silently furious as Tang nonchalantly moves through what she perceives to be final milestones. She makes Cooper take her picture in front of the Hollywood sign, wants to trade stories about why they became cops, and lets a horrific teenager out of a speeding ticket by performing “Super Bass.” This is the same cop who gave a ticket to a guy waiting to pick up his injured wife just because she was pissed off about her impending divorce.
Cooper isn’t just upset that Tang got away with the shooting—he’s upset she’s been promoted to sergeant as well, transferring to a new division after this last day. At the same bar where the cops held Cooper’s 20-year celebration, he and Tang finally get to yelling at each other in the alley outside. It’s one of the best scenes of the season, as Cooper tries to come down from moral high ground, but Tang won’t let him. She makes a perfectly valid point—what she did covering her tracks seems no different than Cooper getting away with his pill addiction scot-free. Tang questions who Cooper is to judge anyone, and then, in a moment that sucks all the air out of the room, she takes the orange bit from her pocket, throws it at Cooper, and leaves her fate in his hands. She’s been carrying around the orange piece of the gun as penance, a physical totem for her guilt. It’s private grieving, and even after the argument blows their once-promising friendship to hell, Cooper is back the next day pulling the same first shift routine he pulled with Ben on another rookie. But this time, he’s got the orange tip of the gun on his keychain. Even with all the arguing, Cooper and Tang are still good cops, and they understand each other.
Sammy got away with kidnapping, and now Ben seems to have gotten away with murder. In comparison, considering the kid seems to be making a decent recovery, Tang and Cooper haven’t transgressed too seriously. But Southland wants to equate all of these actions as hazards of the job, which I just don’t buy. Not every cop has this kind of corner-cutting, law-flaunting experience—but it makes for some seriously compelling drama.
As for the future, the fourth season of Southland is just like the ones before it—completely uncertain if there will be any more to the story. If this really is the end—and with slightly lower ratings this season you could hardly blame TNT for deciding to move on—then what started as the beginning of Ben Sherman’s training finishes with a clearer picture of how his police career will go. He’s not a Supercop, despite all the jumping and chasing and appearing to care. In fact, he’s just like Cooper and Tang, avoiding public scrutiny and consequences for illegal and reprehensible actions, but living with the private guilt, daily struggle to cope, and the knowledge that a few astute officers close to them know the truth.
Finale rating: A-
Season rating: B+
- Hey Friday Night Lights fans—it’s Becky! Nice to see her turn up, even if it was just to cry like she always used to in Dillon. I hope she’s still with Luke Cafferty and that he came home safely.
- I thought the use of “Street Fighting Man” in the final scene with Ben and Sammy on opposite sides of the pool just barely avoided being too hokey .
- Favorite shots: the camera attached to Cooper/Tang’s police car; the smash cut of Lydia walking toward the camera in the hospital to her running onto the roof to exhale; Cooper/Tang yelling at each other in the alley.
- And that’s all for the fourth season of Southland. Thanks to all who’ve stuck with me through these reviews, I hope they were a decent discussion starter. Now we await TNT’s decision on renewal.